Oliver Leistert: Object-oriented scarcity as a technology of governmentality

Lecture at MoneyLab #6, Siegen (Germany), March 7/8, 2019.

Blockchains are technologies of control. Control is the capacity to govern events as structured items. Blockchains are interesting because of the sovereign chronological regime that they establish.

This has the capacities to proof and modulate the existence, identity and administration of data, assets, goods and services from a distance.

But what is a sovereign chronological regime?  It is a way of appending events or data to the chain, the generation of blocks in the order of the chain. To produce chronological order is to produce truth about events, to manifest and make happen that they took place and when. This is possible because there is no way to delete items in the chains. This lack brings blockchains into a special operational position within the media-technological structures around us. This void in the history of computing is its true historical difference to a common database: the lack of a delete function. If anything goes wrong, all that there is, is the fork. But this also means the end of one truth and the beginning of new ones. The fork simply opens a new terrain to be structured by events occuring.

But why has this technical feature of an append-only database such societal and economical powers? Why could it mobilize a new generation and a new type of hackers and programmers? Why would billions of US dollars be spent in short time for projects that often promise some solution that already exists but this time with a blockchain?

The integration of web, value and things

If we look back a little at what has happened with the internet in the last decade, we see one big problem escalating: how to make money with the internet. The data extraction and monetization regime that facebook masters so exquisitely serves mostly as a surrogate for the non-existence of a protocological value layer for the internet. The brave browser and the basic attention token are isolated, conceptual answers to this problem. The value problem reaches much further into the digital condition.

This problem comes to now the fore in its brutality and urgency because the separation of an internet of web, internet of value and an internet of things cannot be maintained economically much longer and calls for a unification. The history of media is the history of integration of media. Leftovers, such as materialist aspects of media, are being externalized.

To cover up the problem of value on the internet, we have the rapid platformization of the internet, with walled gardens and their own regime and rules. It is here that cooperate regimes set up their own payment systems now – out of pure desperation. Banks are really of the past when it comes to the integration of the internets. All they do is guard the separation, their historical truth.

Coming from below we have bitcoin, demonstrating that money is no more a taboo – to pick up an early moneylab slogan.

The simple function to deliver a unique token almost costless, the production of a computational entity that brings the physical quality of identity to the digital, seems to me to be the reason for most of the hype around blockchains. The simplicity and universality of this feature makes blockchains a promising functional agent. And, in addition, it motivates and integrates all kinds of fantasies and hopes. With is, we have a unique data object entering capitalism. It can be produced in abundance and has the quality to identify. It is of pure identity. This is new. Blockchains are machines to tokenize and stabilize identity autonomously. Strategically they aim at our copy & paste networked culture in a broad sense: at the anarchic fluidity of data. Blockchain data is operationally of its own kind. It comes with its own regime of governance and may brings its complete history of ownership with it. We have to see that since the advent of broad and massive connectivity for large parts of the population, a powerful discourse has been setup against so called piracy: the unlawful redistribution of digital objects. The production of artificial scarcity must be controlled in all commodified spaces – including the digital. More concrete, there is one single question that has haunted the bourgeois operating system for two decades now: what if our model of distribution that rests on artificial scarcity, can in the end not be implemented and enforced in the digital realm to our satisfaction?

Artificial scarcity for the digital condition

The history of failed Digital Rights Management Schemes (DRM) is long and the history of breaking such regimes might be called the history of hacking. Of course, piracy is a trickster and not the other to a commodified digital realm. Piracy does not produce alternatives but produces ubiquitous access to a regime of commodities. It attacks the control vectors, not the regime as such.

Platforms have, through their own logic, contributed to an enforcement of artificial scarcity. Since there is no anonymity in platforms, there is always someone to present the invoice to. Although the objects themselves are not governed, the environment they run in, the platforms, are highly controlled. User surveillance, the production of large data sets on the history of a user and her interaction with objects, jumps in where the object itself is not part of the accounting sphere. The user is the identity to charge. And the bill is written in digital objects such as advertisements.

What has always been missing throughout the history of control and commodification is a cheap way to produce identifiable, single objects, such as tokens. These are necessary elements in the great chain of commodification. Gaining back the control over scarcity, to produce, regulate and modulate it, is the historical feature that make blockchains a possible agent of commodification closure. The bourgeois property regime can hence be embedded in digital objects on a massive scale to be executed automatically by machines through ledgers, distributed or not.

To link a token with any kind of object, to synthesize token and object operationally, to produce an commodified single from token and object, is a possible answer to capital’s ongoing need to produce and enter new constellations for monetization.

We might still laugh at the impossible Ethereum universe, but smart contracts are the tools to power up the financial design for each single governed object. The effort that projects like Cardano make to bring a robust finance programming language to us are impressive.

We have to understand that the gap between symbolic orders and the physical real diminishes further with blockchains and this bridge is implemented as governance in the executable form of smart contracts. Once the links towards physical objects, especially those that provide access or modulate it, are taken into consideration, we are able to grasp what is coming. The symbolic (web), the possible (finance) and the physical real (IoT) are converging slowly. A hook into the counting and accounting mode of operations, that is at least sovereign in that it brings its own chronological regime to extract the possibility of ‘ontological counting’.

Capital driven technological objectivity

Blockchains implement objectivity as a control paradigm of governance: where objects adhere to commodification, property regimes and their modulation. Digital artifacts that have been made discriminable and identifiable by a cryptographic time-stamp of existence in a blockchain have the potential to update the bourgeois operating system to the digital condition.

Within this trajectory, the use or consumption of a commodity is bound to conditions that do not have to be defined outside of the commodity, as in a contract stating the acquisition and with it, the rights to use it, but they move, so to say, into the interior of a commodity through control over its functionality. The blockchain is the trusted ledger from which the conditions of use are defined and unlocked.  ‘Smart’ as in smart contracts in this context signifies an encroachment of exterior control beyond the acquisition of the commodity – into the time of its use. This resonates well with the so called ‘sharing economy’, which is aiming at a commodification regime of use values.

Blockchain technologies transfer proof of ownership and rights administration functionally into the object itself. They ‘objectify’ and concretize the property regime of artificial scarcity by capturing things throughout their life-time.

In a nutshell: blockchains secure the order of bourgeois property and ownership relations, and at the same time enhance it towards new modulations of control. Governing from a distance, the famous Foucault formula, acquires a new meaning in lights of blockchain based access and use regulation for things and services. In a sense, property relations are from here on becoming a functional aspect or dimension immanent to goods and services, integrated into the objects.

Governmentality as the power operation to produce subjects, the production of subjectivity, of mentalities that embrace the power formations offered, can now be supplemented with the production of objectivity – a computational and deeply capital driven objectivity.