Crypto-Current (019)

§2.2 — Bitcoin is a machine.* More specifically, it is a credibility machine. Its ideal operation coincides with the most rigorous realizable definition of truth. That is already to assert everything. In particular, it proposes that there are no (conceivably reachable) grounds of truth which offer leverage in respect to the Bitcoin protocol. It is of course possible – nebulously – to imagine some superior tribunal, but it is strictly impossible to access one. This is fully recognized, at a low level of philosophical formality, within the crypto-currency milieu. One piece of suggestive evidence in this respect is provided by Truthcoin (now ‘Hivemind’), an altcoin designed specifically to absorb “accurate data into a blockchain” providing an “Oracle Protocol”.** The credibility machinery introduced by the Bitcoin digital currency is thus isolated – or functionally abstracted – as pure truth production.*** But, truth, surely, has to be more than that, is the predictable response, and in that appeal the voice of metaphysics is heard, distilled. Truth in its socially-intelligible reference not only need not be more than the product of a credibility machine, it cannot be anything more. Truth has no content beyond the production of credence. Untruths, finally, are badly made. Naturally, the technologically-defective prototypes of such machinery, incarnated in weakly formalized social institutions, cannot be expected to surrender their privileges lightly. Even though traditional sources of epistemic authority are unable to clearly articulate their own grounds of credibility, without appeal to their own structures of prestige, this does not mitigate their sense of outraged entitlement in the slightest. It is their assumed right to be believed that speaks through intuitions of familiar truths, now cast from their social Eden into the harsh wilderness of trustlessness**** (where all resilient credibility has to be explicitly earned, by a demonstrated application of computational power).

§2.21 — When social rules are submitted to the same principle of mechanical rigorization as epistemic values, the outcome is algorithmic governance – although this is, of course, introduced incrementally (in phases). The ideal, however, is lucidity itself. Institutions of social management are to be incarnated in software that – like mechanical calculators – are simply incapable of making a mistake. The opportunity for (logical or quasi-logical) error is mechanically disabled. In the socio-political case, this requires the systematic elimination of human discretion. The implicit assertion – which merits emphatic explication – is that judgment has no defensible role in public governance, and is therefore to be programmatically delegated to private agencies, where it can be submitted to appropriate procedures of harsh selection. The state is disinvested as a fantastic locus of mediated human liberty, and reduced to the status of a complex gadget, whose functions are slaved absolutely to the neutral metabolism inherent in the classical liberal model of civil society. Because judgment requires trust, it can only be processed adequately in the commercial realm, where unrestricted exit options (on the side of customers) subordinate it to extrinsic controls. Complex games, of course, require judgment, but as far as the rules of the game are concerned, any margin for judgment is an evident defect. In other words, discretionary governance is a badly formulated game. P2P systems have advanced to better ones. (The extreme – and even ultimate, or transcendental – controversies attending these propositions and conclusions are addressed most specifically in Chapter 4.)

§2.22 — Codes – even when narrowly conceived as socio-cultural procedures for the formalization of messages through systematic substitution of signs – are scarcely less ancient than writing, and perhaps older still, but it is only quite recently that members of the human species learnt to code (as a verb, and an occupation). This is an innovation coincident with programmable technology. It has an epoch, which can extended backwards – if punched card systems are included – to the very beginning of the 19th century,***** but the full social activation of the coder presupposes the generalization of electronics, and the standardization of machine code as a soft infrastructure, upon which new layers of synthetic culture can be assembled.****** It is therefore properly understood as a recent development – a thing of the mid-to-late-20th century and beyond. The earliest plausible origin lies in the decades between the discovery of the Universal Turing Machine (UTM) and the post-WWII cultural redefinition of the computer as a machine capable of emulating the behavioral repertoire of a UTM – thus of any discrete-state mechanism whatsoever.*******

* Bitcoin is a machine in the literal but non-reductive sense that the Internet, planetary capitalism, or the terrestrial biosphere are machines – which is to say that it is a distributed productive assemblage. It is not, of course – to employ the distinction Deleuze & Guattari insist upon – a mere gadget. The difference is strictly critical, based upon an apprehension without reference to transcendence. The immanence of the machine, in contrast to the gadget, is determined by an auto-production: it functions in the same way it is produced. Within the industrial process, circuits of mechanical reproduction are typically too highly-ramified to isolate with confidence. In Bitcoin the circuit of auto-production is manifested with unprecedented, compact definition. Graphically – diagrammatically – it is governed in the same way it is industrially generated. As an exemplary machine, and unlike a gadget, there is no difference between how it operates and the way it is made.

