BitCoins: an unpolicable p2p e-currency?

Paul Raven @ 16-05-2011

I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff that needs to get done over the next few days, so blogging here will perforce be of the drive-by link-drop variety for a few days or so. Today’s nugget of interest is BitCoin, a peer-to-peer electronic currency which, according to the folk behind the LAUNCH Conference at least, is “the most dangerous project [they’ve] ever seen”. Why so? Well…

Bitcoins are virtual coins in the form of a file that is stored on your device. These coins can be sent to and from users three ways:

1. Direct with peer-to-peer software downloaded at
2. Via an escrow service like ClearCoin
3. Via a bitcoin currency exchange

Each owner transfers the coin to the next by digitally signing a hash of the previous transaction and the public key of the next owner and adding these to the end of the coin. A payee can verify the signatures to verify the chain of ownership.

The benefits of a currency like this:

a) Your coins can’t be frozen (like a Paypal account can be)
b) Your coins can’t be tracked
c) Your coins can’t be taxed
d) Transaction costs are extremely low (sorry credit card companies)

It’s a “technotarian”political statement, apparently… not to mention a grenade in the nation-state punchbowl. Here’s a cuddly and very contemporary-looking promo video:

Given the global discontent with banking and finance right now, BitCoins could look very attractive to a lot of people. Unsurprisingly, no “normal” financial system will let you buy them, and as the LAUNCH folks point out, legislation against them is inevitable. But would legislation be enough to stop them if enough people started bartering real-world goods and services for them? [Tip o’ the hat to Adam Rothstein]

Anonymous: an anarchist analysis

Paul Raven @ 12-05-2011

Over at The Guardian, Jana Herwig gets all theoretical on Anonymous. It’s probably the most lucid attempt to tease out what Anonymous means in the context of the wider world that I’ve seen in any major publication. There’s also a glorious degree of cognitive dissonance to be had from reading about such an irreverent and vernacular entity in the high diction of academe:

This collective identity belongs to no one in particular, but is at the disposal of anyone who knows its rules and knows how to apply them. Anonymous, the collective identity, is older than Anonymous, the hacktvist group – more to the point, I propose that the hacktivist group can be understood as an application of Anonymous, the collective identity.

This identity originated on imageboard, as a byproduct of a user interface policy called forced anonymity, also known for short as “forced anon”.

Forced anon made it impossible for users to type in their name when they published a forum post. Instead, “Anonymous” would invariably appear as the default author name for any post. As a result, and in particular for the uninitiated, discussions on 4chan would seem like an absurd soliloquy, with “Anonymous” posting a message and “Anonymous” and “Anonymous” responding.

What this interface policy prevented was the creation of a hierarchy among users, which is known to quickly establish itself in online forums, with older forum members dominating and “newbies” having little weight in the discussion. Anonymous’s (the group’s) present dismissal of hierarchies and leadership has its roots in this practice. The uncertainty about who is talking (or probably just talking to him or herself, feigning conversation) is characteristic of the “forced anon” experience.

Herwig’s piece is in part a response to the recent schism within Anonymous; within any “normal” hierarchical group, such a schism would probably spell its imminent demise, but I suspect the very nature of Anonymous will ensure its survival, even if it mutates and undergoes a sort of metastasis. The choice of the V For Vendetta masks as part of their iconography is quite telling; the point Moore was making in the book about emergent resistance to hierarchy and fascistic control is echoed in the unpredictability of their target choices. Dissent cannot be bridled or steered; that is its power, and its self-limiting principle.

To unpack that last statement: self-identifying as a member of Anonymous is a lot like self-identifying as an anarchist, in that anyone can slip on the mask at any time, and the non-hierarchical nature of the collective means that there is no authority with the power to deny your validity. This has its downsides, in that it makes for easy pillorying and demonisation of the collective identity (such as the way that a few self-identifying anarchists bricking windows on protest marches are conveniently assumed to be representative of all anarchists), allowing a convenient way to obscure the genuine problems of hierarchy by focussing on the more foolhardy and socially unacceptable attacks made upon it.

