COLUMN: PERMEABLE SUBJECTS. LAURA LOTTI ON BLOCKCHAIN AS SCIENCE-FICTION – #scifiasmethod #cryptoeconomy #colonialization #posession #virtualcurrencies

  • 08.02.2019

Reflecting on the mysterious nature of the most common medium of exchange, money, Georg Simmel captured it as "the value of things without the things themselves". In an attempt to illustrate this in another way, we would suggest that money should actually be a verb. Its function as a tool allowing access to goods is omnipresent, whereas its circulation principles on the other hand seem closer to magic than to explanatory phenomena. You’re asking what kind of verb should it be? To money / moneying, of course – a verb that bears comparison. Beyond its abstract power we may recognize money’s medial, fluid nature, which is subject to operating principles we can not entirely decode, apparently they can not be analyzed in full spectrum.

Recently, analyzing the interaction of money with data-flows subject to lead their own lives, Hito Steyerl described the markets as the true and already effective singularity in our society, by which she also comments on a pressing, current question of a evolutionary superiority of artificial intelligence.

The circulative nature of money refers to cybernetic feedback loops and, with its many black boxes, it is suited for speculating on a wide range of scenarios and processes. Money in the capitalist system allows us to provide that which is socially recognized as valuable and financially viable with a kind of septic vagina. One that is recognizable only through credit: through which it can be doubled in the process, tripled, and then scaled to infinity. A triumph of industrial society is certainly the septic birth.

The recognition of value and of what is financially viable is linked to a historical chain of violent, openly enacted or hidden valuation procedures. Activism, art practice, as well aesthetic and political theory have subscribed to (dis-)acknowledging, decrypting and revisioning these acts. When engaging with science fiction, we become witnesses of thought experiments dedicated to those hard-to-find black boxes that are the result of both collective and individual affect- and control relationships.

Laura Lotti, known as media theorist (and through her publications in the hyped Money Lab Reader), meets up to the challenges of those black boxes in cybernetics, cryptoeconomics and blockchain research. Operating on the threshold between academia and start-up she utilizes science-fiction and other methodologies in order to analyze the conditions of economic, technical and social systems. She acquired her PhD at the Sydney University on the novelty of the Bitcoin Protocol.

In her seminal text "Financialization as Medium. Speculative notes on Post-blockchain Art" she wrote that "bitcoin tokens ended the taboo on money, by allowing for the first time a disintermediated generation and transmission of value in a peer-to-peer network which means that a possible solution for the value question independent of the central bank system has become thinkable. Furthermore Lotti describes how the market valuation methods are part of a process in which the “heterogeneity of cultural and aesthetic values” are being “flattened onto the metric of the price”.

The codable fabric of blockchain technology, most commomly represented in the protocols of bitcoin and ether, seems adaptable enough to offer more possiblilities then the ones currently acessable outside the cryptosphere. Its idea is to create more transparency in exchange relations, and to represent them in a ledger, which theoretically entails much more information and interaction possibilities than a conventional bank account. Hence, Blockchain is the promise of a cryptographically unbendable and at the same time transparent record of past transactions and events, but potentially it could be all kinds of things. An instigation to form new rules of interaction, accentuating a multitude of subjectivities?

The Blockchain creates a backdrop well suited to reflect on decentralized institutions, and also the of role subjectivity in their formation. Does Blockchain actually have the potential to disintegrate deadlocked value chains? Permeable Subjects asked expert Laura Lotti about this and more.

„I’ve been on a sci-fi binge of late. I just finished Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. It is a novella very much about the manifold dimensions of alienness – from one’s own family, people, species and other species. I guess this is consistent with a widespread generalized feeling for the loss of the future, what Peter Pál Pelbart calls the exhaustion of the possible.”

I find that at a time of environmental, political, social, and financial catastrophes, in which the feel for the future has been depleted, taken away from us, so to speak, sci-fi/fantasy opens up ways to think the future anew – and not necessarily with utopian naivety or bleak fatalism but more so, as a reality check, as a way to reimagine a/many future-present/s from the ruins of our current present-future.

In this sense, crypto inserts itself at an interesting juncture. Given the early stage of development of the technology, one question and exciting challenge for me becomes, echoing Vitalik Buterin, (co-founder of Ethereum) how to create 'social science fiction', that would explore how these new systems could exist, but also and perhaps more interestingly, how they could fail, and how (ideally) to account for those failures in a constructive iterative process of creation of new forms of ‘collective individuation’ different from those allowed by capital in its current forms.

I see iteration as a necessary aspect of any process of creation. Start-ups have known this for a long time, it’s part of continuous development. By always confronting - and staying with - the limits of a system through technics for testing and reviewing, an iterative process gives a productive role to failure as an opportunity to revise assumptions, discover new perspectives and mechanisms and modulate one’s strategy as it unfolds. In this sense, iteration is both interactive and self-reflexive – it provides concrete means to advance and adjust one’s trajectory through a serious analysis of the contextual constraints, unleashing novelty in the process.

Here something like a social science fiction, rooted in the concrete possibilities of a technological milieu can open up new ways not only to reason about the modes of organization of such complex systems, but also how to meaningfully appraise successes and failures thereof, asking questions like - how else may these systems, and the worlds that they envision, end? What scenarios do they foretell? I see this also as an opportunity for the humanities and social sciences for a rigorous opening to and experimentation with the technology – and more generally with design, engineering, logic and computation – as ways to begin learning to reason with these systems in order to ground further speculative enquiries into the field of social-financial organization.

