Crypto-Current (064)

§5.8612 — Decentralization of the ledger requires massive multiplication, and thus an effective method of compression. Only in this way does it become tractable to distributed, modestly-sized nodes. The crucial computer science innovation in this regard is the Merkle Tree. The capabilities drawn upon date back over a decade before linked timestamping, with Ralph Merkle’s original hash tree patent was granted in 1979.[1]

§5.86121 — Hashes are economizations.[2] They reduce the cost of checking, by securely summarizing units of data, and therefore cheapen the process of verification. Any radically decentralized (open fully-peer-to-peer) network is necessarily trustless, since it connects strangers in the absence of validating authorities. Consisting of both massively redundant distributed databases and numerous untrusted nodes, checking is at once especially inconvenienced, and especially necessary.

§5.86122 — As their name suggests, Merkle Trees map an order of proliferation, typically – though not necessarily – modeled by successive bifurcation. Their function, however, is the precise inverse of tree-like exponential growth. A Merkle Tree works towards its roots, in increments of convergence. As users proceed down the tree, hashes of network content are bundled, recursively, into ever more comprehensive groups. The ‘root’ or (confusingly) ‘top hash’ over-hashes the entire tree. It thus serves as a concise compendium for the entire network, against which the hash of any file (or block) can be conveniently checked. Recursive hashing – hashes of hashes of (ever more) hashes – is the principle of the ‘tree’.

§5.86122 — Cryptographic hashing has a peculiarly intimate[3] relationship with cryptocurrency, and thus with money as such in its emergent characteristics. This is in part, and primarily, because the hash is the privileged semiotic of singularity – to the extent that ‘hash collision’ is calamitous for it. Hashing therefore tends to affinity with the allocative or economic sign.


[1] Ralph Merkle’s hash-tree patent (US4309569A) is titled a “Method of providing digital signatures”. Its abstract (in full) runs: “The invention comprises a method of providing a digital signature for purposes of authentication of a message, which utilizes an authentication tree function of a one-way function of a secret number.” The description that follows expands upon its potential applications. “The present invention has been described with respect to authentication of signatures. However, its use is not limited to signatures. It may be used to authenticate a piece of information in a list of information, or one item in a list of items.”

The patent can be accessed online at: https://patents.google.com/patent/US4309569

[2] See §2.31

[3] See §3.422-4

Crypto-Current (063)

§5.8611 — Even before timestamps were conceptually, and then practically, linked, a timestamp was already a ‘trusted timestamp’ if it was anything. Verifiable dating of digital documents poses a problem closely analogous to that of digital money, brought to a point of criticality by the ease of perfect replication. In both cases, initial solutions involved procedures of formal vouching by trusted third parties. For timestamps, the role of supervised banks is taken by Time Stamping Authorities (TSAs).[1] Public Key Cryptography is employed to render time-stamps indelible – resistant to modification by anyone accessing the document in question, including its creator.

§5.86111 — Linked timestamping draws primarily on work by Haber and Stornetta, dating back to the beginning of the 1990s.[2] This work was directed towards secure notarization, which is to say the verification – within a digital environment – of a document’s historical existence, with special reference to questions of priority. A facility of this kind has obvious relevance to legal documents, such as contracts and intellectual property claims. Linking timestamps adds dynamic to the procedure, by extending it to digital entities undergoing successive modification, such as changing inventories, and accounts. At each (discrete) stage of transformation, an additional timestamp is signed, or (in later versions) hashed, constituting a chain, pointing into an increasingly edit-resistant past. Each timestamp in the chain envelops the preceding series. It thus establishes public order, or absolute succession, in which the past is uncontroversial, and secure. As Satoshi Nakamoto notes in the Bitcoin paper, “Each timestamp includes the previous timestamp in its hash, forming a chain, with each additional timestamp reinforcing the ones before it.”

§5.86112 — A series of linked timestamps is already, at least in embryo (or larva), a ‘block-chain’. The stamps operate as irreducible moments, whose order is settled (immanently) by embedding. Their time is sheer order, without cardinality. Any timestamping system nevertheless inherits a time-keeping procedure, amounting to a fully-functional calendar, whose granulated ‘dates’ it competently codes. Unix time is the most widely applied system of this kind. Bitcoin adopts it.[3]

§5.86113 — Taking timestamping into trustlessness was a development that had to await Bitcoin.[4] While linked timestamping provides the basic architecture for secure (edit-resistant) ledgers, their robust decentralization depends upon additional cryptographic advances, supporting validation, compression, and consensus.  


[1] As the Internet Society remarks in 2001, in proposing the RFC 3161 Internet X.509 Public Key Infrastructure Time-Stamp Protocol: “In order to associate a datum with a particular point in time, a Time Stamp Authority (TSA) may need to be used. This Trusted Third Party provides a ‘proof-of-existence’ for this particular datum at an instant in time.”

See: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc3161

[2] See: Haber, S. and Stornetta, W.S. ‘How to time-stamp a digital document’ (1991)

[3] Unix time counts forwards, in seconds, from 00:00:00, January 1, 1970, (a Thursday). It ignores leap seconds, treating the length of each day as 86,400 seconds. It therefore gradually drifts from Universal Time.

When encoded in 32-bit format this time system reaches (Y2K-type) crisis on January 19, 2038. This poses no direct threat to Bitcoin, which employs a fully future-competent 64-bit Unix time code.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unix_time

[4] See (for e.g.): Bela Gipp, Norman Meuschke, and André Gernandt, ‘Decentralized Trusted Timestamping using the Crypto Currency Bitcoin’ (National Institute of Informatics Tokyo, Japan, 2015)

https://www.gipp.com/wp-content/papercite-data/pdf/gipp15a.pdf

Crypto-Current (062)

§5.861 — The early 1990s saw the conceptual innovation of robust (or ‘append-only’) data-structures capable of providing secure ledgers. Such structures introduce a gradient. They make data-bases sedimentary, and time-like.[1] The past is protected against revision, as a type of artificial, hard or ideal memory. Irrevocable commitments were thus digitally supportable. Since backing out of an executed deal is the typical mode of double-spending, a capability for the hardening of commitments has special relevance to the implementation of cryptocurrency. Indeed, its importance is such that there is a tendency among much Bitcoin commentary to reduce the innovation to ‘the blockchain’ which is itself then summarized as a distributed, revision-resistant ledger. Remaining within the Narayanan and Clark schema, the technological lineages leading to the emergence of such decentralized chronotypic databases are themselves susceptible to further triadic classification. Specifically, they assemble advances in the fields of linked time-stamping, Merkle trees, and byzantine fault tolerance.


