The brain-landscape of Bitcoin

Bitcoin has always felt to me like an ultra-refined manifestation of capitalism.

It’s not just the constant focus on markets, and stocks, and speculation, that define it as the personification of our current economic age. There’s something in the mindset that created it, the thinking that embraces it, and the dissociated nature of its existence, that represents the grand triumph of abstract thinking over concrete reality.

Cognitively speaking we haven’t always understood the world in such abstract terms. If you’d been alive twelve or thirteen decades ago, before the onset of scientific age, your view of the world would’ve been far more practical.

We’ve gone from people who confronted a concrete world and analyzed that world primarily in terms of how much it would benefit them, to people who confront a very complex world (…) where we’ve had to develop new mental habits (…) like clothing that concrete world with classification, introducing abstractions that we try to make logically consistent (…) wondering about what might have been rather than what is.

James Flynn TED2013 (00:25)

It’s worth spending eighteen or so minutes watching James Flynn at TED2013. He offers up a “fast-paced spin through the cognitive history of the 20th century” that explains something of the changes in the way we think.


It’s easy to understand why this way of thinking came to the fore. Cognitively demanding jobs require cognitively flexible employees. That’s why we all get more education than our forebears, much of it scientific. As Flynn points out.

You can’t do science without classifying the world (…) without proposing hypotheses (…) without making it logically consistent.

James Flynn TED2013 (07:24)

It’s also worth taking note of the massive social upheavals fostered by these “new habits of mind”. I’d argue changing attitudes about equality and individual rights are a direct result of this training. As Flynn points out, the racist thinking of his father’s generation, his father was born in 1885, were consistent with their concrete understanding of the world.

They were fixed in the concrete mores and attitudes they had inherited.

James Flynn TED2013 (12:18)

I find Flynn’s insights compelling, but wonder if there’s more going on than simply being technically capable or morally enlightened?

I’ve long thought we live in a multi-speed culture, governed by our individual relationship with new technologies, new ways of thinking. How you engage with what’s new dictates how you move through the changing world. You can either have someone set up your mobile phone, or learn to do it yourself. The latter connects you to the world in a way the former does not. It changes your brain.

In his book Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman outlines his view of our brains as a highly evolved plug-and-play device. It takes in information, adjusts to the input, then extracts what it can. He argues our “neural networks are not hardwired but livewired”.

The fingertip or the eyeball is just the peripheral device that converts information from the outside world into spikes in the brain.

David Eagleman LIVEWIRED

Whatever the input, your brain does the work of interpreting it.

When we consider technology, it’s natural to see adopting what’s new as generational. This, to me, is an entirely nurtured perspective, created to service the needs of culture. Things evolving, young usurping old, is a hardwired framing of progress. It forces a kind of planned obsolescence on the population.

Our machinery isn’t fully preprogrammed, but instead shapes itself by interacting with the world.

David Eagleman LIVEWIRED

I like the idea interacting with the world changes your brain. If you ignore culture, let it continue without you, your skills and understanding, your programming, never updates.

The irony is, the more we are all trained to swim in the pond of abstract thinking, the further we get from the shores of the concrete. It’s as if thinking abstractly is or has, deliberately or unintentionally, changed how we understand what’s real?

However you understand the world, it’s clear culture is being organised around ever more abstract ways of thinking. It’s the mechanism, the medium, the agar, that allows Bitcoin to function and thrive.

Bitcoin was first traded in January of 2009. The cryptocurrency is part of a cluster of new technologies collected around the concept of decentralisation. It has many nomenclatures, fedivese, metaverse, sometimes web3. Whichever version is being talked up, they all look to me like a rebranded version of cyberspace. Virtual reality goggles. Augmented reality apps. The technologies are better but the desires are the same. To live completely in an idealised virtual reality.

The most radical developments in this upgraded cyberspace are blockchain technologies. Cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have made it possible to create assets from almost anything you do online. No centralised authority. No external interference. No multinational corporation owning your information, or worse what you produce.

Some find the idea terrifying, advocates see it as a nirvana of freedom.

Trickling down from that, I’m struck by how neatly decentralisation fits into the neoliberal libertarian agendas of individualism and deregulation. Think sovereign individuals demanding less government, minimal regulations for businesses, and no taxes on wealth.

A trickle further has me wondering if the “culture wars”, while framed as battles between liberal and conservative, progressive and reactionary, are in fact a conflict between abstract and concrete thinkers?

