Economy, Knowledge and Surveillance in the Age of Cryptocene
From community currencies to networks of value
Reinventing money and its decentralization
The Politics of Cryptoeconomics
Over the Volcano: Blockchains past, present, and future
At time of writing, Bitcoin is by far the most known digital currency and there are no signals that this will radically change any time soon. Bitcoin was born in 2009 as an experiment in digital, non-centralized, alternative systems for economic exchange. Over the last ten years it has contributed to the creation of a larger field of discussion often referred to as cryptoeconomics, a field that deals with computer networks, cryptography and game theories applied to decentralized systems.
Other than the generation of its own discourse, what Bitcoin and
its underlying technology – blockchain – has
successfully managed is to reach mainstream attention outside the
circles of the early participants, stimulating a whole new wave of
public enthusiasm for concepts and technologies dealing with the
creation of value and wealth. A decade after its invention, there
is still much to discuss about its structure and evolution,
providing space for alternative perspectives around both digital
currencies and their underlying infrastructure. Representing the
documentation of a series of workshops and presentations in 2019
organized by the Net Art and cultural initiative
servus.at, this publication features a series of
interviews with artists, researchers, activists and theorists who
actively engage with the crypto and address current issues
and future scenarios in the field.
In a nutshell, Bitcoin was conceived and built as a digital system of exchange that could run independently of centralized financial institutions such as banks and stock markets, while still being capable of ensuring the security and traceability of transactions and the anonymity of the exchange participants. All of this – which many voices argued was impossible by design – was regulated through blockchain, an archiving technology invented by the still anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto. Blockchain is an encrypted, public, decentralized record of the economic exchanges made between parties via Bitcoin.
Despite how Bitcoin's invention is often narrated, the idea did not come from nowhere. In the 90s and 2000s the idea of creating “digital money” was quite popular in specific circles of developers, activists and privacy-oriented thinkers. Within this sphere, the idea of digital money was envisioned alongside wider discussions and experiments around encryption, decentralization and anonymity. These topics heavily influenced the development of Bitcoin and created complex, fertile grounds for its development. Bitcoin combined and profited from already existing ideas, needs and wishes, alongside software protocols, becoming something coherent enough to gain distance from its constitutive blocks and stand alone. The unquestioned elegance of Nakamoto's software infrastructure, its apparent infallibility and the mystery around his identity were undoubtedly helpful components that contributed to Bitcoin's dominance, as it rose out of those initial networks of thought into mainstream fame.
Maybe it is still too soon to consider Bitcoin a “disruptive innovation”: an invention that opens a whole new market and value network. Maybe it is only one step in the evolution of “digital money”, or perhaps it is simply a hoax. Whichever it turns out to be, we can be certain that Bitcoin created an entire ecosystem around itself, thanks to its capacity for catalyzing the attention, investments and hopes of an unprecedented amount of people, the fact of which speaks to its adoption by wider groups. As researcher Jaya Klara Brekke maintains in her critical analysis published by Ignota Books, since the publication of its White Paper, Bitcoin has had a huge impact on communities dealing with cryptography and digital currencies. This has led to the creation of many other distinct yet similar currencies and to continuous attempts to extend the user possibilities of the open-source blockchain architecture. Following Bitcoin's unprecedented growth, which peaked in December 2017, the whole spectrum of digital currencies could be seen to emerge from their crypto-anarchist niche and engage with the mechanics of the general financial sector. As a result, everything with a loose connection to crypto started attracting greater attention from large corporations and banks, unscrupulous speculators and self-made entrepreneurs. These actors invested heavily and began “squatting” the field with their well-tuned rhetorics of disruption, innovation and futures. For many, this was the turning point in which Bitcoin, blockchains and other digital currencies changed nature and status – the whole field began to resemble the well known cat in the box, appearing to be both extremely alive and almost certainly dead.
Did mainstream popularity kill Bitcoin? For many, it did. It was cynically slaughtered by investors and companies keen to make some relatively easy money. For others, generally the above companies and investors, mainstream awareness was only the beginning of the real adventure. Finally digital currencies had left their childish, utopian birthplace and begun to develop their potential to create wealth out of thin air and engage with the real economic actors of our time.
Only time will tell how digital currencies develop or if they will finally implode, ending up consigned to the pile of good ideas that for some reason got lost. But considering how fast contemporary technologies deveolp and their potential influence on economies and societies, we cannot wait for time to run its course before adopting a position.
Several artists, researchers and developers active in the field of cryptoeconomics are already engaged with this discourse, pushing for change and alternative narratives to those through which digital currencies are typically celebrated and glorified. They look backwards rather than forwards, embracing the idea that radical change generally only occurs with apparent rapidity. This means focusing on other scales and times, searching out longer processes wherein slow shifts and subtle changes of preexisting habits, tools and technologies take the place of “groundbreaking” new invention. Through these activities, these actors contribute ideas and software that are actively built around values and relationships between individuals other than those concerned purely with the exchange and accumulation of wealth.
Paradoxically, in rejecting continuous acceleration, slowing-down and counteracting the hype around all things crypto becomes urgent. This can be best achieved by examining Bitcoin and other blockchains in careful detail and represents one of the key aims of the events documented in this publication. Accompanied by a series of illustrations produced by the visual artist Virgile Bellaiche, the texts featured here focus on cryptocurrencies and decentralization, alternative community economies, experiments with digital tokens and ideological critique of the latest developments in market economics and the globalized dynamics of value distribution and generation. Rather than a more faithful or extensive form of workshop documentation, Davide Bevilacqua, Katja Lux and the wider servus.at team chose the format of the interview to widen the contents of the discussion. This was done to best represent the complexity and richness of the field of cryptoeconomics and to give space to the multiple emergent sub-themes.
In their conversation with Katja Lux, Martín Nadal and César Escudero Andaluz frame their artistic practice of critical mining within a larger research process around the democratization of cryptography and the emergence of cryptocurrencies. Critical mining is an attitude visible in artworks and projects that address the production of dedicated hardware and the energy needed for the process of mining, two fundamental issues embedded in the core of the blockchain validation process.
The experiments of Franz Xaver and the Stadtwerkstatt Infolab focus on the issuing and implementing of community currencies and their digital counterparts. Their experiences with Gibling and the two blockchains connected to it, Givecoin and XGiveCoin, highlight questions around the creation of value within a community and allow us to speculate about what other kinds of matter or information – like noise – could be potentially valuable in the future.
Sarah Friend and Saraswathi Subbaraman address other core elements of cryptocurrencies: the tension between decentralization and centralization and the urgent need – especially in the time of climate crisis – to develop an alternative imagery of future economies. Their inquiry on curious societies of the past and their particular economies connects with the potential for imagining new kinds of interpersonal relationships for future societies. Their artistic research is completed through personal engagement in various projects dealing with blockchain-based universal basic income.
The work of Jaya Klara Brekke addresses the political and social aspects of networks and cryptoeconomics, especially focusing on the misleading overlap of ideological concepts from the political, social and technical realms, such as trust, networks and consensus. Among other threads, she shows how technologies should be analyzed through non-engineering and less rhetorical lenses and how the concept of the commons is needed today.
Finally, due to his hands-on experiences in the field, artist, cultural producer and writer John W. Fail was invited to contribute a summary perspective on the topics addressed here. His text pulls together several shared threads and draws a bridge towards the future of cryptocurrencies, beginning with their past and present evolutions and concluding with a call for radical humanism to counter the “cold, steely logic of the code itself”.
As an attempt to provide a snapshot of the current discourse around digital currencies using non-specialised jargon, we hope this publication might also aid the inexperienced reader, taking their first steps in this dynamic field.
A conversation with Martín Nadal and César Escudero Andaluz about art, time, encryption, and critical mining.
What exactly was your workshop about?
César: The name of the workshop was Economy, Knowledge and Surveillance in the Age of Cryptocene.
It was based on a diagram we made that explained the journey from the previous histographical moment up until the recent cryptographic issues connected to Blockchain. This way we could analyse surveillance capitalism, we could research cryptopunk and cypherpunk movements in connection with digital rights managers and other kinds of making that involves artificial scarcities.
Martín: Basically, our initial approach was to use a paper that we wrote in a workshop at Transmediale last year and the diagram to take a "trip" with those who attended the workshop, from classical cryptography to Blockchain, reviewing all the implications on a technical, political and cultural level. We also presented artworks from different artists related to Blockchain and then invited the workshop attendees to create their own diagrams connecting these artworks.
Referring to your workshop headline From the Democratization of Cryptography to the Appearance of Cryptocurrencies, could you describe what actually happened in this process?
Martín: Cryptography has always been used within and has a very close relationship with military states, but with the introduction of computers a process of democratization occured. Now we have access to very complex cryptographic processes on a daily basis that not so long ago would have been unthinkable. For example, when you are browsing the internet and you see a green lock next to the address bar, it means that your communication is being encrypted so it can't be intercepted.
Before I came to Kunstuniversität Linz I was studying computer science. I remember teachers explaining, that in the 70s and 80s when the university bought a computer from the U.S., they were delivered by military troops. So, what we mean by political implications, is, for example, PGP – Pretty Good Privacy, which was developed by Phil Zimmermann in the 90s. It had lots of legal problems and he almost went to jail, because the software used military-grade encryption. At that time, such a strong cryptography was considered a weapon, and this software violated the "Arms Export Control Act". This close relationship between encryption and the military, which we explore a lot in our workshop, dates back to Roman times, passing through the German's Enigma machines that played an important role in the Second World War.
César: In the diagram you can see simple and complex connections at the same time. For example, we learn that Bitcoin uses the same algorithm that the NSA developed. Connections between Julian Assange and what Bitcoin was initially used for, what it was spent on and further implications in terms of ecology and various ideological approaches to cryptography also appear.
Martín: Yes, the diagram is very condensed. We invested a lot of time and it contains many concepts, such as artificial scarcity. How to build an economy if you can't replicate goods infinitely? Which processes are involved? With the workshop that we did at servus.at, we presented this work to give some sort of context of what Blockchain is.
We learned a lot during the workshop, particularly because the guys from servus.at were fine with us doing it in an experimental way. Because we are artists, we have always been very interested in the artist's approach to Blockchain.
The second day, we introduced artworks that are based around Blockchain. What happens very often when you tell people that you are doing arts with Blockchain they say like: Wow, that's very cool, but very few people understand what is actually going on. I think, in the end we came up with a workshop that we can be especially proud of because it opened our and other people's work up and we tried to explain what the implications are and came up with a taxonomy.
As our research methods differ, we developed this very complex diagram to bring our interests together. This then enabled the participants to make their own diagrams and to develop their own classifications of what the artworks represent.
During the workshop, every artwork that we included introduced or explained some feature of cryptography or Blockchain. This is interesting for artists, because at the moment, the market for digital media wants to find solutions in the Blockchain, which again relates to the concept of artificial scarcity.