[1] Narayanan and Clark capture the philosophical essentials well. “In a simplified version of Haber and Stornetta’s proposal, documents are constantly being created and broadcast. The creator of each document asserts a time of creation and signs the document, its timestamp, and the previously broadcast document. This previous document has signed its own predecessor, so the documents form a long chain with pointers backwards in time. An outside user cannot alter a timestamped message since it is signed by the creator, and the creator cannot alter the message without also altering the entire chain of messages that follows. Thus, if you are given a single item in the chain by a trusted source (e.g., another user or a specialized timestamping service), the entire chain up to that point is locked in, immutable, and temporally ordered.”

https://queue.acm.org/detail.cfm?id=3136559

Crypto-Current (061)

§5.86 — Arvind Narayanan and Jeremy Clark helpfully decompose cryptocurrency – as initiated by the Bitcoin synthesis – into three functional modules, which can be traced back along distinct technical lines. Crossing the threshold into cryptocurrency requires bringing together a resilient decentralized registry, secure value-tokens, and a gauge of computational contribution, in a fully-converged operational singularity.[1] Within this combination, each thread exposes its complicity with an abstracted realization of money, in one of its three ineliminable semiotic aspects. The index of value-storage, the sign of accountancy, and the token of actual payment (i.e. exchange), are the exhaustive, irreducible, indispensable, and mutually-dependent features of any functional monetary order.


[1] See: Arvind Narayanan and Jeremy Clark, ‘Bitcoin’s Academic Pedigree’ (2017). Bitcoin is a triadic dynamo. “In bitcoin, a secure ledger is necessary to prevent double spending and thus ensure that the currency has value. A valuable currency is necessary to reward miners. In turn, strength of mining power is necessary to secure the ledger. Without it, an adversary could amass more than 50 percent of the global mining power and thereby be able to generate blocks faster than the rest of the network, double-spend transactions, and effectively rewrite history, overrunning the system. Thus, bitcoin is bootstrapped, with a circular dependence among these three components.”

Crypto-Current (060)

§5.854 — Chaum has a reputation for prickliness which intrudes into the story-line, at least insofar as it led him to turn down an offer of US$100 million from Microsoft to incorporate DigiCash into Windows 95. It is difficult not to see history fork here. An alternative history exists in which cryptocurrency was mainstreamed by the late 20th Century. With cryptocurrency having missed this early turn-off into actuality, the types now arriving are almost certainly harder, and more socially abrasive, than they might have been. It seems as if the Ultras booked a pre-emptive win.

Crypto-Current (059)

§5.85 — Perhaps not finally, but at least additionally, and decisively, there is the lineage of cryptocurrency innovation itself. It arose from the application of public key cryptography (PKC) to the specific problem of monetary transactions. The work of David Chaum, in the early 1980s, was especially decisive in this regard. Chaum’s 1983 paper on ‘Blind Signatures for Untraceable Cash’ was a landmark advance.[1] The problem it sought to solve was specific to the meaning of cash. Digital money is comparatively straightforward. It requires only the secure transmission of bank account details across the Internet, and appropriate modification of balances. Cash is more difficult (in rough inverse proportion to its superior facility). It has to operate like a bearer bond, making no reference to the identity of its holder. A cash payment is nobody else’s business.

§5.851 — Blind signatures, like cash, had a pre-digital instantiation. They required only carbon paper, envelopes, and rigorous method.[2] Everything was dependent upon procedure.

§5.852 — The basis for strong digital signatures was established by asymmetric or ‘public key’ cryptography in the mid- to late-1970s.[3] The further step to digital blind signatures was required to make these cash-like. Already with PKC there is suggestive ‘blindness’. It enables any particular private key to be recognized without ever being seen. A public key is able to validate a private key without displaying it. This already provides a strong analogy for the function of signatures, which are ideally identifiable without being reproducible. In the digital arena, where the ability to authenticate seems more obviously bound to a technical option to forge, the near-paradoxical demand placed upon traditional signatures becomes more evident. Chaum notes further that signatures are reliable only if conserved. An additional near-paradoxical demand placed upon them is that they cannot be repeatedly copied.[4]

§5.853 — Chaum’s insight was properly transcendental-philosophical, or diagonal. It achieved the apparently impossible, translating cash into Cyberspace, by conceptually breaking the false tautology of authentication and identification. The new diagonal creature thus released was the verified but anonymous holder of communicable virtual property. Something like a prototypical cryptocurrency is thus initiated.[5] Chaumian cash, or ‘ecash’ was actualized as DigiCash in 1989, which survived into 1998.


[1] Chaum, David — ‘Blind Signatures for Untraceable Cash’, Advances in Cryptology Proceedings 82 (3) (1983)

http://www.hit.bme.hu/~buttyan/courses/BMEVIHIM219/2009/Chaum.BlindSigForPayment.1982.PDF

[2] For the purpose of analogy, Chaum notes (in his Blind Signatures paper) that an off-line anticipation of the procedure is provided by certain ballot validation systems. In these, too, identification (of a legitimate voter) has to be combined with the preservation of anonymity. This can be achieved by enclosing the ballot in a carbon paper sheath that certifies the voter’s credentials. An election official signs this envelope, transferring the signature to the unseen ballot inside. The sheath is then discarded, leaving the authenticated but anonymous ballot to be safely cast. Neither signer nor eventual vote-counter are able to connect the ‘message’ (vote decision) with the individual who transmits it, and who has nevertheless been securely certified to do so.

In the paper, Chaum re-describes the system algebraically to identify the algorithm:

(1) Provider chooses x at random such that r(x), forms c(x), and supplies c(x) to signer.

(2) Signer signs c(x) by applying s’ and returns the signed matter s’(c(x)) to provider. …

(3) Provider strips signed matter by application of c’, yielding c’(s’(c(x))) = s’(x).

