Digifesto

Tag: blockchain

The social value of an actually existing alternative — BLOCKCHAIN BLOCKCHAIN BLOCKCHAIN

When people get excited about something, they will often talk about it in hyberbolic terms. Some people will actually believe what they say, though this seems to drop off with age. The emotionally energetic framing of the point can be both factually wrong and contain a kernel of truth.

This general truth applies to hype about particular technologies. Does it apply to blockchain technologies and cryptocurrencies? Sure it does!

Blockchain boosters have offered utopian or radical visions about what this technology can achieve. We should be skeptical about these visions prima facie precisely in proportion to how utopian and radical they are. But that doesn’t mean that this technology isn’t accomplishing anything new or interesting.

Here is a summary of some dialectics around blockchain technology:

A: “Blockchains allow for fully decentralized, distributed, and anonymous applications. These can operate outside of the control of the law, and that’s exciting because it’s a new frontier of options!”

B1: “Blockchain technology isn’t really decentralized, distributed, or anonymous. It’s centralizing its own power into the hands of the few, and meanwhile traditional institutions have the power to crush it. Their anarchist mentality is naive and short-sighted.”

B2: “Blockchain technology enthusiasts will soon discover that they actually want all the legal institutions they designed their systems to escape. Their anarchist mentality is naive and short-sighted.”

While B1 and B2 are both critical of blockchain technology and see A as naive, it’s important to realize that they believe A is naive for contradictory reasons. B1 is arguing that it does not accomplish what it was purportedly designed to do, which is provide a foundation of distributed, autonomous systems that’s free from internal and external tyranny. B2 is arguing that nobody actually wants to be free of these kinds of tyrannies.

These are conservative attitudes that we would expect from conservative (in the sense of conservation, or “inhibiting change”) voices in society. These are probably demographically different people from person A. And this makes all the difference.

If what differentiates people is their relationship to different kinds of social institutions or capital (in the Bourdieusian sense), then it would be natural for some people to be incumbents in old institutions who would argue for their preservation and others to be willing to “exit” older institutions and join new ones. However imperfect the affordances of blockchain technology may be, they are different affordances than those of other technologies, and so they promise the possibility of new kinds of institutions with an alternative information and communications substrate.

It may well be that the pioneers in the new substrate will find that they have political problems of their own and need to reinvent some of the societal controls that they were escaping. But the difference will be that in the old system, the pioneers were relative outsiders, whereas in the new system, they will be incumbents.

The social value of blockchain technology therefore comes in two waves. The first wave is the value it provides to early adopters who use it instead of other institutions that were failing them. These people have made the choice to invest in something new because the old options were not good enough for them. We can celebrate their successes as people who have invented quite literally a new form of social capital, quite possibly literally a new form of wealth. When a small group of people create a lot of new wealth this almost immediately creates a lot of resentment from others who did not get in on it.

But there’s a secondary social value to the creation of actually existing alternative institutions and forms of capital (which are in a sense the same thing). This is the value of competition. The marginal person, who can choose how to invest themselves, can exit from one failing institution to a fresh new one if they believe it’s worth the risk. When an alternative increases the amount of exit potential in society, that increases the competitive pressure on institutions to perform. That should benefit even those with low mobility.

So, in conclusion, blockchain technology is good because it increases institutional competition. At the end of the day that reduces the power of entrenched incumbents to collect rents and gives everybody else more flexibility.

mathematical discourse vs. exit; blockchain applications

Continuing my effort to tie together the work on this blog into a single theory, I should address the theme of an old post that I’d forgotten about.

The post discusses the discourse theory of law, attributed to the later, matured Habermas. According to it, the law serves as a transmission belt between legitimate norms established by civil society and a system of power, money, and technology. When it is efficacious and legitimate, society prospers in its legitimacy. The blog post toys with the idea of normatively aligned algorithm law established in a similar way: through the norms established by civil society.

I wrote about this in 2014 and I’m surprised to find myself revisiting these themes in my work today on privacy by design.

