Imagining Blocktopias

Osama Khan

Abstract

            The topic of cryptocurrency and blockchain as viable contemporary technologies and mechanisms has been widely debated by a large number of social scientists, economists and tech experts.  However, while debating practicality, many of these works have not sufficiently addressed how individuals intimately involved in the industry imagine possibilities.  My paper will in turn address this gap with purposeful attention towards how and why certain imaginaries are constructed.  In order to do this, pertinent theoretical and conceptual literature will be examined regarding the composition of sociotechnical imaginaries particularly in relation to the production of utopian ideals concerning technologies and monies.  More specifically throughout my project, I will examine how the purported value of these technologies – especially blockchain – are perceived by members in the industry and how they view them in terms of potentiality.  Essentially, I argue that there is an interpretation of these elements– in both positive and negative connotations – that leads to a production of imaginaries that often progresses from Cryptopias to Blocktopias.

Introduction

            On a chilly evening in November of 2018, I decided to participate in a popular Ottawa Blockchain networking event where cryptocurrency traders, blockchain entrepreneurs, programmers, miners and even skeptics come together to simulate hands on crypto sessions.  In this game, players carry real tokens which are transacted after engaging in conversations with each other.  Each conversation (and consequently, transaction) counts as a point in the game.  As I walked around in the atrium looking for people to talk to and eagerly sending and receiving DOGE tokens with my newly minted Coinbase wallet, I started noticing a trend in the conversations.  While this meetup was structurally designed to mirror the functions of crypto trading and investment and was focused on promoting understanding of Bitcoin, discussions of cryptocurrency alone were not as present.  Sitting at a table with three other participants after the game, discussion turned towards ideas of spreading blockchain awareness, and a prospective imagining of how as a technology it will revolutionize the world.  When prompted to talk more about how they viewed blockchain, they noted that it can be “so much more”, and that “the ideals of blockchain tech in crypto: efficient exchange of assets, smart contracts, decentralization can be applied almost everywhere”.  In an attempt to initially evaluate the social conditions of the cryptocurrency community, I had inadvertently stepped into a position to assess a different perspective on the industry as whole.  Blockchain – along with being the foundation for cryptocurrency – was providing an avenue to imagine a fundamentally changed world.

             Largely, debates regarding the technologies of cryptocurrency and blockchain are concerned with practicality, viability, and economy.  Most research fails to examine the finer social details of such technology particularly regarding the perspective of intimately involved proponents.   More specifically, while contemporary research does explore the motivations and interests of various groups involved, there is not enough discussion on how these technologies mobilize a nuanced construction of imaginary futures.  In this paper I will argue that both cryptocurrency and blockchain have within their attached contingents become impetuses to constructing potentialities for an integrative future.  In particular, members of the community based on various ideological viewpoints, criteria of evaluation, and understanding of technicalities actively produce utopic visions; these ideations often begin with cryptocurrency, and are eventually succeeded by blockchain.  This argument will be posited by primarily drawing on Sheila Jasanoff’s concept of sociotechnical imaginaries and Nigel Dodd’s theoretical deconstruction of monies as utopic objects.  In addition, much of the paper is based on various methods of ethnographic field work including three to four months of participant observation conducted on several cryptocurrency trading websites, detailed interviews with active members of the community and industry, as well as analysis from meetups as described earlier.

            Before proceeding further, it would be prudent to provide some technical background on digital currencies with a primary focus on Bitcoin as well as blockchain technology.  Bitcoin is the first digital currency introduced by Satoshi Nakamoto – an unidentified individual or collective group – in 2008 through the establishment of an innovative protocol hinged on decentralization.  It followed through on a vision of allowing “online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution” (Nakamoto, 2008, p. 1).  Following the first release of open-source Bitcoin software in 2009, parties were able to mine and exchange value on a global payment network.  As mentioned, a major feature of cryptocurrencies is their decentralized nature thus purporting pricing on an unowned free market, belonging to no single person or organization.  Furthermore, the definition of what cryptocurrencies truly are if they do not qualify as money is ambiguous. 

