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_CAUSERIES

[talk] The Blockchain: (new) machine of immortality

New Kids on the Blockchain – Thursday, January 24, 2019, around 9pm
– La Gaîté Lyrique, Paris.

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Before starting I’d like to ask something of you.

I prefer not to be photographed, filmed, or recorded.

This is why I have asked this evening’s organisers to switch off the video camera while I speak.

In exchange I have undertaken to produce a text. The organisers would like some trace of my speech to remain. I’m going to read you this text. I’m already reading it. Please excuse me for any tedium which may arise from this text being read out.

I was invited to present you a research programme underway at the PAMAL PAMAL (that I co-lead with Lionel Broye) of the Ecole supérieure d’Art of Avignon. It is called (Block)chain of Love.

Before addressing the theoretical questions, which have led us to gather here, I would like to say a word about the context in which this programme came about.

This programme, which is supported by the French Ministry of Culture, brings together several French art schools as well as one Belgian one. The Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Photographie at Arles, in particular its Observatoire des Pratiques de l’Image Numérique, which is coordinated by Yannick Vernet; the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris and its digital department, directed by Vincent Rioux; the Ecole Supérieure d’Art et de Design of Grenoble and Valence, notably with the participation of Gilles Rouffineau, who has just published a book; and the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Visuels de la Cambre in Brussels, withe the support of its director Benoît Hennaut and thanks to the determination of Serge Hoffman, who must be somewhere in the room. This has been written down, I’m just reading it. Additionally, Lucile Haute, artist and lecturer at the university of Nîmes and researcher at the Ensad-Lab, is equally a part of the hard core of the researchers on this programme.

A first, week-long, working session took place in Arles last November in the presence of around thirty people, of whom two thirds were art students, and concluded with presentations of workshops and interventions of eminent speakers.

I will not go into the details of the working sessions which we had as it would be far too premature. Further sessions are expected and the results will follow.

I shall instead offer you a number of lines of enquiry which you can pursue in the way that you see fit. I will limit myself to raising a series of questions.

What interests me with regard to the subject of our investigations, blockchain, is addressing blockchain as a technical medium. If I take the definition of the technical medium given by Friedrich Kittler, the blockchain is an apparatus which records, stocks, and processes data. I will also take, as a starting point, one of the most fundamental presuppositions of media theory, which is the presupposition of the thought of Marshall McLuhan, that technical media act upon culture, which is to say not only on the representations and assemblages of meanings, but also on values and norms. We designate as media those apparatuses which record, stock, and process data precisely because they produce effects, which is to say they act, on culture and language- and when I say ‘culture’ I mean western culture. This means that we don’t conceive of them as tools, or as machines, or as systems. Owing to their agency, we confer upon them a certain degree of subjectivity, and the whole purpose of media theory is to measure this degree of subjectivity. And it is on this that I shall now focus.

I, for my part, call these technical media writing machines. Technical media write our culture, but they are themselves written. It is not enough to say, as do André Leroi-Gourhan, Gilbert Simondon and Bernard Stiegler that human thought is the result of its technical objects. The real question is how our media themselves are written. This is an absolutely central question because it touches on what determines our thought and our culture. It’s the question of the emergence and obsolescence of media. To which internal logic do they respond? The theories on this subject are not numerous, but they exist. Further discussions of Marshall McLuhan, Friedrich Kittler, Erkki Huhtamo and undoubtedly Wolfgang Ernst, will be necessary. It is in responding to this question that media archaeology can bring something to science.

Now let’s consider this question: How does a technical medium gain a dominant position? Here we could formulate a working hypothesis which is that this position is directly connected to the degree of action of this medium on some fundamental concepts of our western culture, which is a metaphysical culture. The more that these concepts are affected, weakened, and then transformed by a new medium, the more this medium will come to occupy a dominant position. Every technical medium aspires, in a certain manner, to play the role of a divinity. [Edit. Added during the lecture: An assertion that I think Mark Alizart will not deny.]

Let us take, for example, the technical medium that is the Web. The power of the Web is down to at least two things: it has enabled the circulation of expression and given a voice to those who did not previously have one. From the beginning, everybody was able to write their page; today they use Facebook, with consequences that were witnessed in a number of Arab countries a few years ago and are today in France. Secondly everyone has been able to change their identity. This is all well-known. On this second point, the Web has universalised the pseudonym, which had up until then been reserved for fictional beings, writers, criminals, and spies- which works as a reasonable definition of literature. The power of the Web has been to affect the notion of identity, which, since Descartes, structured the notion of the subject (‘Freud is Freud even when he’s changing’). The Web has decentred the function of the name, which was to embody the permanence and unity of the ‘I’, with its corollary – legal and social responsibility, spatial and temporal responsibility. With the Web, you can speak from any social situation that you choose for a certain amount of time. This is what Satoshi Nakamoto, the ‘inventor’ of the Bitcoin Blockchain, did when publishing his article on a mailing list. Going by Heideggerian categories, the Web impacted on one of the fundamental concepts of metaphysics, and therefore of western culture: solitude, from which the concept of identity emanates. (If I follow my own thoughts- cogito ergo sum- , am I not alone in the world? Let us translate: when I’m playing on a network- am I not alone in the world with my screen and do the other players really exist?). Confronted with this upheaval, the Hegelian states, which rest on the identification of their citizens, responded with violence by reinforcing all possible systems of identification on the Internet and elsewhere: biometric passports, HADOPI, DAVSI, and LOPPSI french laws, military programming… The companies which profit from data and which have every incentive to identify their target, also responded by seeking to limit anonymity and screen IDs. Ultimately you know all of this. I can see that you’re growing impatient, I see someone’s leaving the room, you were no doubt expecting to hear about Blockchain. I’m getting there.

