Not everyone is aware that technology is not neutral, and that design decisions reflect interests and values. This is of course very clear with Bitcoin and the Blockchain, which carries within itself a vision of human society that is based on isolated individuals that make contracts with other. At the P2P Foundation, we’d like to point out the underlying struggle for the vision of society. Do we want a society based on subjects, that are controlled by a ‘sovereign’ be it the surveillance state or the netarchical platforms? Do we want everything in life to be a transaction, as the market totalitarians propose? Or do we want to be citizen-commoners, co-creating shared value in freely associating communities? These differences matter, and Salvatore Iaconesi has written a brilliant analysis of the potential dangers of uncritically applying the blockchain to human life.
Originally published on Medium.com
A recent article about the BlockChain appeared on the Italian version of Vice’s Motherboard and raised a series of interesting conversations, and was soon followed up by another one.
In that article I was called to express a series of opinions about what was happening with BlockChains and cryptocurrencies, from the point of view of an organization such as the one I lead (HER, Human Ecosystems Relazioni), which deals with data, complex connections between sciences, technology, society, design and art, and the social, political, cultural and psychological implications of these connections and interactions.
In my job, everyday, I deal with multiple points of view which confront with these impacts brought on by data, blockchains and cryptocurrencies, with a wide variety of subjects from hyper-technical ones, to entrepreneurs and investors, to policymakers, up to the ones beyond suspicion, “ordinary” people who have to understand what an artwork which uses the blockchain does, or who deals with culture, museums, the city’s neighborhoods. People who — whether they like it or not — have to do with these technologies and practices. A large variety.
I have the maximum respect for the blockchain. It possibly is the technology which bears the highest potential for radical innovation and transformation today. With all its limits and problems.
My critique is not technical, but psychological.
It moves across the domain of perception and of comprehension of reality.
In this domain — the one of the psychic processes which are engaged and shared by people and their relations as they interpret the world to understand how to orient themselves and how to act in it — technologies like the Blockchain are a disaster.
On the one hand, they are a very powerful agent towards the “transactionalization of life”, that is of the fact that all the elements of our lives are progressively turning into transactions.
Which overlaps with the fact that they become “financialized”. Everything, including our relations and emotions, progressively becomes transactionalized/financialized, and the Blockchain represent an apex of this tendency. This is already becoming a problem for informality, for the possibility of transgression, for the normation and normalization of conflicts and, thus, in prospect, for our liberties and fundamental rights, and for our possibility to perceive them (because we are talking about psychological effects).
On the other hand, they move attention onto the algorithm, on the system, on the framework. Instead of supporting and maintaining the necessity and culture of establishing co-responsibility between human beings, these systems include “trust” in procedural ways. In ways which are technical. Thus, the necessity for trust (and, thus, on the responsibility to attribute trust, based on human relations) progressively disappears.
Therefore, together with it, society disappears. Society as actively and consciously built by people who freely decide if and when to trust each other, and who collectively agree to the modalities of this attribution.
What remains is only consumption of services and products. Safe, transparent and all. But mere transactionalized consumption. Society ends, and so does citizenship: we become citizen of nothing, of the network, of the algorithm.
These are not technical issues, but psychological ones, perceptive ones. And, thus, even more serious.
Technology is not neutral.
I can use a hammer to plant a nail or to smash it on your head, that’s true. But what is also true is that as soon as I have a hammer in my hand, everything starts looking like a nail.
This is the same for Blockchains. As soon as I start using them, as soon as I start imagining the world through them, everything starts looking as a transaction, as something which is “tokenizable”. And this is a disaster, in the ancient sense of the word (dis-aster, without stars for orientation).
Technology creates us just as much as we create technology.
We are starting to design systems which are, on the one hand, completely open and transparent. Which is a good thing from one point of view, and a problematic thing to do on the other. (unless the complete transparency of “The Circle” scenarios is something we feel comfortable with).
