Friday, 27 March 2015

A dark knight is better than no knight at all: Why we need Bitcoin despite its flaws

This essay of mine was originally published in Kings Review and is republished here under Creative Commons licence

A Knight on a chessboard can be looked at from two different perspectives. Firstly, we can zoom in and analyse it in absolute terms as a closed system. What is the shape of the Knight? What capabilities does it have? What kind of language does it use to describe itself? 

Secondly, we can zoom out and analyse it in relative terms, like looking at a Knight in relation to the arrangement of Bishops, Pawns and Rooks on a chessboard, seeing it as but one element of a broader interactive system. 

Likewise, Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies, can be seen from two broad perspectives. We can immerse ourselves in the code, in the Bitcoin community and in its rhetoric, and analyse whether these internal dynamics are positive or not. Or we can ignore the particularities of the code, the self-proclaimed goals of the proponents, and instead analyse Bitcoin and its connection to the rest of the monetary system, financial sector and broader societal institutions.

I use this chessboard analogy with caution. The world is not actually a game played by different institutions with fixed characteristics like chess pieces. The analogy is useful, though, as a tool to help one see that the peculiar characteristics internal to say, a knight, really have to be perceived in light of the context that the knight finds itself in. Bitcoin does not exist in a vacuum, and as such its attributes can only express themselves within the constraints set by others on a broader metaphorical board.

This is important because it affects the way we either praise or critique Bitcoin. Members of the Bitcoin community sometimes describe the workings of the cryptocurrency as if they imagined it on a chessboard with no other pieces, or perhaps on a chessboard made up entirely of knights. For example, despite the fact that Bitcoin has made almost no dent in central banking, someone might claim “Bitcoin is an apolitical protocol which renders central banks redundant and allows us to mutually contract with each other freely…” The statement is prefigurative, a normative vision of an imagined future reality rather than a description of an actual current reality.

Similarly, critiques of Bitcoin might fight against this vision, or attack Bitcoin in isolation without thinking about its context. They might claim, “It is subject to abuse and fraud!”, without admitting that relative to the existing payments and banking system – with its routine, legitimised, large-scale social injustice committed by transnational banking behemoths – the abuses are tiny.

It is only by zooming in and out, and considering the interplay between these absolute and relative perspectives that we can start to detect the complex power dynamics within Bitcoin. Like a country, it has internal power dynamics – which can be lauded or talked down – but also finds itself within a broader geopolitical situation, in which the domestic dynamics are less important. In this article, I will first sketch the internal narrative of Bitcoin empowerment, then offer four lines of critique, and then go back and suggest why, despite the critique, we should be glad Bitcoin exists.

What the Knight says about itself: The narrative of personal empowerment

If you spend time at a Bitcoin event, you will hear a lot of claims being made concerning Bitcoin’s potential to create personal empowerment. These imagined benefits often include:
  • Bitcoin as defence of privacy: The (semi-)anonymous nature of the transactions protects people from the prying eyes of authorities, bypassing oppressive state surveillance and corporations
  • Bitcoin as protector against monetary abuse: In contrast to a central bank that can inflate away hard-earned savings, the hard-coded money supply protects people through promoting deflation
  • Bitcoin as agent of creativity, excitement and self-determination: There is a certain exhilaration and even fun in using a new, experimental technology, especially when they are frowned upon by the existing (state and corporate) status quo. People often search for spaces of rebellion, and the option to challenge existing conventions in a spirit of self-determination
  • Bitcoin as agent of mental expansion and open-mindedness: We have long passively accepted monetary monopolies. Bitcoin has opened up the horizon to multiple currency systems. Furthermore, the underlying blockchain technology can be used for other, non-monetary purposes
  • Bitcoin as a less costly way to transact: The current commercial bank payments system extracts rent from people in many ways. Bitcoin allows us to bypass that, achieving cheaper transactions
  • Bitcoin as creator of financial inclusion: Bitcoin offers a lifeline to people in countries with unstable banking systems and corrupt governments, allowing them to escape an otherwise compromised system
We have to take these claims seriously. For example, we do indeed value privacy. It allows us to do things that powerful interest groups might critique, and historically this is a very important driver of progressive change. Indeed, as books like The Misfit Economy point out, activities in the grey area between deviance and normality are often sources of innovation. A similar principle is even found in ecological design frameworks like permaculture, where value is not only placed in cultivated systems, but also in the chaotic creativity that exists on the unregulated margins.

On the other hand, each of these claims can be tested and subjected to further scrutiny. For example, is privacy really a form of empowerment by itself? Sure, it might be an element of a broader programme to give people breathing room to act independently, but privacy is equally used as a tool of elites to avoid accountability.

And what about this story of financial inclusion? Sure, maybe Bitcoin might offer a new means to create cheap remittance systems. On the other hand, there is something tiresome about the way that Western tech optimists constantly invoke the mythical land of ‘Africa’, with the imagined African person in the imagined African village, using Bitcoin to escape corruption in their country. As a person from ‘Africa’ who has also had experience with international development, it is easy to see this technology-centric narrative is both patronising and, to be frank, delusional.

Tech critique 1: Individual empowerment, or collective empowerment?

But, even if we take these claims at face value, and assume Bitcoin does have the potential to create personal empowerment, a second question remains: Does this necessarily translate into broader social empowerment?

Within the Bitcoin community – which has a distinct libertarian bias – there often seems to be the assumption that personal empowerment is roughly the same thing as broader social empowerment. There is bias towards believing that if a tool allows a person to protect themselves individually, it must also be positive at a collective level.

To illustrate this point using a different example, consider a basic pro-gun narrative you might encounter: this rifle can be used to protect me, and therefore it is a protector of rights, and thus a tool for broader social empowerment.

This approach – which starts from a defensive, individualistic perspective and then justifies it with an appeal to a secondary benefit that apparently accrues to everyone else – can be contrasted to arguments looking at the societal perspective first. In the case of rifles, we could also start from an assertion that collectively, gun violence harms society, and proceed from there to conclude that individual gun use should be restricted.

This problematic dynamic can be seen in the Bitcoin claim about deflation as a form of protection. While it is true that from the perspective of an individual person, deflation appears to empower them (in that the money-claims they hold miraculously become worth more relative to goods), deflation at a societal level can just mean that those who hold savings, or who hold (i.e. own) debt instruments, benefit relative to those who do not (and owe debts to others). Both inflation and deflation represent different forms of wealth transfer, and there is nothing intrinsically empowering or disempowering about either of them. It really just depends on who you are.

Deflation—in a crude sense—means work someone did (abstractly represented in a money claim) will be valued more than work they get back from someone else later (claimed with that money). Inflation means work they did will be valued less than work they get back from someone else.

Thus, as economist Beat Weber points out, the idea that deflation protects’you is what might be called an Uncle Scrooge perspective, in that it most appeals to people with monetary savings who are concerned about the state ‘inflating money away’. It is the conservative impulse of a creditor, or perhaps like that of a squirrel hoarding apparently scarce claims to nuts, a situation that may leave the individual squirrel empowered, but that collectively locks squirreldom into a destructive game.