But there are upsides, too, in that the more nihilistic wearers-of-the-badge tend to perform acts that are self-limiting in the long term; because the collective is headless, it cannot be destroyed, so the hierarchical world has to content itself with the sort of decapitations that symbolically represent the defeat of a system or group in their own narrative, while all they’re doing is trimming the wilder edge-growths of the rhizome and preventing it from becoming a hierarchy itself.

All of which is to say that I think Anonymous – and anarchism-as-philosophy – aren’t going anywhere soon; in fact, I’m beginning to think they’re an inevitable product of a global networked culture, a counterweight to the structure of society that increases in mass in proportion to the rigidity of the systems it opposes. Neither are an end-point or a goal; those that join in the hope that they are will soon leave, disappointed, because the individual reward they subconsciously seek for their actions are incompatible with the anonymity under which they are obliged to operate.

Of course, you may think I’m blowing pretentious smoke out of my own arse here; it wouldn’t be completely out of character, after all. So why not tell me why I’m wrong in the comments, eh? 🙂

Dethroning the conductor

Paul Raven @ 13-01-2011

As unsurprising as it might be to see an essay by a Christian theologian advocating submission to authority as one of the highest ideals of our political lives [via BigThink], I’m not in the mood to let it pass without comment. I think what really bugs me is the largely unquestioned elevation of hierarchy to sacred principle:

Austin gives the example of an orchestra. If I want to be free to play the violin in a well-performed Beethoven symphony, then I must submit myself to the authority of a conductor, for without the conductor the other musicians cannot be brought into coordination with my playing.

Submission to authority for the sake of freedom is not, as Simon recognized, a function of human sin but instead finitude. It’s not the case that an orchestra can just play if everybody is selfless and cooperative. Someone needs to guide the whole so that each player can concentrate on his or her part. Nobody can both play the violin and at the same time and conduct the orchestra.

The logic there is sound enough, but it’s built on the assumption that everyone wants to play through the precisely denoted structure of that Beethoven symphony, and the implication that anything else would be a cacophony of unpalatable noise, or at the very least inherently inferior to Beethoven.

Well, look: I spent three hours last night jamming with a handful of other musicians. We don’t play from sheet music; the band doesn’t “belong” to anyone; there is no conductor or leader. We take the simple rules of harmony and melody, and we start playing; music emerges. Sometimes it takes a little while to find a groove; sometimes there are bum notes, fumbled phrases, rhythmic slips. But sometimes we come up with stuff that transcends our individual abilities – little passages which, when we’ve finished playing, we discuss with a mixture of surprise and awe. There was no planning, no leadership, but we still created something amazing. Part of that comes from the selflessness that our theologian friend above claims is insufficient, but another part comes from the selfishness of occasionally feeling that one knows what the moment demands, and the willingness to step out of the groove and extend it upwards, outwards, inwards, wherever.

The orchestral analogy’s appeal to a theologian is pretty obvious: the orchestra first has to recieve the text of the piece, a rule-set handed down to them by a distant authority figure whom they can only hope to partially channel and glorify; the text then has to be interpreted by the conductor, who plays no part in the creation of the symphony beyond grafting a personal vision and interpretation to the text. The musician’s place is to play what he is told, just as the communicant’s place is to accept, without question, the interpretation of God’s word as filtered through his priest.

This obviously works for many people, but not for all. The music I made with friends last night wasn’t perfect, wasn’t planned, but it was all the more glorious for that, because we made it without constraints. We accepted our individual failings at the same time that we accepted our individual achievements. We participated in an act of creation on equal terms, and were brought closer together as people in the process. (I imagine any other musician would agree that playing in a band lets you get to know people in an intellectually more intimate manner than other forms of friendship, and I’m sure the same goes for other acts of collaborative creation.)