César: We approached the diagram by visualizing problems behind the graphic user interface. In the end, it became a meta diagram that allows the opportunity to create further diagrams, which the participants did.
I think it would be nice to clarify some of the terms that you have been using during your workshop. How would you explain the term cryptocene and where do you see the differences to the so-called anthropocene? Would you say that we are living in the age of crypto-cene?
César: Cryptocene is a term that we believe we coined. It is based on Haraway's ideas, like the capitalocene and the chthulucene, but not in the sense of the anthropocene, because Haraway is opposed to this. There is a big trend to create sense. The main idea that we are working on is to demonstrate that cryptography can, at certain points, modify the surface of the earth. Having analysed the ecological impact of the mining process we agreed on that. Nowadays, the network of computers mining Bitcoins is the biggest network ever. Most of these miners are not just a single computer, rather they are computer farms. It's a building, bigger than the university building and there are thousands of them. The chthulucene is a speculative term. Our question is how cryptography can modify the surface of the earth if we don't stop or analyse the consequences of mining. People are using Bitcoin but they don't realize that a simple transaction, like buying a simple pen, expends the same energy as five big houses do throughout one year.
When you say that cryptography can change the surface of the earth, what do you actually mean?
Martín: It's like a speculative future. When we started doing the research, the price for Bitcoin was growing and growing as a requirement. The mining process for creating Bitcoin is based on competition. Due to increasing demand, more computers got involved and the infrastructure grew exponentially. At that time, all the articles in the Financial Times were talking about how the Bitcoin network in the 2020s could expend as much energy as the whole U.S.. We started to wonder about the effects on the environment, if that really happened. That was one of the points, but very speculative.
To your minds, where does it make sense to use Blockchain and where do you see the underlying ideas in danger?
Martín: You know, Blockchain is a platform that is very ineffective, which allows speculation and the waste of natural resources. We have always been very critical about the whole Blockchain thing from day one. A work we made, called Bittercoin, critiques the process of mining. We coined it critical mining and it was published in a book of artists called Rethinking the Bitcoin.
Maybe I'm missing something. I've studied a lot and I don't see any practical use for it. I see that there is a lot of politics embedded, as David Golumbia observes in Politics of Bitcoin. There are a lot of super right-wing, ultra liberal dreams about Blockchain technology that big think tanks have supported from the beginning.
For me it has been very interesting living in Berlin, because lots of people there work with Blockchain and have these incredible ideas about new economies and reinventing money and its value. I always ask them what they think about the infrastructure, because as we say, Blockchain is the infrastructure, it is the lower level. On top you can create concepts and new ideas about money and I think this is very powerful – this is the first time ever that people can individually support a distributed monetary system, which is pretty amazing. We're talking about a database that is distributed and that is theoretically impossible to hack. That idea is pretty powerful.
But the implications and the risks and the environmental waste! I think the advantages do not outweigh the disadvantages of this technology. There was an article published one year ago, saying that Blockchain is already ten years old and they haven't made anything really useful with it.
The mixture is so interesting, because there is this super neo-liberal utopia, that we don't buy into, like this idea of deregulating the government. So, I think both of us are not very positive. But I personally think that this is one of the most interesting technologies that is happening right now. And then we see Facebook creating their own coin, and it's not only Facebook. It's Facebook, Uber, Visa, PayPal, Mastercard, Spotify, Vodafone, and they all are starting to say that you will be able to pay with that soon. But I don't know how it's going to be developed and I don't know what governments will do about it.
César: Yeah. These implications directly support the ideology of Bitcoin, which at the beginning was a decentralized system for capital transactions without third parties, basically a system without banks. And now this Libra coin, this new Facebook currency, is tending against third parties but they are creating something that we are expecting.
So, when you say that you are not very positive and that you are very critical about the development of Bitcoin, what would be your assumed future scenario for Blockchain, personally and as artists?
Martín: The outcomes of continued mining could be terrible. Our line of work and research is about critical mining and we are concerned with alternative ways of mining to create alternative economies that are not based on the waste of resources. Blockchain is a system that you can make a monetary or financial system with, but you can also launch code in smart contracts. What they promote as the main advantage of this technology is that no humans are involved. Once the smart contract is deployed no one will be able to stop it, and that is something that worries me. So we also speculate about what the role of the human will be once all the trust is placed on this technology.
Where do you see the interminglings between economy, knowledge and surveillance at present and what is the connection with Blockchain?
César: The history of cryptography has always been close to the history of war and the history of war is super close to the history of surveillance. The NSA and other international systems use cryptography to encrypt messages. It's also connected with surveillance because of the NSA PRISM surveillance system, which involves a lot of big companies like Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and other services that are directly connected with our data, which they process to reflect on human behaviour. So, cryptography is involved in this system of absorbing our behaviour. Data brokers also play an important role in this ecosystem of surveillance and they make a lot of profit from our data. It's like an interconnected war of devices, infrastructures and services.
Would you say that the civilian, in the age of cryptocene, with all of our possibilities to encrypt messages and secure our data, is actually getting more and more enabled to secure his or her privacy, or do you have a more dystopian approach to this, regarding the possibilities for governmental and global surveillance of the people?
César: It is something that cryptoanarchists and cypherpunks have demanded from the beginning, but since we 'the people' receive some services like Gmail for free that are already in heavy use, this makes it complicated. In our diagram we mentioned the cryptoparty, which is really involved. Systems like TOR or Tails are available for encryption, which creates a kind of cultural hacker space in the diagram, but it takes time, effort and even knowledge to encrypt your messages.
Martín: Yeah. What César is saying is, that when they talked about cryptoparties or cypherpunks in the 90s, these services were open to the public as standard, like, you could encrypt your emails, right? But now, you can't encrypt your Facebook messages or posts, because the platform belongs to a private company and we cannot apply the techniques that we used in the 90s. By using these infrastructures, we are no longer able to defend our privacy.
A few days ago I was applying for a residency and therefore I had to prepare some project and I spent the whole night reading about surveillance capitalism, thinking by myself how terrible all of this is. And then, when I was ready to send the form, I suddenly realized that I was using Gmail and I thought: Fuck, what am I doing with my life?
And – the art space where I had applied, which deals a lot with privacy and surveillance, also replied from a Gmail account. That's when I realized how important the choice of platform is. Perhaps we need to use more open standards, because right now, a lot of conversations take place via Facebook and this information is read by big companies to extract value. However, if you are searching for something on Google, this information is encrypted and the big companies don't know exactly what you are looking at. Nowadays, because we use a lot of technology, an awareness of the implications of cryptography within those technologies is very important.
Are you saying that for private individuals, the importance of knowing how to encrypt our messages is growing?
Martín: It should, because of all this new technology. 20 years ago you could have said that you have nothing to hide and this is why your messages are not encrypted. But now, they are extracting value, shaping conversations, sending you individualized advertisements. You have to accept the terms and conditions if you want to read an online newspaper, which allows them to know exactly when you read what and even to identify your mood, when you have a toothache and so on. Humans are now very close to technology. This communication between us and the machines is being sucked in by huge companies that analyse and extract value out of that.
César: Yeah the first step extracting value happens via so-called digital identifiers. Since the invention of cookies, a chain of tracking systems arrived to track our behaviour. Keystrokes can identify our feelings, such as nervousness or hesitation, or if you are tired, you may type in a different way and that can be processed and analysed. Most dynamics, such as when you stop or click on something, can also be analysed, you can easily find out the IP-addresses of users and there are sensors, through which machines see the human beings. Nowadays, more and more people are carrying a smartphone in their pocket, which is like a personal identifier with approximately 30 different sensors continously uploading our behaviour to the system, our position by GPS, even thermometers, parameters, fingerprints, cameras, microphones. This means, that the digital ID is much more accurate than it was 20 years ago.
Martín: But, at least, the governments can do something. I mean, we have our devices, our digital ID and so on, but the democracies in Europe can pass new laws. Maybe it's not enough, but still, they can change the terms to prevent American companies, which are extracting information from Europeans, from selling this information to other huge companies in the U.S..
Going back to the Blockchain - Blockchain proposes an infrastructure that is completely distributed, which could mean that nations would become anonymised in the system, reducing law makers' chances to regulate companies' behaviour. That is exactly what's happening with the Facebook money. Basically, they are self regulating to avoid national laws. And this is one other big problem of the Blockchain, that such self regulation is impossible to stop.
In relation to what you just said- What do you think of the title of our workshop line The Bitcoin is dead, long live the Blockchain?
Martín: I think it's nice and also important. We work with Bitcoin, because we consider it to be the first implementation, - the first digital gold - and therefore a more basic thing. We have our criticism about the most basic use of cryptography, namely mining. Bitcoin is not feasible as a monetary system, because, as César said, every transaction is super expensive. There are technical limitations and due to environmental issues, they can not sustain outputs of that level. But still, it will always be like gold and it will always have value. I think right now a Bitcoin is worth around eight thousand Dollars. There have been around three thousand different cryptocoins, some of which are already gone - their value is zero - so they are not getting mined anymore.
That's why we think it's a nice title, because it reflects our approach towards working with Bitcoin, which we consider to be a kind of genesis of Blockchain.
If we talk about the stress field between arts and politics, where would you contextualize what you do? Is it more political or more arty, or both at the same time? And why did you choose to do art instead of creating primarily political projects with the knowledge that you have?
Martín: There is a political role to our art. We try to consider very carefully what we do. We have an artistic approach because we are artists and we love to make art, where we can transport the message in beautiful ways. On one level our works are very simple. I love to read artworks on different layers. They may be interesting on a technical level and then there are other ways to read them.
When we talk about our art, usually we have to explain the basic concept of Blockchain and its implications and why we think it is interesting to do artworks with it. Blockchain has given us a kind of challenge between artists, because many beautiful projects have been done already. There are a lot of experiments and speculation.
But, it is not something purely theoretic, I mean, it's happening. The news are talking about the use of Bitcoin from big companies, so, the sooner the criticism about it comes, the better. The thing is, on a theoretical level, it gives you the impression that everybody can be part of this new economy because of this horizontal skin. But then you start to detect power structures, so the money belongs to very few people as it is natural in capitalism. For example, to participate in creating the Facebook coin, you need to be a company with at least one Trillion Dollars and you have to be in the top five hundred most important companies in the world. So, these requirements refer to maybe ten people in the world who can actually participate.
So, the journey is amazing. You are going from something super horizontal to something that is very vertical and complex. If you have to classify how to make notes in the world, to select people or organizations or institutions to participate in a network, you are touching the most elitist network of nodes in the world.
It has a lot of elements that are very interesting, starting with the ideas of Satoshi Sakamoto.
The idea of Blockchain suddenly appeared in public forums, out of nothing. Nobody knew who he was and today he owns like 40% of all Bitcoin in the world. The moment Satoshi Sakamoto makes a transaction, the value drops.