Almost all digital currencies are “stored, transferred, bought, and sold completely online, using the Blockchain” (Lee, 2015, p. 90).  Lee further expands that blockchain technology is based on four integral tenets: transparency, decentralization, mining, and cryptography (Lee, 2015, p. 91).  The blockchain is a public distributed ledger that allows users to view the entire history of transactions for that specific currency.  Moreover, the reliance on decentralization means the removal of a middleman third party (often a banking institution in conventional transactions) that shifts the focus from a system of trust to that of proof.  In the case of Bitcoin, this is done through a consensus system called Proof-of-Work which has been the subject of change in newer currencies because of its focus on computational power.  Finally, blockchain is also actively involved in utilizing cryptography to secure all transactions, managed through the use of public and private keys provided to users.  Newer currencies such as Ethereum and Ripple are based on upgraded blockchain protocols with several major changes. In the particular case of Ethereum, these include the implementation of entire blockchain platforms for users to launch their own projects and cryptocurrencies (Ethereum Virtual Machine or EVM), smart contracts based on code, and DApps which are applications that can be created and run on decentralized blockchain (EdChain, 2018).  Crucially, these technological changes present new opportunities for blockchain to be integrated into multiple industries.

Figure 1. A basic illustration of how transactions are registered on the blockchain with regards to Bitcoin in particular. From "Blockchain Infographic", 2018, https://blockgeeks.com/guides/what-is-blockchain-technology

Figure 1. A basic illustration of how transactions are registered on the blockchain with regards to Bitcoin in particular. From "Blockchain Infographic", 2018, https://blockgeeks.com/guides/what-is-blockchain-technology

Conceptual Framework and Literature Review

            In order to understand the process of both constructing imaginaries and the focus on monies as relational characters that mediate this construct, the works of Sheila Jasanoff as well as Nigel Dodds will be examined.  In its initial permutations, Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities provided an interpretation of what collective imaginations looked like in relation to the state, “an imagined political community and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson, 1991, p. 6).  His outlining of shared imaginaries addressed the liminalities inherent between individuals in a collective by highlighting shared ideals and practices.  His postulations delivered a significant breakthrough in validating “the cultural historical and comparative investigation of the psychosocial attributes of political collectives” (Jasanoff, 2015, p. 7).  Building off of this, Charles Taylor in his essay Modern Social Imaginaries furthers the definition of imaginaries by explaining that essential and fundamental changes regarding practices, institutions, and technologies also shift the production of imaginaries.  His postulations push the concept beyond the realm of political unity into an examination of social conditions, morality, and order, “by social imaginary, I mean … the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others … the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations” (Taylor, 2004, p. 106).  Taylor’s concept also reifies the idea that the imaginary allows collectives to connote various practices as commonalities, as well as imbuing a shared sense of legitimacy.  Jasanoff in her conceptualization aims to specify how these imaginaries can theoretically bridge the gap between social and political elements.

            Exploring the mediation between non-human objects such as differing technologies and collective social groups is essential.  These mediations not only inform worldviews of the groups involved but have significant connections to structural and institutional processes.  It is a confluence of factors that leads to a development of a particular imagined reality.  Jasanoff therefore defines sociotechnical imaginaries as “collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology” (2015, p. 4).  These visions are established in a collective recognition of social progress, and can be – as opposed Anderson and Taylor’s theories – formulated and promulgated by a number of organized groups, not just nation-states, “though collectively held; sociotechnical imaginaries can originate in the visions of single individuals or small collectives” (2015, p. 4).  Therefore, more emphasis is put on the adoption of individual vision by larger parties.  Another major component of Jasanoff’s sociotechnical imaginaries is that they are actively involved in encoding “visions of what is attainable through science and technology” and also a deeper assessment of how life “ought, or ought not, be lived” (2015, p. 4).  Thus, it is established that these imaginations can also be resistant of undesirable futures.  As such, not only can technological design be impacted by these constructions, but so can social, political, and institutional narratives.  The visions underlying these narratives and imaginations change depending on the collectivity, although there is a danger of conflating multiple delineations. 