(4) Anyone can check that the signed matter s’(x) was formed by the signer, by applying the signers public key s and checking that r(s(s’(x))).

[3] Asymmetric cryptography is the principal topic of the subsequent chapter.

[4] In Chaum’s algebraic formulation, even with s’(c(x1)) … s’(c(xn)) and choice of c, c’, and xi, it is impractical to produce s’(y), such that r(y) and y≠xi.

[5] Chaumian cash falls short of a full cryptocurrency. It is not, for instance, denominated in its own currency units. (No mechanism for currency production is involved.) Its deficiencies do not stop there. Reliance on banking institutions remains undiminished. Perhaps most defectively, it is only able to support a single monetary denomination, of arbitrary scale, but then unchangeably. Host currency inflation would therefore eventually degrade it. In Chaum’s words: “The critical concept is that the bank will sign anything with its private key, but anything so signed is worth a fixed amount, say $1.”  

Crypto-Current (058)

§5.8 — Whether history ‘in general’ is anything other than the history of money remains an open question. Certainly, the distinction between ‘history’ and ‘pre-history’ seems to have been decided by monetary innovation. The earliest digital recordings are accounts.[1] In the beginning was the registry. If this distribution of emphasis seems unbalanced, the fact that – in our own time – a distributed ledger manifests primarily as a monetary innovation tends, nevertheless, to vindicate it. Commentary in the “Bitcoin is about much more than money” vein, while copious, also comes later.[2] The monetary model sets the matrix.

§5.81 — A bitcoin, or part of a bitcoin, is a number of numbers, or several. In this it reproduces an abstract structure that is essential to the nature of money, in any of its variants, although realized at very different degrees of formalization. The semiotic complexity of money is expressed by a multiplicity of numerical dimensions. (Money not only quantifies, it quantifies multiplicitously.) Even prior to the introduction of allocation as a topic, monetary numbers divide by signification and designation. They function arithmetically as counting numbers and indexically as registry numbers (indices). The distinction is illustrated by the coexistence of a denomination number and a serial number on every bank note. The final term in the semiotic triad – the allocative number – corresponds to a tallying of bank notes, for instance – most concretely – through their bundling into ‘bricks’. These dimensions are primeval. Yuval Noah Hariri writes (in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, p.182): “The first coins in history were struck around 640 BC by King Alyattes of Lydia, in western Anatolia. These coins had a standardized weight of gold or silver, and were imprinted with an identification mark. The mark testified to two things. First, it indicated how much precious metal the coin contained. Second, it identified the authority that issued the coin and that guaranteed its contents.” The coin bears an index of composition and a sign of credentials. The third semiotic dimension is added in a counting house, and introduces – from the beginning – the ledger.

§5.82 — Every commercial transaction involves a conversion into numbers. There is no primordial difference between monetary circulation and digitization, recognized as the historical process. In its narrower, electronic sense, however, the digitization of money does not date back very far. The first electronic money precedes Bitcoin by no more than half a century. Precursors are retrospectively identifiable, including charge coins, charge cards, ‘charga-plates’, and air travel cards. Western Union began issuing charge cards to frequent customers as early as 1921, but the runaway electronic ‘derealization’ of money is a far more recent phenomenon.[3] The first credit card[4] – accessing a bank account by means of a plastic identification document – was the BankAmericard, launched in September 1958 (and renamed ‘Visa’ in 1977). It took another eight years for the system to be extended beyond the United States (to Britain, with the ‘Barclaycard’, in 1966). The spread of electronic banking outside the English-speaking world was far slower still. Widespread adoption of the new monetary medium in Continental Europe, for instance, did not take place until the final decade of the 20th century. Most of the world skipped this stage of monetary evolution altogether.

§5.821 Electronic monetary transfers – as required by credit cards – are not yet an online payment system. The former involves electronic settlement, but not yet digital cash.[5] Electronic bank credit operates exclusively between trusted parties. The cash-like aspect of the transaction takes place offline, between the cardholder and the goods or services provider. Even here, some basic characteristics of cash are sacrificed, most notably anonymity. It is ‘cash’ in this reduced sense that is translated online by the first consumer-level digital money services, exemplified by PayPal.[6]

§5.83 — It was not the personal computer that set the frame for the next stage of money’s technological evolution, but the mobile phone. Within this new epoch of consumer electronics, ‘personalization’ is intensified, through heightened communicative-orientation and the massive distribution of computational capability.[7] It is easy to miss the full complexity of the mobile phone as a technological nexus. Not only does it serve as a telecommunications and Internet-access device, but also as a scanner, and a personal identity hub. In combination, these features enable convenient, efficient, and passably secure monetary transactions. The serendipitous contribution of an in-built camera to the mobile phone’s function as a monetary platform is especially worthy of note. A facile photographic shot closes the transaction. The era of the bar-code thus passes into that of the QR-code.

§5.831 — The age of mobile payments dates back only to 2007. In that year, Safaricom and Vodacom, the largest mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania respectively, released their M-Pesa mobile-phone based finance application, developed by Vodafone. ‘M-Pesa’ abbreviates ‘mobile money’ in hybrid tech-jargon and Swahili. The application was designed to support elementary banking services on wireless telecommunications, in drastically under-banked societies. It enabled monetary exchanges between users, with the additional capability to facilitate microfinance credit. Anybody with identity certification (such as a national ID card or passport) could use M-Pesa to deposit, withdraw, or transfer money through their mobile device. Its rate of adoption exceeded all expectation, resulting on social, cultural, and commercial success on a now already legendary scale. From its take-off point in East Africa, the service was subsequently expanded into Afghanistan, South Africa, and India, reaching Eastern Europe in 2014. It has been in China, however, that the new fusion of money and telecommunications has developed most explosively. China’s mobile payment market has been opened by its Internet giants Alibaba and Tencent. Up to late 2015, Alipay dominated, accounting for over two-thirds of mobile purchases by value. Tencent’s competitor system, based upon its WeChat[8] social media application, consolidated its position through a highly-successful marketing campaign themed by digital emulation of traditional ‘red-envelope’ monetary gifts. By the first quarter of 2017, Alipay and WeChat between them were servicing 94% of the country’s mobile payment market. Chinese late-mover advantage has enabled the country to leap-frog plastic, transitioning directly from paper to wireless. By early 2017, US online payments amounted to scarcely 2% of the Chinese figure (which had reached the equivalent of US$8 trillion).

