“Make Something People Want”: How Blockchain Has Become a Fetish

Desire for an entity that is believed to convey supernatural powers, eliciting a condition of intense excitement. We call this fetishism. An old idea is that our consumer society is afflicted by a fetish for commodities, coveting the trappings of a phantasmagoric existence. More recently the idea of “Blockchain” has emerged as an object of contemporary fetish. We’ve heard that it’s bigger than the Internet itself! It’s, almost, bigger than The Beatles! Given this state of affairs one might start to wonder - from whence did this adulation of Blockchain arise?

The situation is analogous to the great technological fetish concept of “artificial intelligence” and the never ending stream of dubious research and claims it provokes, in stark contrast to the more somber and practical field of machine learning, which is more firmly rooted in the realm of the empirically possible. As the idea of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies becomes more normalized, they cease to function as a tabula rasa upon which we can project our wildest fantasies and increasingly we turn to the idea of Blockchain to satisfy this need.

Blockchain vs. The Beatles

In order for a technology to catch hold of the collective unconscious (kollektives Unbewusstes) in the fantastic way that the first Bitcoin and now Blockchain seem to have done, it must satisfy three pre-conditions.

Poor Comprehension

It mustn't be well understood. Therefore the concept itself is ill defined. This is a fundamental quality, in the absence of which erroneous ideas could be easily pinned down and refuted. We can assume with a high probability that there are no more than 1,000 people in the world today who are very familiar with Bitcoin and its associated design principles and data structure. In fact the open source repository on GitHub lists slightly more than 400 contributors.

Contrast this with a field such as machine learning, it is much older and the basic principles upon which it rests are thoroughly comprehended by many persons. All self-respecting university computer science departments teach courses on machine learning, a search in the books subsection of Amazon yields 13,452 results for "machine learning", while there were 1,007 results for "Bitcoin" and a mere 181 results for "Blockchain". This demonstrates the lack of a serious mediating influence on the faucet of ideas generated about Blockchain. The resultant situation equates to a carte blanche for charlatans and snake oil salesmen to peddle their trade.

Broad Generalizability

It needs to touch the lives of many people. Large swaths of the population, including many people with no ability or motivation to understand the technical aspects of the ideas they are confronted with, must get excited about it. Should they begin to propagate the highly speculative concepts and notions they have happened upon in a virtuous circle of “hype”, we have the makings of a fetishism on our hands.

Consider again the original fetish technology- artificial intelligence- which has the potential to improve all aspects of society. By the same measure it has the potential to enslave the human race. Money is also a social technology with these characteristics. The fact that it could, and perhaps has already begun to, change the lives of everyone in society is an indispensable component of Blockchain’s fetish nature.

Tangible Benefits

Justin Bieber would not be as popular as he is if he were not a great performer. By the same measure, were a technology not to provide real advantages in actual fact no one would pay attention to it. Generally people are pretty intelligent and so any technology that has achieved the measure of mainstream recognition that Blockchain has must be possessed with tangible benefits.

Fundamental Value Proposition

Consider the essence of true wealth. Does this property emerge from the possession of a new smartphone? An attractive automobile? A penthouse flat? Or is it rather from the ability to command the social capital - relationships - that make it possible to manifest all these things in the first place? Commodity fetishism describes the phenomenon wherein people desire the accoutrements of wealth in the mistaken belief that these things are what confer power, as opposed to the other way around. Fetishism for a technology like Blockchain likewise inverts this cause and affects relationships and propagates the notion of Blockchain as panacea.

Traditionally there are two distinct types of value. The first, “value in use” is whether or not a thing is useful inherently in accomplishing a particular aim. In contrast “value in general” equates to the socially necessary labor time expended to create it. However, there is a third type of value. The value of a thing is inextricable from the social relationships in which it is enmeshed, inextricable from its context. This is its perceived value- its fetish value. The legendary investor behind Y Combinator and paragon of Silicon Valley culture Paul Graham, has coined the motto “make something people want.” In its role as a technological fetish object Blockchain is, at least for the moment, something that people want, that people desire.

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