There was this beautiful relationship where the first block of Bitcoin becomes the cover of the following one. It happened on the same day when the U.S. gave money to the public banks to prevent them from bankruptcy. So Bitcoin had a lot of political implications from day one and there is a lot of material about politics and economy all tangled up together and we are still very fascinated by it.
Talking with Franz Xaver about the financial ecosystem of the Stadtwerkstatt Infolab.
The first public presentation of the XGiveCoin took place in the servus.at clubraum at the beginning of 2019. How is it now, almost one year later?
I have poked around the "Cryptomarket" a little. Everything has to be done in a very professional and resource intensive way, there’s a lot of money put into the marketing of a coin or token. For this you need a huge marketing department, which is something a proper commercial company would never overlook. The XGiveCoin is actually a small byproduct of our Infolab at the Stadtwerkstatt. I developed, tested and launched it just like I did with GIVECOIN 2014, to get an insight into the world of crypto algorithms. The XGiveCoin hasn't changed too much since then, the sources can be downloaded via givecoin.cash, the miners are running and the block explorers are working. For the marketing we still have to wait for employees who want to invest their work time in this coin. STWST does have a lot of resources but a separate department for the Givecoin ECO system is still too expensive for us at the moment. Actually it needs investment capital. 4.11 percent of the XGiveCoin have been mined, which we can also contribute.
In 2012 the first edition of Gibling was issued. Its first digital variation, the Givecoin, followed in 2014. The common ground between the two networks is clear, as they are about a COMMUNITY that shares certain values. The community decides to give an object/symbol an exchange value that reflects and is supported by the ideological values of the community. How does the value of the Gibling transfer into the Givecoin?
Yes, the Gibling was designed as a community currency, but it is often confused with regional currencies. The Gibling is losing its value and must therefore be kept in circulation. For this reason it is incompatible with our Fiat monetary system and forms a counterpart of the experimental field with Givecoin and XGiveCoin.
We have actually designed our own ECO system with the Gibling, Givecoin and XGiveCoin, so that their values can develop better and faster. We still see the project as art. Art comes from the artificial and we want to create artificial values through our ECO-System.
The ECO system consists of:
What was actually the intention behind the creation of a second blockchain-based currency, the XGiveCoin? What are the characteristics of this second currency?
Mining is actually a very polluting process and absolutely despicable. But at the moment I see no other way to calculate a blockchain decentrally. In our ECO-system you can calculate cryptocoins without mining. The blockchain of the Givecoin is only mined by a selected community that gets the job done using weak computing power that is mostly provided by solar electricity. The blockchain of the XGiveCoin is accessible to everyone and can be developed openly and freely.
Where Giblings have an expiry date, the Givecoin has none. Why?
Our ECO system starts with a currency that must be in circulation, which gets us into the free value system of the crypto currencies. After the Gibling has "expired", its value only consists of an "art value" connected to the names of the artists. This art value is destroyed by the printing of the private key and by its use as a paper wallet. These rules of the Gibling can also be seen as analog to "Smart Contracts". So with the Givecoin as paperwallet, we enter the world of digital "Smart Contracts".
Gibling has grown in the last years and is now distributed and used in Graz and Vienna. How many nodes are there in the Givecoin network? And how is it going with XGiveCoin?
Givecoins have about 20 clients with Webwallet and Blockchain explorer.
XGiveCoin is currently at 33 clients also with Webwallet and Blockchain explorer - so it’s still a very manageable network.
XGiveCoin can also be converted into Bitcoins and exit the borders of the local community. What are the risks and possibilities of connecting a local, regional and community-based currency like the Gibling into a global network?
There is currently only one direction, from Gibling to XGiveCoin/Bitcoin. Through the Cryptoexchanges the XGiveCoin will move its worth to the market of other Cryptocurrencies. You can again buy Giblings through this exchange rate.
This collecting activity of the users shows the value of the Gibling as a form of currency1 Is the XGiveCoin a "form of currency" like the Gibling? And where does it do its collecting? Is this connected to the implementation of the Paperwallets?
These created values want us to reinvest. In addition to the purchase of new Giblings, we would also like to promote other art forms in order to support the various art genres through an exchange system. Art in exchange for Giblings.
Our ECO-System is its own art genre. In the past I would have called it new-media-art, today I would call it process-art.
Using Giblings also means disagreeing with the current economic situation and adopting a light parasitic action, pitting the local currency against the status quo of the global financial markets and a politics that regulates an everyday tool such as money. How do you see this quality also being transferred to its digital counterpart?
Yes, I believe that the Gibling, or the entire crypto market that comes out of the community, can leverage our regulated financial system. The existing financial system is outdated and boring and, above all, is only travelling in one direction, from the omnipotence of financial market supervision to the users. 25 years ago, the digital age brought a change from state Push Media to the Pull Media of the information age. Since the turn to Pull Media, every user can pick his or her information from the Internet as he or she needs it. The financial system works in a very conservative way so this switch to Pull Media has not yet arrived.
The Gibling offers a new, depreciating currency and the crypto market is determined purely by algorithms.
The Gibling/Givecoin/XGivecoin is a part of a different system. I don't yet know if the new crypto market will do something better for people. I don't really believe it can, but it definitely grants perspective on the system of capital. Our eco-system alone is not yet an alternative, but it is a tool for questioning the problems of digital information and the monopoly of value creation. New value creation happens with algorithms via "Smart Contracts". It is very important to me that we get a foot in the door of the digital world’s "Smart Contracts" at the right time. Information is becoming an increasingly important commodity and we don't just want to watch how our personal information is traded globally. I see it as my duty to immerse myself in the field of digital value creation in order to be able to continue to actively oppose madness and not to become incapable of action.
Our generation has experienced a lot, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift in the history of evolution.
Digital decisions are certainly superior to analog decisions in the long term. In the analogue world, it is still people who decide to control the information system, which has been managed for millions of years by nature. This is not a bad system, but many decisions are guided by feelings stored in the genes. In the digital world, logic and mathematics, which we all perceive as being true and correct, decides. This situation will result in decision making difficulties in the future.
Proof of Work, Proof of Stake, Proof of Space ... Can you talk about your concept, "Proof of Chaos?"
hhhhhhhh, yes the "proof of chaos" ...
A thought with wings, stirred by reflections on life. Entropy has a relationship to information. Information has a relationship to evolution. Evolution is only aimed at further developing information. We need entropy to keep hold of our free will. Therefore entropy deserves to be protected within an information system (evolution). Information is always directed against entropy. The negEntropy (reverse entropy). Because of this modern operating systems have built in entropy value (/proc/sys/kernel/random/entropy_avail), which they must obtain from "outside" and use mainly for encryption. Proof of Chaos would be a method to "store" entropy in a blockchain. It could be used to store time without information. It is nothing more than an inspiring thought about free will and the storage of the present.
In one of your projects you are trying to save NOISE into a blockchain, with the idea that in the future noise will become more valuable than gold. How does this relate to XGiveCoin?
Information is a powerful "something" in our universe. There are many indications that our evolution is only there to store information about the development of life, in order to develop life further. Now we have reached a point where information has separated itself from biological storage and is now only managed by algorithms. A pure new mathematical age is dawning. Humans were the last hosts to reach this age.
The second law of thermodynamics stands like a rock in the surf. It says that entropy in the universe is always increasing. Life on Earth is a cosmological special case. A closed system of evolution in which life (information) is created from entropy – and the entropy is absorbed. Life displaces entropy. But we don’t know what happens when information leaves life and thus the closed system. We do not know if a pure mathematical age is possible (field of research: Digital Physics). Entropy is therefore the source of everything and much more precious than anything else.
We can only leave traces of ourselves in this new world through algorithms.
Visualizing the potential of alternative economies and interpersonal relationships within future societies with Sarah Friend and Saraswathi Subbaraman.
Hello Sarah, hello Saraswathi! Can you please tell us about your background and the idea behind the workshop which you are running at servus.at today?
Saraswathi: Hey there. I am the product lead on Universal Basic Income Cryptocurrency and I am visiting from Berlin to give a workshop on alternative currencies, particularly on speculative alternative currencies from a thousand years in the future, together with Sarah Friend, who is going to introduce herself.
We are performing as economic anthropologists from the year 3147, following several cataclysms. We are showing a world that has fragmented dramatically, wherein a number of different economies have come into being, and inviting folks to be researchers with us about what has happened to the world and what we can find out there together.
Sarah: I am Sarah Friend and I am going to co-facilitate the workshop. I am an artist and also a contributor to Circles, the basic income pilot in Berlin.
Referring to the talk Decentralization and its Discontents that you gave yesterday, what exactly does ‘decentralization’ mean in terms of economic, societal and cultural shifts, and what is your approach towards it?
Sarah: The talk and the research began because the word 'decentralization' and building decentralized things has become this sort of marketing pitch on a part of a number of protocols that I was at times involved with, but I thought it was very contradictory. So, if I am going to sum up the talk as a whole, it's about improving our mental models of what decentralization is.
We do a number of things, such as unpack the historical origins of the term, we talk about some of the differing strategies people use to measure how decentralized something is, we look at the ways that protocol could be decentralized in one way and not in others. Kind of this flowing pattern of 'centralization' and 'decentralization' that move in and out of one another. And then we also have a section on the limits of decentralization, because though a perfect decentralization of everything is often talked about as being ideal, when we start to be really literal about that, it's clearly impossible. I think one of the contradictions of the decentralization movement is, which specific decentralization are we responding to? Often, there is this mismatch, where people are interested in decentralizing power or data ownership, but they end up building architecturally decentralized protocols, which is a different axis along which something might be centralized or decentralized. So we need to be more clear about how the things that we are decentralizing will address the actual problem.
If we talk about economic systems, where do you see the limitations of decentralized infrastructures or patterns?
Sarah: I think there are a couple of aspects to decentralization when it applies to economics. But one of them can be framed in terms of distribution of wealth. During the talk we looked at some excellent works that relate to this, for example an article called Quantifying Decentralization that plots the wealth distribution in various cryptocurrency networks and shows that it is, in many cases, more concentrated than wealth in the fair world. So, here is a thing that could be decentralized by supposedly decentralized protocols that actually isn't. I think an invitation at the workshop later will be to consider how monetary systems might genuinely address things like income equality.
Saraswathi: I think it's interesting to think about it as a lot of different layers. What I like about Sarah's presentation is that it kind of shows how easy it is to just attach your idea of what a word means and you might think you are doing this thing when it can actually have multiple different meanings. For me, the meaning that I attached when I heard decentralization was ‘distribution’, which perhaps is a kind of decentralization in certain contexts, even if distribution is relative as a term. But that's what I naturally did when I heard the term and I thought that's what I was getting myself into when I entered the cryptocurrency space. But distribution is not a fundamental of cryptocurrency, at least not the distribution of capital, certainly not even the decentralization of capital. So I was really relieved to find Circles, because it was at least approaching what I thought was a unique economic distribution.
