Blockchain Technology: an emergent, political infrastructure

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Figure 1: artistic imagining of the blockchain network.

‘Blockchain’ is a digital, social and material network which is supposedly set to democratically restructure the movement and flow – but also the control and management – of data. It comes with associated infrastructural, global-reaching, future-oriented imaginaries (see Fig. 2). Indeed, it is by examining blockchain through an infrastructural lens that we can trace this control-empowerment dynamic, and attend to the ways in which its applications are – or will be – inextricably bound with politics.

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Fig. 2

The ideals and logics underpinning blockchain are necessarily political because they are about the (re)distribution of information and thus also power, as in Foucault’s inextricable knowledge-power nexus. The democratic, revolutionary potential of blockchain has generated much hype (as exemplified in this short video, which also offers an explanation of what blockchain is and does).

This emergent digital infrastructure has the disruptive potential to subvert power hierarchies via its distributed peer-to-peer structures (see Fig. 3) through which data records are made on immutable, unhackable ledgers, without the need for powerful intermediaries. The ‘open source’ nature of blockchain databasing, it is said, affords transparency and accountability, and blockchain records are secure and real-time efficient.

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Fig. 3

Blockchain is a ‘distributed ledger technology’ (DLT), best known for the decentralised virtual currency, Bitcoin. But blockchain is now being adopted experimentally in ever more contexts. Emergent projects seek the benefits of transparency, efficiency and freedom from centralised power in transforming infrastructures of food supply, intellectual property rights, or medical record systems. State and intergovernmental interests (for example, the UK Government and DFID, the ‘Digital Government’ of Estonia) have begun to explore blockchain’s possibilities for streamlining their own processes and practices of governance in the domains of regulation, financing and cybersecurity. The United Nations project ID2020 proposes to assign a ‘self-sovereign’ biometric digital identity to every human child by 2030, using allegedly ‘rights-sensitive’ blockchain to control the data. Infrastructure projects such as this are bound up with strategies of economic ‘development’ and ideals of ‘progress’ or ‘civilization’ – in this case, ‘identity’ as an aspirational human right (Campbell & Hetherington 2014:192). Here anticipation mixes with both futurist hope and dread: biometric identification systems collect data for population planning and management, and force individuals to embody governmental control practices: this is Foucauldian ‘biopolitics’ in action. As Larkin puts it, ‘the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are built on structures of control mediated through the computer” (2013: 339).

If ID2020 happens, blockchain as a population/migration management infrastructure might end up being the kind of development project Ferguson calls an ‘anti-politics machine’: social or political ‘problems’ are turned into purely technical ones. Critical social science has a vital role to play in unearthing the power relations and ideological assumptions surrounding blockchain as it unfolds, anticipating its value for marginalized groups, and its uses as a weapon of surveillance and control against the powerless in the name of transparency and big data. Blockchain projects lend themselves to Actor Network Theory style analysis: ANT gives primacy to the task of following – as in Latour’s ‘chain’ model (‘circulating reference’).

By Margie Cheesman, 19th January 2017

Bibliography

Campbell, J. M. and K. Hetherington (2014) Nature, infrastructure, and the state: Rethinking development in Latin America. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 19 (2), 191-194.

Ferguson, James (1990) The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Larkin, Brian (2013) “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure”. Annual Review of Anthropology 42: 327-343.

Latour, B. (1999) Ch 2: Circulating Reference. Pandora’s Hope. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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