A bumper sticker of the worried and critically minded of the past ten years, “It Is Easier To Imagine The End Of The World Than The End Of Capitalism,”1has recently started to bother me. Immensely. Almost as much as unicorns. (Which I have written about at length elsewhere, forthcoming, “watch this space,” FollowMe -> @jayapapaya, etc.).
And on thetopic of unicorns, this is the speaker profile picture of Vitalik Buterin, (co)founder of the blockchain platform Ethereum:
In these next few pages I will explain what I read in these two bits of evidence picked from our vast field of contemporary culture. But first, a little disclaimer about the above quote on capitalism: I am not going to discuss the source, neither (Fredric) Jameson’s, nor indeed (Mark) Fisher’s work per se. Instead, I address it as a cultural phenomenon, indeed as a bumper-sticker, to ask what it makes us think and do, what about it has been so attractive to people, which, I will argue, is much the same thing as what attracts so many people to unicorns and why there is a blockchain at the end of the world. And so, let’s begin from the beginning, which is…
So, what bothers me about the bumper sticker exactly? It is the way it directs the mind: A flash, an image, smoke and ruins and then a “yes, yes, that is true, I can see it, the end of the world, but I cannot see what a post-capitalist world might look like.” And it thus turns the inability of ending Capitalism into a failure of imagination, (an explanation for the persistence of Capitalism that I cannot begin to say how much I disagree with.) I want to focus here on an even more subtle shift of the mind that also happens in this turn of phrase, namely that we think first of the end of the world, then what life after capitalism might look like, and by then the two have been inextricably linked. The end of capitalism has become the end of the world, and the task of imagination becomes what to do with this post-apocalyptic place, this tabula rasa, this New World.
It might be the circles that I frequent, but it seems as if there has been a recent surge of workshops, design sprints, speculative fiction exercises, hackathons and so on that attempt to address this deficit of imagination, of what happens after capitalism. These New-World exercises often have us start from scratch – let’s define the perfect size for the perfect community; lets design a perfectly balanced system for production and consumption; lets reinvent how governance, the economy, child care, bread-making, decision-making, the justice system should operate. And so, one coloured post-it note at a time, a New Society emerges, a GOOD society, where everything is different because we are GOOD people; we have arrived at our solution in a participatory manner; and we are going to do everything different this time. Another new beginning, blank slate, virgin island, another projected future where we start over, another imagined community where all the injustices, uncleanliness and pollution of the world have been resolved.
My response in these workshops and conversations has increasingly been: bye! – I am not coming with you to this Beautiful Future. I am going to stay in the ruins of the old world and figure something out…
I am staying here.
The quote, this bumper sticker, I believe is actually not about a lack of imagination. What is going on here, what is being expressed, is that the end of capitalism has been intricately tied to the end of all our worlds such that if it is brought down we will go down with it. When I was researching for this essay I stumbled across a short text by Kessous3 of the sci-fi story I have no mouth, and I must scream (Ellison 1967/ 2011). Although Kessous remains vague about what (seems) to be a glaring point to the story, what struck me was: The white male protagonist leader of a group of survivors in a world controlled by a supercomputer kills the only black/woman of the group (and story), who also, to the entertainment of the supercomputer, was the sexual provider of the group, and is thus the cause of constant jealous agony for our protagonist. He kills her during a furore over food when it seems likely that they will all die, and then seeks “some evidence of gratitude in her eyes” for taking her out of her misery. He ends up the only survivor, becoming a blob of goo that has no mouth and floppy limbs, while his mind remains intact and alive, endlessly going over the events. The way that I read what was happening here was that the End of The World gives this protagonist the chance to vindicate himself, becoming the “saviour” of the source of his shame by killing her, failing to recognize that perhaps it was only the end of His world.
This is a good time to make, ahem, a disclaimer. I have not read the original sci- fi story. And I am not particularly versed in the kinds of psycho-analysis, sexual politics, post/colonialism and other related fields of knowledge necessary to perform the rigorous analysis really required here. What I am doing is to ruthlessly use Kessous’s summary of the story to make my point. And the point I want to make is that in these stories of The End of the World, we should really be asking Who’s World it is that is ending exactly and what is being taken down with it. And so, a personal interlude: Mine is only just beginning. And so I am not going to let anyone convince me it is The End, that we are all facing certain extinction (environmental, economic, political, cultural, spiritual) and need to be saved by some guy swooping us off to Mars.4 It might simply be time to step aside, time for this protagonist to SIT DOWN< BE HUMBLE and see what other worlds might emerge from “his”5 ruins.
