Lana Swartz is a post-doctoral researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. In Fall 2016, she will join the Media Studies department at the University of Virginia as an assistant professor. Most of her research is about money and other communication technologies. Her recent dissertation looked at money as communication, both in terms of information transmission and as a vector of relations, memory, and culture and included chapters on the history of public and private visions of payment in the United States, frequent flyer miles, community money, and other “alternative” currencies, transactional data and privacy, and ideological and technological tensions around Bitcoin.
Blockchain Between Digital Metallism and Infrastructural Mutualism,
Or: What Does (Can?) it Mean to be a “Peer”?
Early coverage of (and, perhaps, interest in) Bitcoin tended to focus on Bitcoin as a token: “how much it’s “worth,” how high the “price” has soared, how low it’s crashed, etc. This version of the Bitcoin story focuses on what Maurer, Nelms, and I have called “digital metallism.” Digital metallism is more than just an interest in commodity speculation: it is a mode of political and social agency. For traditional metallists, having a currency backed by a scarce commodity allows people to transact autonomously without any need for trust in each other or in centralized authority like a state. To metallists, money is a “creature of the market,” a “creature of the law.” For digital metallists, Bitcoin is a commodity currency “backed” by cryptographic proof, unforgeable scarcity guaranteed by the distributed blockchain. Frequently overlooked was what I call “infrastructural mutualism,” that is, the interest, in an idealized vision, the capacity to produce a network of peers engaged in an effort to produce a decentralized, distributed infrastructure. Although Bitcoin’s commodity token function has undergone a bubble of attention and value, this infrastructural mutualism is present both in Bitcoin’s origins as a payment rail, and in the future of the blockchain as a distributed ledger. How does the legacy of digital metallism continue to impact implementation and future visions of the blockchain? To what extent does it overwhelm efforts to produce infrastructural mutualism? How might we design distributed systems to be more inclusive of varieties of “peership”? What other models, beyond the blockchain, might we look to? What are the limits of the governance and cooperation modalities afforded by infrastructural mutualism?