The blockchain, identity & truth
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, Juvenal
Blockchain was invented by a professional juggler and a physicist. Stuart Haber quit life as a Parisian juggler to refocus on cryptography and met Dr Stornetta at Bellcore, formerly Bell Labs. Here they patented a technique for time-stamping a chain of digital records and distributing the ledger of records across a computer network — the original blockchain. The technique was designed to render the record immutable and tamper-proof so that trust in the ledger relied upon an unhackable algorithm rather than a third-party record-holder. Their work was published in The Journal of Cryptography in 1991.
Haber and Stornetta were motivated by a philosophical question — if it is so easy to manipulate a digital file on a personal computer, how will we know what was true about the past? (Whitaker, 2019). According to the Wall Street Journal, they nearly abandoned the project as impossible to solve, but queuing at a New Jersey restaurant with his family, Stornetta experienced a eureka moment — one of those revelations generated by unconscious intelligence after the will has exhausted its analysis. Blockchain was born, and subsequently transformed by the cryptic publication of Satoshi Nakamoto’s 2008 white-paper, Bitcoin: a peer to peer electronic cash system.
Bitcoin leveraged this blockchain technology in order to introduce a new kind of tamper-proof private currency that eliminated the need for banks or governments. Nobody can have missed the stellar, if volatile trajectory of its tradeable value since then (whether it has any enduring value — any true identity as currency — remains speculative). Bell Labs missed the payment of a patent maintenance fee in 2004, however, and the blockchain patent lapsed. Now, few people outside of specialist technology circles remember the identities of the blockchain’s progenitors.
The identity of the bitcoin pioneer, Satoshi Nakamoto, is also shrouded in mystique. Newsweek identified him as a Japanese American man living in California, Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto. Asked about Bitcoin, he replied “I am no longer involved in that and I cannot discuss it”. Later, he assserted that he had misunderstood the question as regarding his work with military contractors. He denies all involvement. Others maintain that Nakamoti is Nick Szabo, a decentralised currency enthusiast and pseudonyms fanatic. Or Craig Wright - unless he is merely “a brilliant hoaxer who very badly wants us to believe he did.” Others accuse a Finnish sociologist, a Japanese or Israeli mathematician. Even Elon Musk. Bitcoin is mysteriously masked.
Bitcoin’s origins in epistemology, complex coding, cryptography and its entry into an economy of ultra-loose monetary policy, has given rise to a feverish cult of algo-mysticism. Because a currency pivots on trust, the difference between a ‘greater fool’ and a visionary investor depends on whether this new reality can be minted. Obscurity creates confusion, and into this white noise, fraudulent demagogues can prosper as well as honest evangelists. Narrative coherence, chutzpah, and influence matter as much as regulatory interference in determining the course of its history. Institutional investors can create reality by press release, tweet and investment. Bitcoin’s mysterious semi-divine creator plucked from obscurity, legends of monetary nirvana, and a technological elite gatekeeping the portals.
If it sounds like a movie script, it is. The story of Bitcoin is a story of self-invention. Or re-invention. Or just plain invention. It endures despite its plagues of fraudulence because, like a fiat currency, it is both a hollow crown and a conceptually and practically robust technique for the storage of value. Into its confusion stride false paragons of certainty. It is an emblematic token of truth decay and a vision of a new world. In words that Karl Rove may — or may not — have said, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too.”
As I write, Russia is reported to have amassed a hundred and thirty thousand combat troops encircling Ukraine. It has apparently shipped blood plasma to field hospitals on the border which have a limited shelf-life. It has blocked Ukrainian ports with naval drills. All the while, Sergei Lavrov and his clown, Vladimir the underpants poisoner, deride Western ‘hysteria’ comparing our ambassadors to the ‘deaf’ and the ‘blind’, and claim — with a straight face — there are no plans to invade. As if mobilising a standing army to encircle Ukraine is just theatre. Perhaps it will all turn out to be a sick joke designed to destabilise Ukraine, probe NATO’s unity, and dry-run Russia’s military machine. Either way, the underpants poisoner has violated the Shakespearean tenet that although every ruler should enlist a fool into their closest retinue, they ought not become one.
Whether the curtain lifts onto a theatre of war or the comedians return home before treading their bloody stage, autocratic aggression increasingly threatens democratic liberties everywhere. Democracy must renew its identity, restate its bright line commitments to humanistic ideals and persevere towards them in a new and confusing world. This is the foundation of true freedom – not the untrammelled liberty of alt-right rhetoric, which is merely a confusing potage driving consumption, addiction and fear – but the binding of our lives to a transcendent vision that aligns with the deeper foundations of our shared humanity. One of justice, hope, truth and the responsibility for enacting them in our own lives.
It is possible to discern in this chaotic new political world a mirror of the soul in its confusions, and the longing for truth and coherence that characterises the centre of human being. We cannot hope to marshal the world towards our better ideals until we have worked to understand just how precarious they are in our own lives, how we deceive ourselves. One of the most perceptive writers on this inner geography, and the nature of the moral watcher within that communicates with us in dreams and poetry, in visions and art, was the poetess Adrienne Rich. It is the poet’s work to continue to tell the world of this other reality. Her selected prose On Lies, Secrets & Silence contains one of the most prescient and fruitful essays on truth, complexity and identity for our times.
With news footage of Ukrainian women, including mothers and the middle-aged, performing weapon drills and combat training, it is fitting to end these reflections with the poetess’s own words (as well as to plead forgiveness for excerpting them selectively — for the purposes of a dialogue with them and the themes of this brief reflection):
Nelle Morton has written of the act of “hearing each other into speech”.
Lying is done with words, and also with silence.
The liar has many friends, and leads an existence of great loneliness.
There is no “the truth”, “a truth” — truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity.
That is why the effort to speak honestly is so important. Lies are usually attempts to make everything simpler.
Women have been forced to lie, for survival, to men.
We therefore have a primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each others’ sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other.
Women’s love for women has been represented almost entirely through silence and lies.
The liar leads an existence of unutterable loneliness.
The liar is afraid.
She is afraid, not so much of prison guards or bosses, but of something unnamed within her.
The liar fears the void.
We begin out of the void, out of darkness and emptiness. It is part of the cycle understood by the old pagan religions, that materialism denies. Out of death, rebirth; out of nothing, something.
The void is the creatrix, the matrix.
We are not supposed to go down into the darkness of the core.
Yet if we can risk it, the something born of that nothing is the beginning of our truth.
I fling unconscious tendrils of belief, like slender green threads.
Truthfulness, honor, is not something which springs ablaze of itself; it has to be created between people.
Women are only beginning to uncover our own truths; many of us would be grateful for some rest in that struggle, would be glad just to lie down with the shards we have painfully unearthed, and be satisfied with those. Often I feel this like an exhaustion in my own body.
The possibilities that exist between two people or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.
When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting.
That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.
The possibility of life between us.