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Riding the Blocktrain: Can tech be revolutionary?

Alexandria Shaner

Driving that train

High on cocaine

Casey Jones you better

Watch your speed

Trouble ahead

Trouble behind

And you know that notion

Just crossed my mind?

Trouble with you

Is the trouble with me

Got two good eyes

But you still don’t see

Come round the bend

You know it’s the end

The fireman screams

And the engine just gleams

Casey Jones, Grateful Dead

Is blockchain going to revolutionize the world? Should activists join, ignore, or shun the cryptoverse? The answers are: perhaps, and: it doesn’t really matter. This isn’t a cop out – it’s just that these are the wrong questions for assessing the revolutionary potential of a technology. This technological discussion is in fact, political.

Understanding the basics of blockchain is not overly complicated. Neither is assessing its revolutionary merits, its proposed capability to “decentralize” and liberate the internet, banking, and whatever else. But to do this, it is more important to understand the structure of society, than to understand the structure of blockchain. Let’s do a bit of both… 

You do not need to be a programmer or an economist to observe these three facts:  

1) Tools are things, technologies wielded by people. 

2) Social interactions, bounded by institutions, make up societies.

3) Institutions are interconnected, tending to complement and reinforce each other, reproducing similar interactions across society.

Basically, we are tool using mammals who interact with each other within the space and logic of our various societal constraints. This is people in a society. Some of us, sometimes, try to alter the constraints and the logic, because they don’t fit our desired ways of interacting, and decimate our desired outcomes. We even use tools to help us make these alterations along the way. When we succeed in ways that lead to fundamentally new institutions, which reinforce new interactions and outcomes, this is a revolution.

To conclude this grand social portrait succinctly, technology is and will always remain, a tool. It is not, and can never be, an institution or an interaction. It is a thing that can be used to facilitate interactions and desired outcomes, depending on how it is used. Blockchain is not a concept, it is a technology. It is a database, a chain of digital blocks that contain information – like playing telephone, passing along numbers instead of funny words. 

Let’s continue to get the obvious out of the way, just to be sensible and less boring. Destructive and needless energy consumption is never desirable, let alone acceptable, especially these days. However, the argument that “crypto is ecologically destructive” cannot be the end of our analysis. Blockchain, and even cryptocurrency, doesn’t necessarily require huge energy consumption. Simply put, blockchain is the underlying technology that maintains the transaction ledger for cryptocurrency transactions. Differently put, blockchain is crypto’s tightlipped bookkeeper zooming around on auto-pilot across the invisible filaments of the world wide web. Energy consumption is largely determined by the different types of algorithms and other features (proof of work, mining, etc) that are part of various projects that use blockchain as a ledger, not by the use of blockchain itself. Not all blockchain is bitcoin, it’s just a technology used by bitcoin. Not all blockchain is even cryptocurrency. Crypto is merely the first and most popular use of blockchain so far. High energy consumption is not an inevitable feature of these innovations. 

To start and finish our radical blockchain analysis with energy consumption concerns won’t cut it. Yes, it will apply much needed pressure for the crypto crowd to move towards cutting and even eliminating its carbon footprint, and rightly so. But, what else should inform analysis and engagement with this technology? What if blockchain based innovations like crypto and central bank digital currencies were carbon neutral, or even carbon negative? Now compare that to the (not insignificant) carbon footprint of the traditional banking industry.  In this scenario, would and should activists and eco-conscious citizens jump on the blocktrain as a climate positive alternative?

There are no shortage of blockchain related projects that espouse a vision of just this eco positive possibility, certainly not something to ignore. Using smart contracts (programs stored on a blockchain that run when predetermined conditions are met, to automate the execution of a transparent agreement without needing intermediaries), blockchains could help enforce climate commitments by forcing states and corporations to make their commitments to climate change with a deposit. If a state or corporation fails to comply with its carbon commitments, its deposit could be taken and redistributed to states or communities who are proportionately more impacted. Blockchain could also provide trustworthy information, in real time, to verify carbon-eliminating activities are actually taking place. Unfortunately, the big problem is not that we lack the means to measure how little the powerful care about climate change. The problem is that powerful states and corporations are unlikely to enter into such smart contracts. Straight from the virtual-horse’s mouth at NASDAQ’s Blockchain Desk: “They will be unwilling to participate in a system that makes broken promises transparent and automates the punishment process” (Omaid Hiwaizi, World Mobile). We’re back where we started, we’d need to force them.

