Block Chain and Black Mirror: Crypto's Sinister Potential
Elizabeth I refused to patent a knitting machine invented by William Lee, saying "Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring them to ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars." source
Refugees and Crypto
This video details the conditions of refugee camp that runs on blockchain tech. The video doesn't state where the camp is, whether the people there are Syrians or Yemenis (both countries currently experiencing a civil war). What's interesting is that the camp uses blockchain to link a refugee's identity to their World Food Program account. Through an iris scanner, the account is accessed and cryptocurrency is transferred, allowing the person to receive their food.
This video shows Syrian refugees utilizing the same tech.
It's disturbing on a number of different levels. There's the tragedy of refugees of war relying on crypto and government aid for food. There's the use of iris scanners for identification, which is fitting for dystopian sci-fi. That technology of refugee camps can easily be exported to other systems of containment and social control.
More than anything, it asks the question of technology. Is it neutral? Or is technology’s application always predetermined by its design? Does the form determine the function? What of blockchain?
Marx and Technology
A consequence of technological improvement has always been unemployment. In our age of coming automation, there's been constant concern about this, but really technological unemployment is no new phenomenon. Karl Marx describes it in great detail in his work Das Kapital (which if you haven’t read, you’ll be a serious disadvantage when it comes to grasping the current world situation). The rise of the industrial revolution displaced vast numbers of workers. In the competition to produce more and more commodities, factory owners sought out the most efficient machines available at the time, often employing men of science to create machines specifically for their factories.
In a basic sense, technology enables a worker to produce more commodities within a given amount of time. With the proper machine, a human can produce in one hour the labor of four others without the machine. The trouble for the capitalist is that a machine cannot imbue a commodity with value. Moreover, the displacement of workers by the machine creates a political problem of instability. Hence, the example quote of Queen Elizabeth at the start of this article.
In Marxist Economics, value is created from human labor, specifically, human labor power. It’s the human hand that gives anything value, whether that is a use-value or an exchange value. The amount of value imbued in a commodity is determined by the labor time necessary to produce the commodity. In a natural way, these labor times take the form of socially average labor.
In a world dominated by automation, the problem of value still presents itself. Should the ruling class maintain a desire for capitalism, while simultaneously wishing to replace labor with machines, there will still be a need for human labor of some kind to continue producing value. It’s arguable that this is exactly where we are heading now. The vast majority of jobs could be automated, but the consequence on the world political order would be tremendous. The system cannot survive with such high rates of unemployment. It’s estimated that 46% of US jobs are at risk of automation. .
Given that the product of society’s labor is still privatized, as we live under the tyranny of capitalism, those unemployed would be free to starve to death. As such, instead of given the produce of the global labor force to every human, instead there will be a conservative reaction against automation. Or, there will be the growth of redundant jobs. In this sense, work is not mandatory for the economy, but entirely political. Yes, your job is bullshit and useless. .
Refugees of the Unemployed
Let’s return to the refugee camp with a hyperbolic example, but one that details the horrific character of blockchain tech. Imagine the ease of possibility of a world where labor is automated, and we no longer exist in the neoliberal capitalist era of today. Instead, the ruling classes, in the form of corporate entities (who already run the economies of the world) exist in entirely different spheres of life. Like Roman emperors, they benefit from the technology available. Their homes, existing in enclaves of the decadent, are nurtured by automation and perhaps even guarded by the robotic entities or mercenaries. The dirty masses, unable to work, are enclosed in refugee camps.
Blockchain technology would be a means of ‘charging’ us for the food we eat to survive. In open air prisons of the redundant, our identities are stored on blockchain through scanning our irises. Perhaps the food is sent to the camps in an automated drone-delivery service, again run on blockchain and smart contracts. People are free to leave, sure, but they’d be left to the wilds and savagery of collapsed society.
Less hyperbolic, imagine if Amazon owned every single grocery store in the United States, and it only accepted AMZ tokens. What if each and every service, product and skill required its own blockchain token? Neoliberal capitalism, in it’s strategy of privatization and fragmentation, could spawn a nightmare army of fragmented tokens and businesses, all requiring their own redundant identity and token. National fiat might be rendered useless, and a cryptocurrency could take the mantle of “universal exchange”.
Instead of these Black Mirror scenarios, a far more simpler and more humane possibility is there for the taking. All it requires is that the produce of labor goes to each and every human on the planet. Instead of the surplus of value going towards the creation of bombs and weapons or imbuing golden trinkets on the necks of the rich, instead of enriching the pockets of the 1%, imagine if instead it was used to ensure every human had access to medical care and an education.
Call the 'communist' token LBR, for Labor. All work and employment exists on a smart contract. say four hours a day. The moment you finished, the contract would as well and you’d get your pay. No more biweekly paychecks. Using the immutable ledger, all work would be public. Fix the allocation to the same rate, with an agreed deduction for public works (schools, hospitals, light speed railways). Ensuring that everything goes to everyone eliminates the need for crime and savagery. Blockchain, being immutable, ensures that corruption is quickly discovered and quelled. No more need for war eliminates the wasteful swamp of the military industrial complex, which in 2009 accounted for $1.531 trillion US Dollars. .
Technology is never a neutral entity. Even the gun, a machine designed for the sole purpose of death, can be an instrument of liberation. Blockchain will be the same way. Neither liberatory or sadistic, it’s value lies entirely up to us. I don’t know about you, but I prefer Star Trek to Mad Max or Elysium.
What do you think? Will blockchain be just another instrument of domination? How will automation and blockchain work together? How can block chain be used to improve our species?