From another point of view, these systems are progressively being associated to identity systems, meaning that all the advantages and freedoms deriving from the fact that digital identity is anything but univocal and fixed are progressively being lost. Byebye anonymous, temporary, shared, multiple, plural, identities. Goodbye all the freedoms that come with them.
What derives are “citizenship” sytems (not “existence”, not “inhabitantship”) which are literally trustless, “without the need for trust”, in which trust is in the peer-to-peer network, in the automation, in the algorithm.
Institutions and other people disappear, replaced by an algorithm. Who knows where trust is at/in! It is everywhere, diffused, in the peer-to-peer network. Which means that it’s nowhere, and in nobody.
In a weird way it is like in call centers: they are not really useful for the client, and they completely serve the purpose minimizing bother for the companies, letting clients slipping into the “procedure” (which is synonym with algorithm), and avoiding them from obtaining real answers and effects, in their own terms outside of procedures.
These are all processes which separate people from each other, from institutions, organizations, companies, through the Procedure.
Citizens of everywhere. Citizens of nowhere and nothing.
From a philosophical and psychological point of view it corresponds to a powerful addition to a process which is already taking place on a large scale: the transactionalisation of life.
Everything is turning into a transaction: our relationships, emotions and expressions; our ways of producing, acquiring and transferring knowledge; communication; everything.
As soon as each of these things become the subject of a service, they become transactions: they become an atomic part of a procedure.
Because this is what a transaction is: an atom in a procedure, in an algorithm. This includes the fact that transactions are designed, according to a certain business, operational, strategic, marketing model.
This means that when our relationships, emotions, expressions, knowledge, communication and everything become transactions, they also become atoms of those business models whose forms, allowances, degrees of freedoms and liberty are established by those models.
With the Internet of Things these processes also arrive to the objects which fill our daily lives, to the elements of the environment and to the environment itself.
This means that we will be surrounded by transactions, within ourselves and in everything around us. It will become truly difficult to think of something that does not correspond to a transaction.
As said above: this will bring on issues for informality, the possibility for transgression and for our freedoms and rights.
Many of these these will simply disappear, as we lose capacity to conceive them outside of the “procedure”, of the transaction that embodies them. Whether it is purchase or an emotional expression, it will not make any difference.
Furthermore, speaking of transactionalization and its equivalent, financialization, the issue of access will also arise from the fact that there will be a limited amount of subjects who will have the resources to sustain the cost of the transactions which are needed to have rights and freedoms, or to pull themselves out of the procedures themselves. And of course there will be people who don’t have these resources.
These reflections have long been outside of the discussions which are going on about these new technologies. Hackers, activists, researchers, philosophers, antropologists are talking about the blockchain, as well as governments, organizations, companies and banks themselves. Yet none of these doubts are yet on agendas. There is a mono, singular narrative, which is interpreted for activism, business, governance, exploitation.
Investments, from above (with governments, financial institutions, investors) and below (with crowd based operations, evangelism, activism and also with the desire to exploit and to access funds and resources, to abandon the state of crisis) are happening.
And yet we must consider.
The Blockchain is the first tentative answer in years to the extremely centralized models which are de facto ruling us today, whether we talk about energy, environment, finance, welfare, governance.
The Blockchain is all about distribution of power.
And yet, this same distribution is its weak spot, if our objective is to collectively create a society with more freedoms, solidarity and opportunities for relation, emotion, communication and knowledge.
Because this distribution of power does not require conscience and desire, and the responsibility of these conscience and desire. Because these are in the algorithm, not in ourselves and in our relations.
It is not the algorithm serving us, and what we want. It is the algorithm turing us into itself, making us become like it.
What can we do?
The most important thing we can do is, probably, that we need to realize that these are not technological or technical issues.
Design only arrives up to a certain point. The design and production of services, products and instruments does not address a class of issues which are aesthetic, psychological and which deal with sensibility and imagination.
For example, in our practice we often talk about the Third Infoscape, which is originated from the concept of the Third Landscape.