            Regarding Jasanoff’s sociotechnical imaginaries in relation to the technologies of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, there are several interesting parallels to be drawn.  The argument has and will continue to be made in this paper that members of various communities connected to the crypto and blockchain industry are actively involved in the production of utopic and dystopic visions.  In other words, sociotechnical imaginaries linked to the vision of cryptocurrency as a powerful tool in shifting the economic structures of society would be an example of a dimension of manufactured Cryptopia.  Of course, this perspective on the impact of cryptocurrency is held by certain collectives but does not necessarily resonate with all parties.  As Jasanoff pointed out, sociotechnical imaginaries can be propagated by smaller, but organized groups such as social movements, professional associations and corporations.  Her commentary on the ability of such imaginaries to originate and grow from individuals or small collectives is intensely equivalent to the introduction of Bitcoin and blockchain technology in Satoshi Nakamoto’s 2008 whitepaper.  With this landmark moment, the active encoding of a future – a Cryptopia – was centered on this peer-to-peer electronic cash system.  As time has passed, however, I would argue that the magnanimity of crypto has taken a backseat to the envisioned potentiality of blockchain as a revolutionary technology.  Therefore, much of the discursive assessment on how life can and should be lived is done so through the imaginary of Blocktopias.  It is important to note that the construction of Blocktopias as described in this paper does not exclude cryptocurrency.  Rather, cryptocurrency as has always been the case remains the primary application of blockchain as well as the most essential outlet for the technology to be propagated.  The envisioning of Blocktopias instead operates on imagining an attainable future where blockchain technology can be proliferated across several social and political developments.

In exploring Jasanoff’s deconstruction of the dichotomy of the sociotechnical imaginary – the obverse of desirable futures being a sharing of fears regarding innovation – a demonstration of utopic and potentially dystopic understandings are presented.  Insofar as positive and negative interpretations are laid out, it is of imperative value to understand this concept in relation to both utopic and dystopic understandings of monies including cryptocurrency.  An example of one such construction is that of Miscione and Kavanagh’s interpretation of an other-like, peculiar relationship between “contemporary state and digital money” as a “digital heterotopia” (2015, p. 24).  It is a converse ideation of crypto and blockchain technology that by virtue of its ideology is disruptive to contemporary state structures and actively decouples notions of states and currencies.  Regarding these potentialities, Nigel Dodd’s postulations regarding the social life of money and more specifically Bitcoin help contextualize the foundational rules for how imaginaries such as Cryptopias and Blocktopias would operate.  Dodd in The Social Life of Money argues that monetary reform in pertinence to a utopic analysis would involve viewing money “in terms of a rich field of variation: a repertoire of possibilities, not a single formula. In utopia, money would be genuinely multiple” (2014, p. 382).  The plurality of money is inherent in the constructing of the cryptocurrency market, having multiple currencies is a significant ideological tenet in promoting a peer-to-peer cash system.  This in many ways posited as a response to the 2008 financial crisis; a response to avoid economic stagnation, inflation and monopolization. 