§5.84 — The story of electronic money is not exhaustively subsumed into that of banking. In has various quite separate lineages, of greater and lesser independence. One of the most important of these passes through online multi-user environments and games. The fictional quality of in-game monetary systems has shielded them from regulatory scrutiny, to a degree that cannot easily be philosophically defended. They thus open a zone of special interest in regards to the ontology of money.[9] What is the relation of ‘real’ money to simulated money? Virtual currencies, such as the Linden Dollars (L$) of Second Life, made this question ineluctable. If online ‘pretend’ currencies had an exchange value denominated in offline ‘real’ currencies – as they soon did – how solid could any ontological discrimination between the two be? It began to dawn upon commentators that a new age of private currency issuance had been surreptitiously initiated. It is perhaps a matter of mere historical contingency that far more consequential developments have not yet been catalyzed in this zone. There are few obvious limits to what might have come.

§5.841 — The industrialization of virtual currency production in the crypto-epoch was partially anticipated by the phenomenon of ‘gold farming’ in the world of MMORPGs (or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games). Many of the most popular MMORPGs permit trading in items of in-game value. For instance, a special weapon acquired at the cost of much (in-game) effort and peril, and therefore scarce enough to be precious, might be surrendered by one avatar to another in exchange for an out-of-game payment between their respective players. Such arrangements called out for economic rationalization, through specialization, concentration, and Internet-enabled geographical labor arbitrage. China’s business renaissance during the reform-and-opening period coincided with the emergence of this opportunity, and its new entrepreneurs moved nimbly to take advantage. Tedious game play was quickly transformed into commoditized labor, as cheap, capable, Chinese youngsters were organized by upstart businesses to undertake grueling virtual activities. Such ‘gold farms’ thus functioned as exchanges. Through them, game currencies could be laundered into ‘real’ money. A Möbian economic circulation now crossed seamlessly between the virtual and the actual.


[1] See Denise Schmandt-Bessera, The Earliest Precursor of Writing (1977 / 06): “Evidently a system of accounting that made use of tokens was widely used not only at Nuzi and Susa but throughout western Asia from as long ago as the ninth millennium BC to as recently as the second millennium.”

http://en.finaly.org/index.php/The_earliest_precursor_of_writing

[2] Morgen E. Peck writes: “… money is only the first, and perhaps the most boring, application enabled by Bitcoin technology.”  http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/networks/the-future-of-the-web-looks-a-lot-like-bitcoin

[3] Conceived as a popular cultural theme, the guideline to the plastic phase of money was invisibility. In this respect it evidences a teleological model, defining an axis of progress. Monetary improvement is sublimation, or dematerialization. In accordance with classical precedent, finality is identified with the pure idea, beyond all contamination by, or compromise with, particular substance. As previously noted, something more than a convergence with mathematical Platonism is at work here. The history of money – whether actual or fantastic – does not draw upon idealism as an extrinsic inspiration. Rather, it idealizes practically, and even preemptively. Elimination of friction – as implicit and later explicit goal – serves as a convenient proxy for the monetary ideal. Keynesian derision of the “barbarous relic” – the primitive lump sum – is once again the critical reference. Progress – conceived implicitly as financial dematerialization – is projected into space as a ripple pattern. Differential adoption rates and patterns of diffusion mark out stages of development, organized by a definite telos (distinguishing advanced from primitive money). According to this schema, at the end of money, the transaction coincides exactly with its Idea. The medium is then nothing. If the notion of a direct private relation without frictional mediation carries certain historic-religious associations, these are probably not coincidental.

[4] The term ‘credit card’ seems to have first been employed by Edward Bellamy, in his utopian-socialist novel Looking Backward (1887). 

[5] Marc Andreessen says of Bitcoin, in a Washington Post interview (May 21, 2014): “…if we had had this technology 20 years ago, we would’ve built it into the browser. […] E-commerce would’ve gotten built on top of this, instead of getting built on top of the credit card network. We knew we were missing this; we just didn’t know what it was. There is no reason on earth for anybody to be on the Internet today to be typing in a credit card number to buy something. It’s insane …”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2014/05/21/marc-andreessen-in-20-years-well-talk-about-bitcoin-like-we-talk-about-the-internet-today/

[6] PayPal was created from the merger of Confinity (founded in December 1998 by Ken Howery, Max Levchin, Luke Nosek, and Peter Thiel) with X.com (founded in March 1999 by Elon Musk). The new company was established in March 2000, acquiring its name the following year. PayPal went public in February 2002, in an IPO that generated over $61 million. The company was sold to eBay in July of the same year for $1.5 billion. (The resulting Musk and Thiel fortunes have been among the most nourishing seed-beds of 21st century capitalism.) The extreme synergy between eBay’s online market-making business and PayPal’s secure digital payment service propelled its initial growth, first in the US, then through eBay’s international business, and finally beyond eBay. PayPal was spun-off from eBay in July 2015, following the firm recommendation of hedge fund manager Carl Icahn. It began to accept bitcoin in September 2014, announcing partnerships with Coinbase, BitPay, and GoCoin. While PayPal has been rewarded by the market for its pioneering role in facilitating financial transactions over electronic networks, its limitations are severe, and in the age of cryptocurrency increasingly obvious. Its users are entirely unprotected from the company’s radical discretion, and receive no exit benefits from the service in respect to the national-financial regime in which they operate. Essentially, PayPal adds a new ‘trusted third party’ to the financial ecology, and one of minimal autonomy. Nothing very much has been disrupted by it.

[7] The resonance between mobile consumer technology and portability as an essential monetary quality cannot be coincidental to the emergence of mobile currency. A desktop wallet is patently inconvenient. By its abstract nature, money is destined to eventual convergence with the communicative situation in general, which it tends to haunt as an accessible semiotic dimension. Wherever speech can occur, the potential for contractual execution will finally follow. Only in this way is Homo economicus completed. At the confluence of these currents lies the inevitable formula: Money is speech. It not only assumes, in the Anglosphere cultural context, informal and formal constitutional protection in the cynical culmination of liberalism. The claim extends further – into identity with the claim as such. Money – the pure power of acquisition – seizes for itself the mantle of realizable logos. The conceptual fusion of the smart contract is reversible. Transactions can be augmented by machine intelligence because intelligence is inherently transactional. Minds and market-places tend to convergence.