The important point here, though, is not to prove whether inflation or deflation is preferable. It is rather to point out that it is not obvious that deflation is somehow better than inflation, and anybody who presents it as such is clearly taking a very partial view. Indeed, stop for a moment and think about what deflation means from an intergenerational perspective. While right now, Bitcoin inequality is justified in terms of early adopters being rewarded relative to late adopters, this later would turn into a battle between current generations who hold the limited currency, versus yet unborn generations who will be forced to earn it (or buy it) from them by providing services far in excess of what was required to originally obtain the currency.

Mid article advert! Grab a pirated version of me book The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance here

Tech critique 2: Tools of empowerment are most easily appropriated by the already-empowered


The individualistic bias sometimes found in the Bitcoin community can prioritise awareness of individual benefits over collective benefits. Empowerment, in turn, is often seen to stem from the individual not being interfered with, encapsulated in slogans like ‘don’t tell me what to do’, and ‘just leave me alone’.

The problem, though, is that Bitcoin finds itself in a de facto unequal world, and it just so happens that “don’t tell me what to do” and “just leave me alone” are, perhaps co-incidentally, the same things that powerful people—like  the freedom-loving Koch Brothers—say to prevent forms of monitoring or regulation of their giant secretive global businesses that impact upon the lives of many people with less economic clout. We have reasonable grounds to be sceptical about this.

You do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to realise that the people with the most ability to exploit Bitcoin (to start new companies, to get access to investment capital to develop the technology) also happen to be the same people who already are doing pretty well in society. Thus, even if the technology itself might have positive principles, access to it—whether that is explicit or implicit—is  unequal.

We see this issue cropping up in gender critiques of Bitcoin, analysis of Bitcoin inequality, and critiques of the cult of meritocratic technocracy, the fact that programmers are not just your average Joe but a particular technological priesthood wielding a language that many do not understand. Indeed, the Bitcoin community, just like the mainstream finance community, has arguably developed its own exclusionary language and culture.

Analysing power and privilege like this is not rocket science. It operates on a few lines, such as 1) gender 2) race and ethnicity 3) age 4) socio-economic situation and education levels and 5) position in the geopolitical system. So, lo and behold, a middle-aged upper-class university-educated man from America tends to wield much greater power, have much greater access to goods and services, and perceive the world as much flatter, than, say, a young impoverished woman from Nepal. Their ability to enthusiastically adopt an otherwise neutral technology is likewise, much greater.

Certainly, some Bitcoin proponents can get very irritated when you draw attention to the subtle inequalities. It is like they perceive it as an irrelevant point, like the person is thinking “I have access, so everyone else obviously does too”, and “nobody is stopping you using it, therefore it is free”. They prefer to imagine that the only barrier to a utopian world comes in the form of external and unnatural aggressors like the government, corporate cronies and central banks. They themselves form no part of such a power structure.

Thus we find Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs brimming with optimistic expectations of disruption and future success, proclaiming the word of blockchain rebellion as a universal tool of empowerment for all, contrasting themselves to the parasitic Wall Street banker. The critical observer, though, might just take a step back, and conclude that this is really just one group of elites fighting another group of elites for control of the ramparts of power, both invoking the interests of Average Joe in the process.

At a recent Bitcoin meetup, Vinay Gupta of Ethereum referred to a brilliant video that encapsulated this very point. It was Juice Rap News’ New World Order video, where a guy blames the world’s problems on a nefarious New World Order. He is subsequently shown that the NWO is a mental construct he uses as a tool to cast himself in the role of an underdog, to justify his own position of power within a greater system that he refuses to acknowledge.

It is an authentically disturbing line of critique, and one to take seriously. Despite the rhetoric of empowerment and rebellion, there is too often an inability of those articulating that rhetoric to comprehend their own position in a system. Their vision of Bitcoin as a neutral apolitical technology to be used by people to bring liberation to the world is not a reflection of reality. It is a reflection of the fact that they wield enough power to fail to perceive the inbuilt barriers to its usage.

Tech critique 3: Even if access is equal, technology can be abused by people


Perhaps the most well-established line of technological critique is the simple observation that technology can be abused: You can use this axe to chop firewood, but you can also use it to cut my head off. This is clearly a different line of critique to saying that access to axes, or encouragement to use axes, or education on axe use, is unequal.

Bitcoin, like many other technologies, can be overtly abused by people. This is something that keeps cropping up in the news, with stories of various forms of fraud, scams and hacks within the Bitcoin ecosystem. These scams, furthermore, are most likely to hit people who are already in a disempowered situation, such as those who are in debt and who are desperate for a quick way out.

The volatile and speculative nature of Bitcoin trading, like that of financial day trading, online poker, lotteries, and win-a-car competitions, can be twisted into a story of empowering escape from economic reality. This can also have a parasitic class element to it, as venture capitalists and technological elites push get-rich-quick narratives to the working man in the pub, claiming to be on the same side.

Of course, merely pointing out that a technology can be abused is not that interesting. Your cash can be robbed from your wallet, but we do not use this fact as an argument for banning the institution of banknotes.

A more compelling subsection of this critique is not so much concerned with current abuse of the technology. Rather, it concerns the increasing control certain individuals have over it, and how this in turn opens up the scope for large-scale future exploitation. For example, we might consider the growing power of mining pools, which increasingly have a domineering position within the network.

These Bitcoin corporations are emerging because there are centralising tendencies internal to Bitcoin’s design. Miners are rewarded with new bitcoins for processing transactions and securing the network, but because the issuance of new bitcoins occurs at a fixed rate, regardless of how many people are mining, the more miners there are on the network the less the individual miner is likely to get. This means that to compete the individual miner must either obtain increasingly powerful computers, or band together with others to create collective corporations with enough processing power to compete. Unlike in some industries, there are no advantages to being a small nimble operation. Sheer brute force is really the only competitive edge, and that requires access to capital.

Where does this lead us? The future of Bitcoin could be one of passive users relying on huge mining pools, essentially corporate players, to run the network. Such an outcome would leave it not that far at all from our current bank-centred payments system.

Tech critique 4: The Techno-Leviathan


The three aforementioned critiques add up to a simple conclusion: there is unequal access to a technology that can also be abused by those who use it, and that may fail to deliver the collective benefits that some claim it would. People are used to such observations about technology. It is like pointing out that a pen can be used to write inspiring masterpieces as well as hate speech, in a society where only some people can read and write.

But what about the power dynamics built into the technology itself? What about the way the act of writing with a pen makes you think? This line of technological critique is not nearly as familiar as the normal ‘people can abuse technology’, or ‘there is unequal access to technology’ lines. This is the idea that the technology, in itself and regardless of other people, is not neutral. It is the kind of critique associated with people like Marshall McCluhan. A technology like a TV might show different content—government propaganda, Fox News, or a National Geographic documentary—but conceals an invisible power dynamic that is there regardless of the content. The fact that you are passively sitting there giving it energy. Are you aware of the attention that you have deferred to the machine?

I want to challenge the notion, pervasive in some parts of the Bitcoin community, that technology itself is apolitical, and it’s with this in mind that I came up with the concept of the Techno-Leviathan, originally sketched out in my article Visions of a Techno-Leviathan: The Politics of the Bitcoin Blockchain. The essence of the concept is this: technological infrastructures do not offer an escape from government, they just offer another, competing, governance system with its own power dynamics. You can decide to view rule by algorithms as a positive or negative thing, but the point is to recognise the power that is being given to the apparently neutral technology.

