The future of cryptocurrencies

Image: Rūdolfs Klintsons
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By GUILHERME PREGER*

The fate of cryptocurrencies lasts only as long as its game is played and as long as players “suspend” their disbelief to participate in its fiction.

As is well known, Walter Benjamin in his seminal essay The work of art at the time of its technical reproducibility (2012)[1] formulated the concept of aura as “A strange thin fabric of space and time: unique apparition from a distance, however close”. The aura is the “here and now” of a work in its authenticity and uniqueness. The paradox of a distance that appears in its physical proximity, however, is guaranteed, according to the German author, by the insertion of the work in the tradition through the cult, and this by the social practice of the ritual: “the unique value of the work of art' authentic´ is always based on ritual” (BENJAMIN, 2012, p.33). In fact, says Benjamin, every work of art is, in principle, reproducible, but the ritual guarantees the unique and irreducible appearance of the work.

On the other hand, the development of reproduction techniques, especially with photography and cinema, threatens to destroy the aura of works. As the philosopher says: “The technique of reproduction, as we can generally formulate it, detaches what is reproduced from the sphere of tradition. To the extent that it multiplies reproduction, it substitutes its mass occurrence for its single occurrence. And, to the extent that it allows reproduction to meet the person who receives it in their respective situation, it updates what is reproduced” (BENJAMIN, 2012, p. 23).

In place of the aura, the portability of the work and its exhibition value appear. That which had the value derived from being a unique fact, now finds value in meeting the receiver in its own context and hence is valued for the growing “exposure”. Benjamin suggests that this is a new value to be added to Marxist analysis, in addition to use value and exchange value, but which was already present from the beginning in merchandise, whose exposure in the famous gallery windows guaranteed its fetish, due to its inaccessibility. by the working classes.

Walter Benjamim sees in reproduction techniques a revolutionary potential. The “meaning for the equal of the world” is the ability of the proletarian masses to, in a way contrary to the aura, capture equality in what is different and what is unique. The proximity in which technical reproducibility puts the work within the reach of the worker makes it possible to remove it from the domain of tradition, guaranteed by the ritual, and place it in new situations of social interest. Benjamin's bet is that, in this case, the destruction of the aura makes art move from the domain of ritual to that of politics. Reproducibility also makes it possible to displace the dominating nature of the technique. The German author speaks of two types of technique. The first is that which serves the dominion of nature, including human nature. The second, which is of interest to the workers, is technique as a control of the relationship between humanity and nature. This control could be exercised, according to the German, by the category of the game.

However, Benjamin also pointed out the reactionary tendencies of fascism that seek a restoration of the aura. This restoration, contrary to the development of the productive forces, could only have a false, farcical character. The fascist spectacle and the cult of the “leader” are expressions of the “re-autarization” of the political image, that is, of a return of ritual within the political sphere. The famous final sentence of the essay: “This is the situation of the aestheticization of politics that fascism practices. Communism responded with the politicization of art” (BENJAMIN, 2012, p. 123), is the perception that the fascist policy centered on the ritualization of the spectacle serves the purpose of keeping the masses away from the domain of techniques. This deviation from the growing trends of technical reproduction will fatally make fascism a necropolitical movement, since it is oriented to “consume” the immense productivity gains of technical reproducibility in war and massacre.

The crux of Benjamin's analysis is that the aura is a social phenomenon that emerges precisely by maintaining a “distance, however close it may be”. Anyone who has been to the Louvre to observe the image of Gioconda has noticed that this image, one of the best known in the history of art, is exposed through an armored apparatus. Crowds gather to view the painting from a "safe" distance. Here, the museological apparatus guarantees the continuous “re-autarization” of Leonardo Da Vinci's work, infinitely reproduced in the most diverse articles. In the era of technical reproduction, that is, of the dominance of reproduction over production, the aura of images can only be maintained in an artificial or artificial way that simulates the lost distance.

It is at this point that Benjamin's reading converges with another famous one, that of Guy Debord, in The Society of the Spectacle (2002). For the Frenchman, the spectacle is a social form marked by the separation and distance of the images of their producers, the working class. It is the maintenance of distance that guarantees the validity of the spectacle and the impossibility of recognizing the worker in the image he himself produced (alienation).