[8] The scale of WeChat (微信, Wēixìn) can be hard for those outside China to appreciate. With over a billion regular users, the application is truly ubiquitous. WeChat messaging accounts for over a third of the country’s (massive) mobile phone usage.

[9] Given the striking philosophical importance of (ludic) virtual currencies, the social under-development of the problem is remarkable. An obvious exit ramp from the Macro financial regime has been almost entirely ignored.

Crypto-Current (057)

§5.7 —Nick Szabo begins his (2005) proposal for ‘Bit gold’[1] with the remark: “A long time ago I hit upon the idea of bit gold. The problem, in a nutshell, is that our money currently depends on trust in a third party for its value. …” Even monetized precious metals, he notes, have involved trusted third parties in their validation. Worse still “you can’t pay online with metal. Thus, it would be very nice if there were a protocol whereby unforgeably costly bits could be created online with minimal dependence on trusted third parties, and then securely stored, transferred, and assayed with similar minimal trust. Bit gold.” Bit gold in this respect is indistinguishable from Bitcoin.

§5.71 — There is something at work here that the psychoanalytically-inclined might gloss as a return of the repressed. Since the triumph of paper over metal has been the central public narrative of 20th Century monetary history, the effect is unsettling – even uncanny. The metallic model was supposed to have been left behind. More specifically, the populations of ‘sophisticated’ or macroeconomically-managed and thus at least partially post-capitalist societies were supposed to have been educated out of it, automatically. Nothing more distinctly signals economic primitivism among such peoples than metalized wealth. Explicit lessons had seemed unnecessary, therefore. A return of gold from the economic margins looked no more likely than a restoration of Germanic Paganism.[2]

§5.72 — Among the attractions of abstract metal, none exceeds its inherited, intrinsic, adamantine resistance to discretion. Formalized negatively, with maximum concision, Alchemy is impossible.[3] Gold has no greater virtue than this. It precludes magic, as silver repels werewolves.[4] The replication of this characteristic within a digital simulation is Bitcoin’s most basic achievement. It has realized homeopathic gold. Not a molecule of the original substance remains, yet the solution still delivers the cure. Fully-abstract gold has been modernity’s obscure goal from the beginning. ‘Invisible’ credit money was its defective preliminary draft. Bitcoin, it turns out, is the true Philosopher’s Stone.

§5.73 — Since Bitcoin has no central mint, it cannot generate revenue in a way strictly equivalent to seigniorage. It does, however, permit of a close analog. Early-stage miners of Bitcoin (or any related cryptocurrency) are able to accumulate substantial holdings with comparative ease, perhaps amounting to a significant proportion of the total (ultimate) stock. Similarly, early speculative investors can afford to take a commanding position in the currency during the early stages of introduction, when its price remains comparatively – and even, one might speculatively predict, absurdly – low. Of course, the introduction of speculative hazard into this analysis is already the pre-emption of a capitalistic justification. Once Bitcoin’s prospects begin to be taken seriously, these early intimations of moral-political discomfort translate into acute concerns about the profound inequality of bitcoin distribution,[5] pitched upwards into vociferous fervor in direct proportion to the extent that such spiky stock holdings could now actually mean something. Yet even for the super-rich – defined narrowly for these purposes as those with personal assets exceeding the value of the entire bitcoin supply at present prices – optimizing a financial position in the crypto-currency at this early stage in its history involves a complex game. Since any attempt to monopolize the entire stock of coins would suppress the value of BTC as a circulatory medium, it would be predictably self-defeating. The value of any currency has necessarily to be a more or less direct function of its social diffusion.[6] There can be little doubt that such calculations are in fact taking place, and their outcome – even, roughly, their ‘equilibrium’ – is among the crucial determinations of the bitcoin price. Currency monopolization – understood as ownership, rather than issuance, of the entire monetary stock – is an inherently paradoxical project.

§5.74 — It is easy to deride the notion of monetary ‘backing’ for its naivety (or in a more contemporary idiom ‘pwnedness’). The idea has become a popular icon of duped thought. Its application to Bitcoin has therefore to be considered among the very weakest of criticisms, notable more as a symptom than an argument. There is – of course – nothing at all ‘behind’ (or ‘backing’) Bitcoin beyond the implemented Bitcoin protocol itself. This is not a unique feature. It merely makes Bitcoin post-classical (‘modern’) money. It is not being unbacked that makes it modern. Nothing was ever ‘backed’ beside deposit receipts. It is the relevance of a question of backing that carries the marker of modernity. Modernity in money is ecological coexistence with residual promises to pay. Naivety and cynicism are co-produced by it. Since the abolition of the gold standard, monetary ‘backing’ has been solely political. It rests upon the credibility of an issuing authority, which in turn rests upon more fundamental public perceptions of the durability, competence, and constrained malignancy of a regime.

§5.741 — The phased process of demetallization might appear to tell a story of cumulative monetary degeneration. Yet it would be a mistake to interpret this process as a dissolution of secure foundations. There is no type of money – however metallic – that can lay claim to an absolutely inherent value, extricable from a speculative assessment of its acceptability.[7] The desirability of a monetary medium cannot finally be grounded in its substantial properties, but only in the dynamic assessment of these properties, occurring within a market context. Its value is solely ‘based’ upon the system of scarcity it creates, insofar as this is latched onto by network effects. In consequence, money is essentially prone to ontological crisis – when it is discovered to be nothing in itself. Bitcoin accelerates the advance of monetary theory into cybernetic fundamentalism. It’s turtles – or, more precisely, feedback dynamics – all the way down. By philosophical analogy, the metallist theory of money corresponds to a pre-critical epoch, and the fiat era to an idealist efflorescence of elaborate, exhaustively constuctionist anti-realism. Cryptocurrency initiates a double-sided (transcendental realist) correction. Monetary value finds no ground outside the circuit, but the circuit is ontologically autonomous.

