- Reboot Everything
Stephen P. Williams
208 Pages; Cloth, $24.95
The fifteenth page of this issue has been edited for typographical errors in the first paragraph. The editors and publishers apologize for the error.
Whether or not blockchain is in fact "the next everything" is probably best left to our future robotic overlords. Stephen P. Williams's Blockchain: The Next Everything, the book attached to this philosophically vacuous title, is—to this human reader, at least—a dreary casserole of logical fallacies, outlandish claims, and unsummarizable discourse. Equal parts techno-solutionist propaganda piece, indoctrination gospel for the next big tech revolution, and self-help pamphlet for data survival after the extinction event, Blockchain: The Next Everything comes leveraged in an untestable future tense, loaded with aspirational bullet-pointery, modal verbs (could, should, would, might), and abundant dead space padding out every third page. It reads like The Onion sending-up a tech influencer drunk on memes, Crypto, and cyberlibertarianism, served with a chaser of Death-by-PowerPoint.
The ideology of cyberlibertarianism, as David Golumbia puts it in The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism (2016),
can be thought of as something like a belief according to which freedom will emerge inherently from the increasing development of digital technology, and therefore entails that efforts to interfere with or regulate that development must be antithetical to freedom—although what 'freedom' means in this context is much less clear than it may seem.
It resonates with the so-called California ideology: "the presumption that computer-based expertise trumps that of all other forms of expertise, sometimes because everything in the world is ultimately reducible to computational processes." Relatedly, blockchain propaganda mobilizes a rich vein of deeply held tropes of extreme right-wing paranoia about money, markets, pricing, and value:
that central banking such as that practiced by the U.S. Federal Reserve is a deliberate plot to "steal value" from the people to whom it actually belongs; that the world monetary system is on the verge of imminent collapse due to central banking policies, especially fractional reserve banking; that "hard" currencies such as gold provide meaningful protection against that purported collapse; that inflation is a plot to steal money from the masses and hand it over to a shadowy cabal of "elites" who operate behind the scenes; and more generally that the governmental and corporate leaders and wealthy individuals we all know are "controlled" by those same "elites."
Make no mistake: Blockchain: The Next Everything is a brochure for something huge that its author can never quite get a hold of but nevertheless badly desires to peddle. Know your merchandise. If there only were something to sell—some miracle
widget, a particular panacea, a branded patent medicine, a pill-pack of magic beans—it would be easier going on all of us. No mere huckster of cryptocurrency, Williams proceeds with all the glib solemnity of a seasoned TED talker to demand a hard system reboot of everything—i.e., modern society—around the underlying technical specs first developed for bitcoin.
I can recommend two books on Blockchain that do more than fluffery: David Golumbia's Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism and David Gerard's Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain (2017). Bitcoin and Blockchain are different animals. Bitcoin is crypto, the front-end; blockchain is the backend, the massively decentralized, distributed database. Crypto runs on blockchain but so might other things: deeds and contracts, branded goods, markets for authentic antiques and Harry Potter first editions, exchanges for fairly sourced, artisanal rare-earths, the next eBay, the next Facebook, the next Amazon, the next Internet. A ginormous, uncrackable transaction ledger of automatically protected digital information, secured by difficult, electricity-sucking computational problems, blockchain is as blockchain does, distributing itself amongst its constituent participants, secured by their consent to transact upon the ledger, accessible to them separately only with complexly encrypted passkeys.
The conceptual origins of both crypto and blockchain are suitably shrouded in mystery. In a mysterious white paper from 2008, on or about the banking crisis of that same year, the enigmatic...