What I guess cryptocurrency does is to decentralize the power that banks typically have and I would say that in a sense, it does that specifically. But then, where does that power go and doesn't decentralization mean that it just gets centralized again in some other place or way? So, it's a really big question that has a lot of different answers and the ones that are the most interesting to me are the ones that approach ways that really support people, especially in a world where we've seen our economies fail. Like we've seen a lot of our assumptions on economics fail and people have lived through that. So, it's kind of an open question and that's one of the things we are trying to do, bringing that open question to the table and asking ourselves: How would we do it better? Decentralization is a part of that question, distribution is a part of that question, there's a lot of ways to tackle it, but we kind of wanna keep it pie in the sky for now, at least for the workshop.
Sarah: Yeah, I think, one of the things that is possibly promised by the cryptocurrency movement but seldom actually delivered, is the possibility to actually change the way money moves through society - the way money works, the internal logic of money. But instead, what cryptocurrency has done is to replicate a lot of old assumptions about what money is. Like, people call Bitcoin digital gold. And it actually does replicate a lot of these asset forms, but it doesn't have to in any way.
What excited me about Circles when I first heard about it as a project was that, if nothing else, Circles was actually delivering on the promise that cryptocurrency gives us, of truly trying out very new ways for money to be created and to move through society. I would love to see more of that renaissance. I would love to see us as a civilization building or understanding how different economic forms can change things. That is what the Economic Vivaria Research Institute is kind of about too. It's about encouraging people to use their imagination and apply it to money.
Saraswathi: Yeah, and another aspect that relates to your question in regards to decentralization and economics is that there is a hegemonic system that is a global currency or global currencies that we're working with now in the sense that there is this one paradigm of money. And it's something that was not consensually created, it's something that we were born into. At this point, everyone just came into this system and watched it fail. What I continue to see in the cryptocurrency movement as well is, Bitcoin, Ethereum, and now Libra or whatever it is, trying to create the next global hegemony. They’re trying to come in and say: Here's the one economy that fits them all!
And in so doing, creating a single point of power. I mean, at least whoever is responsible for the governance of those global coins, namely a handful of people who have the technological powers and access to financial resources to be educated enough to own a Bitcoin.
Sarah: Maximalism is a form of centralization.
Saraswathi: Right, maximalism. In my opinion, scaling globally is a form of centralization but it's also a form of colonisation. Another reason why I like these smaller movements and circles among them is that you can begin to think of community currencies as something that scale from community to community, wherein people can make choices about how money functions in their vicinity. So, essentially you have a community that is interacting with another community rather than having one coin that's gonna suit some lands and some island over there and if they don't have access to the global economy, it's just so devastating. Some people do not need that access or do not have that access because it puts them in a situation of danger. There is a diversity of needs when it comes to economics and approaching it in a way where it's at least diverse and accommodating of the diversity of needs is an interesting and worthwhile challenge.
If we think of our world as being decentralized and divided into small communities that interact with each other on a local scale – why would we still need money at that point instead of practising a kind of barter trade?
Sarah: There's some really interesting economic research by an anthropologist named David Graeber, which looks at how barter societies never actually existed and how currencies as we know them grew out of gift economies. And currencies were things that societies that internally used gift economies… these communities used gift economies and currencies grew on the border of gift economies, like when one gift economy had to interact with another gift economy. That's when currencies were used in the ancient world. One of the main points of this is, that this barter idea never actually happened. Why didn't barter happen? I think, there's a big matching problem, like - I have this and you have this, can we swap? This actually turns out to be really complicated. There's a monetary theorist in Berlin whose talk I saw a couple of weeks ago. His whole premise is that we can get rid of money now, because we can use software to build complicated matching algorithms to swap, like – what you have and what I have. I think that this is possibly interesting but also a little concerning, because they might have a database of what everyone has and of what everyone wants.
But does it really have to be like that? Maybe we could work with a general public table measuring worth in the sense of three small breads are worth cleaning a house once, for example?
Sarah: I think one of the main questions though is, even if we don't have some object for this money, what is money? Because usually money is just an abstraction of value. Once we are comparing the values of two commodities, we've actually entered into the idea of money, whether we have literal money or not. All of a sudden we have an exchange rate between two items and an arbitrary unit of account that can just grow from that, kind of easily. I don't think that we will ever uninvent money.
David Graeber says that the only time we see true barter is when societies that have money and people that are used to the idea of money suddenly don't have it.
Saraswathi: What I would say is, that it's a good question though. What I've seen in close communities and also in families is that people commonly share certain things and that this really limits the need for money. So money is also this promise, that you get something for it. It's like a receipt. It's like you gave me something and now you are going to get something. But in close communities you simply remember and it's a lot easier. It's like you would have this common store that everyone knows and contributes to and that everyone can take from. But in a global economy you need to have these receipts. For example, let’s say there is this guy in China that I got these shoes from and he needs to know that he can get something. We're not like family members or in the same community at all. I also keep asking myself, what would the world look like if we, for example, took climate change seriously and took steps to essentially create a more ecologically oriented civilization. I know we can't unlearn globalization either. But I think a lot of things would change, perhaps money's use would shift. I think it's also interesting to think about how you could design money differently specifically for communities so that it might get a bit more accommodating.
One thing that we work with is demurrage, which is like a decay rate for currency.
Sarah: Which the Gibling also has. It's very interesting to be talking about alternative currencies at servus, because you are in this house that has its own alternative currency. The bills decay every year, I think, because you do an artist edition and then next year it changes and the old one is worth like 75%? I think that is so cool to be in this place which has a local demurrage currency.
I would like to talk about the term of 'unlearning' with you. Do you see any connection between this term and the scenario that you have prepared for the workshop today?
Sarah: The workshop is a little bit about unlearning some of the assumptions about money that we have been given – though also through learning.
Saraswathi: There's an irony about that, because the workshop covers currencies that have actually been created, so you can call it unlearning, but these things happened. I didn't know about these alternative currencies when I entered into the cryptosphere. I thought that reinventing money was brand new and so cool. In high-tech spaces there is this narrative that this is the first time, shit has never happened and we are not just reinventing the wheel. But we typically are and there are precedents to learn from. I was shocked to discover this in my own research and I think it's really fun to share that shock with other people. And that shock is an unlearning, right? It's like everything I thought I knew was not correct and history exists. So, it's an unlearning through learning.
And it's humbling to unlearn, because basically you get really fixed on certain ways. But we can always be mistaken and by being mistaken we are also not being mistaken. So it's important to stay open.
So, do you believe in universal ‘truths’ or behaviours when it comes to humans and what would that mean for your future scenario at the workshop?
Sarah: I used to organize a lecture series a few years ago, called Small Talk. One of the speakers who came was somebody working in this anthropological archive which is this grandiose, sort of modernist project to collect anthropological information about every human culture that had ever existed. The point of his talk was, once you start looking at all those cultures which have been functional in their own way, if you look for universals about human culture, there are so few of them that it's kind of shocking. One of the only universals I think was colour, like order of colour words. There's a couple of others, you can read about them on Wikipedia, but it's far less than you might have imagined. So I think anthropology is this discipline that tells the lie of modernity quite beautifully, in the sense that we know what human universals are and that there are many.
And there's a lot of irony in this extremely modernist project, trying to be a taxonomy of every human culture. In fact revealing that the whole idea of modernist universals is a bit flat and it's quite ironic that this is what came out of it. It was a very good talk. His name is Jamie Ross.
I would like to ask you about your personal approaches and interests in topics such as Blockchain and working with Circles. Why have you chosen that path?
Saraswathi: I studied technocultural studies as an undergraduate, which I came across really randomly. I was actually studying neurobiology and I took a class called TCS, technocultural studies 1. I didn't even know what technoculture was supposed to be at that time, which was like a decade ago. It was not a word, it didn't even appear in a dictionary and I couldn't find anything on Google either. So I got curious, decided to take it seriously and it blew my mind. It basically covered The Cyborg Manifesto, drone warfare and DIY cochlear implants, which is an implant for people who can't see colour but they can hear it. So, the ways in which even the cultural imaginary was affected and my imagination was affected by this intersection of innovation and society, how these things were tacked together really blew my mind and I think that's when I became a technoculturalist.
That is what eventually lead me to cryptocurrency, like ten years later. The way I found cryptocurrency was when I read the Ethereum White Paper and I actually cried, because I was shocked that you could do something that profound and it was a kind of a miracle to me, that these things existed. But simultaneously I was like, oh my God, if I want to understand this with any level of profoundness it's gonna take me years, because of how complex it is. Cryptocurrency is like a rabbit hole. Actually it's many rabbit holes: the rabbit hole of game theory, the rabbit hole of crypto-economics, the rabbit hole of protocols and the rabbit hole of governance and all these things.
Eventually I became dissatisfied with not finding any activism in the cryptocurrency space or anything that seemed to be formatting the way people were interacting economically in a humanist sense. Expressing that frustration to a friend brought me to Circles, where I basically picked up the project and started reading it. And then, everything began changing continuous, like life does.
Sarah: My story starts a long time before cryptocurrency actually came up. Career wise, I was an artist before I was anything else. After graduating art university, I was really frustrated with some of the things that were unspoken in the art world. I got angry with the things that I hadn't understood about the economic realities of being an artist, the corruption I'd learned about in the art market, and it was around the time of the financial crisis when I graduated and we hosted the G20 in Toronto.
This was a really activist moment for the city. Me and some friends were occupiers at Toronto Occupy. So, I had this background of activism against corrupt finance and that was before I became a software developer. Years later, when I first heard of cryptocurrency, I think that I recognized it really quickly as being something that was really important, because I had this experience of protesting earlier. I was like: Oh, yeah that's a thing, that's a thing that was made in response, very literally to a lot of things that I was once protesting about.
I basically changed my whole career to focus on cryptocurrency related things in 2016. I was sceptical about them. I used to go to these Ethereum developer-meet-up's in Toronto and I would be the only woman there. And I would think to myself: It's really important that I'm in this room! Maybe there's a lot of hubris in that as well, but I felt like the conversations going on in the Blockchain community were very interesting but also very dangerous and that there was a real need to be present with them for that reason. I found Circles through Saraswathi, because we worked together for a couple of years at probably the biggest cryptocurrency company in the world. It probably still is.
Saraswathi: It's actually really cool to hear you talk about Occupy, because it was one of those moments where you felt that things might actually change and it was interesting to see what kind of spheres it's evolved of. I mean, these hyper-capitalist organizations working in the cryptospace, there's so much dissonance in that. But at the same time it's true, like we all saw the need for something and it seemed born of that neutral vision, that we had to find a solution for this corruption in banking.
While we've been talking, I became really curious about your opinion about the title of our workshop series The Bitcoin is dead, long live the Blockchain!?
