the unbearable lightness of blockchain: utopian visions and invisible infrastructures

As already noted, this has been a strange and hectic year so far, with a whole lot of public talking in the last month and a bit. Not all of these were video’d for public consumption, but some were, and I’m gonna stuff them up here over the next few days, partly because I unwisely promised MOAR CONTENT right before I go on holiday for a week.

By far the weirdest invitation-to-speak of the batch was the email I got back in (I think) April, asking if I would give a talk about solarpunk in Prague… at a conference devoted to blockchain* stuff.

My first response, in rather more (and rather more polite) words went something like “thanks for the invitation but I hate everything your event stands for, so I think I’ll pass”. But no no no, I was told, it’s not just about blockchain, it’s also about solarpunk, and we’re very open to critical viewpoints! At which point I figured OK—I’ve never been to Prague, and forty minutes of critique seems like a pretty fair price for the trip.

Here’s the result.

Conveniently enough, my talk was right after an earlier talk by the mighty mighty Rhys Williams, which provided an accessible yet scholarly take on solarpunk as a utopian subgenre, thus allowing me to pick up the tools left lying on the stage and launch into a critique of blockchain as a utopian narrative… and then as an economic proposition, and then as something that exists in (but largely ignores) a complex and global infrastructural metasystem that is entirely wrapped up with states and their claims to territory (and their monopoly on violence).

(The infrastructural critique will probably be familiar to regular readers of this here blog; the economic critique (which is really another way of coming at the infrastructural critique) is based on a chapter that will be coming out in a book from Meson Press at some point in the future, maybe even this year.)

I’m glad I did this, not because I got to spend the weekend in Prague—or at least not only—but because I got to have quite a bit of intellectual fun with it: a chance to talk about my fields of interest and expertise without the constraints and shibboleths of academic discourse (NB: quite a few F-bombs in there!), and also a chance to go all-out red-team critique on something that really needs it.

I also think that the enjoyment shows, in that this is the first time I’ve been able to watch one of my talks back without experiencing a whole lot of cringe. In part, I think that’s because I’ve gotten better with practice; consciously choosing to think of these presentations as performance—as theatre, and as rhetoric—has allowed me to observe strategies and tactics used by other speakers who’ve caught my attention, and to adapt them for my own style. But it really helps to have an open stage and an open remit to say what I really want to say about something… and as such, while I am probably even more anti-blockchain than I was before, credit is sincerely due to the ETHPrague people for putting me on in the first place, for fronting for my travel and accommodations, and for leaving the video up on their channel.

(You can also see my appearance on a discussion panel that also featured Brewster Kahle, a founding figure of the Internet Archive, and Vitalik Buterin, godking of Ethereum. My stans should bear in mind the ratio of PGR to the other two is very low; I honestly think this panel was mostly an excuse to have VB on stage again without making it look like they were just putting VB on stage again. I also note—with zero rancour and a great deal of amusement—that the in-room audience for my talk above was about a dozen people, while that for the panel was like sardines sweating on the subway. Solarpunk might make a passable greenwash veneer for blockchain business, but it’s pretty clear which of the two things the hardcore actually give a crap about.)

[ * — The people at said conference would probably want me to emphasise that that it was specifically an Ethereum blockchain conference; this is a differentiation that matters a great deal to them, as it’s become apparent that blockchain in general has become a toxic brand and a laughing stock, but—even after a series of impassioned but incoherent conversations I had after this talk—matters very little to me. That’s partly for reasons outlined in the talk, but also because it’s very obvious that the people who think blockchain can fix anything other than the value of their asset portfolio know very little about how it works, and those who know how it works are either savagely (if in some ways admirably) focussed on very particular technical challenges, or/and hungry-eyed acolytes in the cult of Number Go Up. ]

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