In this essay (which is excerpted from another one), I apply some ideas from Langdon Winners influential “Do Artifacts Have Politics” to think about the politics of blockchain.
Politically Relevant and Inherently Political Technologies
In “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”, Winner makes two key claims about the ways in which technological artifacts may be political. First, Winner argues that technological artifacts can be political when “the invention, design, or arrangement of a specific technical device or system becomes a way of settling an issue in the affairs of a particular community” (669). I will refer to artifacts of this kind as “politically relevant” technologies, and summarize Winner’s claim in the following way:
W1. Technologies are, in at least some cases, politically relevant, meaning that choices about their design or adoption enforce political orderings of the world.
Winner’s defense of W1 is by example. Specifically, he discusses a set of overpasses built by influential urban planner Robert Moses around Long Island, New York. Overpasses do not per se embed a particular set of political consequences; however, in the hands of Moses, overpass design was politically relevant. By building overpasses at a height that allowed the passage of personal automobiles but not taller public buses, Moses effectively excluded poor & Black residents (who disproportionately relied on public transit) from access to Jones Beach. In short, the technological design decision of overpass height embedded a political decision about who would get ready access to a public resource (the beach). Importantly, Winner notes that (in this case and others), technological design choices are themselves inflected by social forces, with different stakeholders possessing “unequal degrees of power” in influencing how they are made (673). Thus, for Winner, politically relevant technologies are both influenced by social forces (such as racism and classism) in their design, and politically consequential once they are built and adopted in the world.
Second, Winner argues that technology can be political in a stronger sense; in particular, some technologies are “inherently political”. Inherently political technologies are “by their very nature political in a specific way” (673, emphasis mine), meaning that their adoption “unavoidably brings with it conditions for human relationships that have a distinctive political cast” (673). I will summarize this claim in the following way:
W2. Technologies are, in at least some cases, inherently political, meaning that their adoption necessarily enforces (or is strongly compatible with) a specific political ordering of the world.
Importantly, in the case of inherently political technologies, social forces influence technological progression only at the point of deciding whether to adopt the technology. There is no flexibility in the technology’s design that might allow alternative political implications, and there is no social mediation of the political consequences once the artifact is adopted. To create and adopt the technology is to “choose unalterably a particular form of political life” (673).
Winner offers two arguments in defense of W2. The first argument is by example. Winner argues that the atomic bomb is an inherently political technology in that its devastating lethal properties “demand that it be controlled by a centralized, rigidly hierarchical chain of command” (675). He likewise proposes (citing Alfred Chandler) that the railroad was inherently political, since its complex mutually-interdependent aspects (tracks, locomotives, stations etc.) required the creation of a hierarchical administrative system to reliably manage and maintain.
Winner’s second argument in defense of W2 is rooted in the concept of “practical necessity”. Practical necessity is a type of normative, moral claim about how the world ought to be politically organized in view of some technological system. The idea is that, even if other modes of managing the railroad are logically possible (e.g. allowing all railroad workers to vote on each decision), they are unrealistic or infeasible as a practical matter. While it might be more just or democratic to run a railroad through voting, this would be simply “no way to run a railroad”, as it would be too slow or inefficient. The practical necessity of having the railroad run smoothly eclipses any competing moral/political claims to govern the system in another way; thus, the railroad’s adoption compels political arrangement of a particular form (i.e. it is “inherently political”).
The Politics of Blockchain
How does this all connect to how we can think about the politics of blockchain?
Recently, commentators have expressed diverging opinions on the political commitments of blockchain. For example, in The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism, David Golumbia argues that blockchain technologies instantiate and perpetuate right-wing libertarian political ideologies. Likewise, in a widely-viewed statement on Twitter, prominent cryptocurrency developer Jackson Palmer explained his departure from the space by noting starkly that “cryptocurrency is an inherently right-wing, hyper-capitalistic technology built primarily to amplify the wealth of its proponents through a combination of tax avoidance, diminished regulatory oversight and artificially enforced scarcity”.
At the same time, some blockchain proponents have argued that these technologies can be developed in a way that supports progressive, left-wing political arrangements. For example, so-called “distributed autonomous organizations” (DAOs) have been hailed as an opportunity to instantiate worker-owned and -governed cooperative models that might replace hierarchical platforms and firms (see e.g. Jin et al. 2021 or Davila 2021).
While no one in these debates seems to deny that blockchain is a politically relevant technology or even that it has its genealogical roots in cyberlibertarian ideologies, a key point of disagreement is the extent to which blockchain is inherently political. In other words, is blockchain necessarily tethered to the political consequences imagined by its cyberlibertarian creators? Or is there space for this technology to be developed and organized around in a way that aligns with other political visions?
The answers to these questions are significant for political action in the present. If blockchain is an inherently political technology that embeds far-right cyberlibertarian values, then the present political choice is only whether to support or oppose its adoption on this basis. However, if blockchain is not inherently political, then the ultimate cast of its political consequences are still to be determined. In this case, its development is a worthy site of political engagement for technologists, researchers, and publics concerned with shaping its ultimate impact on the social and political world.
Davila, J., 2021. “Decentralisation at Work: Cooperatives on the Blockchain”. dGen. https://www.dgen.org/blog/decentralisation-at-work-cooperatives-on-blockchain
Golumbia, D., 2016. The politics of Bitcoin: software as right-wing extremism. U of Minnesota Press.
Jin, L., Kominers, S.D., & Shroff, L., 2021. “A Labor Movement for the Platform Economy”. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/09/a-labor-movement-for-the-platform-economy
Winner, L., 1980. Do artifacts have politics?. Daedalus, pp.121-136.