Plurality and monetary freedom are considered to provide both structural and political benefits in the form of reducing the control and social ramifications of large banks and state outfits they are linked to.  As Dodd puts it, a pragmatic outlook on money in its most ideal formulation would be “for a genuine monetary pluralism … circulating in networks that are free to all, for individuals to use according to need and circumstance” (2014, p. 383).  Crucially, these are ideals that largely fit within the imaginary foundations of Cryptopias.  There is a fundamental desire to achieve a higher degree of monetary freedom even aside from the more extreme liberalistic perspective involving little to no regulation and a laissez-faire market.  The reality is that for cryptocurrencies to succeed as money itself, they can not adhere to their own ideology.  The technical enterprise that is Bitcoin serves as the underpinning framework for other digital currencies and as such so do its utopian ambitions.  The sovereignty over social life and institutional structures with which it had been pushed at one time has in practice been replaced by real communities, the need for social organization and structure, and a hierarchy of “wealth and power not dissimilar from the mainstream financial system” (Dodd, 2017, p. 1).  Due in part to the status of Bitcoin as an increasingly inefficient platform, there is a developing opinion of it – and other cryptocurrencies – as at most being viable alternatives to money.  Instead, there is growing trust in the foundational blockchain technology which is being “adapted for other purposes, such as Mastercoin and Ethereum, which are essentially smart contracts” (Dodd, 2017, p. 20).  It is in this deviation of interests that the progression of sociotechnical imaginaries from those of Cryptopias to Blocktopias continue to persist and intensify.

Case Studies and Discussion

            As mentioned earlier, there were several ethnographic endeavours conducted in order to formulate the arguments in this paper beyond theoretical and conceptual substantiation.  The two interviews I carried out in order to gather information and gain perspective on crypto as an industry and community were instrumental in furthering my arguments and analysis.  Both of the interlocutors were fundamentally aware and involved with crypto and blockchain in some capacity.  The first (designated as AK) is an engineer in the tech industry, having been involved with crypto trading since 2012 and has previously worked with a blockchain think tank.  The second (designated as HR) is a moderator on a major crypto trading website along with being closely involved with several major digital currencies.  Together they provided essential information and opinions that helped me form a better understanding of what Cryptopias could look like.  Starkly, much of what I received from them in the way of mobilizing cryptocurrency as an ideological and political tool was a sobering assessment of that classic libertarian ideal as a non-sum factor in the present day climate.  Bitcoin’s initial introduction to the world was accompanied by a long prevailing idea of digital currencies as anti-establishment and significant proponents in overthrowing the state in a quasi anarchist fashion.  Instead, as HR states, there is a more commonly held recognition now that an “anarcho-capitalist, or libertarian future” is an “antiquated way of understanding crypto and blockchain technology”.  While this subset still persists, pertinent ethnography suggests that most reflexive members of the community see these technologies as gateways towards progressing society rather than radically changing it.  AK maintains that normalizing crypto is “definitely a step in the right direction”, but is “not going to change the world”.   This particular conception of Cryptopia has tenuous connections to neo-liberal ideas, but HR still argues that “cryptocurrencies are essential in morphing how we’re understanding money in a digital landscape … understanding the need for plural options”.  Here, HR’s postulations corroborate Nigel Dodd’s previously discussed ideas regarding monetary plurality and the notion of multiple currencies leading to higher levels of systemic resilience, political openness and financial inclusion.

            There is also a significant amount of commentary on how cryptocurrencies can be actively involved through further instantiation in the reconfiguration of social structures and order.  Although the interviewees’ understanding of these impacts are similar to their earlier assessments, they do recognize and note the role of sociality in crypto processes.  Essentially, this mirrors the recognition of Nigel Dodd in pointing out that cryptocurrency heavily relies on various features such as social organization, structure, and trust (2017, p. 3).  Crucially, HR notes that “there’s a definite social element that transcends discussions on forums … the technology operates on transparency and consensus between peers”.  In addition, AK posits that technological design focused on consensus means that “splits in the community” can only be mediated when users all “agree on a change”.  Regardless of how discourse largely abides in pertinence to cryptocurrency, its decentralized nature is imperative in separating it from classical ways to make and send money.  HR comments on this by avowing decentralization as vital in “evening the playing field.  Everyone can participate regardless of what they look like, where they’re from, or who they know”.  Adversely, another view of Cryptopia could discuss the various negative implications that these technologies could bring about as put by Reijers and Coeckelbergh: namely the increased rigidity of social relations, a loss of a sense of freedom and responsibility as a result of blockchain structure, as well as a gap developed by the technology between developers and other users (2018, p. 128).  The contradictions between this perspective and that of those involved and participating in the industry are salient.  Of course there are instances of dissonance between scholars as well.  Cryptopic imaginaries in this case thus qualify as facets of both desirable and undesirable constructions.  However, to this point, these Cryptopias are largely understated and only weakly fit within the sociotechnical mold defined by Sheila Jasanoff.  Therefore, it is vital to observe how discourse on digital currencies have been altered and how blockchain separated from crypto has increasingly become the subject of collective utopic imagination.