Possession - holding and holdling

Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed emphasizes interesting aspects of property and possession. Take the anarchist planet Anarres: though it is very much about both the lack of and freedom from possession, in the interstices it also affirms certain aspects of possession – fugitive possessions  – like an old blanket; a hand-made dream catcher; a life project that, no matter what, no one is going to be able to take away from you – against the backdrop of a horizontal communitarian societal organization. In this sense, I think it raises an important and timely issue: how do you account, within a ‘community,’ for possession - of one’s own time, space, ideas, wilfully made commitments and relations - in a way that neither flattens it onto private property nor precludes a sense of belonging to said common. One can possess something without that something becoming their own private property; one can possess, hold, something in common, I guess, enduring the tensions that inevitably come with it.

I would juxtapose the concept of private property with that of common access and I think that possession does not preclude the latter. To draw a comparison with the cryptosphere, perhaps it has something to do with ‘HODLing’ - which refers to the holding of tokens prior to the maturation and realization of the network such tokens are native of – which may be beneficial if modulated within an open system of common access and not just kept for dumb financial speculation.

Forgotten infrastructures of financialization

There is a great quote by JD Peters that my PhD supervisor Andrew Murphie brought to my attention long time ago:

*“Ontology, whatever else it is, is usually just forgotten infrastructure” (2015, 38).

If we think about the ontology of finance or the market to me it is very much related to the infrastructural conditions. The technical from the physical networks components, to protocols, data structures, APIs, human-readable interfaces, and also historical structures and strata allow for finance to operate as it does. Let's look at how the virtual operates in crypto, by defining the virtual as the structuration of the conditions for actualization of the real. Practically speaking the ‘virtual plane’ introduced by cryptonetworks possesses fundamentally different traits from those that characterize the current economy, providing different potentials and enabling constraints for different kinds of financial relations, markets, subjectivities to form and emerge – but with the addition that these seeds of futurity also contain the spoils of our pasts.

Regarding the widespread social and cultural phenomenon of the ‘financialization of everyday life’ we may come to think that financialization is not a financial (i.e. socio-cultural) problem alone. It is inextricably woven with the specific affordances of the digital objects and computational systems that enable the all too familiar practices of abstraction, quantification, recombination and extraction of information as value in digital environments. By acknowledging the extent to which our lives are already deeply financialized we may learn to seize the means of our financialization in generative and propositional ways through new technological affordances, such as those of blockchains and other distributed ledger technologies, tokens and cryptoeconomic primitives.

Differences between crypto and fiat money

The structural difference of cryptotokens is manifested in their singular backing which is fundamentally different than that of fiat money or current financial instruments, all of which are essentially backed by debt. This backing is constituted first and foremost by code, logic, engineering and a group of individuals negotiating – often in a open way – a value measurement and consensus mechanism, both of which are revisable to some extent and open to forking.

In this sense, blockchains, at least in their original designs, provide a different technological substrate to capital that is open source, immutable (in the past), and also programmable (in the future). This is why new kinds of assets can be created and transacted but also according to different rules – though the old rules can also be applied to a certain extent. And this is why understanding and reasoning with these tools become so important in order to be able to leverage their novelty - or if anything, remain open and propositional to the ‘unpredictable leap’ Elisabeth Grosz talks about, when you were mentioning the transition of states.

An interesting critique of the transactionalization of art can be found in certain artistic experiments with blockchain such as terra0, 0xOmega, Blocumenta. These projects came up with a strategy that already assumes their intensly financialized condition within the art milieu, as well as their embeddedness in processes of networked value production (economic, cultural, social, aesthetic) – in which flows of capital, information, status and aesthetic expression interrelate in tightly coupled and yet dissonant ways. By expanding, yet also partially perverting the realm of application of crypto tokens and cryptoeconomic primitives, they deploy new modes of explicitly conceiving and operationalizing themselves as derivatives, setting a powerful example in the exploration of new approaches and methodologies engaged with the realization of the autonomy of the field from its institutional-financial milieu.

But the eventual and/or not (yet) sustainable character of the aforementioned projects also shows that blockchain is born in a milieu that was already colonized, so it inevitably inherits a historicity which is based on colonization as a means to capital expansion. It is not automagically emancipatory; neither it is inherently connected to right wing ideology. In line with the previous points, my wager is that blockchain does offer some exit vectors for a new politics commensurate to the opportunities and challenges of this singular techno-historical configuration called finance to be constructed in a collective, transversal manner. To me, this consists in the application (and misapplication) of the affordances of these technologies like blockchain data structures, protocol and application tokens, cryptoeconomic primitives, distributed computing, etc., to new modes of confronting systemic problems through real, initially circumscribed use cases, offering new ways to problematize and articulate anew the field of operation one is navigating.

Of course, there is no one-fits-all easy solution, it is a long path ahead, not free from risks (and that’s part of the point), and will require a collective hive mind of many different skill sets, subjectivities and expertises to processually approach this challenge. And for this reason it needs to be fully open source and entail cross-collaborations and transdisciplinary approaches at all layers. In this sense, the first step in this direction is precisely this process of discovery and experimentation.

And if there is a seed for a decolonizing politics to accrete itself from this very novel milieu, it will bloom as an unintended consequence of all this effervescence, as a contingent result of all this trial and error, merging and forking of different methodologies, gameplays and compositions -- kind of a MMORPG aimed at rolling out proofs of concepts for minimal viable futures to test and iterate upon (for this reason it is important to have a solid sandboxing strategy, and art is a great sandbox). For me this is the only way a transformative politics (and any politics for that matter) can come about, proceeding through leaps and bounds in an ongoing process of individuation; and it is already happening in very real ways.

Read this text in its German translation on Arts of the Working Class, Issue 5, coming out on February 26.