The Thinking Person's Internet Dilemma: Chime In Or Tune Out?

Just because someone has something to say about the latest current-events controversy doesn't mean they should.

When should — or should not — intellectuals hold their tongues?
When should — or should not — intellectuals hold their tongues?
Héctor Abad Faciolince


BOGOTÁ — For writers — and artists and intellectuals in general — there is constant tension between embracing reality and escaping it.

If you're someone who's pinned down by reality, you're likely writing about the controversial Ituango hydro-power project in northern Colombia, or about the Venezuela crisis and its effects and possible solutions. But a mathematician, poet or musician, and even a novelist like myself, feels both compulsions.

On the one hand, there is a temptation to devote yourself entirely to your craft (be it illustrating a conjecture, finding a verse or melody, telling a story with the apposite rhythm and words). To flee reality, in other words, and hide in an ivory tower. Or, you are tempted to enter reality's miasma, join its bustle and infect yourself with the ire of exchanges on the right way to generate electricity or topple a tyrant.

If I were to chime in on the Ituango controversy, for example, I would write to defend the memory of José Tejada, a great engineer who first spoke of the hydroelectric potential of the Cauca river canyon Ed. note: where a massive, soon-to-be-completed dam project under construction since 2011 was delayed late last year because of damaging heavy rains.

Tejada's visits to the area and visions for the project date back more than 50 years ago. And so all these years later, when newcomers to the story come in and hysterically link the massive dam project to paramilitaries or denounce it as expressing the greed and arrogance of big business in Antioquia, one inevitably despises the foolishness of seeing a profit motive behind every human initiative.

There is constant tension between embracing reality and escaping it.

Those calling for the dam to be dismantled and instead want solar panels in the Eastern Plains or wind turbines in La Guajira are both ignorant and — by taking advantage of possible mistakes made in relation to the project — resorting to political manipulation.

That is how reality drags you its way, even when you just want to write novels. But there is an opposite force pulling us away from mean, abusive arguments on social networks or the rabble-rousers' lies and half-truths, toward an interior refuge where you can play the instrument nature gave you, and compose your inner music.

About that, the New York Review of Books recently had a brief essay recalling the lives of writers and thinkers who lived through the Soviet experience, suffering restrictions like bans on foreign travel or political participation. There is a lesson here on the unlikely advantages of the tyrannical banishment that forces you to migrate into oneself.

In principle, living in confined conditions is dismal for artists and scientists. And yet it may, strangely, arouse creativity or impose inner peace — at least for those of us suffering not from claustrophobia, but claustrophilia. We who rather enjoy shutting ourselves away, and admire the contemplative life chosen by certain monks (be they Buddhist, Orthodox or Benedictine).

For such people, the contemporary world, with its sham democracies and fake news, frayed nerves, unfettered rage and obsessive updating online, encourages confinement and separation. Or as our poet León de Greiff would say, such conditions induce us to don "an asbestos toga" that protects us from rage, the idiocy of the embittered, and unpalatable praise.

When life is consumed by inane rivalries and transactions, amid enraged palpitations that raise your blood pressure, internal flight becomes advisable, even remedial. And when conversation simply becomes insane speculation on kitsch and trivia, I find that the best temptation is to move away from the noise of the world.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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