One way to conceptualise this is to think of mirrors. Can you see a mirror? Sure, you can see an image in a mirror, but try see the mirror itself. It is almost invisible behind the projected image. Likewise, people see all sorts of visions in the blockchain, visions of human freedom and epic escape, but they struggle to see the thing it is reflected in, and that thing is the internet monarch, the Techno-Leviathan. It is like reflective glass. And, like Narcissus, you should be careful about falling in love with the reflection in the mirror, because it obscures the fact that it is then the mirror itself that controls you.

Perhaps this is unnecessarily dramatic. A concept like the Techno-Leviathan is, mostly, derived by an internal reading of Bitcoin, in an imagined world where no other system exists. Yes, indeed, if blockchain technologies were to become pervasive, then this Techno-Leviathan would emerge. But, the reality of the world right now is that we’re nowhere close to that situation.

Back to the chessboard: The geo(electric) politics of a cashless future


So let’s take a step back now, and zoom out to a bird’s-eye view of the chessboard. While the critically minded individual might take pleasure in deconstructing the narrative put out by the Knight on the chessboard, remember that the cryptocurrency remains a very small part of an overall system that is much more destructive.

The reality of our current world is that regardless of the rhetoric—conservative libertarian, left-wing anarchist, or otherwise—of the Bitcoin community, the mainstream financial sector is infinitely more powerful, much bigger, and has much more political clout. In fact, there is not even yet a real financial system that exists for Bitcoin. There are no banks for it, or official systems of lending, or real negotiable financial instruments denominated in it.

From this perspective, we do not actually have to care about whether or not Bitcoin’s hardcoded monetary policy is positive or not, or whether the evangelists are full of nonsense. From a strategic meta-level perspective, we might merely see Bitcoin as a potential future counterpower to the existing, and much more powerful, bank payment system. It does not necessarily matter if that counterpower happens to have some internal negative characteristics. What is important is that it is a counterpower.

This is especially important in the context of a growing move to a cashless society. The payments space is currently gurgling with excitement about contactless technology and micropayments, the increasing ability to use cards to pay for almost everything. Companies like Paypal, Stripe, Square and Venmo have the gloss of disruptive innovation, but all the start-ups and technological advances are built on one foundation: The commercial banks that act in concert with credit card networks like Mastercard and Visa.

Regardless of which efficient payments provider you use, whether it is ApplePay or Google, in the end they all rely on the same commercial banking payments infrastructure. And that is because the entire electronic money supply—that the payment system is supposed to move around—is created by commercial banks and does not exist without them.

If that comes as a surprise, it is worth noting that not one unit of electronic currency that you use comes from the central bank. Indeed, the only government money we directly use are coins and banknotes, otherwise known as central bank notes. An imagined cashless future, in which we move away from use of such notes, is basically one where all transactions must occur via commercial banks, who in turn deal with each other via the central bank.

And this means that every single one of your transactions becomes a potential  piece of data to be monitored, incrementally building up a database of your personal characteristics so vast that even Facebook would be jealous (actually, have you considered why Facebook is trying to get into the payments game?). And with the correct big data methodologies to make sense of it, such data becomes hot property.

Some might react to this with indifference, saying “I’ve got nothing to hide, and contactless payment is so convenient”. Those who express doubt about cashless society are cast as either Luddites or criminals, trying to remain in the backward shadows.

This narrative needs to be countered. I am not a privacy fetishist, but I do know that it is essential for the sense of mental freedom it gives us. Without the occasionally ability to be invisible, society takes on the feeling of a panopticon, and that itself breeds distrust. You need the ability to feel alone—like that feeling of sitting alone in a bath, at peace with all your vulnerabilities—in order to value the presence of others.

A very small amount of our overall transaction volume is currently undertaken with coins, but coins are important precisely because they give us that little passageway of flexibility and anonymity. They give the ability to flick a tip and a smile to a busker as we pass them in the street, a personal gesture that is unmediated and unverified and unmonitored.

In a potential future world where such physical tokens disappear, I want Bitcoin to exist. I want something that feels roughly like electronic cash, something that can exist as a marginal counterpower outside the walled gardens of mainstream payments.

And like coins, I expect Bitcoin will never become a dominant payment system. I expect it will, at most, account for 1 per cent of transactions. But that is fine. 1 per cent privacy is going to be a lifeline in any future world of 99 per cent bank surveillance.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Catch it while you can! Rogue PDF copy of The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance is on the loose

Ahoy, it's been pirated!

My 2013 book - the Heretic's Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money - has found its way onto, and also onto a Belgian activist's dropbox, where it is easily downloadable (she was kind enough to send me an email saying that she was "sad to know that it is not being distributed under an open license, since it would benefit many people who cannot afford to buy it").

I'm not against pirating, provided it's going to help humanity, and I hope my book can do that in some small way. I can't speak for my publishers Pluto Press, but they are swashbucklers who publish the likes of Chomsky, so I'm sure they're not surprised. Besides, the book is about HACKING THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL SECTOR! so screw it, let's let it circulate globally! For those who don't know, it's endorsed by Cambridge economics professor Ha-Joon Chang and Bill McKibben of and has received some great reviews (check out GoodReads reviews here and Amazon reviews here). You can see details, endorsements and reviews on this page.

If you take it for free though, you've got to share it too... please

Look, it's obviously a lot of work to write books like this, and I almost bankrupted myself with the energy I put in. So, if you'd like to use the pirated version, please consider the spirit of open culture, and share it with at least one other person so that it can travel far and wide. Ideally share it with 3 people, especially those who do not have enough to buy the print version. (you can email from here)

Also, if you've got £1, please consider flipping me a donation 

As mentioned in my support page, I love producing new ideas for how to rewire the financial system, and like to stay independent whilst doing that. You can use the Paypal button below to donate me a loaf of bread (£1.50) if you're a student, unemployed or suffering cash flow problems, or a small beer (£3) if you're fully employed and have a pension. This all adds up and can really help me to stay independent.

Finally, please send me feedback!

I'm not one of those people who claims to know everything that is wrong with the world and how to fix it. Shifting the destructive tendencies of the financial sector and harnessing it towards positive ends is a work in progress, and one that takes many perspectives. If you think I've missed something out, or have ideas and projects you think I should consider, please send me an email (see side panel) and tell me! Hope you enjoy ;)

Adios amigos!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Show me the real money: Three monetary myths that need busting


This article originally appeared in the December edition of Penguin's ThinkSmarter Newsletter.

Money pervades our everyday economic interactions. But, despite its importance, it is also pervasively misunderstood. Here are three common monetary myths – frequently perpetuated by economists – that need challenging.

Myth 1: Money emerges from barter

Economists often tell a tale about how old communities first used barter to exchange goods and services. Bartering throws up tricky situations. Take as an example a farmer trying to exchange a cow for bread from a baker, a clumsy and difficult negotiation. Thus, according the old economists like Adam Smith, money was supposedly 'invented' as a way to get around that inefficiency and confusion.

