Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Time and Politics 16: Death and Bitcoin's Children

A mural of Death and Children at Stift Altenberg, Lower Austria. Image Source: H. Hartmann via SAGEN.

There is an anti-statist political trend online - unconsciously mirroring the inherently anti-statist nature of the Internet - which views all government, corporate and long-standing institutions as prisons of mind and action. This is a naïve and sometimes arrogant attitude, inspired by the initial explosion of Internet power, not yet tested for its longevity. Internet pioneers break new ground, but they are wrong to think that they have found, and reside already, in the Promised Land. The best of them are challenged to embrace the very impulse they abhor: they personally need to operate under stable conditions; and they must configure structures and build communities which ensure that their efforts last. This challenge has brought Bitcoiners to a turning point at which the form of social and political behaviour simply does not mirror the innate function of their cryptocurrency. Bitcoin's administration is becoming a political problem, a philosophical challenge, and a moral and spiritual crisis.

Vinay Gupta, strategist for the cryptocurrency Ethereum and founder of the Hexayurt Project, discussed why Bitcoin is a testing ground for future political systems, and why the technical and political challenges of the cryptocurrency are not identical or symmetrical: Bitcoin Cannot Be Divorced from Pre-Existing Political Theory. (21 August 2015). Video Source: Youtube.

First, above, Vinay Gupta assesses and predicts the political problem at the heart of Bitcoin development. It is a problem of centralized authority, partly exercised by Bitcoin's miners, exercised in relation to a tool that decentralizes structures and decision-making:
"[Bitcoin] is anarchist. But to accept anarchy in a really fundamental way, you have to start challenging the meaning of property. And Bitcoin sits at this very uneasy juncture that it's a bunch of anarchists cooperating to create a libertarian micro-enclave, even though they don't agree about the fundamental meaning of the word, 'property.' And this is extremely problematic. If they can get through that political storm, they might finally succeed in producing a genuinely libertarian anarchism, and that would be an extremely powerful thing. But it's more likely that the anarchists will get suppressed by the libertarians and in the long run you'll wind up with an anarcho-capitalist enclave because the Bitcoin Foundation will wind up owning Bitcoin outright and that property right will be a monopoly, which is then used to enforce their policy decisions, including collaboration with the U.S. government. And this is the real distinction between anarchism and anarcho-capitalism ... under anarcho-capitalism, you can have a monopoly that winds up controlling everything; and then they make deals that you disagree with. In anarchism, nobody has enough wherewithal in the network to be able to make a deal for everybody, and if people disagree with you, they do something else. ... [This is] because anarchism is incompatible with monopolies. As soon as you have a monopoly, whether you like it or not, you're operating inside of a power structure. You have a 'king'; the king is the guy who owns the monopoly. You have a ruler. And anarchism is about operating without rulers."
Bitcoin idealists assumed that the open-source code and decentralized operational function of cryptocurrencies would dictate decentralized forms for its governance and applications. And they could, but the forms must be developed. One may as well ask, does the internal combustion engine of a car dictate the way traffic lights work? Or does the car motor fundamentally shape the thoughts of legislators who write traffic laws? Or does the basic mechanical nature of the automobile completely shape urban planning? For some, the answer is 'yes.' But over time, the further we get from the stunning initial invention, the less ensuing systems reflect the original form of the innovation. At that point of departure between the function of the technology to the form of its administration, we see the decentralized peer-to-peer technology, so radical and profound in its applications, confront the rigid authoritarian structures of human ages.

Therefore, I would add to Gupta's political assessment a philosophical challenge of how institutions capture and hold cultural and political ground in societies. When one considers the enduring value of any technology, no matter what its potential political 'flavour' or initial radical impact, one must factor in frail humanity: the finite span of one human life; the difficulty in grasping larger questions; the boundaries of economic and cultural imagination; and the physical limits around performance in one lifetime.