I realise adding abstract and concrete to such simple binaries is problematic. I’m not even sure the concrete values described by Flynn are still alive. If they’re not, could what I’ve been labelling concrete be something different? The unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. Is it actually an earlier iteration of abstract thinking? A version that has atrophied into concrete values.

For the sake of clarity, and because I’ve favoured the binary so heavily, when you read “concrete” think atrophied abstract thinking.

Talk of the unstoppable meeting the immovable has me thinking about issues like gender identity, equality rights, even Brexit. All I hear, when listening to these arguments, are entrenched positions unwilling to comprehend another’s point of understanding. It’s as if these not-understandings are people speaking different languages.

Language isn’t all encompassing; it’s only a way to tag things that we already share. It’s a system of agreement about communal experiences.

David Eagleman LIVEWIRED

I’d argue meanings are different depending on your mode of thinking?

I found Eagleman’s explanation of language, and how it is stored in the brain, a helpful jumping off point. He asks us to think of a hilly landscape. Wherever rain falls, it rolls down the hills, and collects in a pond. Now imagine this valley is the “A” sound. Your neural networks carve a landscape in which all versions of that sound “roll down the hill into the same interpretation” (Livewired). Neighbouring valleys collect the sounds of “E” and “I”, and all the other sounds in the language.

Different languages carve unique landscapes. A native Japanese speaker has a brain-landscape in which “R” and “L” flow into identical interpretations, because there’s no distinction between these two sounds in Japanese.

My clumsy mashing of Eagleman and Flynn offers up a hypothesis. Are the brain-landscape of abstract thinkers different to those of concrete thinkers? The act of making a position logically consistent calves the landscape, strengthening contours, with meanings different to those created by a concrete thinker. Could this be why we’re enduring a period of absolutes? What I’ve previously called the “cult variant” of heresy.

Lines drawn. Hilltops claimed. It’s the dynamic of binaries. Us and them. Insiders and outsiders. Believers and heretics.

DN (June 2021)

None of this is about the issues, that’s just information. It’s about the landscape created by specific ways of thinking, and how that information is categorised. When I hear Flynn make the point, people are reading less history, less literature, and less about foreign cultures.

They live in the bubble of the present.

James Flynn TED2013 (16:32)

I struggle to hear anything but a warning. For me living in a “bubble of the present” removes history, destroying the context for now. It allows the category of the past to be forgotten or worse erased. I understand why some might want this, but short memories only benefit the short sighted.

Is that just my brain showing its bias? My gut says, if you’re choosing the truth of reason over the truth of facts, abstract over concrete, you’re narrowing your understanding of everything. Is that just another unstoppable theory meeting an immovable hypothesis?

What is immovable is the conclusion, different brain-scapes are tagging things differently, signifiers and signified can no longer be agreed. It’s as if a native Japanese speaker has been taught English by a Russian.

UK Government

That doesn’t stop culture pushing ahead with the project. Consider what’s being asked for by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, when he announced plans to have maths taught to students until they’re eighteen. He’s advocating an abstract thinking brain-scape to “ensure every young person has the maths skills they need to succeed”. Succeed at what, on whose terms, and for whose benefit? His plans, if enacted, will certainly deepen the gullies of abstract thinking, turning that pond into a lake? Perhaps that’s the point? The deeper the waters, the harder it is to see the monsters hiding in the depths.

Which has me circling back to Bitcoin.

For me, one of the primary characteristics of all decentralised technologies, is their ability to obscure the idea from its reality, smear a layer of electronic perfection over a crumbling materiality. If you doubt what I’m saying consider Bitcoin’s electricity consumption.


Blockchain technology is a ledger, a growing list of immutable records, securely linked cryptographic hashes. It’s this decentralised ledger’s ability to maintain provenance, resist interferences, and guarantee ownership, that makes it so powerful.

Entries to Bitcoin’s ledger are mined in huge warehouses of specialist computers. These computers perform “trillions of calculations per second, hunting for an elusive combination of numbers that Bitcoin’s algorithm would accept” (The New York Times).

What they’re actually doing is trying to be the first miner to come up with a 64-digit hexadecimal number (a “hash”) that is less than or equal to the target hash. 

Euny Hong INVESTOPEDIA (May 2022)

Once accepted, these “hashes” are added to the ledger, and the miners receive a fee. It’s also how the network confirms new transactions, and maintains the blockchain’s ledger.

To function, Bitcoin mines consume huge amounts of electricity. Gabriel J.X. Dance, for The New York Times, details their massive consumption.