This narrative is ahistorical and inaccurate. Anthropologists have long had a much more convincing account: in small communities without money, exchange does not take place through on-the-spot barter. Rather it takes place through reciprocity, the process whereby I give you something now, and then you return the favour over time. In essence, communities develop elaborate systems of score-keeping – informal ‘mutual credit’ systems are created, and if I don’t eventually honour my obligations under that system, I will be shunned from the community.

It is these ‘I owe you one’ systems that are behind the origins of money. Money is an abstracted form of such credit, taken out of the interpersonal context of a small community, and formalised and legalised within a political system.

Myth 2: Money is a commodity, and a store of value

Money is commonly defined as a store of value, a means of exchange, and a unit of account. But if we break it down, we see that money alone does not store value – whatever form that money takes.

Compare a £5 note, £5 worth of coins, and an internet banking screen saying you have £5 in your account. The same concept of £5 can be expressed in paper, metal or electronic form. There is nothing about the physical state of the money that carries the value. Instead, the value is held in the collective agreement of a community to honour what the money stands for.

There have been many cases where that agreement breaks down, for example, in Zimbabwe. In 2008 there was ‘hyperinflation’, a phenomenon where people lose belief in the money. As that belief disappeared, so too did the value of the money, and Zimbabwe was forced to abandon their national currency. The money itself is not the store of value. The community that agrees to uphold money is the store of value.

Nevertheless, people still cling to the notion that money is a ‘thing’ that has an independent existence that we can identify, like oil or rocks. This is the commodity illusion of credit money. Money is in fact a socially constructed, and politically backed, claim on goods and services. While it may have a physical manifestation, it could also exist purely as an accounting entry.

Imagine doing 5 hours of work for a community, and in return getting given a credit for 5 hours, which is simply written down on a central list that everyone can see, saying ‘We acknowledge you did 5 hours of work, and now you can claim back 5 hours from the rest of the community’.

Now imagine tearing that entry for 5 hour credits off the central list, and shaping it into a rectangle piece of paper – like a voucher – that you can pass around to people. That’s pretty much what paper money is right?

Myth 3: Modern money is created by central banks

If you ask many people who creates the money we use, most people say that it's down to the central bank. In reality, the central bank creates only a small percentage of the money we use. The majority is created by commercial banks, via a process called fractional reserve banking, in which they issue IOUs against central bank money. Nowadays these IOUs are electronic, and we use them every time we use internet banking or a debit card.

This means that if you bank with HSBC, your money actually takes the form of HSBC electronic IOUs which exist nowhere else but in HSBC’s IT system. That’s what you use when you pay with a card in a shop. This act of ‘moving’ your digital money is really just one bank telling another bank to change a data entry in their IT system. The central bank exists to back up trust in the system, and attempts to influence the private issuance of electronic money by commercial banks, but it doesn’t control the money supply itself.

Some further reading

If these topics interest you, you might want to take a look at my piece Breaching the monetary Matrix: Five exercises to help you understand money, and my essay Riches Beyond Belief. You might also consider taking a look at David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years, Felix Martin's Money: The Unauthorised Biography, and Nigel Dodd's The Social Life of Money.

If you enjoyed reading this...

I don't get paid to produce most of these pieces, so any support is much appreciated. Here are three things you might do:
  1. Buy me a virtual beer using electronic money
  2. Share it on Twitter, or on Reddit
  3. Email it to one person who might find it useful

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Peer-to-Peer Review: The State of Academic Bitcoin Research 2014


I decided to build a rather large database of academic research on Bitcoin. If you'd like to see it, click on the link. It's a Google Doc, and it allows you to comment if you think there is something I've missed. You can also download it as an Excel spreadsheet. It includes academic, and quasi-academic, research papers, journal articles and theses related to Bitcoin.

Admittedly, the definition of 'academic' or 'quasi-academic' is pretty loose. It can include peer-reviewed papers that appear in major journals, to working papers released from university departments and think tanks, to a thesis of a PhD student, to independent research from people with clear expertise.

I built this list because I myself like to write quasi-academic articles on Bitcoin, and have been trying to find good quality analysis of cryptocurrency, frustrated by the huge amounts of spurious opinion churned in the media, and self-promoting rants by opportunists and ideologues.

How I built it: Lots of searching

To build this list, I spent about four days going through different academic search engines. Many of these search facilities found the same papers, but each also tended to find some unique articles that the others didn't. The sites include:
  • JSTOR (here)
  • ScienceDirect (here)
  • IngentaConnect (here)
  • Microsoft Academic Search (here)
  • SpringerLink (here)
  • SSRN (here)
  • Taylor & Francis (here)
  • Google Scholar (here) (including year-by-year search from 2008)
  • Wiley Online Library (here)
  • Directory of Open Access Journals (here)
  • DiVA-portal (here)
  • Econpapers (here)
  • ArXiv (here)
  • IDEAS (here)
  • Oxford Journals (here)
  • Cambridge Journals (here)

Open access vs. closed: A bit of both

A lot of the papers in the list are open access, which means you can get them as PDFs or HTML files. Unfortunately though, the top journals tend to be behind corporate-controlled paywalls and require university subscriptions or money to get in. That said, if a paper is closed access, search for it online and you'll often find earlier PDF versions of it floating about, because the authors often publish draft versions or working papers in open access formats before getting them accepted into closed journals.

Language: English

I'm not one of those people who is oblivious to the fact that research exists outside the English language, and I know that it's quite possible that some of the most cutting edge Bitcoin research could be going on in a Chinese university or in a Greek think-tank. Unfortunately I don't speak those languages, so be aware that these are only English language papers.

Quantity of research: Reasonable


Bitcoin literature is very new. The first paper - Satoshi Nakamoto's paper - came out only in 2008. I could find almost no academic research from 2009 and 2010, and only a trickle in 2011. It's only in 2012 that we start to find a decent amount emerging in the record. It's really in 2013 though, that the big research starts to come. 2014 has by far the most research, and it's in this year that peer-reviewed academic journal articles start to come out.

Bear in mind that peer-review processes for big journals can take years, so it's little surprise that there are so few cryptocurrency articles out in the really big-hitter journals. My prediction for 2015 though, is that there will be a big flood of research, and a significant batch of peer-reviewed journal articles. Good research takes a while to do, especially in the social sciences.

Quality of research: Hmm... 

Quality to some extent is in the eye of the beholder, but I'll be honest - there is a fair amount of crap research out there. For example, I've found 'academic' analyses of Bitcoin from people that work in big universities, that still hold onto archaic beliefs about money emerging from barter. There are also a lot of PDF documents floating about with academic-sounding titles, written by people with academic sounding affiliations, but you never really know how good they are, or if they're written by some enthusiastic second-year students who don't really know what they're talking about.

Peer-reviewed journals obviously demand a certain degree of quality, but being published in a big journal doesn't necessarily mean an article is groundbreaking. It just means you managed to pitch it right, and get past a panel of peers who might have the same biases as you. For example, it's widely suspected that the peer-review process in the big economics journals systematically excludes economic theories that don't follow neo-classical interpretations of markets. To be accepted into the hallowed halls of such journals, one must cow down and play the game, and couch everything in the apolitical language of mathematical equations and spurious models. Needless to say, some of the most interesting economics research is not found in the big prestige economics journals.