Brookings Institution discussion Beyond Bitcoin (14 January 2016), starts at 17:00. Bitcoin purists have greeted the arrival of traditional institutional actors in the cryptocurrency space with dismay. Video Source: Youtube. For further Brookings videos from this discussion, go here, here and here.

As large financial institutions open their mouths to swallow Bitcoin, we must ask why institutions and enduring structures exist in the first place. Institutions were not invented, contrary to what conspiracy theorists think, merely to be vehicles for hierarchical oppression, structures to wield power for power's sake. Long-standing institutions are indeed hampered by inflexible traditions and rigid ideas which can lead to authoritarianism; but they exist for a reason. That is because human life is fleeting and vulnerable to vicissitudes. It is incredibly difficult for human beings to stick to anything at all, much less to one idea or project over the course of a lifetime. Einstein is apocryphally quoted across the Internet: "It's not that I'm so smart; it's just that I stay with problems longer." Institutions ideally provide specific endeavours with a framework for continuity. For example, research projects at universities were and are funded for decades with this basic understanding. They pass from generation to generation of editors and scholarly working groups, who spend their whole lives producing successive editions on a single topic. Perhaps the best example is the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, established in 1875, next edition due in 2017.

The Bitcoin Group #84:Mike Hearn Tries to Kill Bitcoin - Segregated Witness - Robocoin - Netflix (16 January 2016). Video Source: Youtube. For a backgrounder on what Hearn's departure means go here, or see a summary report at The Guardian.

Add to this that the existing structures and institutions of a society are guardians of prevailing philosophical orthodoxy, by which I do not mean a particular school of philosophy exactly, although philosophy concerns itself with how the mind inhabits the context of the outer world. Rather, I mean the world view or mental comfort zone of a particular society as it implements its particular level of tools and technology in practice. The French Annales school of historians addressed this problem in terms of social structures, mentalités (mentalities), culture, and language. In other words, this is the human side of technological application, where only the humanities and arts will explain outcomes, and solving technological problems in technological and engineering terms becomes secondary.

Most late adopters of cryptocurrencies will only understand Bitcoin and altcoins within their comfort zone, in recognizable terms defined by the old system. This hampers the challenge which the technology poses to that system. And, as is evident from the Brookings Institute discussion above, it gives the establishment a window of opportunity to attempt to absorb Bitcoin's innovative capacity in the name of stability. The tone taken by speakers at the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at Brookings lays claim to an authoritative voice which members of a broader public will trust. They are less likely to accept, or even be aware of, allusions to shadowy members of the Dark Web and Silk Road Underground. Whatever those things may be, they sound unstable, criminal, anti-social, and dangerous.

Or perhaps not. Institutional mergers with Bitcoin technology might sound convincing to the uninitiated, except that the combined impact of the Great Recession and the Technological and Communications Revolutions have made the establishment rather shaky. Institutions are abandoning their traditional role of providing stability. In the work world, careers, professions, and trades used to be stable enough to entrench workers in a single course of focussed action - if they were lucky, it was a true vocation - for thirty to fifty years. That is no longer the case. And that is a serious consideration, because now, individuals atomistically are left to build stable environments in which to find, fund and achieve a life's purpose. However, the very place where they would have to start - on the Internet - is a source of infinite distraction. Netizens are torn between the demands of moribund systems and inchoate ones. Stuck at that crossroads, most people look to pre-existing structures for indications on how to follow an individual path or build a private dream.