Let us speak then of the technical medium that is Blockchain. It is not yet a dominant technical medium, but it could become one. Why? Because it impacts on another fundamental metaphysical concept. This concept is finitude, which is to say the fact of knowing that we- humans- are mortal. The blockchain is an archiving machine. A formidable archiving machine because its archives are- in principle- transparent, inviolable and unalterable. For as long as there are computers and electricity, Blockchain will be the absolute inscription. Now, altering the way that a culture archives human activity means altering the way in which it organises the kingdom of the dead and therefore responds to the desire for immortality, which structures our culture, as has been admirably demonstrated by Hannah Arendt. In a way blockchain is the most sophisticated apparatus to respond to this desire. It is more efficient than libraries, which can burn down, and which are hardly transparent in spite of the efforts of the architects, more powerful than the Web, whose pages can be erased- in spite of the efforts of the Internet Archive, the Rhizome and PAMAL.

The transactions of a Blockchain are transparent: you can trace them back to the first transaction of Satoshi Nakamoto, which was the subject of a remarkable study by Serge Hoffman during our week of workshops. All the transactions are accessible. However, they are only transparent up to a point. What characterises a Blockchain, is the transparency of its archives, the obsession with proof. Proof matters to judges and the police. There is something paradoxical in the fact that the Bitcoin, structured by Blockchain technology, could be used for criminal ends. What is it in Blockchain that makes this paradox possible? Blockchain plays simultaneously on the hidden and the transparent. Even if each of us could read all of the transactions which are archived within it, its content is encrypted, which is to say hidden. This interplay between what is inscribed inalterably for eternity and what is hidden is precisely that on which is built the entire western culture of death. The name- the identity- of the dead person is inscribed on granite while the dead body is destined to be invisible. The world of the dead is a closed world, an underworld, and since Jesus, it has been inaccessible. Before Jesus, it was closed but accessible to heroes from Ulysses to Eneas. With Jesus, it became inaccessible because Jesus was the pre-technical medium between the world of the divine, the world of the dead, and the world of the living, the world of the political. Christ is, for Christian culture, the only bridge between the living and the dead and this bridge closes with his own death, which wasn’t one. The fact that Christ was dead and then not dead provisionally suspended – for about two thousand years – access to the world of the dead. This is why Christianity forbids necromancy. However, as has been demonstrated by Friedrich Kittler, Jeffrey Sconce, Philippe Baudouin and the marvellous research programme of Jeff Guess and Gwenola Wagon, this Christian closure of the world of the dead ended with the breach created by technical media at the beginning of the 19th century. The Blockchain is the current outcome of this most recent movement, to the point of being its masterpiece.

It certainly won’t have escaped your attention that this masterpiece is also a political masterpiece. In Plato, immortality- meaning the inalterability of the unicity and originality – of souls founds and absolutely guarantees – in an unconditioned manner- the justice and accuracy of things, in other words the political and science. Truth, justice and ideas are atemporal because immortality exists somewhere. This idea is omnipresent in Plato. You will find it in The Apology, The Republic, Phaedo, and Phaedrus. And it is also the reason why the Bolsheviks did everything to avoid Lenin passing over to the world of the dead- you can see for yourself if you go to his mausoleum in Moscow. However, in wishing to be rid of the crypt, in seeking to find in the person of Lenin a new bridge between the world of the living and the world of the dead, Leninist Communism undoubtedly killed its essence which is, as we have been discussing this evening, to be ‘crypto’, underground and hidden. I will delve into this question on another occasion. Through the mummification and exhibition of Lenin’s dead body, Communism emerged from the crypt, one might say. Let’s close this parenthesis. The very idea that Blockchain, as an archiving machine and thus a machine of immortality could found the political is the direct consequence of Platonism, with the sole exception that the bridge between the world of the living and the kingdom of the dead, in its essence encrypted and cryptic, is not situated at the Gates of Hell but in the peer-to-peer network of computers.