The New York Times

“Until June 2021, most Bitcoin mining was in China.” Then the Chinese government kicked most of them out, citing energy consumption as one of the reasons. Since then mines have started popping up all over the United States.

The New York Times has identified 34 such large-scale operations (…) all putting immense pressure on the power grid and most finding novel ways to profit from doing so.

Gabriel Dance THE NEW YORK TIMES (April 2023)

The Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index

At a time when the planet’s economies should be doing everything possible to reduce carbon emissions, Dance reveals “a one-megawatt mine consumes more energy each day than a typical U.S. home does in two years” (The New York Times). One organisation in Rockdale Texas consumes 450 megawatts of electricity a year. Not only has the energy price surged in states where these mines operate, but much of this electricity, this extra demand, is generated using fossil fuels.

Some companies in the U.S. are now bringing retired power plants back online in order to cash in on crypto. 

Jeremy Hinsdale COLUMBIA CLIMATE SCHOOL (May 2022)

The additional power use across the country also causes as much carbon pollution as adding 3.5 million gas-powered cars to America’s roads.

Gabriel Dance THE NEW YORK TIMES (April 2023)

The Bitcoin industry disagrees. In a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, signed by many of the biggest “digital asset miners”, the Bitcoin Mining Council claims “Bitcoin miners have no emissions whatsoever”. 

Associated emissions are a function of electricity generation, which is a consequence of policy choices and economic realities shaping the nature of the electrical grid.


That, to me, is unrelenting rain filling the pond of abstract thinking, and turning it into a lake?

In the same way as Coca-Cola’s raw material is water, they withdrew 298 million cubic meters from planetary reserves in 2021 (GlobalData), Bitcoin’s raw material is electricity. It is estimated each Bitcoin transaction consumes about 781 kWh of electricity (The Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index). That’s the energy consumption of a mid-terrace household in the UK for about forty-five days (OVO). As of 11 May 2023 there are 19.37 million Bitcoin in circulation (YCharts).

Bitcoin’s trade in electricity doesn’t stop there. Dance details the many “ways they (miners) can turn electricity into money” (The New York Times). They can pre-purchase electricity at a fraction of the cost paid by residential customers. They can be compensated for powering down at times of high-demand. And like some hostage taking commodities broker, they can “stop mining and resell electricity to other customers” (The New York Times). One company earned $18 million in 2022 doing this.

When people think of Bitcoin, all they see are the shiny tokens. They don’t see the two-hundred million tonnes of carbon dioxide it has emitted since 2009 (NewScientist). To exist in this idealised virtual reality, you have to smear a layer of electronic perfection between you and our crumbling materiality. This dissociation is the model for culture. The ability to create this logically consistent classification, and have it exist beyond consequence, is profound. It’s belief beyond truth. The ability to get away with murder.

The problem is, unless we’re able to reconcile this dissociation, there may be no need for any of the blockchain technologies. In a worst case scenario, culture collapses under the weight of carbon, caused in part by the electricity consumption of crypto-assets like Bitcoin. I’m pretty sure what’s left on the wrong side of that collapse, sans electricity, will struggle to find a use for an electronic ledger of 64-digit hexadecimal numbers.

One final thought.

Bitcoin was first traded in 2009. Flynn’s lecture was delivered in 2013. He died in 2020, the same year Eagleman’s book was first published. That’s fifteen years of progress changes to consider. I wonder if my hypothesis is now just history.

Is the lake of abstract thinking even deeper?


Facebook, Cambridge Analytics, and Brexit

This story from Reuters announcing “Facebook parent Meta to settle Cambridge Analytica scandal case for $725” million has me wondering. Can Facebook be sued for their part in securing a leave win in the Brexit referendum?

It is my understanding that Dominic Cummings and Vote Leave took the information Cambridge Analytica scraped from Facebook, built detailed profiles of users, then targeted them with advertising designed to nudge voters in the 2016 referendum.

For those who think Facebook’s reach and impact is negligible, just another silly social media platform, consider this. 17,410,742 people voted to leave the European Union, compared to the 16,141,241 who voted to remain. That’s a difference of 1,269,501 people. Vote Leave won by nudging the attitudes and opinions of at least, but probably more than, 1.25 million people. The thing is, that’s only 2.82% of the 45 million people it’s estimated use Facebook in the United Kingdom. I also think it significant that the total electorate, those who voted in the referendum, was only 1,501,241 more than the total number of UK Facebook users.