Now consider that a report published by the Center for American Progress and the Sierra Club found that, “the 18 largest U.S. banks and asset managers alone were responsible for financing the equivalent of 1.968 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2020. This would make the U.S. financial sector the fifth-biggest emitter in the world if it were a country, ranked just below Russia and ahead of Indonesia.” Crypto-evangelists like to talk about shaking up the finance sector, something most of us can get behind. Blockchain based record keeping is indeed poised to change the future of finance – in accounting, asset registers, payments, trading, collateral management, and more. It could provide a transparent, chronological history of events for a single “source of truth”, the practice of structuring information so that everyone uses the same data. But isn’t all this basically just making finance more efficient, in a very capitalist sense of the word? Yes. Can blockchain also facilitate green banking and even taking down wall street? Also yes, but only if we also drastically alter fiscal policy, energy policy, climate policy, infrastructure policy, etc. It would be even better if we continued further, addressing the need for speculation, profit from private ownership of productive assets, the purpose of finance as facilitating sustainable and regenerative development, instead of for profit, and the need for constant growth in the first place, before staking our hopes on blockchain to disrupt the finance sector in a radical way. Otherwise, by shaking up the finance sector, these enthusiasts really just mean there will be temporary pockets of speculative opportunity, where the insiders will briefly look more like gamers than suits.

Further assessing the revolutionary merits of blockchain, we can very briefly note some additional applications of this technology, beyond banking and digital currency. Blockchain is poised to become integral in industries like transport, healthcare, law, security, advertising, real-estate, accounting, IOT, logistics, and in government, aid programs, military, voting, and international relations. Basically, you name it. At one time, computers, the internet, and email were considered interesting only to a small crowd of tech fans, yet they are now integral to modern personal and work life. Blockchain, like the internet itself, is a technology that will likely become ubiquitous. What we do with it and who controls it, like the internet itself, is political. 

For us mere citizens, it is a general rule of thumb not to blithely buy whatever Silicon Valley is currently selling. But it is also wise to not allow this caution to bleed into becoming tech-phobic (no one remembers the Great Ostrich Rebellion of eighteen seventy-never). Rather, we must try to understand technology’s capabilities and its limits, while continuing to fight the battles raging beyond the Bay-Area for complementary political, economic, and social changes. Crypto-folks tend to talk about “decentralizing” the internet and banking. They argue that making the internet harder (or impossible) to regulate would disrupt corporate control over our lives and protect us from state censorship. They argue that disrupting corporate and even state control over banking would alter the landscape of global equity, accessibility, and power. But what specifically do they mean, what is the intended outcome, and what do they actually do? 

When blockchain is referred to as decentralized, it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as you might assume. If you are coming from an organizing background, you will quickly recognize the analogous nuances and assumptions behind the terminology. In blockchain, decentralization refers to the transfer of control and decision-making from a centralized entity (individual, bank, government, corporation, etc) to a distributed network, P2P (peer to peer). In a way, it’s information moving within an architecture of self-management. Decentralized networks reduce the level of trust that participants must place in one another, and deter their ability to exert authority or control over one another, in ways that degrade the functionality of the network. The eggs are not all in one basket. Decentralized networks are also less susceptible to hacking (infiltration) and are less impacted by crashes (burnout) because there is no central heart or brain that could bring down the whole system if it fails. Think Participatory vs Lenninst style organizing. 

However, “peer to peer” does not mean allllll the peers, more like how the founding fathers of the US declared that all men are created equal, there are some major exceptions implied. Who can become a “peer” and how to participate as a “peer” in a network or even within a blockchain, depends a lot on how each project is set up. There are actually three primary network architectures typically considered for creating technology solutions: centralized, distributed, and decentralized. Blockchain technologies often make use of decentralized networks, and more often espouse to. But a blockchain application itself isn’t inherently decentralized or not. Decentralization is a sliding scale. We also still live under capitalism. Even if we are all just a bunch of peers interacting around online, we will still coexist with extreme inequality in other spheres, which will seep in and quickly cannibalize alternative spaces, IF true societal wide change is not actualized by a movement with comprehensive vision. Blockchains could be implemented as decentralizing forces, but the crypto industry is centralized and consolidated. For example, you might hear something fun like: Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) will track ownership rights of virtual goods within video games, and let digital artists sell their work online. Okay, artists should be able to make a living from their craft, but let’s not kid ourselves. Must we really do mental backflips through hula hoops just to tumble out the other side with yet another platform marketplace?? Even if blockchains are “decentralized”, most of the services that interact with them are controlled by a very small number of privately held companies. The industry emerging to support the decentralized web is highly consolidated, totally undermining the promise.