So, it's best to treat this list as an initial starting point to launch into papers, and to make your own decisions about how interesting they are.

Research themes: The tech, the law, the economics... the humans

There are a number of themes coming out in the research
  1. Firstly, there is a huge amount of technical stuff about the cryptography, computer science, security and systems design. Computer science researchers have clearly enjoyed the chance to get involved in this cutting-edge area. The only problem with this though, is that the quantity of this research drowns out a lot of the equally important social sciences research, and tends to present Bitcoin as a technological issue, rather than a profoundly human phenomenon
  2. Secondly, there is a sub-strand of the tech-related research that focuses on how to change Bitcoin, or create a variant of it, or point out some failing it has. See, for example, this piece on a Bitcoin-based emissions trading model
  3. Thirdly, there is a pretty big strand of research on the regulatory status, tax status, and legal status of Bitcoin. This is clearly driven by the need to reach some clarity on these questions so that people know how to practically proceed in the short-term. There is also a nascent strand of accounting research - check out, for example, this new piece
  4. Fourthly, there is a growing field of economic analyses of Bitcoin, mostly coming from pretty mainstream economics, or from Austrian-style libertarian economics. Like most economics, the attempt is to create models, or to analyse incentive structures, and they will tend to call people 'agents', rather than, well, 'people'. See, for example, this piece coming out in the prestigious Journal of Economic Perspectives
  5. Then, finally, there is an emergent trickle of social sciences research on actual humans, including the sociology, anthropology, politics and even ethics of the system. This research remains hugely underrepresented though, which is ironic, because it's by far the most important area of research

Areas that need more attention: Humans

There are a number of areas, in my opinion, that need deeper research and analysis. 
  • Bitcoin as money: There are surprisingly few real discussions about the monetary theory embedded in the Bitcoin code, or how it might function as money. The papers on 'the economics of Bitcoin' don't address it deeply enough (but then again, economics has always been pretty shite at money analysis). I'd love to see more deep analyses of the nature of decentralised electronic money, and the social dynamics of such money
  • Despite the huge amounts of focus on the technology of Bitcoin, there is still very little critical reflection on the technological politics of Bitcoin, or critical studies of decentralised algorithm-based systems. My piece on the Politics of the Bitcoin Blockchain sketches out areas that need more focus
  • Ethnographic studies of Bitcoin: There are a few surveys of Bitcoin users, and some interesting attempts to use social media to analyse users, but there are few true ethnographic studies 
  • The geographical dynamics of Bitcoin: Bitcoin is often spoken of as a global currency, but in reality most of the writing about it comes from Americans and Europeans, and many of them sitting in cities. I'd love to see true studies on, for example, whether someone in rural Zimbabwe would actually use cryptocurrency (given that most of my family is from rural Zimbabwe this is not just a throwaway question)

25 interesting looking papers to peruse

I haven't had a chance to read all of these, but here are some really interesting looking articles that are probably not going to get as much attention as they should. 
  1. “When perhaps the real problem is money itself!”: the practical materiality of Bitcoin (here): Written by the economic anthropologist Bill Maurer and his collaborators Lana Swartz and Taylor Nelms
  2. "BitCoin meets Google Trends and Wikipedia: Quantifying the relationship between phenomena of the Internet era" (here)
  3. "Virtual Currency, Tangible Return: Portfolio Diversification with Bitcoins" (here): One for  the investment portfolio analysts
  4. "Nowcasting the Bitcoin Market with Twitter Signals" (here)
  5. "The digital traces of bubbles: feedback cycles between socio-economic signals in the Bitcoin economy" (here)
  6. "Who Uses Bitcoin? An exploration of the Bitcoin community" (here)
  7. "Is Bitcoin a Decentralized Currency?" (here)
  8. "Testing the Efficient Market Hypothesis on Bitcoin Exchanges" (here)
  9. "Alderney: gambling, Bitcoin and the art of unorthodoxy" (here): From the Island Studies Journal, ha ha
  10. "Coining Bitcoin's 'legal bits': Examining the regulatory framework for Bitcoin and virtual currencies" (here)
  11. "Bitcoin and the legitimacy crisis of money" (here), coming out in the Cambridge Journal of Economics, from Beat Weber. Beat is critical of Bitcoin, and it's worth checking out his other piece in the Journal of Peer Production here
  12. "Do the Rich Get Richer? An Empirical Analysis of the Bitcoin Transaction Network" (here)
  13. "The (A)Political Economy of Bitcoin" (here) - this one is from Greek commons-based economy advocates from the P2P Lab
  14. "Bitcoin: a regulatory nightmare to a libertarian dream" (here), from P2P law expert Primavera de Filippi
  15. "Internet architecture and the layers principle: a conceptual framework for regulating Bitcoin"(here), from a Google employee
  16. "Characteristics of Bitcoin Users: An Analysis of Google Search Data" (here)
  17. "The politics of cryptography: Bitcoin and the ordering machines" (here): This is from Quinn Du Pont, who is doing intriguing work on cryptography political philosophy
  18. "The paradoxes of distributed trust: Peer-to-peer architecture and user confidence in Bitcoin"(here)
  19. "Synthetic commodity money" (here) - this one is in the Journal of Financial Stability, but free versions are floating around on the internet
  20. "The Economics of Bitcoin and Similar Private Digital Currencies" (here) - this one is in the Journal of Financial Stability, but free versions are floating around on the internet
  21. "The Ethics of Payments: Paper, Plastic, or Bitcoin?" (here): In the big-hitter Journal of Business Ethics
  22. "Are Bitcoin Users Less Sociable? An Analysis of Users’ Language and Social Connections on Twitter" (here): A very intriguing paper, which suggests that 'Bitcoin followers are less likely to mention family, friends, religion, sex, and emotion related words in their tweets and have significantly less social connection to other users on the site'
  23. "How Did Dread Pirate Roberts Acquire and Protect his Bitcoin Wealth?" (here): Everyone likes a pirate story
  24. "Do libertarians dream of electric coins? The material embeddedness of Bitcoin" (here): Great title, and out in a pretty innovative Scandinavian journal
  25. I'll let you decide what number 25 is: Perhaps a paper that you'd like to write?

Enjoy, comment, and please share

Thanks for reading this. If you see any mistakes in the list, or have any suggestions and additions you'd like me to make, please do comment, either here or on the Google Doc. I get sent an email every time that happens so I'll definitely see them. I'll update this list periodically as new pieces come out. Finally, please do share this with people who might find it useful - I spent a fair amount of effort creating this, so I want it to be as useful as possible.

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    Monday, 20 October 2014

    Bringing the jungle to the city: A techno-shamanic quest to reconnect urban life to ecological reality

    Note: I originally published this in June 2014 Issue of Contributoria. It is republished here under a Creative Commons licence. If you wish to republish, please also attribute the original article

    I once lived in a village on the rural Wild Coast of South Africa. It had a horizon so vast you could almost glimpse the curvature of the earth. There was one computer with a dial-up modem, and it almost never worked. That was just before I moved to London, to work in the steel and concrete of the city’s colossal financial sector. In London, as in many cities, you cannot see the horizon. The average visibility extends perhaps 30 metres in front of you. On the other hand, you are connected to a vast hallucinogenic web of broadband media connection, constantly.

