“…public regulatory influence could be exerted through a combination of legal and technical code, rather than exclusively through legal code as at present.”
pp10-11 Walport, et. al. 2016
“There are no bylaws or other legal documents stating these rules, and no humans to enforce them — distributed ledger systems are solely governed by their own technical code.”
Delegation is a helpful concept to begin thinking about the political implications of technology. Despite its pervasiveness in our everyday lives infrastructure, devices and apps are still understood as existing in an objective scientific realm rather than a social and political one, governed by laws of physics and engineering rather than the unpredictable drives and desires of humans. I came across the concept of delegation in such a capacity first through Bruno Latour’s 1992 text on “mundane artifacts” where he discusses the automatic door closer in an office. This simple example demonstrates how what could be understood as an ethical position – that the door should remain closed to save heating and energy and keep out draft – is delegated to the technology, encoded and designed into the automatic door stopper, which then ensures the continued enforcement of this decision without the need for continued negotiation or arguments amongst the office workers.
While the decision of a door needing to remain closed might indeed be a mundane example, it opens up for an understanding of the significant temporal and spatial shift that takes place when more complex or contentious questions are encoded into a given piece of technology. Instead of remaining open and continuous, the political, understood as contestation and negotiation between potentially incompatible positions, is resolved once and then relocated, designed and encoded into the technology, now rendered apolitical. Opening up this moment of delegation and relocation to a device, technology theorist Andrew Feenberg unravels the histories of several everyday technologies like the steam engine and bicycle in order to demonstrate the extent to which the social and political contestation that forms part of the design and installation of for example a door stopper also shapes the very nature and function of a given innovation. Discussing these histories, it becomes clear that contestation in the process of innovation is not simply the imposition of limits, but is an important aspect of the shaping of the given technology, which henceforth would be enacting a function for the benefit of one social group or another. The concept of delegation puts some questions on the table to bear in mind when developing and dreaming up new forms of blockchain based decentralised (self)governance at a potentially global scale: what processes, actions and decisions should be delegated to and encoded in (blockchain) technology? which should instead be delegated to a social machine? and which should remain in a sphere of repeated open negotiation and dispute?
The two quotes opening this brief text above are from the recently published UK Government Office for Science’s recent report about the possible future impact of the Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies – in particular for the the functioning of government and governance. In the introduction, the report discusses the difference in nature between legal code and technical code while emphasising that both should be considered and used as techniques for governance, and that the UK government should hence be at the forefront of Blockchain and DLT development as an “expert customer” driving the innovation. The burgeoning field of FinTech innovation that has followed in the wake of Bitcoin is thus now joined by a new field of “RegTech”. Thinking through these new fields of technology innovation in finance, regulation and government as a form of delegation of institutional functions to technology helps to highlight that this also entails a relocation of the political, the spatial and temporal possibility of contestation, from an institutional setting with its associated forms of (however flawed) processes and procedures for accountability, to a design and development process which is mostly judged by metrics of efficiency in solving a problem which is taken for granted rather than problematised.
The concept of delegation has some important limitations however, one of which is the lack of attention to the significance of the medium. Technical code and legal code have very important qualitative differences, also highlighted in the UK Gov. blockchain report. Literary theorist Kathrine Hayles discusses at length the shifts and intermediations that take place in the relationship between code, writing and speech, elaborating on a central point made by Alexander Galloway, that code can be understood as the first language which is executive. In other words, code enacts and executes continuously. While law is enforced after the fact and has spatial, temporal and interpretive grayscales in its implementation and enforcement, technical code on the other hand allows and disallows continuously and in a binary fashion. This vast difference between mediums can hardly be captured by the notion of delegation, which instead insinuates having a given action done by a device that is faster and more efficient, ignoring the ensuing dramatic transformation this entails in terms of enforcement and execution. FinTech and RegTech (surely GovTech will come next) are not simply the solving of technical problems following metrics of efficiency only, but also entail fundamental changes to the implementation and execution of law and governance. In other words, significant political and philosophical questions are at stake and assumed in the process of coding new blockchain systems.
Finally, there are important differences between the blockchain and the door stopper when it comes to the question of delegation: The office worker can always block the door with a heavy object to keep it open, or even pick apart the not very complex system of the automatic door stopper with a simple screwdriver. The blockchain on the other hand is designed to be irreversible, using cryptography to be tamper-proof and is extremely complex, making it very difficult for the vast majority of people to understand what is at stake in design and implementation stages, and to intervene or modify the system once in place.
Andrew Feenberg. 1999. Questioning Technology. Routledge
N. Kathrine Hayles. 2005. My Mother Was a Computer. University of Chicago Press
Bruno Latour. 1992. Where Are The Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts. In Bijker, W. Law, J. Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. MIT Press
Mark Walport (ed.). Distributed Ledger Technology: Beyond the Blockchain. UK Government Office for Science
Recommendations for other texts and perspectives related to these topics are, as always, welcome.