The following post is still a work in progress and attempts to highlight the crucial role time plays in the governance of blockchain networks and how it might be used to destabilize concentrations of power.
“Time is the most important thing in human life, for what is pleasure after the departure of time? And the most consolatory, since pain, when pain has passed, is nothing. Time is the wheel-rut in which we roll on toward eternity, conducting us to the incomprehensible.” Alexander von Humboldt quoted in Mike McClelland, What Use to Be Caracas, Boston Review (Fall 2017)
“It is possible that Time, the essential element, matrix, and measure of all known animal art, does not enter into vegetable art at all. The plants may use the meter of eternity. We do not know.” Ursula K. Le Guin, What if art is not communicative?
Time and blockchains
As Bitcoin pushes $20k and Ethereum soars over $1000, the story being told about blockchains, the consensus-driven distributed ledger technology at the base of cryptocurrencies, is a tale of get-rich-quick filtered through a FOMO entrenched by real-time social media. But blockchains did not always create the latest financial bubble. First described in the 2008 paper, ‘Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System’ under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, the technology removes the need for banks and payment systems and promises to disrupt traditional economic relationships and financial institutions. The blockchain proposes to decentralise monetary and computational systems along peer-to-peer networks with the aim of strengthening the power of individuals. Network consensus and cryptographic proof allow people to transact and build collective institutions with low risk of foul play as a single coin or asset cannot be used twice. In the blockchain universe, a coin is a nonreversible and verifiable chain of digital signatures.
The two stories told about the blockchain, that of the speculative financial instrument and that of the catalyst for the redesign of the economy, are incompatible and both view the technology detached from the wider social relationships enmeshed with it. While blockchains are capable of impartially enforcing rules and protocols, humans are needed to develop and implement them. Vili Lehdonvirta suggests that in discussions about blockchains, the enforcing and the making of rules are often conflated. On the Bitcoin and Ethereum networks, the two largest blockchains, most rules are made by close-knit communities of developers who interact in tech hubs, conferences, and on Web 2.0 platforms like Twitter, Medium, Slack, Github, and Meetup. The rules decided on by core developers must be upheld by an increasingly limited pool of ‘miners’ who vote with their computational power to solve the puzzles that keep the networks secure. Currently, 70% of miners are based in China, and 70% use hardware made by one manufacturer. But as China begins to ban cryptocurrency exchanges, miners are leaving the country, making blockchain’s entanglement with the off-chain world even more apparent. While blockchains set out to distribute power to individuals and change how value is exchanged, the role of cryptocurrencies as a speculative investment vehicle and the way new rules are made via off-chain social networks just seems like business as usual.
This post focuses on the way blockchains construct time and the implications that has on governance. The standardisation of linear and successive time is one of the most fundamental rules enforced by blockchains, and while it is political in nature, discussions about time are completely missing from the discourse on blockchain governance.
First I will unpack the way time is constructed in the prototype blockchain, the Bitcoin network. The Blockchain, Nick Land argues, solves the problem of spacetime by enforcing succession through consensus. The stories of the industrial revolution and colonialism illustrate the ways in which the standardisation of time through technology relates to the concentration of power.
Today, however, the role forking plays in the development and governance of blockchain networks is clearer than when Land was writing in 2015. In ‘hard forks’ a subset of network participants in a public blockchain clone the data and create a new blockchain with different rules. This is like a group taking Twitter, all its users and tweets, and starting a rival platform with the original 140 character limit. Notable forks of major blockchain networks, together with alternative consensus mechanisms, reveal a multiplicity of temporalities.
Against the notion of The Blockchain, or the definitive article blockchain, I argue that forking, alternative governance models, and scalable heterogeneous chains might be used to destabilize the concentrations of power currently forming around singular blockchain networks and absolute time by enabling quantum entanglements or what Einstein called, “spooky action at a distance”. This is about a radical questioning of immediate appearances, to reconstruct the framework through which the value of blockchains is established.
‘The Blockchain solves the problem of spacetime’
In a lecture dated 3 October 2015, Nick Land asks if we are dealing with blockchains or The Blockchain, a universal and singular blockchain network. October 2015 was before the speculative rise of the blockchain and the liquid cryptocurrency investment market: Ethereum launched that year in July, and a bitcoin cost about $244. With attention on the definitive article, Land argues that The Blockchain solves the problem of spacetime, Einstein’s argument that there is no such thing as absolute succession and that time is relative. In enforcing succession through consensus, Bitcoin turns time into money.