Significantly, three months of participant observation on cryptocurrency trading sites and public discussion forums provided insight on common social behaviour and discourse within the community.  In many ways, the topics of discussion were rather similar to those I heard at the meetup in Ottawa between locals.  Commentary resided on prudent investment choices, the fluctuations in price and value of various digital currencies, as well as how certain currencies were changing the game and whether those changes were significant.  Chiefly however, there were two extremely noticeable and interesting points of comparison: the rhetoric of communication delivered and the consistency in prospective imaginary dialogue.  The first point of observation is easier to illustrate as it is most likely due to the anonymous nature of Internet discussion as opposed to face-to-face communication.  Notoriously, the online crypto community is partial to using colloquialisms that have become pseudo-memes including FOMO (fear of missing out) employed by users urging others to not make rash emotional decisions, ‘shill’ when describing people endorsing certain coins, and FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) which was most prevalent in provoking reactions and backlash.  This type of behaviour was commented on by AK stating that much of this rhetoric is based on how “people’s psychology directly influences … the price they’re willing to buy and sell at and so because of that, other people are incentivized to promote [dis]information”.  The projection of persona in online discourse is important to point out for this paper as it highlights a key element of contemporary valuations of cryptocurrency from within the community itself.

While conducting my fieldwork on multiple sites, I began to realize that much of the online discussion surrounding digital currencies was purely involved with intentions for making money.  This is more than understandable; investing in digital currencies is inherently linked with the idea of returns in monetary form.  What I noticed largely, however, was that there was a distinct lack of interest or even conversation regarding technological innovation.  Significantly, most of the rhetoric on Ethereum and Ripple trading forums would portend drops in value and an increasing disinterest in investing in these currencies.  Regarding this, AK commented on how Bitcoin continues to dominate the market as people who invest in it are “mainly just trying to make money” while those that invest in other currencies may be involved in supporting technological innovation.  He says that he is one of those people, but that his Ethereum investments have unsurprisingly performed poorly, describing it as “a bad thing for [him] to invest in something [he] believes in”.  There are a number of examples of how the optimism in cryptocurrencies alone as revolutionary technologies is beginning to dwindle in comparison to its early introduction and the big investor boom in 2017:

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Figure 2.  An example of how discourse has shifted from promoting crypto as a transformative phenomenon

Figure 2. An example of how discourse has shifted from promoting crypto as a transformative phenomenon

Therefore, idealization of Cryptopias begins to increasingly appear as one more dependent on investment and market capitalization; this would make it a formulation that would not qualify as a sociotechnical imaginary.  Discourse of blockchain on the other hand both online, in person, and in my interviews proved to interpret it as a far more ubiquitous, and less ideologically challenged technology.