** Truthcoin (now ‘Hivemind’) synthesizes Wikipedia, prediction markets, and the blockchain into a system of open-source truth claims, aligned with economic incentives, and immunized against coercive manipulation. Many such ventures of comparable ambition can be confidently anticipated.
A graphic introduction to Truthcoin describes it as “The only source of reliable information on the planet!” with the ancillary comment “I’m serious!” It is serious.
For an account of trust creation, conservation, and consumption within a media context, see Jay Rosen’s ‘A (brief) banking theory of newsroom trust’ (2015/01/16):

*** Where does truth come from? What is its source? If not uniquely privileged as an origin of philosophical inquiry, this question nevertheless marks a certain exodus from naïve presuppositions. “From God,” the traditional European answer proceeds, or – in modernized forms – “from the nature of the world” (pre-critical realism) with its classical counterpart “from the formal consistency of signs” (logicism), though the latter – in particular – is a candidate only for guardian of truth, rather than its producer. To produce truth is to generate, rather than consume, credibility. Prior to the rigorous formalization of proof-of-work credentials, by Adam Back, most notably, this was a topic characterized by lamentable under-theorization. Drawing down the accumulated trust-stock of tradition has been the normal procedure, accompanied by a progressive exhaustion of ‘truths’, an inexorable descent into nihilism, and acceleration into a horizon of trustlessness. It probably goes without saying that the history of nihilism is bullish for Bitcoin. When “Why should I believe that?” reaches the end of the road, it finds itself on the blockchain. There is nowhere further to go.

**** In God We Trust announce US Federal Reserve notes, encouragingly. Bitcoin has dispensed with this insult to public intelligence.

***** The Jacquard Loom, invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard, and first demonstrated in 1801, cannot be indisputably described as the first programmable machine. It was preceded by a variety of mechanisms – most notably musical devices – which satisfy this characterization. Within the technological lineage of greatest relevance to actual global modernity, however, it has a privileged position. Unlike the baroque mechanisms delighting the courts of Enlightenment Europe, it was no mere curiosity, but rather an indisputably serious industrial innovation. Its function as a piece of revolutionary productive apparatus directed towards a business sector of central economic importance ensured its irresistible diffusion. Core industrial process fell under its influence in the same circuit that ensured its historical transmission. It was controlled by punched cards, encoding binary data, which would serve as the principle techno-informational medium throughout the subsequent century (and into the Twentieth). Absence of formal nonlinearity at the level of the program dramatizes its function as the direction of mechanical behavior. Within an industrial context – the only one in which a self-propelling dynamic to computerization emerges – the criterion for success of the programmable mechanism is, unfailingly, labor substitution. It is by meeting this criterion that such machinery becomes socially reproducible. This real productive lineage ensures that the computer is specifically – and also (increasingly) generally – imitative. Turing’s later, and since celebrated ‘imitation game’ is entirely traditional in this respect.

****** The cultural ascent of coding, as already noted, is associated with the emergence of a new, rigorous reality criterion: does it compile? It has its own, intrinsic principle of validation, and thus substitutes for a certain mode of philosophical activity, or appeal to philosophy. Going further, it might even be invoked as a suspect in any reasonable narrativization of the death of philosophy. Insofar as philosophy remains attached to an Idea of Authority without immanent validity, it is increasingly exposed to disintermediation as a redundant ‘third party’ or transcendent cultural function. By what self-demonstrating criterion should its claims be believed? Appeal to the norms of a traditional community will not forever be enough. Virtual trustlessness strikes it to the quick.

******* Previously, a ‘computer’ was the name for a human occupation (typically female by gender, and secretarial by status), with a content comparable to that later usurped by electronic machines. Mechanical computers therefore refer themselves to the human occupation they have usurped, which places them within the continuous lineage of labor-substitution machinery that is broadly coextensive with industrialization. As Alan Turing remarks in ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ (1950): “The idea behind digital computers may be explained by saying that these machines are intended to carry out any operations which could be done by a human computer.”