Code as Absolute Law (notes)

last year

Code is law, so a popular meme goes. Law here means something above human interference: the ultimate authority,  Yet laws, such as the tax legislation of Isle of Man, are not immutable facts. Laws are made, interpreted and changed by people. Likewise, the code, that is supposed to be law, is embedded within a social context that has the power to rewrite it. On the other hand, we do have laws that fulfill the ideal of immutability: laws of nature. The laws of thermodynamics are unbreakable. These laws are facts of our existence.

To some people, the universe appears to be a computing machine. From this Pancomputationalists point of view, the laws of thermodynamics are code: a consensus protocol governing the exchange of energy – a mesh-net of nano-payments of sorts. Let's imagine another layer of this stack, one level up from the bare-metal. Scenario: A future generation constructs a virtual machine running directly on top of the base matter. Trillions of nano-nodes exchanging value. Computation so deeply embedded it is indistinguishable from fundamental reality. Networking with such fine-grained resolution that units of matter far below the human threshold of perception can be addressed. Interfaces so fluid that the very fact that they interact with computing machines is invisible. This world would be indistinguishable from a natural environment. 

In this scenario the Code that governs these transfers, let's say distributed ledger much like the one at the core of Bitcoin or Ethereum, will be Absolute Law. The abstraction will be absolutely reified. An individual existing in such a world would just as little have the idea to reverse the outcome of the Code as we have the idea of reversing time or un-burning a piece of wood. Already today, the movement of energy in the form of capital seems like a force of nature randomly striking human beings. The positive promise of blockchain technology depends on maintaining human authority over the code: the intent of the law, not the letter. Distributed consensus machines offer a tool for faithfully translating social consensus into automatically executable rules, but the code, just like laws, should be rewritten if unjust. It should not be seen as an absolute truth outside of human control. If we consider Code as Absolute Law we risk creating an inhospitable wilderness for ourselves – only fit for fanatically worshipping an inhumane and unhuman abstraction.

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