Up until this point, for all intents and purposes, the description of Cryptopias and Blocktopias overlapped.  However, there is a discernable and significant difference between the two that must be recognized.  On an online forum thread for Ethereum, one user posted a graphic of a three stage rocket ship.  The user explained that Bitcoin served as the foundation of this revolutionary journey, followed by Ethereum and then Ripple where Ripple due to its innovative implementations to blockchain protocol would take the “rocket to its desired location”.  The construction and subsequent imagination of the rocket ship taking flight and arriving at its designated location is an active example of Blocktopia as a sociotechnical imaginary.  More specifically, the ways in which both AK and HR described blockchain in comparison to cryptocurrency specifically demonstrate how there is a greater assumption of technological impact within the potential implementation of blockchain technology.  AK took a measured response in gauging blockchain, “people still believe in blockchain despite having that negative aftertaste of cryptocurrency … [they] separate the idea of … the toxic cryptocurrency industry” and that “firsthand … I know that blockchain is very useful in specific scenarios”.  There seems to be an inherent understanding that most people that joined the business of cryptocurrency before its explosion in popularity in 2017 were more easily prepared to engage in the production of Cryptopic imaginaries.  Subsequently, they were prepared to deal with the natural progression into Blocktopic imaginaries.  This was also evident in HR who presented a more optimistic view altogether, “cryptocurrencies are important for the future, but I would say blockchain is imperative … Having worked with [blockchain], it’s difficult … but the uses are immeasurable”.  These assessments of blockchain are echoed by major members of the community:

Figure 3.  Joseph Lubin, co-founder of Ethereum speaks about the potential of Blockchain as a revolutionary technical movement

Figure 3. Joseph Lubin, co-founder of Ethereum speaks about the potential of Blockchain as a revolutionary technical movement

As is pointed out in that chain of tweets by Ethereum co-founder Joseph Lubin, there are a plethora of assumed applications of blockchain technology across multiple industries.  The words of Lubin and other major players in the industry may be biased but that is immaterial in pertinence to the hypotheses put forward in this project.  The fact of the matter is that individuals enveloped within this collective are founding their sociotechnical imaginaries based on blockchain technology.  The subsequent creation of Blocktopias embody visions of how the world can and should be interpreted within this new paradigm.  While crypto still plays a major role in this configuration, blockchain supersedes it as the popular mechanism by which imaginaries are formed by engineers, programmers, developers, investors, entrepreneurs, enthusiasts and skeptics.   As opposed to the production of Cryptopias which predominantly boil down into profiteering, blockchain technology as a result of its focus on innovation and widespread application inspires a legitimate sociotechnical imaginary – whether it be positive or negative.  Therefore, as the discourse flows, so too do its relative utopic constructions.

Conclusion

            Academic discourse on cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology has been predominantly focused on debating questions of viability, potential impact on prevailing political and economic structures, as well as practicality within an increasingly technological world.  With that being said, this paper has sought to explore how collectives within these communities attempt to produce imaginaries in pertinence to these technologies.  Building off the conceptualizations of Sheila Jasanoff’s sociotechnical imaginaries, as well as Nigel Dodd’s commentary on the social connotations and utopic properties of monies, I put forth an argument that sociotechnical imaginaries contemporarily produced by collectives are framed within two major technological delineations.  In particular, I posit that most people who entered the business of trading and investing in cryptocurrencies earlier on in its lifespan developed the sociotechnical imaginary of Cryptopias.   These Cryptopias are largely characterized by their fundamental shifting in how value is constructed and derived, as well the intrinsic social configurations that are affected and at the same time affect the industry itself.  However, the key part of the argument pushed in this paper is that due to the shared recourse of rhetoric regarding cryptocurrencies, it can no longer be considered a viable subject in constructing sociotechnical imaginaries.  As a result, collective imaginations of Cryptopias have made way for Blocktopias while still manifesting several characteristics of the former.  The Blocktopia competently and popularly inhabits itself within the definition of sociotechnical imaginary as it ubiquitously applies itself in visions of desirable futures by virtue of its nature.  Commenting on the collective construction of imaginaries within this community develops an understanding of blockchain technologies as something more than purely technical.  By recognizing the existence of Blocktopias, we can form better evaluations of how such potentialities configure and reconfigure social and political formations.  Furthermore, it provides room for further analysis into describing the relationships between individuals, collectives and the technology itself. The Blocktopia is not an inherently positive or negative construction and as such interpretations of both latent possibility, potentiality and problematics can be drawn.

 

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