Institutions capture and hold the strategic ground of commonly-held beliefs for a reason. They have developed inside a society to serve its needs. The Bitcoiners' problem here becomes one of mass appeal, mass media, and general adoption. They have to move beyond the allure of economic profit, of dazzling innovation, and of rebel politics - and they are. They also have to develop and present a more compelling central philosophy and world view than the ones already on offer. The current situation is almost parallel to the early glimmers of the scientific revolution, arriving hand-in-hand with the Protestant Reformation to challenge an omnipotent, early modern Roman Catholic Church. In an entire century of argumentCopernicus and Galileo defended a heliocentric solar system. On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg. To follow the historical analogy, what Bitcoiners confront is not necessarily the Spanish Inquisition, as crypto hardliners expect, but a new Council of Trent and the Jesuits of a Millennial Techno-Counter-Reformation. They might want to read up on Jesuit tactics to understand that seemingly moribund institutions are not necessarily that moribund and can be incredibly strategically and philosophically agile when they need to be. The Catholic Church is not as powerful as it once was, but it is still alive and well, five hundred years after Nicolaus Copernicus and Martin Luther. That is partly thanks to the Jesuit Order. Even after the Thirty Years' War, Catholicism survived because, on the practical level, the Church presents a philosophical system and associated institutional structure which still successfully serves part of the society it inhabits, no matter how many internal problems it has.

Franz Liszt's Totentanz (1838, revised later and finished in 1859). Video Source: Youtube.

That means that in addition to all these challenges, Bitcoiners must also endure a spiritual and moral crisis. Bitcoin and altcoins provide test cases for how all peer-to-peer technologies and tools could transform governance, law, politics and the fundamental structures of society. For example, this London panel for Ethereum from 10 August 2015 pondered how laws could be written in computer code. But Bitcoin's pristine tools are only as good as the people who wield them. The budding technocracy has a fatal flaw, that is, its worship of speed and exponential development. If you want immortality, my Icarian friends, you had better slow down and start running marathons, not sprints. The marathon involves constructing communal political entities that relate successfully to a technology and help them to last inside a society. But the marathon is also a personal challenge.

Success depends on Bitcoiners' physical and mental resilience, their characters and morality, their trustworthiness, their selflessness, their sense of individual responsibility. An Ethereum Redditor quotes Bob Dylan: "To live outside the law, you must be honest." Success depends on the degree to which every actor in the system is willing to bootstrap him- or herself into a new reality. Most people do not want to face that kind of Herculean effort every single day. They want leaders. Most cryptocurrency speculators want to make a personal profit and they want coin developer teams who will do all the work in making them that profit. Then the dev teams get sick of grassroots apathy, and the devs - sometimes shielded by their anonymity - move on to other projects or are even recruited into the ranks of the Techno-Counter-Reformation.

In a marathon, resilience over the long haul brings a spiritual dimension to the cryptocurrency and other technological spheres. The manner in which members of the current plugged-in society can psychologically, morally, emotionally - and systematically - cope with constant, unbridled innovation was first discussed in my post, Awaken the Amnesiacs: The Hermetics. Technologists who dislike centralized authorities and power hierarchies still need spiritual systems and structures to maintain their core idealism and moral motivation. The result is a synthesis of cryptographic peer-to-peer technology, New Age spiritual theories, conspiracy theories, and an environmentalist's love of natural systems, which begins to transform the cryptocurrency into a spiritual-political ecosystem.

Even if you remove all those concerns and imagine the perfect, focussed, bootstrapper-innovator, the Bitcoiners encounter the fact that building anything takes a long time. The true speed of notable work was previously discussed in my post, An Elegy for Time and Care. No matter what your line manager says about your deadline next week, it is a human fact that on average, it takes individuals or groups roughly twenty years (or multiple sets of twenty years) to bring one main idea or project to culmination. That is assuming they are talented and working hard and consistently. The mid-life crisis in one's early forties arises from the fact one has spent twenty years of adult life to accomplish one's goals, and there is a reckoning. Twenty years is acknowledged as the human time frame for work output in the Bible, fables, and aphorisms. I noticed that span for accomplishment while listening to Liszt's Totentanz, above, composed between 1838 and 1859. I will not produce a list of examples, but cursory searches found the twenty-year timeline to be true in the lives of many noted figures, from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Steve Jobs.

See all my posts on Time and Politics.
See all my posts on Cryptocurrencies.

No comments:

Post a Comment