Personally, I think the platform allowed itself to be used by Cummings and Vote Leave to reach and influence enough of the electorate, personally and specifically, to swing the vote their way. Facebook certainly took the money and ran the adverts without worrying about intention or means. I also think the picture is more complicated than simply targeting Facebook users with adverts that confirm an individual’s prejudices and trigger their fears. They also used targeted advertising to convince the apathetic or complacent, that leave could never win, nothing ever changes, so why bother voting at all. Turnout for the referendum was 72.2%, comparatively high when seen against the 2019 General Election at 67.3%. That’s a difference of 4.9%. Significant, in a conspiratorial kind of way, when you realise Vote Leave only won with a majority of 4%.

If you don’t believe me, and why would you, could you, should you, watch Dominic Cummings explain in his own words, “Why Leave Won the Referendum”. He gave this talk at the Ogilvy Nudgestock event in 2017. Nudgestock calls itself a festival of “behavioural science and creativity” that provides “science-led evaluation and optimization of nudge strategies, ideas and campaigns designed to change perception and behaviour”.

All of this sounds to me like psychological warfare, employed against the population of the United Kingdom, for political and economic gain.

A thought on dragons

Brexit has pissed napalm on the economy of the United Kingdom. The only creatures that will thrive on what’s left are dragons.

Reign of Fire (2002) is a high concept science fiction film staring Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic Britain ravaged by fire spitting dragons.

What does that have to do with Brexit? Apart from the obvious metaphors about fire and destruction, the dragons in Reign of Fire are unique. They’re not the dragons from Game of Thrones (2011–2019), giant reptiles wreaking havoc on the enemies of Daenerys Targaryen. They’re not the slothful Smaug from The Hobbit (2013), greedily guarding his cavernous lair of treasure. The dragons in Reign of Fire eat ash, they burn everything so they can feed. These dragons emerge from their ancient slumber, burning indiscriminately and feeding ravenously on the world.

And they’re no different to the dragons feeding on the British economy.

On March 12 Reuters reported the Office for National Statistics announcement that “British goods exports to the EU… slumped by 40.7% in January compared to December”.

Another March 12 headline on the Politics Home website led with a claim “Fish Exports To The EU Collapsed By 83% In January According To “Grim” Post-Brexit Figures”.

This, and similar figures across the economy, are what Umair Haque, in his article How Britain is Destroying Itself, calls a sudden stop. “It’d be better to call it a “heart attack,” because it means an economy seizes up and suddenly stops functioning.”

If the British economy were an eighteen wheel tanker of petrol driving along the M1, Brexit is the driver having a heart attack doing sixty miles per hour. He clutches his chest, passes out, and ploughs full speed into a vat of concentrated orange juice.

Fire sticks to everything and burns intensely.

When the fires are out the speculators, hedgefunds, pirates, and sovereign individual, start feeding like dragons on the ash of the British economy.

One day we might get lucky and meet a heroic fighter willing to sacrifice everything to defeat these monsters. A young Turk that can vanquish the vicious dinosaurs of British imperialism. A brawler with the gumption it takes to slaughter the dragons feeding on our destruction.

A thought on little England

The landscape of a post-Brexit United Kingdom is looking increasingly fractured. If we’re not carful Boris Johnson will turn the United Kingdom into little England.

Scotland is pushing hard for another independence referendum. If it goes ahead, it’s likely Scotland will leave the United Kingdom to pursue a future within the European Union.

If Scotland goes, Wales is sure to want the same kind of autonomy.

Then we have the Byzantine complexities of a post-Brexit Northern Ireland to consider. Who knows how that will all play out? At the moment Loyalists are angry about the backstop sea border. The backstop is a problem because it makes Northern Ireland different to the rest of the United Kingdom. To a community that has built its identity around loyalty to the crown, that difference is heresy. It opens up the possibility that Northern Ireland is separate from the rest of the United Kingdom. That difference is a lever Republicans could use to unite Ireland.

Peace in the region, for the last thirty years, has relied on the Good Friday Agreement. Post-Brexit that agreement is unworkable. To be clear, the agreement only works if there is free movement between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The kind of free movement only possible by being part of the European Union. A land border is unacceptable to Republicans. The sea border is unacceptable to Loyalists. The Good Friday Agreement allowed both Republicans and Loyalists to function while maintaining their separate identities. Without it old conflicts reappear.