Sarah: Bitcoin is certainly not dead, even if I understand people wanting it to be. I mean, ideologically, it's dead.
Saraswathi: Yeah, well, Bitcoin was the activist response to centralized points of failure or power that could fail.
And it's just not that exciting a response now that time has passed. I mean it's called digital gold and is essentially governed by a bunch of predominantly male maximalists. It's not really shifting the status quo, nor has it really touched many people's lives beyond those few. And there's also a lot of arguing and disagreements around it. I would say that the ideological shimmer of Bitcoin has faded. And even though it's still worth a lot of money and has value, it has value but not values. Basically, it's lost. It's like this feeling about something exciting that could really have been a game changer. But I mean it's also unfair to say that, because obviously it set an extraordinary thing in motion which I guess is a Blockchain.
Sarah: I disagree a bit with some of that, or maybe just with the idea that Bitcoin is dead. I really don't think that Bitcoin is dead. It's alive and well. I think Bitcoin has values, but they are not necessarily my values. I think Bitcoin actually represents really well an extreme tendency in ideology that maybe needed to be articulated in the way that it was. It's sort of one particular interpretation of what freedom means, what economics means, that a lot of people believe in but I think it's quite limited myself, and I think that's what drives the work that we do. But, just because it's not my ideal Blockchain form doesn't mean that it's not alive or not actually sort of important. I think that Bitcoin is maybe a kind of important representation of an idea that needed to happen.
If we have a closer look at the title The Bitcoin is dead, long live the Blockchain! and consider the Bitcoin being made using the Blockchain technique, does that mean that the Bitcoin might be a failure of the idea of Blockchain, but that the Blockchain itself is a good idea?
Saraswathi: I think you two are approaching this from two different angles. I think it's a simplification of something and the reason why that's important is, it's not that Bitcoin is the people's coin. If people don't have access to any of the decision making or conceptual work that goes into the creation of it, of course it will feel like it's not theirs and it's also not something they get to nurture or experience and there's a deadness in that. So it's even like semantics, like, what does it mean?
Sarah: So, who are those people who don't feel like Bitcoin is theirs, because there are people who do feel like Bitcoin is theirs. And they are out there and they are real and it's actually a huge community. It's just not our community. All I'm trying to say is that this is all real, and very much happening.
Saraswathi: Yeah. But then, there's the question of why it's not our community and if it's not our community, it might be because we feel those values are not values that are life-supporting or supporting a life that we want. So, again, it goes to semantics and becomes a choice of words. The framing is, that those values just aren't alive for us, like yes, they exist over there, but are just not life-supporting for us.
So, what would you wish for – that the participants of your workshop later on today are going to think about or, let's say, can learn from?
Sarah: We wish for all the participants to invent their own imagined future economy and place and maybe some of the cultural elements as well. And then, over time we're hoping to build out an archive of imagined economies which is the collection of the Economic Vivaria Research Institute, which are the anthropological documents from the future. The reason we do this is that we think that imagination is very important when it comes to agency. An outcome that we would love to see from the workshop is people leaving feeling that they are more able to enact alternative economies in their communities. Or when they encounter them they might be more friendly and open to trying them, contributing to this realm of currency design.
Saraswathi: There's a few goals, like having fun and interacting with people and unpacking something that seems really dense and inaccessible. It's something that people don't typically do. When I tell people that I am doing this workshop about alternative economies, they are like: What?
And, at the same time, doing that with people is an extraordinary exercise in imagination and it's been really fun. And there's a meme in that. It's a meme for the world that we live in and the fabric of interactions that happen in that world. It's a meme about imagination and power. I hope people have more creative agency than we thought and are active participants in a system they are co-creating, rather than passively living by the standards of a situation that they might find frustrating, untenable or even boring.
One last question for you: Do you think you are doing more arts or more politics, and where do you see these spheres intermingling?
Sarah: Oh, that's a really heavy question to end with, because it contains the questions of what is an artist and what is the role of art and...
Saraswathi: Well, I have a point to dodge it with. I really struggle with the words 'artist' and 'activist' and could never really identify with either of them. I just do what I think feels exhilarating and nurturing. So I would say that it's just a little bit of neither. It's definitely worth to explore and investigate something that might seem stagnant or static.
Sarah: One of the things that is often true about artists in institutions is that they become these kind of court jesters, who are permitted to criticize when other people aren't. And I think that is a very powerful thing that art enables and that I identify with a lot.
I read a paper on DAO recently and it said that in a DAO attention is the most scarce resource. I thought that maybe in our whole world, attention is this incredibly scarce resource and so I feel like my artist practice becomes an activist practice, when I think about this attention that I'm receiving. And I personally feel that it's a kind of duty and it's almost like an Artist DAO, to channel this attention thoughtfully or to be a good shepherd of attention. So, to me, that's a part of the relationship when it comes to activism and arts.
I think that I'm always a little bit of three things, like in a three-wing circled diagram of an artist, an activist and an engineer and I'm always somewhere in the middle between these things, but never only one of them.
Saraswathi: When it comes to creative instincts around benefitting or around creating a world that you think might feel better, I think it gets pigeonhole as activism. And I think that's okay except that activism comes with a lot of loaded ideas of being reactionary – of being reactive. I think that if every instinct of improving something is gonna be put into this box, then we will end up in a very limiting context. I like people, I want to support myself better, I want to live in a world that feels well supported and I don't know if I would call that desire 'activism'. I'm actively doing that, because that's something that I want. Nor would I necessarily call it political and at the same time, nothing isn't, right? So, I guess all of these boxes aren't fully accommodating of all the bigness that we are and all the instincts that we have.
An interview with Jaya Klara Brekke.
Hello Jaya! I would like to start by asking if you see any connection between the spiritual beliefs and ways of being of your parents — your unofficial name also goes back to the goddess of Gaia — and what you do, believe in and so on?
That’s such a huge question, but I think the answer is undoubtedly yes. The way I grew up has informed lots of the ways that I think. Growing up in a kind of spiritual group and being involved in anarchist collectives and various other forms of collective groups that have a very clear sense of a different identity from a mainstream, I think has made me quite aware of how group dynamics operate and how certain kinds of dogmas are created within groups about being right about certain things. I have a more critical perspective.
That means, I have a certain kind of scepticism towards groups or people understanding themselves as somehow being special, thinking that no other people are thinking as they are or that no one else would be working on the problems they are. I’ve passed through so many different forms of collectives where there is very clearly this inside/outside distinction. In a book that me, James Bridle and Ben Vickers put out about the Bitcoin’s White Paper, the last sentence that I wrote reads, “Those of us with two names will eventually destroy you,” which is in reference to this idea that there’s a singular source of truth.
This is a response towards some types of techno-fascist tendencies that I’ve noticed within the Blockchain space. There’s a kind of underlying ideology and dogma that looks for some kind of stable source of truth. Cryptography, mathematics and network architectures somehow enable the formation of a truth about the world that appears free from human biases. So, this thing of having two names, you know my name is Jaya, but my name is also Klara. In my early years I was called Klara in mainstream society, which was a normal name that people could understand. I was called Jaya at home and in spiritual gatherings. So from a very early age there was a kind of understanding that there are a lot of different truths and ways of being in the world that don’t exclude each other but they can also be quite generative to each other. So, yeah I think there is a connection between my two names regarding the type of research that I am doing and the way that I am thinking of things now. I think there is a large population of people in the world, especially those who migrate, that live in those conditions of having two names, or rather realities, identities or forms of being in the world. So, when I say, “Those of us with two names”, I am trying to create an alliance across people who have this experience and understand this experience against these kinds of fascistic tendencies.
As you were talking about your two names, I somehow imagined the two brain hemispheres, where maybe Klara might be the rational one and Jaya might tend to care more for the spiritual or emotional world. When you do your research, where do you feel more connected — through whose eyes are you looking and where do you distinguish between Jaya and Klara? Meaning, with which identity are you doing your research?
I think there is definitely a lot of influence from both. I think it's easy to set up a dichotomy between a western or rational approach towards things and then a non-western, spiritual approach to things. But I think the relationship between these two spheres is a lot more complex than that. There's a hugely emotional element to the western way of being and thinking, too. But this tends to be seen or described in other ways. It's more to say, Jaya is a reminder that there is more than one way of being in the world and in some forms of thinking. Especially when it comes to computation, data and money markets, finance and so on, there is an assumption that there is a certain form of neutrality and rationality at work. That's very much a story that's told around this space and what it does is, it removes cultural analysis of what's going on. It is presented as a universal form of language or being, when in actual fact these ways have material effects within themselves — ‘The medium is the message’ kind of thing. And these ways create certain cultures around them.
You know, there are other ways of forming collectives. If we take the word ‘consensus’, for example. The way that it's used in Blockchain systems and cryptocurrencies has a very particular form of arranging consensus that's based on certain ideas around decentralized technical networks and how those should operate. That's one very specific form of consensus that is very different from the equally specific form of consensus that happens in group decision making processes between humans. So that is just to say, there are material and cultural effects from things that are normally perceived as neutral, universal or rational. Even when we name it, saying, “That's a western way of thinking,” is also saying, “There's the west and there's the rest”. Saying that the west is the locus of a certain kind of rationality. It's specific again and I think we are being reminded of that more and more.
A lot of the work that I do is looking at the specificity of concepts that are used in Blockchain, cryptocurrencies and crypto-economics. So, what is the specific form of decentralization that's interested in that space? How are trust and consensus understood in that space? These are the three major concepts that I use and operationalize. You need to go into the specifics in order to understand how it's different from the way these concepts operate in other spheres of life. Trust is something that I speak a lot about and the way that it's understood in Blockchain systems is largely from a kind of network security perspective.
To tell the story briefly: If you try to engineer a fully decentralized network, the understanding of decentralization you employ is that there is no single node in the network that needs to be trusted in order for the network to operate properly. The effects or the purpose behind this thinking is that if one node is damaged or shut down by some kind of external authority… the idea is that if you have a decentralized system and you are not dependent on any of the specific nodes, then you create a system that's resilient towards any malicious actor. So, there's a security interest. The idea is to create a trustless network, a network where you assume that anyone could potentially be a malicious actor. You must necessarily do so when you create a decentralized network as a security engineer. The funny thing is that when you expand from there to society at large and you understand decentralization in general through that lens, almost like a militarized kind of lens, then you have a really fucked up view of how society and human beings work. It's this idea that we are all these isolated individuals and that anyone could turn out to be malicious, anyone could be lying to you, anyone could want to hurt you and so on.
Isn't that what's happening already on a political level, that everybody is considered suspect and therefore needs to be controlled or at least observed?