    That is, of course, provided the electricity doesn't go out.

    In London, the electricity doesn't tend to go out. It is hooked into the all-powerful National Grid, a company I used to try sell financial derivatives to. In South Africa though, we experienced the ‘rolling blackouts’ of 2007. I remember how, for hours at a time, the electricity supply was shut off and cities were left in darkness. It was an embarrassing failure for the electricity giant Eskom, but the crisis had a strange silver lining. In the absence of electricity to watch television or browse the internet, people wondered outside, sitting on the front steps of their houses, talking with passers-by, watching the stars that were normally drowned out by the glare of the city.

    It was as if, for a moment, a broader illusion had been turned off with the television sets. The bubble of streetlight security control disappeared, but instead of uneasy discomfort, it brought for some a sense of calm. The speed slowed down. People suddenly realised how much they took for granted.

    Stars and horizons

    In their natural setting, stars and horizons serve to remind you of your context. Seeing them helps to brings home the point that you are on a giant rolling planet, suspended within an enormous galactic system.

    That’s something that doesn’t actually sit well with the implicit ideology of the city. Forget being on a planet. You are in LONDON, a uniquely important place in a uniquely important time, a control tower from which to master destiny and the external elements. Indeed, in the city, horizons and stars are not real things. Rather they are the basis for kitsch inspirational quotes (‘look to the horizon, reach for the stars’), pasted on the cubicle walls of wannabe high-flying young urban professionals, representing abstract places you cannot really reach.

    And herein lies a central tension in the modern global mega-city. It might be a dynamic hub of glamorous entertainment, high-stakes commerce and edgy artistic sophistication, but it is also an engine of alienation, distancing us from the reality of our context, the land where food is grown, the ground in which fossil fuels and metals are dredged from the earth, and the ecological systems that underpin it all. In the city, you are divorced from that broader context, and placed into a different one – an exciting one perhaps – but a disconnected one nevertheless.

    The disturbing possibility therefore, is that urban elites – whether in London, Brussels, Tokyo, Mumbai or New York – wield the greatest political and cultural trendsetting power, and yet may retain the least knowledge of the actual basis of their own survival. Those who do understand such realities – such as copper mine workers in Peru, or oil workers in the Niger Delta – are politically marginalised, and frequently looked down upon as backward objects of pity, or faces on charity aid brochures.

    And urbanisation is not slowing down. So, in an era of hyper-consuming global metropolises, we face a crucial question with deep consequences: How does one live in the city whilst somehow retaining a grip on ecological reality?

    The quest

    This essay is my opening foray into that question. It doesn't quite answer it, but it sets out a map of what conceptual and practical territories need to be covered. I'm then going to use that map over the next few months as I undertake something of a techno-shamanic adventure into the mire of the city as part of collective called Wisdomhackers. There are 26 of us, all immersively exploring different aspects of modern life (which, let’s face it, is often a catchphrase for urban life), coordinated by the ‘Amish Futurist’ and explorer of informal pirate economies, Alexa Clay.

    The collective includes Aina Abiodun, grappling with the implications of techno-utopianism, Anna Stothard, rethinking our relationship with physical objects in a throwaway consumer culture obsessed with change, Antoine Sakho, exploring technology consumption philosophy, Nathan Schneider, working on new social contracts, Lee-Sean Huang, exploring the disembodied experience of ‘knowledge work’, and Brock leMieux, experimenting with digital learning infrastructures.

    In delving into city life and technology, I'm departing somewhat from my normal writings focused on the financial sector. There is a deep link though. The financial sector, after all, is intensely urban, and intensely technological, and I have a suspicion that some of the roots of financial crisis, and broader economic crisis, are inextricably linked to city life itself.

    Exploring urban ambiguity

    Cities are deeply ambiguous, even contradictory places. On the one hand, they can be exuberant crucibles of cosmopolitan culture, liberating one from oppressive social bonds and bigotries, leaving you free to join loose floating groups of like-minded people. If you’re an ostracised gay person in rural Mpumalanga, or an aspiring tech entrepreneur in the Australian outback, or Billy Elliot in a coal-mining town, are you going to stick around? Hell no! You go to Johannesburg, Brisbane, the Royal Ballet School in London. You become a city dweller, just like me.

    And if there is one thing that we know about cities, it’s that they are veritable hives of technology, and the physical host for the ghostly force of innovation. That’s as true today as it was during the Middle Ages, when people from distant small village towns needed to buy their church bells from specialist smiths in London. Cities host economies of agglomeration, and small towns frequently have too few people to support the capital and labour requirements of high tech industries. The same thing can be said about opera. Not enough people to support a big specialist theatre in the Ausi outback. Got to go to Sydney.

    And this indeed is an engine of ‘progress’, if defined in terms of material and cultural output levels. The city churns out new ideas, new music, new sub-cultures, new technology, new everything, all the time.

    On the other hand, cities also churn out an extraordinary amount of bullshit. It crawls with superficial phonies (so despised in Catcher in the Rye), asshole businessmen, aggressive drivers, chancers and purveyors of meaningless fads. Pampered high-life culture meets low-life crime. Blinkered positive-thinking optimism meshes with hard-edged cynicism. And all the time, giant piles of material and cultural waste accumulate, last month's fashion magazines shuttled out of sight into the landfill.

    Part of this dynamic is due to the fact that newness itself starts to feel old after a while, so people become jaded in the city, demanding and hard to please. In a sense, city culture becomes a prisoner of its own success, as once-innovative breakthroughs become stultifying producers of casual boredom. As a South African in London, I arrived wide-eyed and gawking at the incredible underground transportation system. A year later I was bitching about it. Oh my god, it’s five minutes late!

    Cities have also long had a reputation for inspiring self-serving individualistic decadence and moral corruption. I’ve experienced my fair share of it, from the nauseating overpriced cocktail culture of Mayfair, to the self-destructive mindfuck of bankrupt Withnail & I melancholia. I lived with a guy who had such a drug problem that he couldn’t bring himself to buy toilet paper, and started using the pages of an old Stephen King novel to wipe his ass. The shocking thing though, wasn't that he was doing that, but that I didn't care. If you’re in that mode for long enough, it breeds a kind of anarchic disdain for convention, a Down and out in Paris and London haze which is both terrifying and liberating, incredibly deep, or incredibly shallow, depending on who you are.

    There is also a long history of people lamenting these dynamics, from the Book of Revelation reviling the depravation of Babylon, to Rousseau scolding city dwellers ‘depraved by sloth, inactivity, [and] the love of pleasure’, to Utopian Socialists leaving to start intentional communities in the countryside, to Gauguin leaving for Tahiti. Recently, even Micah White of Occupy Wall Street began berating the cadres of urban activists and moved to Nehalem to launch a rural revolution (albeit one less demanding than the rural revolution demanded under Maoism).