The way out of this is more complicated than anyone in Johnson’s government has the intellectual or political power for. One possibility is that Johnson abandons Loyalists and Northern Ireland altogether. Unsupported by the English, Northern Ireland will inevitably unite with Ireland. This move will allow Johnson to make the probable Loyalist uprising a problem for Irish and not English governments. Another possibility has Northern Ireland follow Scotland’s example, pursue independence, joining the European Union as a sovereign nation. It’s possible a newly independent Northern Ireland could negotiate a version of the Good Friday Agreement to forge peace. I don’t think this will happen. Loyalist are as wedded to the crown, as Republicans are to a united Ireland. Speculation aside one thing is for certain, this issue is not going away.

Into the historic divisions that are tearing at the United Kingdom, England is now facing its own set of fractures.

The Northern Independence Party is a new political entity demanding independence for the North of England. Campaigning under the banner “We’re not English, we are Northumbrian” they want to reinstate ancient borders that stretch north from the Humber river, up to Scotland. Who knows if they’ll make gains politically, but the idea is there. The north south divide has been given a border, and that feeling, the one that thinks the south has left the north to rot, has been given a voice.

If this sentiment gets traction, and an independent North becomes a possibility, it won’t be long before Cornish nationalism is seeking to escape from English rule.

Then where will England be, let alone the United Kingdom? One thing is for certain, Johnson and the Conservatives will use these cries for independence as a crisis. One that lets them calve up England as if they were the ancient Kings of Wessex or Mercia. England will be transformed into a series of charter cities. Regions that will claim to be hubs of enterprise and entrepreneurship. When in fact they will be islands of tax avoidance, shell companies, and post office boxes that hide wealth. For the ninety-nine point nine per cent this will mean a bad, much poorer, little England.

Leave have faith

This is an intelligent unpicking of Boris Johnson’s lies. The problem I fear is that we’re not dealing with intelligence, or logic, or even truth. We are dealing with belief, we’re dealing with faith.

Leave have faith, despite all the evidence, that leaving the EU is the right thing to do. For me faith is just a short bus journey to Zealot Town. I have no idea how to counter their belief. They don’t listen to reason.

Despite their best efforts I have no desire to make them my enemy, but that’s what I am. I am other, a none believer, and not to believe, not to have faith, is heresy. I can live with being a heretic, but no amount of faith will put food on the table, or pay my rent.

There’s more at stake than just blocking no deal

Sienna Rodgers in Labour List announces that “Labour has launched a cross-party bid to block the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a divorce deal”.

I think there’s more at stake than just blocking no deal.

This motion is only needed because there have been calls to suspend parliament. The fact that there is even talk of suspending parliament should scare everyone, even those on the side of Britain exiting the European Union.

Their argument was that we should wrestle back sovereignty from Europe, not give it to an elite group of self serving politicians. Suspending parliament is not acceptable under any circumstance. That’s us slipping and sliding, scrambling and scuffing, open eyed towards totalitarianism.

But that’s what happens when the world gets complicated, filled with nuance, and leaders frame every argument as a binary choice. I considered exactly this “totalitarian mindset” when I was working on one of my characters for CARR-10-N. This is an extract from something I wrote in 2013.

So the question I’m really asking is; what kind of person is attracted to totalitarianism? To answer that question you first need to ask; what allows totalitarianism to flourish? The short answer is uncertainty. In his paper “How to make enemies and influence people” (2) Alfonso Montuori characterises the “totalitarian mindset” as a response to the stress of contemporary pluralism. Basically we live in complex times full of ambiguity and uncertainty. We feel threatened. And when we’re backed into a corner we have a tendency to succumb to “simplistic, black-and-white solutions.” Montuori goes on to note that “individuals all over the world have sought relief from the uncertainty of a pluralistic world in the arms of absolute belief systems of a religious fundamentalist and/or political/nationalistic nature.” 


If that doesn’t describe the current mess nothing does. Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for a “muddy” position on Britain exiting the European Union, but muddy’s what we need. We need nuance not black and white choices. Black and white choices are what got us here in the first place. There are no easy answers in any of this, but sleepwalking a totalitarian government into office is not the answer.

Is this one of the many reasons for Brexit?

A study says the UK and territories are ‘greatest enabler’ of tax avoidance in the world.

I’m guessing the vested interests pushing for a no deal Brexit are doing it, in part, to weaken the European Union’s hold on The City of London.

The European Union wants to bring in tighter rules on financial services, and try to stop the kind of enabling, that ranks British territories and its dependencies among the worst offenders.

The only people who will benefit from a low tax Britain are the wealthy. For the rest of us less tax means no money for schools, infrastructure, or the health service.

If we crash out of the European Union, and stronger regulation, the City will become the perfect host for all kinds of parasitic tax avoiders.

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