Web3 is a vision for a decentralized internet built around blockchain and crypto technology, free from the control of both corporations and governments. Sounds interesting, but who is empowered, if not big tech or big government? Are we really talking power to the people? If you dig, you will not unearth a very specific proposal – more of a dizzy vision where one is left unsure if the high will cause you to fall or fly. It’s easy to imagine it going either way, depending on the political and social context. In practice, under capitalism, decentralizing the internet often means turning it into a free market, US-libertarian, anarcho-capitalist dystopia. A place where those who have the highest access can make tons of money, money laundering is easier, and fascist groups flourish in privacy, fertilized by less-than-human algorithms. The same technology that protects you from central surveillance, can also shield criminals and allow hate-speech, false information, and harassment to go unmoderated. If your information is stored in a decentralized way, how do you get rid of it when you want to exercise your “right to be forgotten”? And how do you make sure things don’t just become centralized again, the system repeating itself, particularly when there are companies that want to make money? All of this can boil down to old questions that have nothing to do with technology: how far does free speech extend? How far does personal liberty extend? What institutionalized values govern our interactions? Is our society organized around competition for profit, or collaboration towards social benefit? And how do our answers reflect our desired values, yet reckon with the reality of current social relations on the ground? Until we grapple with the underlying social currents that pull and push us, we will remain at the mercy of the tides. On its own, blockchain will not be a life raft, but a quickening of the flow.

We should be interested in making the internet more democratic, yes, but it is not enough to manipulate the technology to create a power vacuum, a void full of the smoke of tech-worshiping, wishful thinking. This approach is incomplete, proven by the myriad examples of every major innovation throughout history. Disruptions without grassroots participation and continuing pressure on complementary institutions will not win lasting system change, and are all too tantalizing and ripe for the already powerful to expropriate. Ask any crypto-bro about “whales” and “institutional money”. Blockchain alone will not save us.

Our struggle must be more participatory and holistic. As a primary organizing strategy, we should be seeking ways to disrupt and end corporate control over people’s lives and with it, the existential stranglehold on our ecological responsiveness. We should simultaneously be seeking ways to disrupt and end authoritarianism, inequality, patriarchy, racism, and classism. We should be treating technology as a tool, not a vision. The internet, blockchain, and technology in general, can be implemented in better and worse ways to facilitate these ends. Organizing for interlinked reforms like net neutrality, open source platforms, regulation, and then even the creation of a commons out of big tech and internet service providers, all while applying similar pressure to the finance and banking sectors, doggedly campaigning against techno-feudalist government policies, and building participatory government, are all things that will actually help us tip the balance of power, so that we have a chance in hell of applying new tech to our own vision in meaningful ways.

Eventually, technology will always fall into the hands of the powerful, who will use it for their ends. Maybe we can use blockchain and the internet as tools to fight, to disrupt, organize, and experiment, but they will not and cannot show us loyalty, they simply and literally lack the heart. We can make cracks in the walls, even cracks in the foundations, but if we don’t keep strategically chipping away at the old while building a worthy vision for a better new, the cracks will be sealed faster than we can make them. Our hammers will be co opted by our overlords, and we will be left hammerless and breathless. Or worse, we will realize, with bewilderment or denial, that we are somehow working as the maintenance crew of the master’s house.

When we hold up technology itself as savior, and do not prioritize fighting systems, we end up serving technology, which serves whatever system it enters. As promised, it is not complicated – the powerful can afford more and better tools, or they can just steal yours.

So, what makes a bandwagon revolutionary? The destination, not the wagon. Should you hitch a ride on the blocktrain? Do, or don’t – it doesn’t matter unless you do more, unless you notice and remember that this wagon’s not a self-driving vehicle, the terrain is not static, and the destination is always what we make it. Yes, learn about new tech, and yes, if it’s interesting for you, get involved – just don’t lose context. We can and should revolutionize the digital space, but alas, the revolution will not be digitized.

Alexandria Shaner is a sailor, writer, organizer, and activist. Based in the southern Caribbean, she is an instructor at the School for Social and Cultural Change and active with RealUtopia.org and The Climate Reality Project. [email protected]