Ok but, you might be wondering, what does this soap-box speech of mine have to do with unicorns and blockchains…
Unicorns. They are everywhere. Once you start paying attention, you will see them, peering at you from under the jacket of that tech CEO over in the bar, spray painted on this crumbling inner city wall, or in that documentary about the queer collective identifying as unicorns, the fluffy stuffed animal present your nephew got, themed club night popping up on a Facebook feed, bathroom stickers, profile pictures, kiddy costumes, inflatables at hackathons, etc. What is both strange and creepy and pretty phenomenal about this widespread phenomenon is that it is not organised. All these unicorns are not part of a commercial campaign or any coherent subculture. No, they are seeping through this incredibly diverse set of contexts as an expression of something. A collective cultural subconscious. Some kind of need that is felt, seemingly, quite widespread. The attraction and identification, I dare claim, is the same across all these instances: It is about that * mythical sparkly *, that something special, a creature that almost exists amongst us but is just out of reach in a magical elsewhere. And I believe it is very much the same elsewhere as the No Place and Good Place of Utopia, which, along side the end of the world and unicorns, also seems to be a widespread cultural fixation.
Now, when people come face to face with various, lets call them narrative aspects of blockchain technology like for example a potential use-case, a blockchain based art piece or exhibition, there is a tendency to leap straight into utopian and/or dystopian exclamations. And this is also the case with the very people who come up with and build this stuff: The comparison of blockchain platform Ethereum to skynet and a future dictatorship by singularity or rogue DAOs6 has been an explicit bright-eyed fantasy from the very beginning of the project, an excited fascination with the potential omniscient power unleashed by the twitchings of pale fingers across a keyboard. I believe there is a reason for this. And the reason is not that “blockchain” is necessarily going to bring forth such robotic overlords, AI deities and, or, so on, etc. It is about certain qualities that the components of this tech assemblage have and the wistful promises that these qualities propose.
Utopia, if it were to be actualised, is basically the complete correlation of our understanding of the good and the perfect with reality itself. What I mean is, if Utopia is everything that we think is Good, then it necessarily has to be exactly that. It needs to be the exact correlation of everything that is good. If anything else creeps in, something annoying, something traumatizing or hurtful, then it would no longer be Utopia. This exact correlation, on the flipside, is also our worst nightmare because what if we get it wrong? What if instead of an exact expression of the pretty parts of our imagination, somehow, unconsciously our worst nightmares, fears and disgusting desires become the one-to-one correlation? And there we have our dystopia. The two go hand in hand, one very quickly becomes the other, and the two are premised on complete expression of (our conception) of The Good (which might turn out to be The Bad).
Code, as language, has some interesting characteristics. It does stuff, and it has an architecture – it creates new spaces with new rules that govern them. When we step into these new spaces we can imagine an elsewhere, the code architecture as having created a new world in a sense. Natural languages tend to be understood as vague and ineffective in comparison – this word never quite corresponds to this Thing here, and it doesn’t necessarily make something happen the way I want it to: Humans say they will do something and then go ahead and do something completely different. But Code! Code on the other hand does as it is written. There is no distinction. It is, expresses and makes things happen – all at once. And this, because we now have absolute correlation between what we express and what happens, this leads us very quickly to begin our work of building our utopia (knowing it might also be a dystopia).
So there you have it, an explanation for why blockchains leads us think immediately of utopia/possible dystopia.
But what about the End of the world? And why is the blockchain there?
We have not quite arrived yet. So far we just have only discussed coding languages, not the full blockchain.
Code executes as it is written, but we are still left with the problem that anyone can just write whatever; we have no guarantees they will write anything Good or Truthful. And so we need to make sure that the only interactions with the code and the system will be Good and Truthful. For this we use two more tools: cryptography and incentives. Cryptography is employed to prove the Truth7 (of events, of identity, belongings). Cryptography has this capacity to prove things using mathematical methods (various forms of hashing) to for example secure the integrity of bits of information, that some record of events is secure, that it was added at a given time, that no one has been able to change it (or prove that it has been changed), that the entity that added the information has the correct credentials (cryptographic keys) to do so.
Incentives are employed to ensure Good Behaviour. For example, financial incentives, as is wont to be used in most blockchain applications, see proof- of-work, prediction-markets etc. etc. making bad behaviour, lies, attacks to the system and so on costs too much for anyone to willingly be Bad.
And so there we have it, the blockchain: constructed by unicorns piecing together the necessary building blocks of code, cryptography and incentives to securely build the Good, Utopia (or Dystopia). The Future. The Final Solution. The End.
Of the world …
[But how, you might ask, do we know that the information that gets cryptographically secured is the truth? And who, you might ask, gets to determine what is good or bad behaviour? Indeed…]
I read somewhere that our current condition of high stress, dissonance and fragmented irregular cognitive stimulation is one of continuous forced present- tense, that we no longer have the stillness necessary to remember the past and no stability on which to build a future. Instead we are caught fire-fighting in the now, trying to keep our heads above water, Swim Good and so on. There is truth to that, but in this perpetual nowness I would argue our eyes are frantically fixated on the future. What it will be, whether we are ready for it, whether we have the sufficient skills, the required resilience, the necessary technology, whether it will be The End or The Beginning, Utopia or Dystopia. So much so that the now is not given much care at all.
The good news is that, as you have seen, I have already been there – to the future elsewhere, the end of the world where the blockchain and the unicorns live. And I decided to turn around and walk back. Why? Because I couldn’t speak or move. I was turning to goo, with no mouth and floppy limbs. Everything was said, everything was done, everything was determined. And it was terrifying. And boring. And lonely.