§5.742 — Currency[8] is money apprehended as a means of payment, flowing through transactions as a circulatory medium. Its principal virtue – liquidity – is a measure of how readily it is accepted in exchange for goods and services. ‘Acceptability’ is thus roughly synonymous with commercial value. Yet, when the acceptability of any currency is analyzed, it is found to depend primarily – if not exactly ‘originally’ – upon how widely it is accepted. However tempting it may be to dismiss such a nakedly circular definition as an absurdity, the formulation is deliberate, and informative. The acceptability of money is irreducibly self-referential. Money is acceptable in any particular case only because it is acceptable in general, while generality is a cumulative product of particularity, and nothing besides. The nonlinearity is essential, rather than accidental, and cannot be resolved into anything more fundamental. This is evidently a problem of the ‘chicken-and-egg’ type, characteristic of positive feedback dynamics. Thus, as previously noted (perhaps obsessively), the virtuous circle of liquidity translates, without remainder, into a display of network effects. The utility of a network, to each individual user, grows superlinearly with the number of users. With currency, as with all systems that generate positive returns to scale, ‘nothing succeeds like success’, and there is ultimately nothing to success besides. There is no basis of value to be excavated beyond or beneath its own self-reinforcement. The supreme, self-grounding virtue of acceptability is thus practically revealed. Conceptually, acceptability is integrative, since the functions of money as a store of value and as a unit of account can be gathered under it (distinguished only formally, rather than substantially). We enter the cybernetic abyss, without transcendent ground. The succinct account of this dynamic provided by Koen Swinkels cannot easily be improved upon:

Ultimately the only thing that matters in people’s decision to use bitcoins as a medium of exchange is their expectation that enough other people will accept it as payment in the future. That alone is enough basis for people to buy bitcoins now and to invest in the bitcoin infrastructure now. […] The circularity involved in the argument is unmistakable but unavoidable and, according to the bitcoin enthusiasts, unproblematic. That’s just the thing about a good that is used as money or is expected to be used as money in the future: people value the good because they think that enough other people will value it. The circularity is just the network effect in action.[9]

§5.75 — Since Bitcoin advocacy is indissociable from claims about the quality of money, it is propelled into a collision with Gresham’s Law, as popularly – and quite adequately – summarized by the maxim bad money drives out good. Gresham-effects can be easily recognized in modern life. Given two cash notes, one pristine, the other crumpled, stained, and taped together, which would one expect the holder to be inclined to part with first? In an earlier monetary era, characterized by widespread coin-clipping – rather than germ-saturated paper – the economic significance of such decisions was more substantial. As exemplified by such examples, the most intuitively compelling application of Gresham’s Law is to physical cash. The classic archaic case concerns two coins of identical nominal value, but differentially clipped. The negative comparative appeal of the ‘short’ coin – which any holder wants as soon as possible to be rid of – accelerates its currency. A ‘pass-the-parcel’ dynamo is envisaged. Implicit within this model is the proposition that the disposal, rather than acceptance, of currency is the primary driver of its circulation. There is a crucial irony – which we will return to in its other guises – that the spontaneously-concerted attempt to shed bad money looks indistinguishable from an illustration of good money, especially when hoarding is conceived as an anti-social economic vice. Money is most stimulative when it is least wanted.[10] Yet this assumption requires a peculiar inversion. Since even minimal acceptability is non-mandatory under ordinary economic conditions, we can be confident that it is in fact the ‘good’ coin that propels the circulation of the ‘bad’ one, by sustaining the standard of value which the inferior instance parasitizes. The tacit calculation involved in every acceptance of a bad coin includes the question as to whether it still suffices to pass as a acceptable money.  


[1] See: http://unenumerated.blogspot.hk/2005/12/bit-gold.html  

Among the comments, there is much of interest to be found. Sampled glancingly:  

“…you might want to check out http://www.bitcoin.org. It’s a decentralized, P2P, cryptocurrency based on a proof of work algorithm.”  

“Congrats on inventing BitCoin …”

“Thanks for laying the foundation for bitcoin Nick …”

“One day, people will look upon this post as the actual genesis moment of Bitcoin.”

[2] It would be tempting at this point to make a topic of progressive complacency, but in the present context it would be a digression too far. It need only be said that extravagant conclusions can easily be drawn from the realistic apprehension of ratchets. That there is no way back says much less about the resilience of the new order than is commonly supposed.

[3] Much could no doubt be made of the fact that Isaac Newton was both an alchemist and the Warden of the Royal Mint. It is surely unnecessary, nonetheless, to insist that we see here something other than a simple contradiction. The poacher-turned-gamekeeper phenomenon is surely an important part of the story. Having paid serious attention to the possibilities of magical money-creation, Newton was well-placed to understand how the enemies of hard money think.

[4] Thus gold is hated among magicians. The antagonism is explicit. In the Macro era, the gold market offers an audience reaction to financial conjuration. It measures negative applause. “Jim Grant … describes the price of gold as the reciprocal of the credibility of central banks …”

See: http://kingworldnews.com/the-reason-for-our-unbroken-confidence-in-gold/

[5] In a (January 2014) article, Joe Weisenthal cites Citigroup currency analyst Steven Englander on the inequality of Bitcoin holdings. He attributes a Gini coefficient of 0.88 to its distribution. This significantly exceeds any wealth disparity ever measured within nation states. Despite this, Englander suggests the figure is probably an under-estimate.

http://www.businessinsider.com.au/bitcoin-inequality-2014-1

[6] A fully-monopolized monetary stock would correspond to a multiplication by zero. In Libidinal Economy, Jean-François Lyotard applies exactly this formula to the classical mercantilist valorization of unbounded bullion accumulation, which is thus exposed as a political-economic death drive. Comprehensive possession of a commercial medium is self-extinguishing. A powerful trading position does not extrapolate to absolute concentration. In monetary matters, there can be no completion of advantage. This ‘paradox of wealth’ is further accentuated in the case of Bitcoin, since adoption in this case has to be coaxed, under conditions never less than difficult, and – at least potentially – openly hostile.   

http://www.thedailyriff.com/articles/the-paradox-of-wealth-776.php

[7] To quote Michael Goldstein (@Bitstein, from a tweet 2015/01/13): “I rarely see skepticism of Bitcoin that is not more generally just skepticism of money.”

[8] A currency (from Middle English: curraunt, “in circulation”, from Latin: currens, -entis) is money circulating as a medium of exchange.

