The Blockchain as a Philosophical Object
The most remarkable thing about the blockchain/crypto space isn’t the blockchain. Nor is it necessarily the profundity of its innumerable applications. Nor even how it may, in the most utopian case, fundamentally reorganise the very structure of the world. As interesting as all that is, how seriously fun it is to ponder, the most remarkable thing about the space, in the end, is its capacity to induce reflection upon the most foundational of human concepts. Such things as value, such things as meaning, such things as what are we all really doing here? The most remarkable thing about the blockchain, in other words, is not the fundamental social and technological innovations it represents, but instead its potency as a “philosophical object”.
Not everyone who comes into contact with “crypto” comes into contact with the full force of the ideas it embodies. Indeed most of the engagement with the space, at this point, is highly superficial; driven not so much by a passion for ideas or civilisational improvement as much as a desire to make an easy dollar. But for those who do come into contact with the ideas, those who are fortunate enough, the experience is akin to taking the red pill. That is, once you swallow it, there is no going back. Reality becomes something else, something entirely and irrevocably Other.
Take the notion of coordination, for instance. Irrespective of the blockchain’s eventual impact on the world, it would suffice as a commendable contribution to humanity if all it did was bring our attention to the notion of human cooperation. Which of course it already has. Almost certainly there has never been more attention devoted to the question of coordination as there is now, right this very moment. Now if one takes the “coordination problem” seriously, this can only be a good thing. That is, that we are thinking about things. That we are finally reckoning, at a relevant scale, with how we might all actually get along here.
Now consider the idea of value. What crypto has done, arguably above all, is call our minds to the phenomenon of value. Specifically, economic value. As in, what is it? How does it come about? How does it accrue? Etc. Bitcoin, as the most popular cryptocurrency, has bended our intuitions and forced us to examine what makes a thing worth anything at all. Instinctively, upon learning of the “digital gold”, people are inclined to dismiss it as, if not outright absurd, somewhat silly. But then, should one happen to pay it any additional mind, one almost invariably comes to realise that the distance between Bitcoin, as a string of 1s and 0s stored in cyberspace, and fiat dollars, as 1s and 0s stored, again, mostly in cyberspace, is hardly far at all. It’s all a wild abstraction. And yet it works (more or less).
Core to the mechanics of modernity as economic value is, and as inequitable as our current distribution of it is, an examination of the thing itself, and all its surrounding abstraction, should strike one as among the most important reflections we could possibly engage in. For if it’s a radically better world we desire, it would seem to make sense that we radically examine the core assumptions at our foundations, all this implicit conceptual infrastructure. And, of course, that’s precisely what crypto has done — it has awoken us from our dogmatic slumbers. By calling our minds to the various myths we live by — the stories that define the games we play — the blockchain, and all that it’s come to represent, has reminded us of the fact that none of this is to be taken for granted. The world, as we experience it, is a perpetual work in progress. The product of people no smarter than you and I. And while we’re always doing our best, we can always do better.