Thus the action of Blockchain as a technical medium on culture perhaps makes itself less felt on money and social relations than on the concept of the archive, whose political effects are of no less importance. It should be noted that money is already in itself an archive. It is the archive of a mathematical transaction. This is what Clarisse Herrenschmidt demonstrated in her work on the three types of writing. [Edit. Not read during the lecture to save time: Her thesis is that minted money, as a form of writing, was the vector, the signifying format, of the writing of numbers and their relations, in other words of the writing of monetary arithmetic. Consequently the first effect of the archiving of numerical relations was that mathematicians also acted as economists, from Thales to Babbage to Von Neumann]. This idea resurfaces in the work of Marx- in chapter 4 of the Grundrisse– for whom money was simply a standard of the quantitative relation, a simple name given to a quantitative relation of value. But then, says Marx, wouldn’t it be more accurate not to name [this money] at all but to describe it was a simple numerical relation? And since economics is a simple matter of calculation, it is not surprising that the owners of the means of production entrust the economy to intelligent calculating machines, as much to the finance bots as through inventing cryptomoney, the Bitcoin as such being here the logical outcome of money as a simple numerical relation.

Allow me to intervene in the debate which has guided the three preceding interventions. If we keep in mind that money is nothing but an archive, what is it really the archive of? For Marx, money is only the archival manifestation- as a measure- of value not of commodities, but on the contrary of the exclusion of the social expression of commodities. When a commodity has a price, it is confused with this price. The process of production, and in particular socially necessary labour time, disappears as if by magic. This is why the world of production and that of commodities appear as distinct. The whole advantage is held by the capitalist who can do what he likes with the commodity that he has nonetheless not produced himself. It is this fact that Marx, while he recognised the determining role of the banks in the birth of modern capitalism, considered, in the first volume of the Grundrisse (the famous chapter about money), that it is not possible to change the relations of production and distribution – meaning the relations of domination – by transforming the instrument and the organisation of circulation, the money itself. Moreover, it is only at the expense of a transformation of relations of production that such a transformation of circulation is possible. The challenge- which is to find out whether money enables the transformation of social relations- was the dispute which pitted Marx against the Proudhonians- whose socialist theories were long dominant in social struggles. The Proudhonians, like the Utopian Socialists, were opposed to any form of violent struggle, preferring to form autonomous/ communities, much like Bitcoin in its early days. The Proudhonians considered that the progressive transformation of monetary circulation had the power to affect relations of production; it was against this that Marx argued, because in his view, monetary circulation was included in the process of production.

What I wish to say here is that the technical medium Blockchain firstly transforms the process of archiving and that Bitcoin is only one means by which Blockchain enabled to continue to exist. I would like to end my intervention by asking what Bitcoin is the manifestation of? The creation of Bitcoin is closely linked to mining, [Edit. Not read to save time: meaning the validation of inscriptions of content inside encrypted blocks]. The quantity of Bitcoin was immediately limited- mathematically- to 21 million, owing to the law of diminishing returns. Furthermore, Satoshi could not have anticipated that 1) the mining of Bitcoins would demand the progressive industrialisation of node technology- with regard to the need for computing power and 2) a significant energy increase. [Edit. Added during the talk: Baruch Gottlieb emphasised just now that Bitcoin is not a currency. This is true from an economic perspective. However,] it must be conceded that Bitcoin is a currency insofar as it is connected to a process of production, which consists, we have seen, in producing archive and only archive. I don’t have the time right now to develop this question, so I’ll settle for at least formulating it: what is the point of this new process of archiving? In other words to what use could this increase in computing power of networked computers and the ensuing electric infrastructure be put? Perhaps to the construction and powering of a networked future- or already existing- intelligent super-calculator. To what end? Is it in fact a matter of building a new kingdom of the dead, a register of all registers? Who is Satoshi Nakamoto? Or rather, Satoshin, yes, Satoshin because that is how she signed her article: satoshin@gmx.com. Couldn’t it be some sort of Go player as have seemed to appear these last few months? This project bears a strong resemblance to another, whose divine mother is called Alphabet. I admit I haven’t yet examined the links between the world of Bitcoin and that of the Singularity. I will concede that here we are entering the world of conjecture and of biblical poetry.

And since we have now moved on to questions of poetry, I would like to show you on video, and read to you, three very brief, poems, which will definitively ruin my reputation. They were written with the aid of the son or daughter of Alphabet, Google, in particular Google Translate French, in an attempt to crack the encrypted message inscribed inside the name ‘satoshinakamoto’.

Here is the first (Satoshin n°1).

Village (Town)
Nouveau (New)
Rouge (Red)
Ancien (Old)

The second one (Satoshin n°2).

Merveilleusement (Marvellously)
Bon et mauvais (Good and bad)

The third one (Satoshin n°3).

La différence (Difference)
Bonjour (Hello)
Tristesse (Sadness)
Horrible (Horrible)
Peut-être (Perhaps)
Merveilleusement (Marvellously)

[Edit. A few minutes after my talk. I just remembered that Charon, the boatman of the Underworld, transported the Styx for an obulus, which was placed on the mouths of the dead before their burial.]

[Edit. A few more minutes after my talk. Additionally. The very fact that Bitcoin is not, strictly speaking, money, is the proof that money is not what is really sought and targeted by the technical medium Blockchain, which must be considered in the longer term of the internal ‘logic’ of technical media.]