Yeah, but what I'm saying is that these systems don't help. They reinforce. And so, this idea that Blockchain solves the trust problem is kind of, it solves the trust problem by creating a problem around trust. It solves the trust problem by basically laminating the idea that humans shouldn’t be trusted and then placing that trust purely and solely in a protocol that intermediates between humans — and that's hugely problematic. It's also a misunderstanding of how societies and collectives operate. And the weird thing is that it's a story. If you trace how Blockchain systems operate in reality, none of them operate in a fully trustless manner. It's a concept that's necessary in order to model attack factors for network engineering. But if you look at how anyone actually interacts with the systems as people, it's never on a trustless basis because you're always trusting the state of the art in terms of cryptographic research. You trust the wallet developer, you trust the exchange rate, you're trusting a whole lot of things. And you're trusting them purely because it seems that most other people are also trusting these particular sources. So our social interaction in daily life does not work on this trustless basis. Therefore I think it's hugely problematic to keep reinforcing these stories around societies because it really erodes things and it does not help to create stronger communities or stronger trust between communities. It actually does the opposite.
I am trying to clarify where that specific concept comes from in the Blockchain assemblage, from the technical disciplines, and articulate how and why these can be problematic when just projected like that onto other spheres of life. There's some deeper conceptual questions there and I'm still trying to understand how exactly these spheres meet. I mean, you have social, political, cultural, and economic life, technical artefacts, the material world — Where is the interface? Where do you shift from a technical concept of trust to a social concept of trust and where exactly do these two meet and how is that articulated?
What do you think we can take from Blockchain systems if we want to understand how societies work and the other way around?
I think the actual problem is that people make analogies of these things. Massive confusions are happening at the moment. For example, the word ‘network’. Anything is potentially a network. But does that even make sense and once we start perceiving things as networks, how does that change the way we relate to these things and what if we then perceive them as something else? The brain is a computer. There are all these ways in which we are just diminishing both what a computer is and what a brain is at the same time by making these analogies. I actually think we need to get rid of analogies all together and try to understand computers, artificial intelligence, Blockchain systems or whatever on their own terms. There is a massive lack of research concerning how these things live in the world.
There is this weird schizophrenic separation between the stories told about what Blockchain is, how it actually works in reality and the experience that people actually using it have. So it's not the attempt to realize that grand story of what Blockchain is supposed to be but step-by-step trying to realize some form of utility in and of the thing itself.
In my work I am trying to do two things: One thing is to paint the big picture to get a sense of the ideologies that are coming out of the analogies people make between technical systems and societies and the universe at large — my work is to name those big ideologies. I also try to normalise everyday things. To be like, “Okay, can we just take this small screen away from our eyes for a second and see it as a kind of story?” and then try to understand what's actually happening. Usually, what's happening is infinitely more complex than that which the story presents - and necessarily so, because when you put anything into the universe the effects respond to the universe which is infinitely complex. We can't model this stuff.
When I try to separate out the differences between the technical and the social, it's not to separate out spaces and then to make analogies between them. It's more to say that there's a specificity to the ways that things operate in these different spheres and the relationship between those spheres, between those specificities, are something quite complicated that I haven't worked out yet. This has something to do with analysing those everyday uses and interactions.
I would like to ask your opinion about the title of our workshop series, The Bitcoin is dead, long live the Blockchain!. What do you think about it?
I have a lot of responses to the title. For some people, to say, "The Bitcoin is dead, long live the Blockchain!", is to say that there are all these other possibilities and that Bitcoin is not the only thing, which I completely agree with. However, Bitcoin continues to be THE reference point for pretty much any project as a way to explain the basics of how technologies operate in the Blockchain space. Bitcoin also remains the highest valued cryptocurrency on the market and has a lot of die-hard enthusiasts that are really into it. So, as a kind of objective statement, I would not say that Bitcoin is dead. But there has been an attempt for many years now to distance the Blockchain space more generally from Bitcoin. Blockchain is something much more. It's something very different. And I have two thoughts about that:
On the one hand, distancing Blockchain from Bitcoin made a general theory of the space impossible. If you look closer at the architecture in ideological terms it's radical in the extreme in its ideas around decentralization and technical decentralization in particular. On the other hand, being able to present Blockchain as a valid and interesting new innovation to a lot of the established old industries was an advantage. The banking and manufacturing industries found Ethereum super approachable. It was that moment of, “Ah, it's not that crazy thing that is potentially funding terrorists and child pornographers and is hugely speculative,” and whatever else. Rather it was, “Here is this super clean version that we can all somehow engage with,” even though a lot of the ideas that informed the Bitcoin and Ethereum architecture were generalised and contained potentially radical elements. So, it's a strategic thing saying Bitcoin is dead, because there is a lot of stigma around Bitcoin as a project.
Referring to the stigma associated with Bitcoin — if we go back in history and have a look at the beginnings of the Bitcoin — I wonder whether it's a paradox that Bitcoin has been and continues to be used for and within certain systems, since it was originally invented to abolish those in particular?
I mean, I guess that's exactly the point that I was trying to make earlier. Ethereum is a kind of generalisation of ideas and Bitcoin is also a way of making ideas palatable to the existing systems and perpetuating certain approaches to the world, where Bitcoin has a little bit more of a strong political ethos, which I definitely wouldn't call left-wing, but rather a mixture of things.
Even at the beginning you had people coming from the cypherpunk privacy movements — people who were concerned with the ways the internet could potentially become a mass surveillance paradigm. There were concerns about privacy and especially concerns about privacy in commerce. The idea at that time was that you could use cash to buy and sell things and the whole world wouldn't know about it. But, with the internet, all of a sudden there would be these kinds of transactions that would go through a ton of different payment systems, which would then hold all that information about you. Bitcoin was a response to that. There were a bunch of experiments with digital cash. One approach was the Bitcoin community and one of the reasons why Bitcoin came out.
Then you had people who were fascinated with the idea of 'digital gold' and that's a slightly more right-wing understanding of how money works. Then there’s the idea that normal money systems are controlled by ‘evil’ governments and the only money that isn't controlled by evil governments or authorities exists in the form of tokens that have value in and of themselves. The idea is that gold has an intrinsic value and therefore it's a much more pure form of money. There's lots of problems with that. Left-wing critics of those ideas draw out that actually any kind of money that you use is a social relation. The implication being, whatever you use, it's a representation of a social relation, like a promise to pay, for example.
What the ‘evil’ central banks and so on are trying to do is to make sure that those tokens have a kind of relatively stable value and to create a stable environment for the exchanges that take place. Whereas things like gold or Bitcoin have a fluctuating value, which goes against the idea of an intrinsic or stable value, so there's a left-right-wing-debate there. But those early ideas did inform Bitcoin and Bitcoins' monetary design — that Bitcoin is a kind of 'digital gold'. That there is scarcity involved - the idea of mining and so on.
And then of course you had people very interested in Bitcoin in the early days, because the Bitcoin White Paper came out just as the financial crisis was happening. The idea that we can create our own currencies and economic systems that are independent of private banks, the private banking industry and of governments who massively mishandled that crisis from an economic justice point of view, really attracted lots of people from the left-wing and anarchist movements. So, there were lots of different perspectives and influences. But I think what is common across the different people who were attracted to Bitcoin and began experimenting with cryptocurrency systems in the early days, was that anger and frustration at the existing financial systems and governments and the relationship between those entities.
While you were talking I've been wondering about what has to come first, a change in perception and political will to change things regarding the financial system, or does the system need to have new implementations and infrastructures first to change our society? Where do you see the connections between establishing an economic system based on the idea of Blockchain and societal change?
Yeah, it's a good question, there's so much to say about that. To start off with, looking at these new ideas around crypto-economics as a way to coordinate behaviour. Again, the idea is that existing systems have failed. We want new systems that are not authoritarian, that are decentralized and that can coordinate behaviours amongst people at scale. I think all of that sounds pretty attractive to a lot of people from across the political spectrum. I think the types of tools and assumptions that underpin a lot of the crypto-economic systems that are being developed to do exactly this stem from problematic positions. The main one is that there is always a misalignment between individual and collective interest. That’s a kind of right-wing perspective. I know a lot of people have adopted it and it became an accepted truth of sorts, but I think accepting this notion as truth erodes a lot of the ways that we perceive ourselves in groups and in societies. This "individual versus the group" and the ideas around the "tragedy of the commons" — it's this idea that when you have a common resource, there's always going to be the problem that certain people will take as much as they can from the commons.
You have this problem that it's in the interest of the collective as a whole for everyone to maintain the resource but from the individuals' perspective it makes sense to just go and take whatever you can from that space. A lot of these systems are built to mediate between individual and collective incentives. However, things don't necessarily always operate in that way. It depends on what culture you're in, which religion you're in. It depends on what kind of society you live in. Humans have lots of different ways to coordinate between themselves and to establish rules. Humans are not always that stupid. There is the ability to understand that if I take a lot from here, I'm actually undermining a resource that all of us depend on. We do have the ability to think these thoughts and we do have the ability to act on those thoughts. To pretend that we don't is slowly eroding that there is this kind of possibility and then you set up the conditions for the necessity of a protocol to mediate between our individual self-interest and the interest of the collective. Those basic ideas really underpin a lot of the work that's been done in the crypto-economic space and I think that's a real shame.
Some of the more interesting developments are the ones that are trying to understand social processes in much more complex ways. To understand crypto-economic systems, tokens and mechanisms as one small component within that and trying to support other forms of trust models. There are interesting small experiments that have been done in that space.
So what you're saying is, how Blockchain systems are built don't really meet the human ability to act in a selfless manner, focused on collective needs?
It's more to say that how Blockchain systems are built assume a very particular view of what humans and society is, which is actually super limited. For example, the reason why I liked working with Ben Vickers and James Bridle on this book is that I think both of them — and a few others in this space — similarly understand crypto-economics and the Blockchain space as something that sits alongside things like religion and the state. It's a particular way of trying to arrange collective behaviour that can be done in so many different ways. The church has done that massively, as have ideas around how to build democracies. It's a project that builds on a set of assumptions around how the world operates and then shapes the world in that view. That's why it's interesting to look at those ideas around individual and collective interests. It's an assumption and it especially feels true when you've grown up in a context that is very determined by markets and market behaviours, because that's what markets do and how markets treat humans and society. But if you grew up in a community with a strong religious, ethical basis, then there are other things that coordinate behaviour and you as an individual do not necessarily see yourself as separate from a collective good in that sense. Which is just to say that there are many ways in which collectives are formed and that societies operate.
Do you think it's possible to believe in the idea of shared common resources and practicing a supportive network amongst humans within a community at the same time as using Blockchain with all of its implementations today?
That's what I’m trying to work on — to understand the specificity of what a system might be able to do in relation to lots of the things that already exist. I think there's a tendency to look at Blockchain systems or political systems in a totalizing way, where you look at a Blockchain protocol and then imagine a whole world that is just based on that Blockchain protocol. Or you look at the state and then everything is determined by the state. Or you look at capitalism and then everything is determined by that. But that's never fully true. There are always so many layers to reality.
