Painting by Hilma av Klint
The blockchain was first introduced through the cryptocurrency Bitcoin and is a commonly held and continuously updated record of all bitcoin transactions that uses cryptographic hashing to register, validate and store transactions in a distributed manner. It consists of a “chain” of blocks of transaction data that have been verified and agreed on through a consensus algorithm in the network. The fact that the record of transactions is held, verified and added to through a decentralised computer network rather than by an authority like a bank (and that this process also determines the rate of money-supply in the system) is part of what makes it so radically new and different to existing systems and has spurred a wave of development of other blockchain projects beyond money and payment systems.
The Distributing Chains research project is driven by the question of what matters politically in blockchain technology? By “matters” what is meant is literally mattering as in making a material difference. By “politically” what is meant is the mediation and resolution of incompatible positions and the process through which the possible and impossible are distributed across spaces and domains. Different forms of political mattering are traced across three aspects of blockchain, from protocol, in which political economies are encoded and continuously operate, an immanent power that makes some actions desirable over others; to governance and processes of maintenance, correction, forking and development, an explicit politics of negotiation and resolution of dissensus; and finally interfaces with other systems and agencies, to account for the contingencies and contexts of what is otherwise too often understood as hermetic systems, in order to open up space for evaluation of the claims and social and political effects of blockchain. The research is grounded in three case studies: Bitcoin, Ethereum and Faircoin, comparing consensus protocols and the different forms of agency that are assumed and distributed in each.