I am going to be blunt here. I have been beating around the bush in this text. What this is actually about are some of the subtle (at times not so subtle) fascist tendencies that seep through our contemporary unicorn-led techno futurisms. It is about a very specific form of future elsewhere that make people seek a perfect solution that will last forever more. A system that is so perfect that everything else that doesn’t fit in with it, that cannot interact (with markets, with new tech) effectively and that diverge from the model becomes mushy good-for-nothing goo.
Do not misunderstand me. And let me try and be very specific. I am not attacking “imagination” here. “Fiction” is not the problem. I do not have an issue with “blockchain” per se nor am I calling any specific person a fascist. The issue is that these abstractions and models about the future (that are tools in, not representations of, our present shimmering universe) become so caught up in themselves that they disregard what is happening here, now, and become so convincing that they would rather dismiss the present, all the mushy humans, than to acknowledge that this model of a future elsewhere might just not be working out as expected. Let me explain, going back to the example of code and the idea that it executes as is written, as opposed to natural languages that simply point to, and represent aspects of reality but are ineffective in making things happen. This understanding and distinction between the two underpins much of the fascist tendencies in the techno-futurisms I am considering that opposes a clean, flawless and precisely executing coded space with a messy, mushy world of human imperfections that unfortunately surrounds it and therefore needs its ordering, its determination. But it is an understanding of code and natural languages that is deeply flawed. This opposition does not exist as such. Natural languages also execute, but they have a different mode of execution. If we think of all the worlds we have built in the history of humankind through and with natural language concepts before the dawn of code; if we look at the conferences, whitepapers, chats and meetings that happen in the blockchain space that make people do things, it becomes quite clear. Both code and natural languages are part of (re)creating worlds, but operate differently. But more importantly, neither of them will ever fully determine the state of things. Code does not exist outside this world; it is of and in this world, and therefore the effects will be messy and never fully determined.
There is a tendency to vastly over AND underestimate ourselves in relation to technology in the creation of perfect futures. On the one hand, we are presented with “technology” as some unstoppable force that progresses in a linear manner, determining our future whether we like it or not (automation, AI, singularity etc. and so on), when actually WE ARE THE ONES BUILDING THIS STUFF. Which means if we don’t like the effects, we can (and do in fact) change, modify, update, replace, maintain (and the “we” here is a shifting area of struggle and alliances). On the other hand, the bits that we don’t fully control are all of the effects of “technology”: The universe is indeterminate and much larger than anything we can fully model. This indeterminacy does not mean defeat or futility, simply that we need to keep an eye on the effects, and change what is not working, and keep an eye on who gets to determine what “working” or “not working” means.
I urge you to shift your attention when considering blockchains, any bit of techno-utopianism to the indeterminate, the field of messy effects and possibilities, rather than the determinate stories, the clean utopias and dystopias and ends of the world, and blank slates and New Worlds that are so easily suggested. It is the fear of indeterminacy that vomits up this need for a coming Final Solution, preferring for the World To End than acknowledge that maybe there just is not such a thing as a perfect forever after, only an on-going, and stunning, process of folding and unfolding worlds. A model, a concept, a bit of code, some cryptography, these are devices, tools for temporary determinacy that in the process creates entirely new fields of indeterminacy, of unforeseen potential, possibilities, accidents and futures.
So I came back, from that future elsewhere.
And I am here, to take care of the now and see this through.
–Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway. Duke University Press
–Nakamoto, S. (2008) Bitcoin: A peer-to-peer Electronic Cash System. Available from: https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf
–Bitcoin developers mailing list available from: https://lists.linuxfoundation.org/pipermail/bitcoin-dev/
–Buterin, V. (2014) An introduction to Futarchy. Available from: https://blog. ethereum.org/2014/08/21/introduction-futarchy/
–Ethereum whitepaper, available from: https://github.com/ethereum/wiki/ wiki/White-Paper
–Jentzsch, C. (2016) Decentralized Autonomous Organization to Automate Governance. https://download.slock.it/public/DAO/WhitePaper.pdf
–Galloway, A. (2004) Protocol: How control exists after decentralisation. MIT Press
Jaya Klara Brekke: I SAW THE BLOCKCHAIN AT THE END OF THE WORLD, TURNED AROUND, AND WALKED BACK
Series edited by Janez Janša
Publisher: Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana www.aksioma.org | firstname.lastname@example.org
Represented by: Marcela Okretič
Proofreading: Philip Jan Nagel Design: Luka Umek
Layout: Sonja Grdina
(c) Aksioma | Text and image copyrights by authors | Ljubljana 2018
Printed and distributed by: Lulu.com In the framework of State Machines |
Published on the occasion of the exhibtion:
New World Order
Aksioma | Project Space Komenskega 18, Ljubljana, Slovenia 11 January–9 February 2018
Curated by: Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett / Furtherfield
Supported by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union, the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia and the Municipality of Ljubljana.