A blockchain is a distributed database that is made secure by requiring all nodes in the network to store a full copy of the data and agree on a time-stamped record. Where the Web follows a centralised model storing data on a single computer, called a server, blockchains store data on all participating computers in a peer-to-peer network. In the centralised model, when the server is compromised or goes offline, the data stored on it can no longer be accessed. The blockchain is said to distribute risk and provide more network resilience as the data cannot be compromised by losing any node in the network.
[image of centralised vs distributed]
Data about new transactions, or changes to the existing database, need to be broadcast to the whole network so each node can update its record and reach agreement on the correct order of transactions. Blockchains do this through what is called a consensus mechanism, and there are many different and debated models. Hash-based proof-of-work is the consensus mechanism proposed by Satoshi Nakamoto and Bitcoin, and is currently used by the Ethereum network amongst others.
The process begins with a timestamp server that takes a hash of new transactions. Hashing converts the data into a standard format so it can be broadcast to all nodes. This uses the standard of Unix time, which counts the seconds since 1 January 1970 to prove the data existed at a certain time. Each node collects new transactions into blocks and competes to solve a computational puzzle. When the puzzle is solved, the node broadcasts the latest block to the network, which as of writing would be around block number 500010. New blocks are accepted if the transactions contained within it are valid and not already contained in a block, and this is confirmed when a node begins to work on the next block in the chain, such as 500011, signing it data representing the previous block.
Going against not only Einstein, but Hannah Arendt, Claude Levi-Strauss, Deleuze, and Karen Barad (to name but a few), for blockchains, there is one true version of history. If nodes receive different versions of the next block, the longest chain is always taken to be correct, meaning it was created first and indexes the most computational power. This is called ‘by-chain consensus’ and is also the process by which new bitcoins are issued, creating an incentive for miners to take part in securing the network. When miners find the proof-of-work first, burning electrical energy to solve a complex computational puzzle, they are rewarded with bitcoins. As the longest chain is always taken to be correct, falsifying the blockchain would require redoing the proof-of-work for every previous block, making it impractical and costly. Each bitcoin is backed by a chain of digital signatures so that the coin can only be transferred by its owner, carrying its transaction history with it. Time, the arithmetic succession of blocks, becomes money.
Synchronicity, Succession, and the Concentration of Power
Relative and absolute times display different concentrations of power. In his treatise on Poincaré and Einstein’s endeavours to coordinate time, Peter Gallison shows how the synchronization of clocks was at the modern junction of knowledge and power, cutting across physics, engineering, philosophy, colonialism, and commerce. Pragmatic questions, such as how to synchronize two clocks in different places, ultimately led era-defining theoretical arguments on the nature of time as relative to be built into seemingly inconspicuous technology like clocks. “Theory,” Gallison says, “had become a machine”. Land argues that The Blockchain makes it impossible to be post-Kantian. While blockchains, as automated rule enforcement systems, seem opposed to an anthropocentric worldview, the linear time defined by the immutable succession of blocks is fundamentally based on human perception of time. Spacetime, as a single four-dimensional fabric, opposes the correlation between thinking and being. In spacetime, the monkey’s perception of the physical world or its experience of duration does not figure. Referring to the Global Positioning System enabled by the theory of relativity, Laura Kurgan argues the loss of absolute reference points led to a profound decentering and disorienting. For Land, The Blockchain, like GPS, is a theory machine but for absolute, successive time, returning to a pre-relativity philosophy of time.
Kant found space and time as opposed elements of perception. Space was not an intrinsic property of things but rather the subjective conditions required for perception of outer appearances, an empirical reality required for perception of the external world. Time was not something which existed by itself or as a determination of outer appearances, but rather as the form of inner sense – the form of the mind and perception of it.
Synchronicity and time standardization are political in nature, and while technologies can help to make theoretical arguments, they are always embedded in social and cultural contexts in which they rub up against other ways of being. Primavera De Filippi and Benjamin Loveluck remind us that socio-technical systems are unable to ensure their own self-governance and self-sustainability through technology alone. Technologies develop in unanticipated way as they come into contact with existing power structures. Bitcoin was started by a small group of crypto-libertarians working to create a ‘liberation technology’ capable of distributing power away from traditional centralised institutions. Quickly Bitcoin grew into a global network and incorporated stakeholders with alternative value systems.