So, keeping that in mind, back to our theologian:

That’s why nobody actually wants “participatory democracy,” a non-hierarchical fantasy that progressive political theorists often champion. It would be oppressive in the extreme if all of us were vested with exactly the same responsibility for the common good. As Herbert McCabe observed: “Society is not the product of individual people. On the contrary, individual people are the product of society.”


The expansion of political responsibility beyond a certain point would absorb our private lives, a result that entails the opposite of what most people intend when they endorse political liberty. Like the violinist who can’t concentrate on his part and conduct at the same time, finite human beings don’t have enough energy to attend to the ordinary duties of life and bring about world revolution.

Did you get that? You don’t really want freedom. Indeed, hierarchy is necessary, because without it we couldn’t enjoy the luxury of our lack of control over it. The shepherd graciously allows the sheep to revel in the pleasure of sheepdom; the price of never being eaten by wolves is to be kept safe until the shepherd has need of a meal. And let’s just repeat a phrase to be sure it sinks in:

It would be oppressive in the extreme if all of us were vested with exactly the same responsibility for the common good.

I cannot read that sentence and parse it in any way that makes logical sense to me, except as an indicator of a mindset that destroys lives and ruins the world the we live upon. “Daddy knows best.”

Regular readers can probably see the sociopolitical direction in which I’m driving, so I’ll stop before I belabour it too badly… but not before pointing out that when an orchestra finishes playing, it is the conductor who takes the bow, and takes the glory that the musicians have laboured for.

METAtropolis as an outsider anarchist text

Paul Raven @ 27-07-2010

Just for a change, it’s not me projecting anarchist ideas onto contemporary science fiction. Instead, it’s one Margaret Killjoy (who may or may not be pseudonymous) writing at The Anvil Review, who takes a look at the John Scalzi-edited anthology METAtropolis and reads it as a selection of “outsider anarchist fiction” [hat-tip to William Gillis]:

The authors are not consciously political radicals, but they are clearly inspired by the possibilities of autonomy that have been opened up in the 21st century. I would guess that not a one of them has read Bakunin, Rolling Thunder, or; they’ve struck upon the idea of mutual aid economics and horizontal structuring largely in a vacuum.

To be honest, I think there’s an element of the vanity of the marginalised at play, there. Sure, Scalzi et al may not have read the sources Killjoy cites, but they’re hardly the only places that anarchist ideas crop up; anyone who reads Futurismic would have stumbled across the ideas of mutual aid economics and horizontal structuring, and – my personal politics aside – I don’t think anyone would claim this website as an explicitly anarchist text*. The ideas Killjoy is highlighting have been part of science fiction’s stock in trade for some time… that’s exactly where I discovered most of them, at any rate. I’m surprised at her surprise, in other words; sf is hardly the vacuum of ararchist ideas she seems to think it is.

However, once we get past Killjoy’s own outsider theatrics, she has some interesting readings to share, and raises an interesting point: that certain components of the traditional anarchist philosophical platform are indeed becoming more culturally acceptable (provided you define inclusion in science fiction stories as a badge of cultural acceptance, which I suspect would be contested vigorously by a large section of the populace), or at least acceptable enough to be put forward as plausible solutions to a difficult near-future in a fictional context.

I’m not just fascinated by the cultures that these stories present, I’m fascinated by their authors’ point of entry. I would suggest that technology culture in the 21st century is leaning more and more towards anarchist approaches. Centralization is being outed as the demon it is: centralization and homogeny are understood as the bane of a healthy online network, and many are beginning to realize that the same is true of offline networks. A sort of neo-tribalism is on the rise, as is simply understanding that people and cultures are more fascinating when viewed as webs, as horizontal networks, than as rigidly controlled and highly-formalized structures.

