[NetBehaviour] Work in Progress: Blockchain Temporalities

Eryk Salvaggio eryk.salvaggio at gmail.com
Wed Jun 9 07:10:27 CEST 2021

Great work. Struck by the absence of “blockchain” from the original white paper and the wide possibility of reimagining the “timestamp server.” The blockchain has always had a gears-in-clocks aspect of it for me. I explained it to some Swiss folks this way once. In San Francisco I explained that the blockchain are the panels in an infinitely written comic strip: “this happened, then this happened, then this happened.” 

But now I have a question: I’d always assumed block time was also being pushed forward by demand, by transactions. No transactions, no new blocks, no puzzles. With Bitcoin the story in my head is a clock ticking at the speed of commerce. In the same way that if we all stood still maybe the clocks would too. (With Ethereum the story gets more complicated). 

Now I’ll think about the sky’s potential as a timestamp server: a mechanic sundial designed to spin a small shadow-casting shape in time with the system, the sun writing new blocks into a photogram cyanotype until it’s fixed by rain. 

Thanks for this!


> On 8 Jun 2021, at 8:42 pm, Paul Hertz via NetBehaviour <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org> wrote:
> Yes, thanks. Lot to mull over. 
> -- Paul
>> On Tue, Jun 8, 2021 at 9:56 PM Alan Sondheim <sondheim at panix.com> wrote:
>> Find the reference to qm somewhat problematic but this is an absolutely 
>> stunning account - at least for me - I've learned a lot from it. Thank 
>> you!
>> Wow! - Alan - hope there's a full essay/book emerging -
>> On Tue, 8 Jun 2021, rhea via NetBehaviour wrote:
>> > Date: Tue, 08 Jun 2021 18:31:08 -0700
>> > From: rhea via NetBehaviour <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
>> > To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity
>> >     <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
>> > Cc: rhea <rhea at hey.com>
>> > Subject: [NetBehaviour] Work in Progress: Blockchain Temporalities
>> > 
>> > 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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