Crypto-Current (016-g)

§1.20 — When viewed as an episode within a panoramic sweep, the history of Bitcoin almost writes itself. The crisis it inaugurates within political economy appears to have been dramatically predictable. Yet, when the Bitcoin protocol is examined more narrowly, its history – especially its early history – is notoriously puzzling. Fittingly, the story of Bitcoin – in its details – is profoundly cryptic. When scaled to tidal global processes, it appears to arise – as if inevitably – out of the Internet, which itself arose in conformity with the deepest trends of industrial capitalism. Upon finely-grained inspection, however, where the perturbations of contingency are most starkly evident, it emerged from the work of ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’, about whom scarcely anything is known with confidence. The obscurity concentrated in this name cannot be considered coincidental.

§1.21 — While sweeping analogies reasonably invite suspicion, it is nevertheless tempting to compare Satoshi Nakamoto’s place in the history of money to Gödel’s in formal logic. In both cases a tradition accumulated over many centuries, through systematic consolidation and refinement of primitive intuition, crosses a threshold of positive catastrophe, induced by a technical innovation that overthrows previously unquestioned assumptions. Once this passage has been made, what came before acquires the features of a prolonged childhood – an age of innocence and immaturity to which no return is possible. Logicians remained within an Aristotelian outer orbit, dreaming of an analytically grounded mathematics into the early 20th century, before Gödel awakened them.* Prior to Bitcoin, the foundations of monetary theory remained similarly enmired in legacy conceptions, stemming from the concrete history of property representation.** Bitcoin produces credibility, rather than consuming it. In this way it departs radically from the entirety of previous monetary history – or pre-history – while completing it. The word ‘epoch’ is available for the historical periods initiated by such decisive switch-points which – in Nietzsche’s appropriately grandiloquent words – “break history in two halves”. The discovery, or invention, of transcendental arithmetic (Gödel), asymmetric cryptography (PKC), and trustless money (Bitcoin) are all structurally comparable ruptures.

§1.22 — Ruptures are irreversibilities. They are thresholds from which there is no going back. Every rupture is thus a locking, a lock in, or trap-door. The secret of time finds in rupture its principle of integrity, or redundancy. There is no puzzle beyond this (which is merely transcendental philosophy restated).

§1.23 — Secrecy has been an under-developed topic in philosophy. The reasons for this are arguably indistinct from reason itself, as such, and in general. ‘As we shall see’ we might add, insofar as humor is our object. In any case, a story of at least minimal plausibility is not difficult to muster. Secrecy is that which, as a matter of internal necessity, can only ever be under-emphasized, but in the case of philosophy there is immediately more to say. Since its birth in ancient Greece, philosophy has been drawn to the public square, and – according to some historical constructions – even arose there. It tends, strongly and stubbornly, to identify itself as the most elevated form of public reason. Since it is by way of a departure from the Hermeticism of the ancient mysteries that philosophy originated, it is a discipline bound by primordial vocation to exotericism. This cultural ancestry resonates profoundly with the archaic Occidental apprehension of truth as aletheia (or ‘unconcealedness’), and thus as an emergence or extraction from secrecy. In the words of Herakleitos (‘the dark’) – invoking a primordial entanglement between what would become the cultural lineages of philosophy and cryptography – Φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ (“nature inclines to crypto”).

§1.24 — Within the late-Enlightenment consolidation-phase of modern philosophy, whose capstone is the Kantian critical system, the public sphere of intelligence is thematized as objectivity. This is the realm of common understanding, accessibly shared – as a matter of necessary principle – by all rational beings. For instance, there cannot, according to the Kantian construction, ever be a secret about space as such. Space understood transcendentally, as a pure form of objective intuition, rather than as an object itself, cannot contribute to the content of a private experience. A secret geometry is unthinkable, in this sense.***

§1.25 — Bitcoin is an open secret. Despite belonging unambiguously to the history of cryptography, nothing at all about it is hidden (except what lies beyond it). Its basic innovation – the blockchain – is a (decentralized) public ledger, and this now-widely accepted explanatory term is not remotely misleading. In any case, the crucial terminological decision preceded Bitcoin, and was settled decades earlier with the introduction of public key – or ‘asymmetric’ – cryptography (PKC). It is, precisely, cryptographic sophistication that makes the public sharing of critical information (prudently) practicable. This is exemplified by the blockchain, in which the details of every transaction are open to general inspection. Furthermore, full exposure extends beyond the (empirical) content of the blockchain, to its (transcendental) fabric. The Bitcoin protocol is open-source software, its entire code unrestrictedly available for inspection. Such radical openness is only distinguished practically from a comprehensive annihilation of privacy because the access to accounts is securely crypto-restricted, enabling digital ‘wallets’ to function as disguises. The paradoxical culmination – now exhibited – is a cryptographic system without secrets.