[9] See: http://www.philosophyofbitcoin.com/2014/07/bitcoins-store-of-value-paradox.html

[10] Gresham’s Law identifies the attractiveness of a monetary medium as a source of commercial friction. Monetary quality, under the most straightforward construction of the argument, poses an intrinsic obstacle to spending. Money is thus already modeled, implicitly, as ideally repulsive. In this regard, Keynesian Macro appears as a higher Greshamism. Good and bad switch places. Or rather, the good money people would prefer to keep is denounced as an evil temptation to ‘cash preference’. It is the bad money, intrinsically motivating its own disposal, which now counts as ‘good’. A slave revolt in monetary theory has then taken place.

Crypto-Current (056)

§5.66 — Liquidity is valuable, uncontroversially.[1] It has a price. This is to say, reciprocally, that illiquid assets trade at a discount. Financial systems therefore automatically assimilate the concept of liquidity to that of risk, which configures illiquidity as negative investment quality. The essential – and innovative – macroeconomic contention is that liquidity preference, beyond a certain threshold, becomes excessive, malignant, and self-contradictory. Rather than returning to equilibrium, it feeds positively upon itself. Generalized investment aversion drains the pool of liquid assets, on a spiral into depression. Spending, then, is a social obligation, whose collective importance justifies suppression of private discretion. In this way, macroeconomics provides a specific model for the tragedy of economic liberty. This is its most profound counter-modernist theme. It is an argument translatable without remainder into the language of contradiction. On such lines, macroeconomics can be configured as an elaborated sub-plot within the critique of political economy initiated by Marxian historical materialism.

§5.661 — When configured in terms of mass social psychology, the thirst for liquidity expresses distrust, or negative confidence. Conceived economically, it is disinvestment. Conceived politically, it is dissent. Only liberalism, of the old type, would dissuade a regime from seeking to suppress it, and Macro – which is always Macro in power – means that liberalism is dead. The point can be made more strongly. Macro is the death of liberalism, in power.  

§5.662 — All earnest pretension to ‘counter-cyclical policy’ notwithstanding, the systematic asymmetry is manifest. Politics tends to soft money. Governments – especially democratic governments – do not pass marshmallow tests. “In the long run we are all dead,” Keynes famously quipped, and in doing so the voice of the state – now channeled by macroeconomics – was immediately audible. Delayed gratification was being explicitly re-modeled as a bourgeois vice. Created to ‘manage’ long-wave capitalist down-turns, and then to economic contractions of even minimal severity – its interventions scaled down by an order or magnitude to the pulse rate of (roughly) five-year business cycles – Macro tends to configure itself as the correction to capitalism in general. Globalization is deflationary, because it operates to control prices, through arbitrage. Technological efficiencies are an even stronger driver, in the same direction. The relation of macroeconomic stimulation to the capitalistic mechanization and globalization of production can therefore be understood as compensatory. Macro tacitly legitimates itself as an antidote to deep deflationary dynamics inherent to the modern economy. It is designed to make money soft.

§5.663 — While it requires a portrait of Macro – as a consummate regime – to see where we are, the picture takes us away from money, rather than toward it. Crypto-currency is the negative of all this.[2] It shorts political economy in general. The broad contours of a Micro Counter-Revolution are for the first time definitely indicated. Macro is essentially oriented against saving. In striking contrast, Bitcoin invents the ‘hodler’ who disdains short-term market interventions.[3] This is nothing less than the synthesis of a new bourgeois mentality or its substitute. A fierce re-animation of prudence accompanies the cryptic Micro insurrection. It understands, this time around, that it has dedicated enemies, true opponents, and not merely feckless villains indifferent to its virtues. Since Keynes, incontinence has been a cause, and then – almost immediately afterwards – a regime. All capacities for prudential self-protection outside state guarantees have been targeted explicitly for destruction. This is the framework within which money has been increasingly understood. Everyone should know, by now, what happens to ‘hoarders’ under socialism. Macro is only very slightly more subtle. Stigmatized liquidity preference is legible enough. The cultural importance of the intrinsic Bitcoin ideology follows from this. To ‘hodl’ is to hoard defiantly, in explicit recognition of the socio-political game being played. It is to save, not merely for the future, but for an impending revolution in the order of time. The value of Bitcoin, in this critical regard, is that of an option for liquidity preference that cannot be politically neutralized. It is the anti- New Deal. In other words, it is the Old Deal, but this time capable of protecting itself. No one is any longer relied upon to keep it. It keeps itself. That’s what algorithmic governance means.

§5.664 — As money has ‘evolved’ the axis of inflation-deflation became ever more strongly determining. Money’s dimension of variance through depreciation or appreciation is the carrier of its macroeconomic control function. As a good tool, it keeps the potential distractions of ulterior features to itself. Value is the message it is trained to focus upon. Also ever more, it seems ever thus. Yet ‘inflation’ is only superficially a trans-historical economic category. Over the past half millennium three distinct – if over-lapping – phases are identifiable. These can be related to the very different dynamics of monetary asset (bullion) glut, excessive (private) credit creation, and national macroeconomic relaxation. In each case there is an expansion of supply, which becomes inflationary when it results in a comparative abundance of money (relative to the general level of economic production). Such formal equivalence, however, offers little concrete guidance to the specific working of each monetary regime. Insofar as fractional reserve and then central banking can be seen to obey pre-existing economic laws, the insight is overwhelmingly retrospective. Neither innovation was discoverable through such compliance. On the pattern of the synthetic a priori, their necessity was found late. This – alone – can also be expected from what comes next.

§5.665 — Crypto-currencies initiate a new phase in the history of inflation. Bitcoin, crucially, structurally forecloses inflationary processes of the three dominant antecedent types. Its absolute abundance is rigidly constrained, fractional reserve multiplication is invalidated (as ‘double spending’), and absolute ‘policy neutrality’ excludes macroeconomic laxity.[4] There is no tried-and-tested method of doing inflation with Bitcoin. This is not, however, to reach the end of the question. In the era of crypto-currency, appreciation-depreciation becomes ecological. It occurs between coins. Monetary pluralization, rather than monetary expansion, becomes the leading phenomenon.[5] After Macro, the deflationary dynamic reverts to a properly capitalistic – which is say Darwinian – distributed mechanism.


