Cryptocurrency Might be a Path to Authoritarianism
Extreme libertarians built blockchain to decentralize government and corporate power. It could consolidate their control instead.
By IAN BOGOST
May 30 2017
All over town, the parking meters are disappearing. Drivers now pay at a central machine, or with an app. It’s so convenient I sometimes forget to pay entirely—and then suffer the much higher price of a parking ticket. The last time that happened, I wondered: Why can’t my car pay for its own parking automatically?
It’s technically possible. Both my car and my smartphone know my location via GPS. My phone already couples to my car via Bluetooth. An app could prompt me to pay for parking upon arrival.
Or imagine this: My car, which is already mostly a computer, enters an agreement to lease time from a parking lot, which is managed by another computer. It “signs” this contract just by entering the lot and occupying a parking space. In exchange, the car transfers a small amount of Bitcoin, the currency of choice for computers, into the parking lot’s wallet.
With computers handling the entire process, I’d never even be able to forget to pay for parking. The only way to fail would be for my car to run out of Bitcoin, in which case the parking lot has easy recourse: Because my car’s ignition is managed by a computer, the parking lot could just shut my vehicle down.
Scenarios like this are possible when blockchain—the digital transaction record originally invented to validate Bitcoin transactions—gets used for purposes beyond payment. In certain circles, the technology has been hailed for its potential to usher in a new era of services that are less reliant on intermediaries like businesses and nation-states. But its boosters often overlook that the opposite is equally possible: Blockchain could further consolidate the centralized power of corporations and governments instead.
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In his book Radical Technologies, the urban designer Adam Greenfield calls cryptocurrency and blockchain the first technology that’s “just fundamentally difficult for otherwise intelligent and highly capable people to understand.” I was relieved when I read this, because I have been pretending to understand cryptocurrencies—digital money based in code-breaking—for years. Bitcoin is hard to grasp because it’s almost like a technology from an alien civilization. It’s not just another platform or app. Making sense of it first requires deciphering the political assumptions that inspire it.
Bitcoin is an expression of extreme technological libertarianism. This school of thought goes by many names: anarcho-capitalism (or ancap for short), libertarian anarchy, market anarchism. Central to the philosophy is a distrust of states in favor of individuals. Its adherents believe society best facilitates individual will in a free-market economy driven by individual property owners—not governments or corporations—engaging in free trade of that private property.
Anarcho-capitalism is far more extreme than Silicon Valley’s usual brand of technological individualism. For one, the tech sector’s libertarianism is corporatist in its bent, and amenable to government, if in a strongly reduced capacity. And Silicon Valley takes a broader approach to the liberating capacity of technology: Facebook hopes to connect people, Google to make information more accessible, Uber to improve transit, and so on.
The ancap worldview only supports sovereign individuals engaging in free-market exchange. Neither states nor corporations are acceptable intermediaries. That leaves a sparsely set table. At it: individuals, the property they own, the contracts into which they enter to exchange that property, and a market to facilitate that exchange. All that’s missing is a means to process exchanges in that market.
Ordinarily, money would be sufficient. But currency troubles market anarchists. The central banks that control the money supply are entities of the state. Financial payment networks like Visa are corporations, which aren’t much better. That’s where Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies enter the picture. They attempt to provide a technological alternative to currency and banking that would avoid tainting the pure individualism of the ancap ideal.
This makes Bitcoin’s design different from other technology-facilitated payment systems, like PayPal or Apple Pay. Those services just provide a more convenient computer interface to bank accounts and payment cards. For anarcho-capitalism to work in earnest, it would need to divorce transactions entirely from the traditional monetary system and the organizations that run it. Central banks and corporations could interfere with transactions. And yet, if individuals alone maintained currency records, money could be used fraudulently, or fabricated from thin air.
To solve these problems, Bitcoin is backed by mathematics instead of state governments. The Bitcoin “blockchain” is a shared, digital record of all the transactions (or “blocks”) that have ever been exchanged. Every transaction contains a cryptographic record of the previous succession (the “chain”) of exchanges. Each one can thus be mathematically verified to be valid. The community of Bitcoin users does the work of verification. To incentivize the onerous work of cryptographically verifying each transaction in the chain that precedes it, the protocol awards a bounty—in Bitcoin of course—to the first user to validate a new transaction on the network. This is the process known as “mining”—a confusing and aspirational name for what amounts to computational accounting.