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.
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.
“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)
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.BITCOIN MINING COUNCIL (May 2022)
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?