[1] Alfred Marshall’s variable k defines aggregate liquidity through the ratio of broad money to economic output. While the formula acquires a certain rigor through its approximation to sheer tautology, both of its productive terms are notably elusive. Neither ‘money’ nor ‘output’ can be realistically conceived as simple, elementary, unambiguously measurable, or categorically delimited. Each is as plausibly captured by the processing of the other through k as by some supposedly primary factual apprehension. Macro, of course, fully – or at least very substantially – understands this. It takes perverse institutional (i.e. guild) pride in the inadequacy of its foundations, when inspected from the inside.

[2] The realization that Bitcoin is an implicit threat to the entire edifice of the reigning macroeconomic order had been refracted, by end-2017, into Internet clickbait. “Dutch national newspaper urges people to sell all their Bitcoins as it undermines the government, could destabilise the economy and reduces the power of central banks.” https://www.reddit.com/r/Bitcoin/comments/7h9fkp/dutch_national_newspaper_urges_people_to_sell_all/

[3] To hodl is to hoard bitcoins, based on the presumption that they are radically undervalued relative to the eventual near-equilibrium level when they have come to denominate the principal terrestrial money system. The term seems to have been coined in late 2013, with the word freezing a comic misspelling. (“Hold on for Dear Life” is a subsequent humorous acronymic.) See: https://bitcointalk.org/index.php?topic=375643.0

[4] Pierre Rochard describes Bitcoin’s “non-discretionary monetary policy” as “asymptotic money supply targeting (AMST)”.  

[5] It should perhaps be noted that within the world of crypto commentary, this thesis is highly controversial.

Crypto-Current (055)

§5.65 — When conceived theoretically – or targeted administratively – as a macroeconomic aggregate, the ‘quantity of money’ turns out to be an extraordinarily elusive object. Two sources of complexity are especially notable. Firstly, the effective quantity of money is a twin-factor product, comparable to physical momentum, of monetary mass multiplied by velocity (the macroeconomic ‘multiplier’).  Secondly, the nature of money is inherently multiple, and intensive. This is formally recognized by the systematically differentiated – and nested – monetary definitions (M0, M1, M2, M3 … Mn …MΩ) employed by economists and financial professional.[1] Any asset of non-zero liquidity is money to some degree of intensity. (Monetary intensity is approximated by the reciprocal of the index.) Between the speeds and types of money there is only illusory orthogonality, or theoretical decomposition of the diagonal.

§5.651 — The most consequential area of controversy within the macroeconomic era – with intellectual roots that can be pursued back to the 16th century – concerns the relation of the velocity of money to its quantity. According to Irving Fisher’s formula MV = PQ, when the quantity of money and goods (‘M’ and ‘Q’) is held constant, the price level (‘P’) becomes a function of monetary velocity (‘V’). Potentially, and as a matter of historical fact, an entire technoscience of monetary management follows. Any authority that is attributed with responsibility for the money supply is compelled to concern itself with liquidity. Tightening-loosening defines the control axis.

§5.652 — Given the extreme complications of technical monetary analysis, it is not unrealistic to describe macroeconomics as the monetary neo-baroque. Its elaborations are implicitly unlimited. To present its convolutions as ultimately manageable requires a more-or-less cynical public relations exercise. It cannot be admitted – for reasons of trust-preservation – that the final overseers of the financial world do not have, and cannot have, any definite idea what money is. MΩ has no calculable determination. Far more importantly, at the other extreme, M0 is an advanced edge, and not a settled reality. It designates the intensive frontier of cash, commercial liquidity, or what money can do, as it has yet been historically encountered. In other words, it is problematic rather than theorematic, experimental rather than conceptual. Mx deranges all the formulas. We haven’t seen anything yet. Crypto-currency is showing us that.  §5.653 — To refer to a neo-baroque is to invoke a decadent paradigm, in something like the Kuhnian sense.[2] Ptolemaic cosmology is the unsurpassable model. Crucially, it is indefinitely expandable. As it decays, epicycles accumulate, but never to a point of intrinsic lethality. There is no such point. The fundamental error is wholly retrospective. It would be no less mistaken to imagine the monetary neo-baroque dying from its own exploding complexity. Macro need only add epicycles. Nothing impedes such a development. Computers and professional hyper-specialization even facilitate it. Simplicity is for gold-bugs, and other primitives. If Macro’s hypertrophic theoretical complexity appears increasingly magical – so much the better. Magic, as we have repeatedly seen, is functional. What matters to Macro – as institution, meta-institution, or regime – is primarily the credible illusion of understanding. That is where its authority lies. Macroeconomics must only pretend to a theoretical competence that is practically unobtainable. In this it epitomizes the socio-cultural status of expertise in progressive modernity, if not something far more general. Clerical authority has always rested on a pretention to mastery of that which is a mystery even to itself. Nothing new is to be expected there. Innovation arrives from outside.


[1] Precise definitions of the monetary phases have not been internationally standardized. The principle, however, is uncontroversial. Money is defined as a series of nested categories, proceeding from the narrowest to the broadest types (with the latter enveloping the former). Monetary ‘narrowness’ closely tracks liquidity. The extreme of narrow money, M0, is cash. Broader phases of money include bank credits, of incrementally rising maturity, and other comparatively viscous financial assets. Typically (but with some national variance), M0 is strict cash, M1 encompasses M0 and cash-like equivalents, M2 adds current accounts, M3 adds longer-term bank deposits and similar financial assets, while M4 (and higher) extends to monetizable assets and investments on longer time-horizons. Broader phases are more inclusive, more complex, more diverse, and of lower mean liquidity. They therefore exemplify, most obviously, the Monetary Neo-Baroque. A tempting error would be to construe the monetary phases as ascending from the intuitively accessible into lofty technical obscurities. … Cash is cryptic. …

[2] Thomas Kuhn outlined his catastrophic model of scientific history in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). He argues that empirical research is necessarily dominated by a conceptual framework which is comparatively resilient in respect to factual disconfirmation. When expressed at this level of generality, this is not a conclusion unique to Kuhn. It is one way that Kant’s Copernican Revolution is expressed through the philosophy of science. Data is never unframed.