[NetBehaviour] Work in Progress: Blockchain Temporalities

rhea rhea at hey.com
Wed Jun 9 03:31:08 CEST 2021


Bitcoin secures itself by rewarding the people who run it with payments
in Bitcoin. To get the rewards for publishing new blocks of transactions
to the Internet every ten minutes (on average), Bitcoin miners compete
to solve simple but time-consuming cryptographic puzzles. When Bitcoin
launched, miners could use desktop computers. But as Bitcoin became more
valuable it became worthwhile to use more and more powerful hardware in
larger and larger amounts to continue competing for the block rewards.
Bitcoin was written to handle this. Its difficulty algorithm creates a
new target schema for the block reward puzzles This algorithm targets
ten minute block times, and it will make the block puzzles as easy or as
difficult as is required to do this.

That singular objective, pursued without concern for externalities,
means that Bitcoin's difficulty algorithm is a paperclipper. Its ever-
increasing energy usage, which has caused such moral panic, would boil
the oceans if it thought that the difficulty had to go that high - but
then what wouldn't? This is the purpose that it embodies in unbounded
cryptoeconomic incentives. For Bitcoin, securing the metronomic
heartbeat/pulse/breath/throb of ten minute blocks of transactions is all
that matters. Bitcoin exists to secure the value of those transactions
over time. To nestle in that temporality is to subject oneself to
blockchain temporality as surely as Stelarc's "Ping Body" was subjected
to internet geometry.

Block height is a clock. I've met people who have timed meatspace events
to it. Block height has a calendar of "halvenings", block reward
changes, that are treated as festivals, along with scheduled protocol
forks and activations. It's more complex than that, though. Cyclical and
linear time interplay in the blockchain as they do in capitalism, which
is hardly surprising given Bitcoin's anarcho-capitalist roots. The
different temporal scales and intensities folded into the blockchain in
order to produce it make it a Deleuzean egg. Which, through a deliberate
misreading, makes it a world. We can call it a welt if it helps, which
it doesn't.

The word "blockchain" does not appear in Satoshi Nakamoto's 2009 Bitcoin
Whitepaper. Instead the pseudonymous creator (or creators) of Bitcoin
talk about the creation of a timestamp server to ensure the succession
of events (transactions) within a system. Time, for Bitcoin, is pure
succession just as number is pure succession for XXXXXXXXX. It is in
this sense that time on the blockchain is non-relativistic (as per Nick
Land). Worse, that time occurs *in* time, breaking XXXXXX's argument
that it cannot. We can recover from this a little by pointing out that
it does not occur within itself, but in an outside temporality, and a
reassuringly relativistic one. Still, it occurs in time, and produces a
time of pure succession.

Bitcoin is the technonomic instantiation of Deleueze’s fourth synthesis
of time. It is an empty repetition determined by the future. For Bitcoin
that future is the block height (not the date or the Unix timestamp)
when all 21 million Bitcoin will have been minted, and the reality of
that future determines its present - a hyperstition secured with an
increasing fraction of the Earth's computing resources  by the block
difficulty targeting algorithm.

This is a purely intensive world, an undialectical history within
itself. Step back and the onchain world and its history are shown to be
incomplete - the private keys that create its transactions are not part
of that world. This veil of ignorance, similar to the sub-quantum
realm's role in contemporary physics, also applies to on-chain time. The
Unix timestamps placed in each Bitcoin block leak the offchain time that
each block occur at, but they could be a lie. They must increase over
time, but compared to the block height (the block number), they do so in
irregular leaps. Block heights are certain, timestamps less so.

Like cybernetics, block formation is probabilistic, converging on
certainty over time as more and more blocks build on top of the chain.
This process is irreversible, not just due to probability but to the
trapdoor function-based proof-of-work system that secures the Bitcoin
blockchain. Although it can be walked via the chain of hash values
between blocks.

Blockchain temporality comes into being with the blockchain, and vice
versa, at the same moment. This is similar to the reciprocal emergence
of capitalism with capitalist time as described by Anna Greenspan in
"Capitalism's Transcendent Time Machine". This is important because
different temporal orders afford different social orders. We can notice
this, or we can continue to stan or sulk at atomic clocks.
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