Blockchain could revolutionise the marriage contract for non-traditional unions, provided it can surmount legal hurdles and marketing hype. By Sally Olds.
Marriage in the metaverse
In 2014, an American–Filipino couple made history by recording their wedding vows on the blockchain. At a crypto conference in Florida, in front of a crowd of wellwishers, the bride and groom sent Bitcoin to each other using a specialised ATM. Their vows – “til death do us part, because the blockchain is forever” – were embedded in the transaction data, the rough equivalent of, say, slipping your number into the bill at a restaurant. And though this was merely the first and most lo-fi version of a blockchain wedding, the company that facilitated the event made claims of something more radical:
“Blockchain marriages are ideal for couples … whose relationship may not fit the current governmental system, or any governmental system at all. Some examples might be gay couples or polyamorous groups whose idea of marriage may not so easily conform to the current rules set by governments,” reads the Bitnation press release from 2014.
There have since been dozens of similar affairs around the globe. In Dubai, in May last year, Florian Ughetto and Liz Nunez held an event that pushed the technology further. The pair sat together in a friend’s garden, celebrant presiding, laptops opened to their metaverse counterparts. On screen, their avatars exchanged NFT rings. The vows were issued as a smart contract. At the reception, which was held in a metaverse venue and had no IRL element at all, a wedding-crasher rode in on a dragon.
As well as offering novelty value and a pandemic-proof form of celebration, these weddings are self-proclaimed blueprints for future, fairer unions. But – dragons aside – each of these weddings has been fairly traditional, undertaken, as far as I’m aware, by men and women in monogamous pairs. If the recent, quickening crashes have taught us anything, it’s that when it comes to crypto it’s always worth measuring the hype against reality. What can the blockchain do for marriage and romance? And what of those early promises of free love?
I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find polyamorous crypto people. There is crossover in the subcultures; just as lesbians are also often hikers, and tech bros are also often trippers, lesbian tech bros of any gender are also often polyamorous. In her 2016 book Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love, Emily Witt documents Silicon Valley polyamorists, who draw up relationship rules on shared Google docs and host sex parties replete with charters and liability insurance. Then there’s Sam Bankman-Fried, the recently disgraced founder of the crypto trading platform FTX, who reportedly lived in a Bahamian penthouse with nine housemates, all of whom were apparently romantically involved – a polycule, of sorts.
I decided to go straight to the source: r/polyamory, an extremely active Reddit community of about 300,000 polyamorous or poly-adjacent people. I posted the question, “Anyone here used smart contracts in their relationships?” and all it got me was -6 Community Karma Points and a monumental dressing-down. One user accused me of soliciting market research. Another told me off for endorsing the crypto-NFT-metaverse pyramid scheme. I retreated from the subreddit, chastened.
Next, I got in touch with a man I’d heard once on a podcast talking about this exact confluence of love and crypto. Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow is a geneticist and biohacker based in Sydney. We speak via Zoom. He has a long, low ponytail and a winningly excitable manner. He tells me that he first wanted to try using a smart contract in 2017. At the time, he was in a polyamorous relationship, and he and one of his partners were thinking of getting married but were struggling to find an easy and fair way to manage things such as superannuation and property. If they got married, they had protections, sure, but what about their other partners? They figured the blockchain was a good option: a decentralised form of contract for a decentralised form of relationship.
But the crash of 2018 dashed his faith. Soon after, his relationship with that partner ended. Their smart contract never happened, but he can see the utility for smart contracts, or something like them.
“What would have been nice is if we had had an algorithm that could have listened into our conversations and turned it into a legal contract that we could then sign,” he says.
He imagines, in the future, that sophisticated language models such as GPT-3 could do exactly this – collect huge swaths of data on each party and draw up contracts on the Ethereum blockchain, automating the process from top to bottom.
Was he onto something? Most legal academics I asked demurred, citing a lack of case history. I finally found Dr Shaanan Cohney, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne whose research focuses on the intersection of cryptography and law. Cohney is sceptical, noting over email that “smart contracts are notoriously inflexible … designed for instances where traditional forms of trust-based relationships are trickier”. Meanwhile, “a relationship is the mirror image – a high trust environment” in which you need to practise flexibility and adapt to the evolving circumstances of your union.
Though by no means perfect, a traditional legal contract affords this flexibility. Such contracts are usually long, wordy and comprehensive to the point of redundancy. Far from making them ill-suited to a relationship, they are designed to offer room for interpretation so that in a conflict the spirit of the agreement, and an outcome closest to this spirit, can be determined in a court of law. You need to have the co-operation of each party (or, failing that, the interventions of lawyers and a judge) in order for any transfers of funds or rearrangements of childcare to happen. This process is often full of inconveniences, but these inconveniences also function as a safety net.
In a smart contract, the outcomes are set in advance. If a certain condition is met, the agreement is executed automatically. Say, for instance, in a hypothetical blockchain prenup, a couple has agreed for the contents of their crypto wallets to be divided 50/50 in the event of a divorce. Once the divorce is triggered, the blockchain will perform the transaction immediately. It’s efficient and, potentially, wildly unjust, though there are some workarounds. You could do what the American tech entrepreneurs Brock Pierce and Crystal Rose did in 2018: program your vows to renew every year, at which time they are up for renegotiation or annulment. Used in this way, the parties can tinker directly with their own contract, provided they have the tech know-how. With each change recorded in the transaction history, it’s a transparent and secure system. If all else fails, couples could always challenge the outcome of a smart contract in court, though that rather defeats the purpose of the technology, which aims to cut out the costly, bumbling middlemen and women of the state.
There is potentially a bigger problem: smart contracts are often not legally binding. When it comes to blockchain marriages, Cohney sees some loopholes in the current laws that could make them functioning legal agreements, but so far, at least, each blockchain-wedded couple has also had to be married according to the laws of their own countries. If you can’t already get married legally, there is no guarantee you can make it happen via a smart contract, which makes its utility for non-traditional relationships extremely limited. In Cohney’s words: “The best way to use a smart contract in a marriage is for novelty value, but I would advise against using it to attempt to control the division of more substantial assets.”
In theory, when the state is pushed aside, individuals take their rightful place as arbiters of their own destinies. What these weddings show us is what happens in practice: when the state is pushed aside, brands step in. At least one half of every blockchain couple I’ve researched in the past six months is actively involved in a blockchain, NFT, metaverse, or cryptocurrency company or project. In the case of the Dubai metaverse nuptials, the bride and groom are the co-founders of a company called Easy Wedding, which helps multinational couples get married. Their celebration doubled as an advertisement of their company’s expansion into the metaverse.
And recently, seemingly random corporations have been flirting with the concept. Taco Bell, which already has a real-life wedding chapel in its flagship Las Vegas store, is offering competition winners a chance to wed in its metaverse counterpart. Unilever, which owns brands such as Dove and Rexona as well as the toothpaste brand Closeup, recently unveiled the “Closeup City Hall of Love”. Pitched at those who can’t marry in their home countries due to discriminatory laws, the initiative bills itself as “a sanctuary for couples in all kinds of relationships”. Couples can wed in a metaverse “city hall” and receive an NFT marriage certificate, though, of course, this is not legally binding.
So far, I’ve found no evidence that anyone married on the blockchain has used it to manage their finances and assets. I’ve seen promises of eternity, light-hearted commitments, and declarations of fidelity, and nothing more material than that – unless such matters are too unsavoury to mention in the same breath as love. But if even true believers draw the line at money and property, crypto’s radical promise is better viewed as a gimmick.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "Ball and blockchain".
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