    Perhaps urban ambiguity is rooted in the fact that the same loose bonds that can unlock empowering forms of freedom, can simultaneously create disempowering forms of disassociation. Take, for example, early proletarianisation, whereby people disenfranchised from the land drifted into wage labour in cities. The loosening of rural bonds was associated with the emergence of the ‘free’ human labour market, the ability to voluntarily detach oneself from social – and ecological – ties, eerily similar to how a marketised product detaches from those who produce it. The open-minded and expansive search for self is always prone to being twisted into the service of corporate power, taking the commoditised, shallow form of the fun-seeking consumer shopping for identity.

    Urban dynamic 1: Illusions of access in a world of interfaces


    Many things are indeed very shallow in a city. Consider a simple plug socket, a two-dimensional interface discreetly inset within the wall. Somewhere, elsewhere, natural gas from the North Sea is being burned in turbines to produce a generic, seemingly invisible form of all-purpose energy called electricity, which is channelled via the electrical grid and now waits innocently for me at the plug. The wall blocks the outside reality while the plug presents a new one. We might say our experience of energy begins at the plug. Everything that happened before this is blocked out.

    Most interfaces are like this. One part blocks you from something, while another part invites you into something else. In the city we’re faced with a myriad of such interfaces. Consider the supermarket. The simple Tesco aisle is a sanitised interface. It presents us with free-floating consumption items whilst simultaneously blocking awareness of their prior production processes that happened elsewhere. It’s a key institution of modern psychological disconnection, doubling as an exemplar of modern sophistication.

    And what about the ATM? It's an interface into the banking system, a machine of convenience replicating what a human bank teller used to do. They're often placed next to physical bank branches, giving the impression that the money coming out of the wall came from 'inside' the bank. Given that the majority of our money is in fact electronic, ‘stored’ in a bank's datacentre-based IT system, nowhere remotely close to the ATM, this is something of an illusion. And what about my debit card? Is the money in the plastic card, or elsewhere? Maybe you see a taxi displaying an advert for a share-trading account. The account is just an interface into an underlying stockmarket, and the shares there are just interfaces too, channelling returns generated elsewhere.

    But even the seemingly down-to-earth world of physical buildings frequently represents a kind of interface. For all the rhetoric of city freedom, the average person experiences the city as a zone of things that you can see but that you will never actually interact with, a collection of human and physical objects, many of them out of bounds. The streets might be free to all, but the buildings are a series of locks and gates, or rather, paywalls, and differential access to them abounds. I can look at the two-dimensional frontage of the Ritz, but can I experience the three dimensional space beyond the facade?

    You can of course use wealth to unlock these paywalls. Wealth brings a kind of universal freedom of the city access card (albeit, ironically, if you’re very poor, you may be so marginalised that you gain a different sort of freedom to use parts of the city that many people wilfully shut themselves off from, the parallel world of trashcan alleys, shacks and derelict squats, hauntingly captured here by photographer Chris Arnade). For the average person though, the city expresses itself to you as a kind of aspiration, things you maybe one day will get to do.

    This phenomenon applies to human relations too. In the city you’re faced with a constant stream of people you will never meet. Have you heard of the term sonder? It’s a neologism from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, referring to the realisation that every person that passes you by is living a life as intense as your own, but that you’ll never have access to it, with you perhaps appearing “only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

    Urban dynamic 2: FOMO meets YOLO in the buzz of constant surveillance

    The ironic consequence of this is that you’re almost never alone in a city, but are surrounded by people who often don’t offer much in the way of sympathy either. This is part of that hard-edged, bittersweet symphony city vibe that some people get a big kick off, blitzing down the road shoulder-barging people out the way, leaving kind-hearted romantics feeling deeply isolated, wanting to escape to the countryside. Of course, the endless stream of people offer potential for interaction, a tantalizing potential for sex, fun, intellectual debate, and experience. It culminates in the ever-present fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) complex, breathlessly (and tragically) set against the ticking timebomb of the you-only-live-once (YOLO) complex.

    The sense of never being alone is part of the city buzz, but it also doubles as an element of a peculiar urban surveillance complex, joining the interconnected web of visible policing, endless lights, and, if you glance upwards, CCTV cameras, all meshing together to give the subsconscious awareness of always potentially being on someone’s radar. Here’s an experiment: Walk down a city pavement and then make an abrupt stop and stand frozen still. Can you hold it for more than 20 seconds? An invisible force hits you. You feel the weight of people potentially watching you (maybe you can call it the panopticon). Why have you stopped for no reason?

    There are ways to escape the surveillance complex, and at any one moment in central London you’ll find people existing in pockets of unmonitored space, feeling the wild tinge of alone-ness in a toilet cubicle, in old elevators, behind pillars in underground parking lots, in back alleys. We intuitively know where to find these places. One just need imagine where you would go if you were trying to find a place to piss in the city, or to have sex, or basically to do anything slightly illicit.

    Urban dynamic 3: In control of freedom

    But even in the toilet cubicle you are not entirely alone. There are always the attempts to use the physical space to communicate with you, drunken messages plastered on the walls, and then, of course, there is the ADVERTISEMENT on the back of the door. Just like old communist cities were dotted with socialist realist artworks depicting idealised visions of humanity working towards common goals, so the surrealist corporate propaganda urges you to act on the goal of becoming something slightly different to what you are, to give in to vague fears or aspirations (reaching dystopian proportions in the sci-fi imagination of Minority Report).

    Advertising is part of an obvious ongoing attempt to influence thought, to control to some end, but it tends to cloak it within the banner of either freedom, or of security. Under the hedonistic exterior of the Calvin Klein billboard there is clearly some highly-strung anal executive trying to orchestrate a well-oiled campaign. It’s the same with the friendly pleas for civility on the London Underground, or the Mayor’s cycling campaign, or the health and safety warning signs, the traffic lights and rules. They're all reflective of perhaps the deepest ambiguity of a city, that between freedom and control, and between control and its confusingly similar echo, security. Levi's makes me feel secure.

    The perception of power and control as security is a hallmark of ‘mainstream’ status quo thought, constituting what we can call, loosely, hegemony, the way that powerful institutions appear in popular consciousness as reassuringly normal. The police represent security to those in the mainstream, control to those outside, just like the smiling faces of corporate executives appear respectably professional to some, and as exploitative masks of manipulation to others.

    We have a long tradition of critiquing adverts, corporate executives and police violence, isolating the exploitative strands found within the comfortable security. Perhaps the most pervasive control complex of the city though, is the most subtle, and we take it so for granted that it’s almost invisible. If there is one thing that most social classes implicitly agree on, it’s that wilderness is not allowed to flourish in the city. We have developed technologies of control like concrete to resist the chaotic wiles of weeds. We have pest removal companies and poisons to remove pockets of alternative life as they form, and tree surgeons assassinating rogue branches that don’t obey council rules. We might allow carefully tended parks, but wilderness, NO!

    Urban dynamic 4: The echo-chamber of urban elitism

    The silent bulwarks of concrete control tend to get forgotten, or hidden, amidst the loud buzz of urban creativity, and it's in this contradictory setting that a covert cultural agreement emerges. It runs across the political spectrum, and across national boundaries. It is the tacit agreement that the City is where everything important happens, where policies get made, where trends get set. It’s wired into urban mentality, and above all it finds expression in people who consider themselves global jet-setters – the transnational urban elite – and in our favourite technology, the internet.

