⚡ New Event: Digital Cash ft. Finn Brunton
Live events are back! - the history of cryptocurrency & more
Many of you are new to Reboot — welcome! — so here’s a quick recap of what you can expect. Our newsletter publishes guest essays by our community of young technologists, interviews with people fighting for a more just tech future, and public events with authors of the best new(ish) books on technology, humanity, and power.
For those of you who’ve been with us a while — thanks for being here! Live (zoom) events are back, and the first event of 2022 is on Digital Cash, by Finn Brunton.
📖 digital cash by finn brunton
Last July, we brought in crypto journalist Camila Russo to talk with Reboot about her book The Infinite Machine, on the founding story of Ethereum (review here). This month, we wind our clocks backward to the first cryptocurrency — Bitcoin — in the context of the hundreds of years of monetary history before it.
Our guest for this Thursday, January 20 is UC Davis Science & Technology Studies professor Finn Brunton, and his book Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency. In the midst of “web3” hype, we’re especially excited about this broader, systems-level analysis — and how those foundations might shape our thinking on crypto’s present and the future.
Join us next Thursday for a discipline-spanning Q&A on the decades of social movements exploring alternative currencies and the technologies that made them possible—after all, what is "money," anyway?
💰 our take: bitcoin’s not so special
By Jack Chong
Digital Cash is an impressive genealogy of the people, ideas and actions that culminated in cryptocurrency. Brunton primarily engages two questions: First, how historical narratives of culture and technology should inform our understanding of the future; and second, the ontology of money—what makes money valuable? Brunton’s “whirlwind tour,” tracing the histories of culture and technology in parallel, argues that even while Bitcoin was not inevitable, its existence today is less a revolutionary anomaly and more the culmination of decades of cultural movements coupled with timely technological development.
Historical Narrative: Culture and Technology of Digital Cash
Creating, coordinating and adopting digital cash has been a recurring goal for futurist groups for nearly a century. In the 1930s, the Technocracy movement called for “autocratic master engineers,” and used energy certificates as currency: they were “realer than dollars, partaking of their ontological connection to work or heat”. In the 1980s, the cypherpunk movement started the American Information Exchange and the Xanadu project, seeking to make digital data valuable in itself; also in the 80’s, Hayekian Extropians committed to “examine the alternatives of polycentric/ privately-produced law and competing digital private currencies.”
On the technical front, Brunton starts with the Counterfeit Detection System, which enforces security of paper notes, before moving to public-key cryptography in the 70s, digital signatures in the 80s, and DigiCash by cryptographer David Chaum in the 90s. These software advancements paralleled hardware developments over the decade that came together to make Bitcoin possible. As Brunton writes: “Bitcoin wasn’t magic but a technology in context, and part of that context was the power grid, the business of microchip fabrication, and the planet’s atmosphere.”
Brunton proposes that the history of digital cash shows us how money and technologies can be used to tell stories about the future — an analysis of narratives. My takeaway is that cultural movements on the fringes drive technological change in the mainstream. A reasonable reading from Brunton’s historical narrative is that ideology and culture shape the needs (and wants) that drive technological innovation. In other words, Bitcoin wasn’t inevitable; it was a product of its specific circumstances.
The Ontology of Money
The other main thread in the book questions the ontology of money — what are the properties that constitute the being of money? Intuitively, we would think that money is valuable. For Brunton, this intuition poses an epistemic challenge: how do we know if a currency is valuable? To some, value entails physical scarcity. To others, value simply implies cultural acceptance. To Bitcoin maximalists, value equates to the transfer of energy from atoms to bits.
For Brunton, however, Bitcoin is disappointingly not an experiment about what makes money valuable. Rather, Bitcoin is evaluative, not ontological. Users have to “trust in yourself” to verify records of creation, ownership and transaction in the blockchain ledger. There are no Bitcoins, only the rights to trade within the closed ledger, and Bitcoin does not quite function as a transactional currency. Why, as he asks, “would you spend or invest a currency that might increase in value?”
Bitcoin, in other words, is insufficiently digital cash. Bitcoin (and as Brunton extrapolates, its succeeding cryptocurrencies) is a wasteful effort to build ‘the most abstract fantasies of value ever conceived’. In the last chapter, Brunton hints at his dissatisfaction:
It may well be the purest and most honest expression of a society that could not figure out what to do with its technological inventiveness—its energy, innovation, and abundance—except to squander it in creating new kinds of artificial scarcity: the monumental folly of our age.
Jack Chong is a former aspiring Arabic diplomat turned current tech founder. He studies Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford. He recently shut down his stem-cell drug testing platform biotech startup. Read the longer book review on Jack’s blog here.
You’ve heard of the political compass, but what about your cryptopolitical orientation? Take this quiz to find out whether you’re more of a Szabian DAOist or Walchian cryptopunk.
Read this lovely interview from our friends at Logic School about “organizing seeds” and building a world of care.
Google lawyers were trying to hire consultants to “convince [workers] that unions suck”… and then tried to hide it by saying that this was covered under attorney-client privilege. IANAL but that seems off! (A federal judge agreed.)
No, “the humanities” won’t magically fix what’s wrong with tech, and we should stop hoping (pretending?) it does.
oh to be an anatolian shepherd dog puppy in training
scifi vibes (read Riley’s “hypnopompia” for more menacing house plants)
💝 a closing note
Whether you’re a skeptic or degen, Bitcoin maxi or Ethereum purist, we’d love to hear what perspectives you’d most like to see from Reboot. In the coming months, we hope to foster more accessible, wide-ranging, and nuanced discussions about crypto’s sociopolitical implications. Drop your thoughts in a reply or a comment!
FYI from the Kernel team: We’ve temporarily put Kernel Magazine shipments and paid subscriptions on hold as we wait to get another batch of magazines printed. This means we aren’t accepting new purchases or subscriptions, but if you already bought one and submitted your mailing info, you’ll still get your magazine in the next shipment. Billing is also paused right now, so subscribers will not be charged until we unpause in a month or so. We appreciate the patience.
See you soon(!),