I'm trying to develop some more analytical frameworks to allow for that to be the case — to analyse these systems in relation to the environment they operate in. So, that is to say, yes, of course we can use Blockchain for interesting things — probably maybe. It's not to take the assumptions for granted, rather to think critically about them.
In which way do economic systems shape the mentality of people? if we think for example about the differences between socialist countries and the people who grew up in a capitalist place, do you believe that there might be differences in the way these groups behave?
Yes. These systems do affect the culture that we live in and the way we understand ourselves massively. I believe they do it in very complex ways. So it's not that easy to say, “Let's just engineer a certain type of human by creating this kind of system,” it's not as deterministic as that. It's more to say that these things have deep influences on how our political, social and cultural systems develop.
Certain skills become necessary to navigate through a system. People come together because they need to share resources, for example. The skills that then get developed become social skills. How you go about doing that in a way that's gonna work out with the least interpersonal clashes, you need to learn to do things together in certain ways. When I talk about these things, I don't have any romanticism of socialism or future, weird kinds of capitalism. But I do have some strong opinions about the assumption that people are these self-interested, dumb individuals that need this kind of intermediation in crypto-economic, financial spaces in order to govern our collective behaviour and intelligences. The reason why I have a strong reaction towards that is that it demands a certain kind of faith in the system from a lot of people that I'm deeply sceptical of. It clouds clear analysis and perception of the actual effects of these systems.
I feel like that's something that's still really lacking in the Blockchain space, a set of clear matrices. There's a whole bunch of hypotheses, so many assumptions and so much storytelling happening, but very little regressor matrix in terms of societal and political effects. There’s a lot of regressor matrix in terms of code, a lot of analysis of attack factors and security models and so on, but very few clearly defined aims on a societal, economic and political level that we can use to assess with our intelligent minds and decide to do things differently, if and when they go wrong.
This is where the question of scale comes in, when asking how we can manage our resources and stuff in the world without an authority, without a centralized system, while still converging and having a consensus around how to move forward. These are great questions / problems but I'm highly sceptical of the overuse of the markets, which have a theoretic dependence on the idea that we are isolated individuals.
As a last question: Are you using Bitcoin?
I have some. I don't use it as in ‘selling and buying things’, but I have some and also some other pieces of crypto. I don't actively trade, because that would take too much mental space and that's not the area or focus of my research. I hold some crypto mostly for research purposes, let's say.
I swooped down into the blockchain world like a reckless skydiver with a broken parachute. I crashed into a volcano, with a cauldron of bubbling lava that was seductive and promising. But the volcano spat me back out, like a stomach rejecting poisoned food, and I’ve been back in the sky ever since, hovering above at a safe distance. I can still see this volcano, if I choose to look for it. But right now it is obscured by cloudy language and terminology, phrases that I once thought were clear, but that no longer are.
During these cloudy cloudy days, the sound of words began to fluctuate, moving away from meaning towards pure rhythm and reflex. How many times have I heard the siren call of 'decentralised', 'decentralisation', or some such variant, and been seduced by those dulcet tones? ‘Decentralisation’ is repeatedly invoked in different ways, illustrating what a thorny, nebulous term it is to pin down. Decentralised power, decentralised architecture, decentralised finances – sure it all sounds good – yet the concept of ‘decentralisation’ is, perhaps like the concept of ’technology’ itself, only a layer, not an end result. ‘Decentralised’ alone is not an ideology but an approach, a modifier in search of a noun. This modifier is semantically positioned as a challenge to its antonym, ‘centralised’; ‘decentralised’ does not inherently indicate a threat to power or authority without a noun attached.
Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessedposits a communist, agrarian planet, whose inhabitants have never known any other way of life. The protagonist is shocked upon visiting a different planet, one that resembles our post-industrial Earth, similarly built around top-down governance, private property, and exploitation. The novel's brilliance comes from its simple inversion of the status quo, and by how differently a regime is perceived when cast as dominant/default instead oppositional/alternative. I think about this while wondering what the next era of blockchain technology is going to look like. Most blockchain enthusiasts are trying to graft the world that they want – perhaps one of completely unregulated financial freedom, or perhaps one where the Internet is built upon entirely open, decentralised technologies – onto the world that we currently have.
Yet the existence of centralised authority (at many levels) is the thesis allowing blockchain to become the antithesis. How would an inverted scenario look? Imagine a world where smart contracts control our every breath, which if you have been inhaling the fumes from the aforementioned volcano, becomes easy to envision. (Hopefully, each breath doesn't require a micropayment.) In this reality, would liberation, empowerment, emancipation, etcetera appear in the form of ... (gasp!) central governance? A central authority that is commons-based, surely requiring a consensus definition of the common good, and public interest, that could correct inequalities and structural imbalances. We're back to classic Left vs. Right politics, but maybe that's a worthwhile lens to peer through.
But first, there's more terminology to unravel. ‘Currency’ is another tricky one, admittedly a concept that initially inspired me to strap on that parachute in the first place. The vast majority of blockchain tech deals with finance in some form, if not explicitly about money, then certainly with value. Yet I’ll argue that BitCoin, for example, is only an asset, not a currency. There is no one in the world who pays their electricity bill in BitCoin, or pays for pickles at the supermarket that way. OK, I’m sure there is someone who has managed to achieve this, but I bet they jump through hoops just to be able to say that they do it.
What drew me to Ethereum in the first place was the possibility of self-designed currencies potentially becoming a complementary, alternative, or full-on replacement for traditional culture funding structures. Our resulting project tried to dissect the word ‘currency’, to connect it to its root word and the idea of current, of a flow. In particular, our main question was how one's investment in participatory cultural experiences could be made cumulative, and what could be done with that accumulation? The majority of ERC-20 tokens (the popular standard for smart contract tokens used by Ethereum) are pegged to a monetary value, though for most this value stays low enough to be worthless, with growth and wealth existing only in the fantasies of venture capitalists and desperate startups. Ours tried to avoid this pitfall, being used only as a measure of participation, given out as a reward for one's physical presence of actually attending an event.
Why use a blockchain at all? Because of that idea of decentralisation again. We were aiming to decentralise the process of creating cultural activities, and to redefine the traditional roles of producer, artist, participant, and so on. The metaphorical symbolism of using a decentralised data store was one thing, but it was also targeting a larger, long-term goal which was never achieved. The idea of cumulative participation becomes more powerful when federated, through a network of activities spread across various locations and institutions. Our model, Biathlon, could function as a standard for smart contracts, with any other project space, gallery, or even individual free to start their own node and participate without any central authority. What could go wrong?
We quickly realised that regardless of being a currency or asset, we might end up creating an economy, even if just a tiny, ridiculous economy of 20 people. Linking this accumulation of participation to programming power, however loose or low-stakes it might be, would bring out a power structure that could potentially grow out of control without careful, hands-on regulation. Economies come with nasty side effects, such as debt, wealth, and inequality, all of which we wanted to avoid at our open-platform DIY-cultural space. So it couldn’t be a currency or an asset, but merely a token; useless for anything except programming the public calendar. We minted new ones whenever someone walked in the door, and destroyed them when they were 'spent' on booking events. There was no scarcity and no actual value. And yet wealth and inequality still emerged! So our token, even slightly absurd due to its limited use, still ended up becoming an asset. And everything felt possible, but also sort of terrible.
Then, it all melted down, not because of an erupting blockchain-volcano, but due to a much more simple cocktail of hubris, overambition, and passivity. But this is a saga to be written about in the future, once we begin to unravel what it all meant...
Back to our unstable glossary. How about ‘blockchain’ itself as a term? In colloquial parlance, the word once referred almost entirely to BitCoin, but now indicates a larger conceptual universe, of which BitCoin is the major financial muscle, and Ethereum is the major theoretical one. A thousand other competitors and variants fight for air. But a blockchain is literally just a data structure, which is why I’ve always been confused by the tendency to drop articles when discussing it – it's always just 'blockchain', not the blockchain, or a blockchain or (most accurately) blockchains.
Apart from that one time I bought a beer in Prague with BitCoin, Ethereum was my only playground, and where my interest remains (although I approach it with far more caution than before; volcanoes are hot and I don't want to get burned!). The aspirations of Ethereum seem noble: to take back the Internet from increasingly isolated and unaccountable private interests. This goal is ambitious, and I initially believed it to be an emancipatory one. But is it?
Emancipation requires oppression or some actors wielding power over others; there must be something to be emancipated from. The Internet certainly has this through the immense gap between the Google/Amazon/Facebook/Apple ‘Big Data’ stronghold and everybody else. Yet curiously, the reasons for this inequality are human in origin. No one is forcing us to funnel our data through these platforms; we choose to do so and often do it with great pleasure. There are few technical impediments to living in a wholly open, commons-based Internet culture, and ironically it is state regulation (in the form of net neutrality laws, among other things) that can actually protect this the most. At street level, I’m not sure that many people are really that concerned about an open Internet; reports on the ugly behaviour of Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, etc. produced plenty of outrage in the media, but no one I know has deleted their accounts.
Blockchain philosophers may rightly resent the corporate domination of the Internet in public life, but if they really think that currently esoteric technologies (for example, IPFS, a decentralised file storage system, or Vyper, a language for smart contracts) are going to be embraced by the masses, they are living in a bubble. From my vantage point as an artist and cultural producer, I resent this domination as well, and believe that real grassroot cultures must eschew Big Data platforms as much as possible. Due to the reasons described above, my colleague and I launched our project on Ethereum. But the very real limitations of the system were immediately apparent.
Most people are not early adopters, and asking someone to create their own Ethereum wallet just to walk through the door of an experimental performance art workshop was absurd. Blockchain enthusiasts imagine a world where wallets and ERC-20 tokens will become commonplace, as normal among non-technical people as having an Instagram account is now. I am very sceptical of this.
Ethereum is built from within our techno-capitalist social order, and that system cannibalises everything that it comes in contact with. Following Conway's Law, which states that a system designed by an organisation will reflect the values of that organisation's communication structure and ideology, an Ethereum created by a moneyed tech industry will reflect the values of that moneyed tech industry. The radical potential of the blockchain, when promoted by its evangelists, is all about transparency, social good, governance without corruption, and ‘trust’ (there's another problematic word!). But today's actual blockchain products range from social media micropayments, to Byzantine financial services, to ways to rent co-working space through smart contracts. Forgive me if I’m not that excited by any of this.
The evolution of Ethereum has been carefully managed by a development approach that gives credence to the same ideas of decentralisation that the project espouses, but for practical reasons has involved more centralised decision-making processes than may be philosophically consistent. That Ethereum itself has held together is likely (ironically?) due to the Ethereum foundation's own self-regulation, and the semi-centralised governance of the development process. Out of this comes the promise of Ethereum 2.0 / Serenity: the one blockchain technology that you should give a shit about, which directly confronts the problems of the actually-existing-Ethereum, both technical (speed, scalability) and ethical (energy consumption).