As in the Third Landscape: where “technicians” see “weeds”, the Third Landscape sees opportunity, biodiversity, an open source media which is a reservoir for the future of the planet, which does not require energy to maintain, but produces energy, food, knowledge, relations.
As Marco Casagrande describes, the entire territory becomes a form of knowledge, with all its conflicts, dissonances and polyphonies. This is not a transactional (or transactionalizing) vision. It is a thing in which data and information are not laid out geometrically, formally, as in gardens, but more like the woods and wild nature, in which multiple forms of dimensions, boundaries, layers and interpretations co-exist by complex desire, relation and interaction, not by design.
It is a different kind of technology, a different kind of science, with a different imagination to support it.
The Third Infoscape, just as the Third Landscape, is not a matter of technology or technique. It is a question of sensibility, of imagination and of aesthetics.
The problem? It is current science and data. Which we are now using as something absolute and immutable. As a society, we are now using Science and Data like once we used Religion and Magic.
The Blockchain is one direct effect of this.
It is the procedure that “liberates” us from trust, from having to trust, from having to trust others. It compels you to trust, because it is the algorithm itself which embodies trust. And, by doing that, by forcing you to become like it, transforms all into a transaction.
To make trust exist, it transforms all into itself.
We need a change in sensibility and imagination, not disruptive services.
You just summed up my PhD in under 2000 words. Excellent article – much to consider!
Excellent article to share!
I’m totally agree when you say all will become transactional and for this reason the meaning of citizen and sharing with others will be lost. But I think blockchain will be really useful not like callcenters, they are not at all. This technology may allow to people to parcipate taking decisions in countries where governments and companies are corrupt, for example where I live, Colombia. Thanks for sharing these articles!
I would like to question a basic assumption of this article; that blockchains are trustless. I would propose that instead, blockchains in their form and function make assumptions concerning trust that are baked in to the structure of the algorythm. Trust in the form and function of the blockchain is assumed. For instance, while the ability to make a payment of a given amount, is assured, the ability/willingness of the provider to satisfactorialy provide any good/service/value is not assured. It is assumed/trusted. Trust is inherent in any transaction. Assuring this trust requires an adjunct to the blockchain that measures the ability and willingness of the provider to keep their commitment. Within a small community, personal relationships carry out this function. At larger scales institutional rules are necessary. Metacurrency attempts to deal with this issue. So also do organizations like Guerrilla Translation.
Well well well 🙂 As it happens, I disagree strongly with almost everything that you write. For starters, you are implying that humans somehow will lose their agency, will or ability to form valuable relationships in a world “governed” by anything resembling a decentralized digital system. For this no explanation or reason is provided, and it does not follow from any premise you offer.
You clearly have an attitude that is very hostile to the idea of using technology in any kind of “non-technical” area of human affairs, and appear to believe the only possible impact this may have is a detrimental one. I have acquired The Circle novel which you reference, and though I totally agree that such a surveillance-centered business would be a dystopian nightmare, what you seem not to realize is that of all the technologies that have been invented, decentralized and/or block chain based systems are the *first* invention that gives us a fighting chance to successfully prevent such a system/company/model from arising. If a situation like the one in The Circle is something you don’t want, you ought to be totally in love with decentralization and a user-centric economy.
What is interesting is that a major problem with current societies is not too much capitalism, but too little. Intermediaries have an interest in stopping any kind of innovation that would make them earn less, become obsolete or god forbid irrelevant. They only like capitalism as an excuse for pursuing profit at any cost; not if it actually would do what it is supposed to, which is to make markets more and more efficient, in the process inevitably decreasing their role or eliminating the inefficiency that they would eventually become altogether.
If you look at where the most “unfairly accrued” wealth and influence is concentrated, it’s exactly at those intermediaries… brokers, banks, property managers, and so on… decentralized transaction systems will soon relegate these greedy bastards to the dustbin of history.