This wide-ranging talk uses the current state of cryptocurrencies (most notably Bitcoin) and their underlying technologies to consider contemporary digital culture and its future. Professor Finn Brunton will discuss peer-to-peer networks, public key cryptography, proof-of-work systems, and the blockchain, illuminating their underlying social, political, and theoretical models and concepts. We will travel from sixth century Chang’an, seventeenth century Switzerland, and the vault of the New York Federal Reserve to IRC channels, software development communities, and closely guarded facilities in Iceland and Hong Kong to understand a system with fascinating implications for identity, ownership, authorship and trust online.
Good pre-meeting reading is Finn Brunton, More Problems More Money, Artforum, February 2014. (Free registration required.)
More Finn Brunton at finnb.net.
Notes from a 2013 talk by Finn Brunton on The Accidental Archive.
Notes from the talk follow here. I kept a running log with Twitter, and I’m writing this from my Pinboard bitcoin bookmarks; these links are to the bookmarks for ease of linking for the most park. I’m not trying to reconstruct the talk, just to give context for my bookmarks!
The talk started off with a discussion of the Audrey Hepburn film Charade, in which the mystery of what happened to the wealth of a family is only resolved when it’s realized that rather than searching for lost money that they should be trying to make sense of the tail of rare stamps. This was the kickoff to an extended and wide-ranging discussion of the various roles and purposes of money throughout history and how very odd things that don’t look like currency at all still functioned as stores of value, units of account, or mediums of exchange.
Bitcoin has peculiar mathematical properties that make it unusually suited for use as a store of value. Bitcoins are mined through a process that’s NP-hard, which means for practical purposes that it’s difficult to create them but easy to prove that they are real. Bitcoin is a “proof of work”; someone did something hard, consuming scarce computing power and copious amounts of energy, in order to accomplish a task that’s easy to confirm.
Finn talked about other coin systems (usually lumped under the term “altcoin”) that are based on Bitcoin but that are run separately and have their own twists. There’s Allahcoin, which donates a percentage of each transaction to the Muslim Brotherhood; Aphroditecoin, which is doing an “air drop” to give citizens of Cyprus their own money; Mazacoin, from the Oglala Lakota Nation; Freicoin, which depreciates through “demurrage” if you don’t spend it; and most notably Dogecoin, a joke of a currency that nevertheless raised enough money through the Dogesled fundraiser to help send the Jamaican bobsled team to the Olympics.
Dogecoin was noted as an exemplary virtual currency, in part because unlike Bitcoin it’s not worth very much and in part because the Dogecoin community is willing to spend it rather than hoard it. So people give Dogecoin tips readily – a few Dogecoin for posting a funny picture of a dog – and are generous in sharing.
Bitcoin is not even the first of the efforts to create alternative currencies on the internet. I worked at First Virtual Holdings in the 90s, which is one of the payment mechanisms discussed in a Jeff Mackie-Mason paper on digital payments. Not all of these enterprises ended up well, e.g the E-Gold system which saw its owner convicted of a conspiracy to engage in money laundering.
Finn talked about some of the crazy things you can do with Dogecoin, and described the first Dogecoin meetup in New York City where he noted that kombucha was for sale – payable only in Dogecoin. The conclusion I draw is that cryptocurrencies are equal parts community and technology, and that you get radically different social results when you keep the technology basically the same but change the initial conditions of community formation.
This over-simplifies and leaves out some really good and funny bits, but should give you some flavor for the talk.