§1.26 — The basic current inherited by the Internet tends with irresistible momentum towards the open secret. The system of disguises is, ever increasingly, fully exposed. The Internet epoch, we learn, is the Golden Age of masks. Masks are not designed to be hidden, but rather the contrary. They are exceptionally conspicuous attire, meant for public exposure, to facilitate hiding in plain sight. Privacy turns out to be the reciprocal of an artificial face.

§1.27 — It is only in superficial appearance that publicity and privacy can be simply opposed, which is not at all to suggest that the distinction can be integrated, or that either pole is soluble within the other. PKC definitively settles the relation. The real bond – or synthetic principle – connecting the public to the private is not a generic logical relation, but a cryptographic singularity. There is only privacy at all because this distinction is opaque to public reason. Philosophy – as it has traditionally understood itself – is asymmetrically related to cryptography, from which it is locked out by its (publically) unquestionable commitment to a principle of boundless publicity. The relation is poorly modeled by a tension between the public square and the inner circle – or between a commons, and a myriad vaults – and would still be even had it not been known since the late 19th century that squaring the circle is impossible.**** Already in the Kantian formulation of the transcendental philosophy the secret was distinguished from any type of concealed object. Its redoubt is not to be found in a transcendent mystery. It is located, rather, in the difference between the object and its principle. The secret of objectivity is itself concealed by the feint that leads to its misidentification with a hidden thing.

* Gödelian incompleteness is logically isomorphic with the halting problem in the (Church-Turing) theory of computation, and thus translatable after rigorous transformation into the uncomputable. It establishes a basic principle of unbounded application within the electronic epoch. As a corrective to the extravagant conclusions drawn from this conceptual complex, in relation to the limits of machine intelligence, the work of Jürgen Schmidhuber — on the Gödel Machine — is of special importance.

** It should be noted, in clarification of this analogy, that the conceptual foundations of political economy (pre-Bitcoin) were far inferior to those of mathematical logic (pre-Gödel). The logicism of the Hilbert Program, and of primitive analytical philosophy, while ultimately untenable, at least provided an exact formal basis for its own theoretical elimination. The concept of property, in marked contrast, remains opaque to an almost comical degree. Its dependence upon a legal decision process invoking discretionary judgment essentially resistant to formalization, while convenient – almost by definition – to those wielding political influence, is a stark indication of its radical conceptual insufficiency. Property is reducible neither to legal title, or physical possession of precious substance. The former is a bad abstraction (to political dispensation), the latter an inadequate one (to a crudely naturalized relation). Property is crypto-security, determined by keys.

*** There has been no cultural event more wounding to the persistence of a Kantian fundamentalism than the revolution in geometry attending the rigorous demotion of the Euclidean fifth (or ‘parallel’) postulate, as privately envisaged in unpublished work by Gauss (1813) and Schweikart (1818), mathematically publicized by Bolyai and by Lobachevsky in subsequent decades, generalized to higher dimensions by Reimann (1854), and then cemented into place by its empirical application to the cosmo-physics of general relativity. Kant’s conspicuous deference to Newtonian mechanics, understood as an apodictic (and essentially mathematical) intellectual revolution, sets the stage for the apparent vulnerability of his own position. The critical edifice seemed to have been built upon insecure ‘Euclidean’ foundations. It is proposed here, however, that the retrospective attribution of embarrassment in this case is exaggerated, and follows from a profound misconception concerning the status of the Kantian transcendental aesthetic. Newtonian space provides only an occasion, not a strict model. The Kantian formalization of sensible intuition is less descriptive than telic, or retrochronic. It is the draft for an engineering project. The Gibsonian Cyberspace ‘Matrix’ – in its resilient (because synthetic) Euclideanism – corresponds to a more rigorously Kantian conception.

**** From the mid-19th century, it was understood that the possibility of squaring the circle depended upon the nature of π (pi). The Lindemann-Weierstrass theorem (1882) proves that π is a transcendental number, confirming the insolubility of the problem. It can be seen from this example how serendipitous the name transcendental number turns out to be.

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