Crypto-Current (004)

§0.04 — Already, at the most naïve level of its acceptation, ‘Bitcoin’ is a word that refers to at least three things. Of these, the most elementary – although today least invoked as a definition of the term – is a succinct, technical paper, in whose catalytic code everything was, in a certain sense, already implicit. There is nothing obvious about this terminological development. To speak of the ‘critique of pure reason’ is first of all to name a book, even though (no less than with Bitcoin) it is the book’s ‘object’ that is being named. Critique of pure reason (the ‘thing’) is in this case a delayed signification, despite the fact the title says nothing else. In the case of Bitcoin, this system of acceptations is conspicuously inverted. ‘Bitcoin’ is not understood primarily as a paper,* perhaps because it is not primarily an argument. Its nexus of persuasion has migrated outward, in close association with the meaning of code. Critique undergoes accelerating automation.

§0.041 — The philosophically pressing motive for hesitation – however momentary – at this point of origin, where the balance between the virtual and the actual is most dramatically precarious, is to hold open the question of primordial introduction, even as it tends to eclipse itself. Already, during this remarkably brief embryonic phase, when Bitcoin was implemented only in words, it was at least double – at once a title and a topic. From the beginning, the term pointed beyond the name of a text, towards a virtual entity, something that could be made to happen, or that was, in being rigorously outlined, already being made to happen. In being drafted, it was in fact initiated – even released – and through its ‘preliminary’ scripting it had already been informally pre-programmed, or practically introduced. Bitcoin has existed from the moment it was named (and its origin could be pushed still further back). Such occult potentiation of the semiotic event is what it is to code, in the modern sense of this term. It is something much more than description. As code, writing is transported beyond representation to an operational horizon, where it builds what it says, immediately. Language that cannot follow it along this path is already a husk – inconsequential by essence – unless politics can save it. (Bitcoin is the bet that it cannot.)

§0.042 — Even when not explicitly referencing a text, and thus evoking the gap between word and thing, the name ‘Bitcoin’ remains divided by a fatal difference (one of still greater importance to our discussion). The initial, narrow, version of this rift – distinguishing any quantity of bitcoins from the comprehensive singularity of Bitcoin – is a critical faultline to which we will repeatedly return.** It anticipates – while remaining irreducible to – a schism, of gathering social concreteness and historical consequence, opened by the polarization of ‘Bitcoin’ (conceived as specific, contingent, branded, and politically- or competitively-extinguishable) over against ‘the blockchain’ (a generic technological innovation, that is accepted as irreversible, and promoted as conservatively-assimilable). Threading through the most energized Bitcoin debates is a question of limitation. Can the currency system be circumscribed (and then transcended), as the larval stage of something greater than itself – serving as the historical ‘bootloader’ for a new Internet revolution driven by generic blockchain-based trustless transactions protocols? The philosophical rift re-activating transcendental-empirical difference in the domain of monetary technology has thus already been dramatically opened and even tentatively evaluated in the course of a process of widely-reported, financially-invested, socio-economic exploration, before any self-conscious philosophical activity reaches it. During the elaboration of this controversy, some of the crucial interests at stake in Bitcoin’s inner rift have been exposed, and their theoretical absorption facilitated. The fact that the question has been raised by opportunistic venture capital does nothing at all to detract from its perfectly philosophical character, as captured – with reasonable fidelity – by the formulation: What are the limits of Bitcoin?

§0.043 — It is at the third – and fully historical – level of meaning, however, that the ultimate scope of Bitcoin’s significance is gradually manifested. Beyond the initial formulation (or abstract protocol), and its subsequent implementation as a functioning currency system (and already something more), there emerges a far broader Bitcoin installation process,*** of evidently vast but still-obscure character and magnitude. The formula is a diagram, the implementation is an active database supporting a crypto-currency, but what undergoes installation is an entire techonomic ‘ecology’ or ‘infrastructure’ – a complex manifold of interlocking parts, whose horizons are still lost to us in hazy distances (however rapidly we are hurtling into them). It is on this dimension that Bitcoin and Philosophy is most clearly and comprehensively overwhelmed. After being thought, and then done, Bitcoin promises – or threatens – to change the way everything is thought and done, or would be thought to do so, were it not that in the age of code such dulled terms have outlived their usefulness, and persist only through inertia.

* The word ‘paper’ slides easily into the digression queue. After all, it might be convincingly argued that reference to the ‘Bitcoin paper’ has already surrendered to a linguistic legacy of peculiar inappropriateness, and thus to laughable anachronism. ‘Paperlessness’ is a retrofutural and thus historically ironized idealization of the electronic landscape. It is either pseudo-teleology or – far more probably – premature forecast, tacitly engaged by this and any other discussion of digital information, even prior to a collision with the thematic juggernaut of ‘paper’ money. If ‘papers’ are still with us – even when they have only ever been incidentally propagated in a ‘dead tree’ medium – it is because history is a loose sheaf, rather than a neat stack. Since technological epochs co-exist, simultaneously, anachronism finds its avenues in space, even more than in time.

** The distinction between “lowercase bitcoin and Initial-Cap Bitcoin” (in the words of Terrence Yang), i.e. “digital money” and “a protocol” respectively, has already been impressively standardized. The emulation of a philosophical difference – and, as moderns, we can confidently say the philosophical difference – by a terminological convention rapidly settled within the worlds of technological commentary and financial news media attests to a determination of conceptuality from the outside. The ‘thought’ that matters is produced in advance of any explicitly philosophical apprehension. (This fatality will no doubt evoke Hegel’s “Owl of Minerva” among those receptive to speculative communization, whose problems will be touched upon later in this book.) For Terrence Yang’s articulation of Bitcoin’s ontological difference, see.

*** Eminent wave theorist Carlota Perez insists upon the historical integrity of technology and finance within ‘great surges of development’, each of which introduces a new ‘techno-economic paradigm’. She first divides each surge into an ‘installation phase’ and a ‘deployment phase’ (each in turn is tractable to binary sub-division), noting that the transition from one to the other is typically marked by an investment-overshoot driven financial crisis. Political economy is a rhythm. Its pulse, with roughly half-century periodicity, encompasses not only techno-industrial innovation and its financing, but also social sentiment and political animation. The history of capitalism is thus constructed as a succession of comparatively discrete stages. Each of Perez’s ‘great surges of development’ corresponds to a complex telic object. The language of ‘installation’ already says as much. Some virtual thing arrives, or is put into place. (These terminologies are strictly inter-changeable.) On the basis of the most mechanical reading of Perez’s supple analytical framework, something corresponding to a Bitcoin ‘deployment phase’ might be expected in the 2030-2040s. Such a time-table assumes an absence of techonomic acceleration at the deepest level of the modernization: a negative prediction which Perez’s historical analysis as a whole supports. The Great Waves of development are paced by an anthropomorphic-generational temporality, rather than a self-propelling momentum inherent to mechanical industrialism. They are not speeding up. Comparatively stable periodicity is essential to the hypothesis. Crypto-Current is not a documentation of the Bitcoin installation process, although it grants – without reservation – the potential value of such a work. There is perhaps nothing that would more incisively capture the deepest principles of the rising capitalist wave. Functional trustlessness, as an industrial output, remains only very tentatively conceived. The momentum behind it is difficult to easily overestimate. With the emergence of Bitcoin, rigorously constitutional governance, a political-economic problem that the old liberal order found impossible to successfully navigate, has transitioned into a techonomic capability under automatic propulsion. Industrialization of government is the definite implication. Quite clearly, the socio-political stake in a capitalist development wave can never have been higher. Regimes, potentially, are now business outputs.