    The internet, when taken in aggregate, does not reflect ‘the world’. It reflects the relentless content production of large global cities, and the transnational aspirations of transnational urbanites. There are up to 3 billion Google search results for New York. How many for the entire country of Angola? Around 126 million.

    Urbanites have long be criticised for having their feet off the ground, for lacking an earthy connection to the soil, but the sheer scale of this potential disconnection has increased as the sources of distraction have become richer than ever, a commercial media complex interwoven ever more closely into experience, the mobile internet streaming data from urban trendsetters around the world, music videos from San Francisco, stock prices from Hong Kong. This is the distraction complex, pointed out in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, the basis of Jean Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality. You can live an entire life in this cultural echo-chamber, surrounded by others doing the same. Base level awareness of things like soil and rain merely distract from more important upper level realities. Who cares about watersheds when we can discuss vinyl, technology, business?

    So let’s talk business then. All business, in the final analysis, comes down to raw human labour (physical or intellectual), which is supported by agriculture and augmented by technology (made with materials dug out of the earth) that's fuelled by energy sources. That's a formula captured in everything from large-scale construction of highways to the simple act of using a photocopier after lunch (labour + food + technology + electricity). The pinnacle of city business though, is finance, the portal for amplifying and steering previously accumulated capital into businesses of the future. The headquarters of global financial institutions are profoundly urban, and it’s in this setting that professionals make daily decisions about financing destructive projects in far-away places. The disconnected mentality of the city feeds into disconnected notions of economic life. Forest destruction is reduced to a series of numeric cash flow projections in excel spreadsheets.

    The quest part 1: Getting behind the interfaces

    So let's imagine it's evening in the city. You close down the spreadsheet, and pull on your suit jacket to head across town to a bar, walking along the controlled space of the pavement, making a pit-stop in a shop to pick up a disassociated pack of cigarettes piped in from some unknown location, petroleum-powered cars blurring past.

    If you were, however, to look down the back alley you pass, or through the sewer grilles under your feet, or behind the billboards, you’d see that there are strange piping systems, ventilation shafts, bundles of wires, mechanical pulleys, delivery docks, waste management systems, storage depots, dirt and grease compounds. The world of interfaces is kept illuminated and co-ordinated via a vast, elaborate network of manual workers who will undertake all the steps necessary to seamlessly deliver a glass of cider down on a table in a Shoreditch bar.

    This is the back-end, the spaces behind the interfaces. These are the only spaces in a city like London that you won’t find adverts.

    It is here then, that I will begin a search for the deeper soul of the city. The first part of my quest over the next few months is to go behind the interfaces. The back end is, for some, a zone of resistance. It is where the urban foxes live. It is where squatters make homes in abandoned old pubs. It is where community gardens are started. It is where graffiti artists practice their craft. It is where weeds grow untended, little outposts of ecological resistance against concrete control. There are wild tomatoes growing on the banks of Thames, if you know where to look.

    It's in this space also that the urban exploration subculture emerges, explorers of abandoned buildings and places you’re not supposed to see. The urban exploration crew is drawn to all that is designed to be out of bounds, which happens to include most key elements of city infrastructure, the underground train systems, the telecommunications towers, the electrical power yards, the warehouse complexes, the sewerage systems, the logistics nodes in the shadows or on the outskirts. They are back-end adventurers, on the one hand rebellious, but perhaps also seeking solace in places that nobody expects to find you in. It's a strand of the underground tradition of psychogeography, the attempt to defy or redefine the hegemonic logic of city spaces.

    If there is one thing that fascinates me in the city, it’s the food system. How the hell does all the food get in? How many kebab shops are there in London and how much meat do they go through in a day, and where does that come from? Where are the warehouses that Tesco uses to restock its imperial army of store fronts? How many steps are there between a fishing boat pulling a tuna out of the ocean and it ending up in a Yo! Sushi outlet in Soho?

    The quest part 2: Bringing the back end to the front end

    The crux of the quest though, is to explore how these vast back end systems, and the ecological systems they drawn upon, can be brought to awareness within the very space that hides them. There are already urban movements that attempt to do this. The urban agriculture movements, for example, try to bring farm life right into the physical space of the city, creating rooftop plantations and city farms. In a more rebellious vein, there are guerilla gardeners seedbombing the stilted rows of public parks and manicured gardens with reckless wildflowers.

    The key question for me though, is what part new high technology can play in all this. We are faced with a dilemma here. Technology historically has been used to cushion us from external realities. The streaming media capabilities of smart-phones have seemingly obvious potential to open our eyes to things, but they've also created an information bubble which appears on a day-to-day basis to mostly dull the senses, not make them alive to unseen realities.

    But it's worth a try, so I will explore different approaches to using such communications technology. Firstly, it is worth looking at abstraction techniques, technologies that take a complex external reality and attempt to make it into something understandable, or present it in the form of an analogy. For example, think of big data visualisation of internet usage, or mapping projects, transforming the global subsidiaries of Goldman Sachs into a digestible form. It's an approach that really attempts to compress the disorientating scale of modern life into bite-sized chunks.

    Secondly, there are humanising techniques, ways of taking something that is currently abstracted or obscured, and showing the story behind it. For example, can we build open data maps of supply chains, populate them with personal stories and data on resource usage, and feed them into augmented reality apps operating within the paradigm of the ‘internet-of-things’? Maybe even Google maps can be used: I’ve used StreetView to virtually drive the back streets of Hong Kong to get a glimpse of Shenzhen where my iPhone is assembled. And can I use the technological interface of the iPhone to breach its own branded façade and see the vast, intricate web of its own production?

    And then there is the mother of all abstract façades, the financial sector, entrenched behind a firewall of political power and technical obfuscation. How might we breach the slick shell of financial instruments to view the gritty real world beneath? Is there a way to read the Financial Times that will make me alive to the deep human and ecological dynamics embedded in cold financial abstractions? Can we take a flat story about stockmarket regulation and see it for what it is, a network of urban politicians interacting with a network of urban businesspeople, battling it out amidst cultural constructions of risk, debt and the perceived potential of ‘assets’ in far flung, probably marginalised, production centres?

    The battle for holistic fusion

    Maybe none of this works without people being willing to adopt a certain critical orientation towards surface appearances. Groups like BankTrack do try to show the human and environmental stories behind major bank deals, but getting those stories into the public domain is tough. How do you bring marginalised voices into the city, to the ears of people who implicitly benefit by remaining ignorant. Out of sight, out of mind.

    It's a crucial battle for holistic fusion. Because, the countryside and the city appear to me like the imagined split between body and mind, physicality and intellectuality, hard labour and innovation. And, in the same way that the artificial distinction between body and mind needs to be fought, the consciousness of the city needs to be fused with the consciousness of all those vast tracts of the earth’s surface that feed into it.

    Read on! Part 2

    To read Part 2 of this quest, please do sign up to Wisdomhackers on the Pigeonhole, where it is being released as part of an awesome group book. The book comes out in weekly installments for the nominal sum of £5, which goes to help us struggling writers. My essay in the new collection is a 7000 word deep dive into the questions raised above, and it's a lot of fun. It includes critical explorations of the technological smart city narrative, cyborgs, LSD and the battle to reinvent political economy in the city

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