The spread of standardised time at the end of the 19th century was similarly met with alternative ways of being. Administrative and technological standards do not become purified universals. In the case of colonial-era India, Vanessa Ogle suggests that time became practised as socially constructed and situated historically. The imposition of standard time was a mechanism of control, a governance technique. Clocks, and train and factory timetables, were used to force local people to submit to extractive global flows of resources and capital. Greenwich Mean Time was met by Indian people with hostility and protests, so much so that it was called off for years before being implemented again. Indian Standard Time became something that could be enacted when needed, “put on and stripped off again like European clothing,” that Indian people saw “as part of the historical constellation of British colonialism and European ascendance during the nineteenth century”. In reference to the Ethereum blockchain, Keller Easterling argues that visions of universal and singular technologies as presented in branding and by core developers must be met with scepticism. She advocates an ‘alternative habit of mind’ that values the coexistence of multiple, contradictory voices, instead of the next totalizing platform.
Synchronicity describes different temporal phenomena. There is the sense of being together, sharing fundamental phenomena, and also the sense being on a shared linear trajectory. Not only the notion of time as successive and linear constructed by The Blockchain, but it seems that it also guides conceptualisation of it. Fred Ehrsam likens the development of the distributed databases to evolution, suggesting only a ‘Cambrian explosion’ of economic and governance designs can provide solid foundations of blockchain-based life. Evolution assumes time as something linear and successive, where the past moves towards the future. In the myth of social and technological progress, things get better. The danger of succession is that it defends a particular brand of human biological and social exceptionalism found in the West, an exceptionalism Donna Haraway suggests has, along with bounded individualism, become scientifically unthinkable. Notion of the developmental trajectory
The other sense of synchronisation, that of sharing fundamentals, the syncing of parts of a given social context, the effects of shared technologies and infospheres such as mobile devices loaded with social media. This is changes the context in which decisions are made, and ultimately the mechanisms of governance. Charting the transition from a democracy of opinion to a democracy of emotion, Paul Virilio argues that the current regime is comprised of the synchronization of emotions. This, he suggests, leads to reactionary political responses and an emphasis on the short-term and immediate. A symptom of emotional democracy is FOMO (fear of missing out) and can help to explain the rise of the cryptocurrency economic bubble. Experiencing the meteoric rise of cryptocurrency prices together, people have begun flocking to the speculative time as money theory machines for fear of missing the next great rally and opportunity to get rich quick.
[The following sections are still in progress]
Forking in time
Today, looking at the ecosystem of blockchains, including altcoins, sub-chains, and forks, as there is no definitive article blockchain, and blockchains enforce a multiplicity of absolute times. Forking, on-chain governance, and scalable heterogeneous chains can enable quantum entanglements or what Einstein called, “spooky action at a distance”.
CASPER: The consensus protocol and time, PoW by chain consensus vs by block consensys – consensus by bet – sounds more
Blockchains possess the capacity to make entanglements, understood following quantum physicist and queer theorist Karen Barad, as material relations of obligation that bound the ‘self’ to and through the ‘Other’. In taking a consensus-driven approach to the writing of data in a distributed ledger, blockchain networks can help to reveal connection and commitment as fundamental to the material act of differentiating.
Chuthulu-chain, planetary time, proposal for Peer Communities
From my project Phi: “Peer communities (PC) replace individual nodes as the basic unit of Phi, and each PC has its own wallet, similar to a mutual fund, that contains shared tokens as tradable assets. All the nodes that interact successfully (eg complete a transaction of electricity, currency, or data) in the system form a peer community DAO that is listed in a public ledger. Peers communities become caretakers for the infrastructure that facilitate their relationship. The DAO can collectively decide to take on additional roles, to act like a bank or insurance fund. This facilitates joining Phi. Each node will have many different peer communities, and seed held by each. Communities with high frequency overlap of nodes or overall low frequency are automatically grouped together.”
What we say about systems, and how we say it, shapes experience and guides action so powerfully that the metaphors reinforce themselves. Benjamin Bratton recently suggested, the blockchain has become a Rorschach Test, shapeshifting from the most utopian technological solution to the most dystopian destruction of civil society. While the technology has proven itself as a financial instrument (Bitcoin) and a crowdfunding investment vehicle (Ethereum), its other applications remain in the speculative realm.
This is a moment to define blockchains. Forking, alternative governance models, and scalable heterogeneous chains might be used to destabilize the concentrations of power currently forming around singular blockchain networks and absolute time by enabling quantum entanglements or what Einstein called, “spooky action at a distance”. This is about a radical questioning of immediate appearances, to reconstruct the framework through which the value of blockchains is established.
[References coming soon]