What this requires, however, is that civil society must be able to engage in mathematical discourse, or mathematized discussion of norms. In other words, there has to be an intersection of civil society and science for this to make sense. I’m reminded by how inspired I’ve felt by Nick Doty’s work on multistakerholderism in Internet standards as a model.

I am more skeptical of this model than I have been before, if only because in the short term I’m unsure if a critical mass of scientific talent can engage with civil society well enough to change the law. This is because scientific talent is a form of capital which has no clear incentive for self-regulation. Relatedly, I’m no longer as confident that civil society carries enough clout to change policy. I must consider other options.

The other option, besides voicing ones concerns in civil society, is, of course, exit, in Hirschmann‘s sense. Theoretically an autonomous algorithmic law could be designed such that it encourages exit from other systems into itself. Or, more ecologically, competing autonomous (or decentralized, …) systems can be regulated by an exit mechanism. This is in fact what happens now with blockchain technology and cryptocurrency. Whenever there is a major failure of one of these currencies, there is a fork.

Recap

Sometimes traffic on this blog draws attention to an old post from years ago. This can be a reminder that I’ve been repeating myself, encountering the same themes over and over again. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because I hope to one day compile the ideas from this blog into a book. It’s nice to see what points keep resurfacing.

One of these points is that liberalism assumes equality, but this challenged by society’s need for control structures, which creates inequality, which then undermines liberalism. This post calls in Charles Taylor (writing about Hegel!) to make the point. This post makes the point more succinctly. I’ve been drawing on Beniger for the ‘society needs control to manage its own integration’ thesis. I’ve pointed to the term managerialism as referring to an alternative to liberalism based on the acknowledgement of this need for control structures. Managerialism looks a lot like liberalism, it turns out, but it justifies things on different grounds and does not get so confused. As an alternative, more Bourdieusian view of the problem, I consider the relationship between capital, democracy, and oligarchy here. There are some useful names for what happens when managerialism goes wrong and people seem disconnected from each other–anomie–or from the control structures–alienation.

A related point I’ve made repeatedly is the tension between procedural legitimacy and getting people the substantive results that they want. That post about Hegel goes into this. But it comes up again in very recent work on antidiscrimination law and machine learning. What this amounts to is that attempts to come up with a fair, legitimate procedure are going to divide up the “pie” of resources, or be perceived to divide up the pie of resources, somehow, and people are going to be upset about it, however the pie is sliced.

A related theme that comes up frequently is mathematics. My contention is that effective control is a technical accomplishment that is mathematically optimized and constrained. There are mathematical results that reveal necessary trade-offs between values. Data science has been misunderstood as positivism when in fact it is a means of power. Technical knowledge and technology are forms of capital (Bourdieu again). Perhaps precisely because it is a rare form of capital, science is politically distrusted.

To put it succinctly: lack of mathematics education, due to lack of opportunity or mathophobia, lead to alienation and anomie in an economy of control. This is partly reflected in the chaotic disciplinarity of the social sciences, especially as they react to computational social science, at the intersection of social sciences, statistics, and computer science.

Lest this all seem like an argument for the mathematical certitude of totalitarianism, I have elsewhere considered and rejected this possibility of ‘instrumentality run amok‘. I’ve summarized these arguments here, though this appears to have left a number of people unconvinced. I’ve argued this further, and think there’s more to this story (a formalization of Scott’s arguments from Seeing Like a State, perhaps), but I must admit I don’t have a convincing solution to the “control problem” yet. However, it must be noted that the answer to the control problem is an empirical or scientific prediction, not a political inclination. Whether or not it is the most interesting or important question regarding technological control has been debated to a stalemate, as far as I can tell.

As I don’t believe singleton control is a likely or interesting scenario, I’m more interested in practical ways of offering legitimacy or resistance to control structures. I used to think the “right” political solution was a kind of “hacker class consciousness“; I don’t believe this any more. However, I still think there’s a lot to the idea of recursive publics as actually existing alternative power structures. Platform coops are interesting for the same reason.

All this leads me to admit my interest in the disruptive technology du jour, the blockchain.