Some technical and ethical issues are being worked on, but what about social ones? This overlaps with the ethical sphere, depending on one's ethics of course. But what are the ethics of a smart contract, anyway? I believe we need radical humanism in the blockchain world in order to counter the cold, steely logic of the code itself.
But how can one radically interrogate the blockchain? How can a blockchain benefit the un-moneyed and the precarious? Given the existential threat of climate crisis to all life on earth, and the massive energy consumption of thousands of pointless blockchains, can the good ever outweigh the bad? Can this volcano be swooped over tactically, on a mission?
It may be that blockchain cannot be defeated except through its own self-implosion. By definition, it prevents misuse, as error-prone contracts cannot be executed, and the cost involved in deploying them would require large financial resources to inflict any damage. The 51% attack is a possibility, but already far out of reach for any of the meaningful blockchains. No, it won’t be death by a thousand cuts that does in a blockchain, but apathy. Each network requires committed hardware to process the transactions, and even after proof-of-stake becomes the standard, those nodes must still be present in the network.
But if the world collectively shrugs and says ‘this is stupid, this just isn’t worth it’, and just stops mining and/or staking, then it all collapses. For genuinely commons-based blockchains in the public interest, for example those used to prove the provenance of property titles or government records, then the state will (again, ironically) need to prop up the networks.
I genuinely hope this happens. The hype is already diminishing, but there's still a tremendous amount of wealth invested into these systems. A cynical tech pessimist such as myself can find a lot to laugh at; there's nothing funnier than terrible, rich people losing money on terrible ideas that are obviously terrible to anyone with common sense. But there is still an enormous amount of energy being thrown at a wall, and it's not clear what will actually stick. It's a fad, like the Dutch tulip craze of 1637 – or does anyone else from the 90s remember pogs and slap bracelets? But a fad with billions of dollars invested into it must be taken at least somewhat seriously, especially when it's equalling the energy consumption of Ireland + Bolivia. What I find most amazing is that this is a fad for a data structure. Can one imagine the same hype around, say, the array?
A popular blockchain-critical essay proposed that all blockchain products should be questioned by asking if the same outcome could be achieved by replacing the distributed ledger with an Excel spreadsheet. I will add that it should also be considered whether the company or tool is offering a ‘solution’ to a problem that isn’t really a problem, or to a problem the company itself has invented.
My hope is that most of the noise will eventually fall away, and Ethereum 2.0 / Serenity will emerge as the one useful blockchain platform, which means 95% or more of the other current blockchain products will go to the app graveyard, and the ones genuinely in the public interest will endure. The entire history of technology and the current Age of Stupidity we live in suggests that I’m going to be disappointed.
And thus I remain here, hovering over the volcano like a cautious, wounded bird. I sampled it, but didn't like its flavour. Time has passed, but I'm still struggling to understand the terminology, and I'm wondering even more about deeper questions.
What will happen to our remaining social fabric if this technology becomes widespread and dominant? Even an armchair sociologist can observe what the smart phone and social media have done to our lifestyles in just a short period of time. This goes beyond mere narcissism; the new 'post-truth' nature of information and its effects on the democratic process have already become one of the most tired topics of newspapereditorials and think pieces. Trust has become personalised, now just another configuration from the Settings menu, woven by each of us to complement our own ideological blankets. Trust in information, trust in people, trust in institutions – these ideas are not distinct, but not quite the same either. Rather they overlap to form each individual's trust profile.
Empathy plays a large role in trust at the personal level, but does it scale? The market, that concept at the centre of our society, is the centre of blockchain technology as well. Small markets accommodate empathy: imagine a struggling worker who cannot afford groceries this week, but who the local grocer has known for decades. The worker can pay next week, or when they are able to. There is a trust relationship that can bend the rules here and there as empathy demands.
But what happens when the concept of ‘trust’ is reinvented, solidified through smart contracts? The infallibility of the blockchain, a cold and logical system that is programmed to execute its contracts, has no space for empathy. Even if coded in somehow, an algorithmic empathy raises even more questions/nightmares, and thus we may accelerate towards even further brutality under late capitalism. But at least that brutality will be decentralised, right?
Sarah Friend is an artist and software
engineer, with special interest in blockchain and the p2p web. She
is currently working on Circles, a p2p basic income pilot.
She is a proud Recurse Centre alum, and has recently exhibited work
at NEoN Festival in Scotland, Moneylab in London,
Gray Area Festival in San Francisco, and the Athens
Biennale. She is also one of the organizers of Our Networks,
a conference on all aspects of the distributed web in Toronto.
Saraswathi Subbaraman is an artist and
designer working at the intersection of technology and culture. She
recently worked as the art director of Ethereal Summit, and
currently works as a project coordinator and design lead for a
distributed basic income protocol, Circles. Saraswathi
received a masters from ITP NYU, and most recently has shown
work at the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin, through
Basic Income Berlin Lab.
Jaya Klara Brekke writes, speaks
and does research on power in distributed systems. She spends her
time between Durham University, Geography department, where she
recently published her PhD on "Disassembling the Trust Machine.
Three cuts on the political matter of blockchain" and London where
she spends much of her time with the InfoSec research group at UCL
Computer sciences department and Vienna as collaborator of RIAT,
Institute for Future Crypto-economics.
Martín Nadal (BSc) is an
artist/developer based in Linz and studying at the Interface
Cultures program at Kunstuniversität Linz. In the past years
he has collaborated in a variety of projects and taught some
workshops related to art and technology. He is also interested in
illustration and cinematography. His works have been shown at
Visualizar 11/Medialab Prado (ES),
Ars Electronica (AT),
AMRO Festival (AT),
Settimana della Scienza (IT), IAMAS (JP).
César Escudero Andaluz (LIC, MA, MA) is an artist and researcher focused on Human-Computer Interaction, interface criticism, digital culture and its social and political effects. His work spans image-making, sculpture, videogame, installation, networked culture, IoT, robotics, media archaeology. Since 2011 he is researching at the Kunstuniversität Linz in the department of Interface Cultures. His artworks have been shown in international electronic-art events, museums, galleries and conferences including Ars Electronica Center (AT), ZKM (DE), ISMAR 2015 (JP), WRO 2015 (PL), Transnumériques (BE), Hangar (ES), KIKK (BE), Rome Media Art Festival (IT), ADAF (GR). https://escuderoandaluz.com/
Franz Xaver studied at the Academy of
Applied Art, department of "Visual Communication", founded by Peter
Weibel. Subsequently he tought computer languages, audio-visual
productions, electronics and electrical technics at the same
academy until 1992. At the Technical University of Graz he lectured
communication theory at the "Institut für Baukunst". He
participated in numerous exhibitions in Austria and abroad,
including Ars Electronica, Aperto Biennale di Venezia, Triennale
Milano, Bonn Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle of Germany. Since 1995 he
has been working regularly with the art-label KUNSTLABOR and
FUNKFEUER with the first wireless internet service provider
From 2003 to 2007 he has been running the medienkunstlabor in the Kunsthaus Graz. Since 2008 he is a worker in the team of the Stadtwerkstatt Linz.
John W. Fail is a Helsinki-based
artist who works primarily with open-form collaboration. He was a
co-instigator of Biathlon, a toolkit for experimental and
participatory culture production, which was used at two project
spaces during 2016–2018. Previously, he was co-director of
the 2015 Pixelache Festival. He has had a hand in numerous projects
in the Baltic/Nordic region, usually working in the liminal space
between the roles of artist, curator, and producer. He operated the
Ptarmigan project space in both Helsinki and Tallinn from
2009-2014, and has also recorded and performed in various
experimental and improvised musical projects since the early 2000s.
His work often takes the form of open, trans-disciplinary events,
bringing together people of diverse backgrounds to experiment with
collaborative creative techniques that focus on discordant and even
irrelevant pleasures, without regard for measurable outcomes. He is
the author of the three-volume Seventeen Years of Media Consumption
Davide Bevilacqua is media artist and curator interested in network infrastructures and technological activism, as well as in curatorial and artistic research about the framework conditions in which artistic practice is presented and transmitted to the audience. His actual topics of research are the environmental impact of technology and internet sustainability, digital greenwashing practices and platform capitalism. Davide is part of the artist collective qujOchÖ and collaborates with the sound art gallery bb15 and works in the team of servus.at, association dealing with open source internet infrastructure and online art and culture. He organizes the community festival AMRO Art Meets Radical Openness. Currently he works as assistant at the department of Interface Cultures, Kunstuniversität Linz.
Katja Lux holds a degree in cultural studies and is currently doing her masters in Time Based Media program at Kunstuniversität Linz. Her field of interest lies in the interconnections between media, the individual / societies and art. The twist goes in either direction. What is the appropriate choice of media to show or work with a certain social or cultural phenomena and what do recent media developments do to us on specific levels? Katja is recently working on an interactive installation, where with she examines visitors’ behavior and the use of smartphones in museums. She asks, in which way the medium has changed the reception during the visit and what that might mean for a society and the individual.
Out of E-business Experimental Digital Economies as Social, Political and Technological Critique in Motion Published 2020 by servus.at Kirchengasse 4 4040 Linz AUSTRIA ISBN: 978-3-9504200-2-9 COPYRIGHT (C) 2020 servus.at and Authors Except for that which originally appeared elsewhere and is republished here or that which carries its own license, permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify all content under the terms of the CC-BY-SA 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0 Photographic images: Virgile Bellaiche for servus.at What is shared, is shared under the suspicion of Fair Use. All rights belong to the authors. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED! ABOUT SERVUS servus.at is a cultural network-based initiative in Linz, Austria. In running its own technical infrastructure, servus.at offers virtual and physical access as well as opportunities for artists and cultural producers. One of the main objectives of servus.at is to implement the ideas of a "free society" in a daily practice of cultural and artistic production dealing with technology and to develop a network of trust. PROJECT & PROCESS MANAGEMENT: Davide Bevilacqua COMPILED & EDITED: Davide Bevilacqua, Katja Lux LANGUAGE EDITING & TRANSLATION: Sam Bunn, Katja Lux ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Jaya Klara Brekke Sarah Friend Saraswathi Subbaraman Gottfried Gaisbauer Franz Xaver, Infolab of the STWST Martín Nadal und César Escudero Andaluz John W. Fail Sabina Köfler Illustration from Virgile Bellaiche - virgileblc.com This publication is made possible with the fund and support from: LINZimPULS 2018 Special thanks to servus.at main sponsor 2021-2023: Linz AG DESIGN/TYPESETTING/SOFTWARE: Christoph Haag This publication made it through a free software workflow based on markdown and the GNU Bourne-Again SHell. You are free to use, study, change, improve it under the terms of the GNU General Public License -> freeze.sh/_/2020/ooeb TYPEFACES: Inconsolata by Raph Levien HK Grotesk by Alfredo Marco Pradil These fonts were made available by their authors under the SIL Open Font License.