What’s more, intellectual property is increasingly out of vogue. A sort of anarcho-futurist mentality is on the rise: that we should borrow and steal freely from each other’s ideas, that copyright laws are an imposition on our aesthetic and creative freedom, that they stand in the way of moving our culture forward–or outward, or in whatever direction it feels like moving. Some are, I would argue, even beginning to understand that it is not that we steal ideas from one another, but that copyright and intellectual property actually represent theft from the public, enclosure of what by nature ought to be the commons. Knowledge knows no scarcity and there is no reason to charge for its dissemination.

Slowly, this critique of intellectual property is filtering out into meatspace, and now in the 21st century many geeks are coming to their own understandings of what Proudhon so famously stated in the 19th: property is theft.

Radicals would be fools to ignore this sudden appearance of fellow-travelers.

Radicals might also be fools for not realising that sf has had a fair few fellow-travellers for many years, too… but the underlying point is valid. Critiques of intellectual property, top-down power structures and the machinery of democracy are indeed rampant in modern culture, especially online, and especially in the sphere of science fiction. Whether that means sf is a vanguard for coming political change or merely a haven for otherwise unacceptable and marginal radical ideas (or perhaps both) remains to be seen.

[ * – Or maybe they would? For the record, I identify with anarchism but not as an anarchist; it’s always struck me that an ideology so obsessed with abandoning hierarchies can be so fussy about deciding who’s in and who’s out. Anarchism should surely be the -ism that rejects -isms, but – from my own outsider’s perspective, at least – it’s at least as obsessed with self-taxonomy and them-and-ussing as any other movement, if not more so… and much as I sympathise with many of the philosophies that inform them, my experience with radical groups has always brought to mind that well-known scene from Life Of Brian. Your mileage, of course, may vary. 🙂 ]

Detroit: the new frontier?

Paul Raven @ 09-11-2009

Heidelberg community art project, DetroitLast time we mentioned Detroit here, it was in the less-than-cheerful terms of it becoming a growth region for private security patrols, and the web is full of similar stories charting the Motor City’s decline in lucid hand-wringing detail. But what if they’re ignoring the positives in favour of those apocalyptic headlines and photos?

Aaron M Renn at New Geography makes the point that the city’s administration seems unwilling to face up to the extent of the problem, but also highlights the pioneering atmosphere that Detroit’s “urban prairie” is nurturing. The withering of local government leaves spaces of opportunity for innovative approaches to low-budget living to take root… and while the living ain’t easy, the make-do attitude of the American pioneer spirit seems to be making a return [via Warren Ellis].

Urban agriculture projects are gathering pace; out-of-town artists are moving in, attracted by the low housing prices and the blank-canvas vibe of a city that’s been all but abandoned by consumerism. [image by jessicareeder]

In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not. It’s a sort of anarchy in a good way as well as a bad one. Perhaps that overstates the case. You can’t do anything, but it is certainly easier to make things happen there than in most places because the hand of government weighs less heavily.

What’s more, the fact that government is so weak has provoked some amazing reactions from the people who live there. In Chicago, every day there is some protest at City Hall by a group from some area of the city demanding something. Not in Detroit. The people in Detroit know that they are on their own, and if they want something done they have to do it themselves. Nobody from the city is coming to help them. And they’ve found some very creative ways to deal with the challenges that result.

Imagine for a moment that this trend continues – might Detroit become some sort of independent city-state, a mildly anarchic rough-and-ready town where the price of freedom is a willingness to work hard for yourself and with your neighbours? How many more cities in the Western world might go the same way as manufacturing becomes increasingly outsourced overseas and/or roboticised? How will national governments react to these places – will they abandon them to the whims of their new residents, or struggle to control them in the face of diminishing tax revenues and the spiralling costs of law enforcement?

I’m not naive enough to imagine Detroit becoming some sort of hippie utopia, but I think it has the potential to become a new type of post-industrial city – but that will depend on a lot of different factors. Should the government be involving itself more closely in these early stages, or will a hands-off wait-and-see approach prove more effective?