In the end, this alienated image is its own image, that is, the image of the working mass that is unable to be recognized in the reproduction techniques and in the objects that it itself produced because there is a farcical social apparatus to guarantee distancing. In Benjamin's theses on the revolutionary nature of cinema, this analysis of the confrontation between the human face and the apparatus of the cinematographic machine is contemplated. Technical disalienation corresponds to the destruction of the aura by the worker's reunion with his own image captured by the device. This perspective opens up several theoretical ways to understand the function of the technical images of “Selfie” that abound on social networks, but our subject for the purpose of this article is the NFT – the “Tokens non-fungible”. What would Benjamin say about the NFT?

Os Tokens non-fungibles are technical elements obtained by technology blockchain. This technology, as is known, is the digital protocol that makes possible the existence of cryptocurrencies, or digital currencies, such as the bitcoin, and thousands of similar ones currently in existence. O blockchain is a protocol (or ) created by an anonymous author (Satoshi Nakamoto) who builds a “cash book” or “ledger book” (ledger) digital that records all transactions carried out by a cryptocurrency platform.

This ledger is shared by all platform participants through the P2P protocol (peer-to-peer, or peer-to-peer protocol). O blockchain ensures that all information in the ledger will be transparent to users and inviolable. The protocol's security is guaranteed by encryption and sharing of information that, distributed across thousands or millions of machines, are always being “checked” among themselves. So the blockchain It is also called “trust protocol”[2], as all information is reliable and, at the same time, auditable. Each platform transaction is simultaneously broadcast (or accessible) to all network participants. If a user's stock of coins increases or decreases, this is transparently and unequivocally known to all.[3]

But despite their immense success and enormous multiplication, there are serious doubts about the viability of cryptocurrencies in replacing national currencies.[4]. As noted by Edemilson Paraná (2020), cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin they are not really money; this is a social relationship, while digital currencies are technological artifacts. For Paraná, cryptocurrencies correspond to the neoliberal desire to escape State control, through technocratic neutrality, and above all to escape any attempt at social regulation. But, precisely for this reason, cryptocurrencies do not replace money which, as a representative of relationships, is subject to societal anchors.[5]

Furthermore, despite its propagated “immateriality”[6], the perception of the environmental impacts of cryptocurrencies is also growing, especially in terms of the increasing energy consumption they entail. In fact, all transactions carried out on the platform bitcoin they must be transmitted and updated in copies of the digital “cash book” distributed by thousands or millions of machines. The record matrix of all transactions grows exponentially and with it the number of successive updates. The informational variety of this process requires the use of increasingly sophisticated computing algorithms. This procedure, called “mining”, is so complex that few machines have the computational capacity to perform it.[7]. This entails not only an increasing energy consumption, but also consumes resources from communication channels with bandwidth occupation.[8]. To rise, therefore, the banner of immaterial money has to hide all its energy costs and ecological consequences.

The purpose of this article, however, is to look at the role of NFT in this digital economy. If cryptocurrencies are the fungible aspect of technology, NFT are the non-fungible elements, that is, non-interchangeable. Every cryptocurrency is the same as another cryptocurrency (from the same platform). Cryptocurrencies are used to acquire not only virtual goods (such as software), but also material goods. And they can be converted into fiduciary (national) currency. Cryptocurrencies are thus reproducible goods and, in principle, infinitely reproducible[9]. The NFTs are Tokens[10] unique, generated only once and permanently recorded in the digital book. O token in this sense, it is a registration marker that guarantees the uniqueness and authenticity of the NFT. Tokens can be associated with any digital record (a , an image), but also to physical goods, generating an encrypted identification code that is associated with the good.

An NFT is curiously similar to a hapax. The hapax is a single-occurring word in the language. Hápax are words in this sense “untranslatable” even in a source language, as they cannot be replaced by other terms. But just as no one would think to trade a hapax, the same does not happen with NFT. There is a growing and valuable trade associated with NFT generation. One has already been created token economy (tokeneconomics) that transacts NFT. There are companies that specialize in generating NFT.[11] And the art market is one of those where NFT as an investment is most promising. Recently, for example, the actress became famous who decided to sell her “farts” kept in glass, each one identified by a different NFT[12].

Thus, it is clear that it is not entirely correct to define these Tokens as non-fungible. They are indeed exchangeable for cash. The NFT cannot be reproduced, but it can change ownership, although the contractual mechanisms for this purchase and sale action are not fully established. Those who “invest” in NFT are in fact valuing the “authenticity” and “uniqueness” of their unique generation. There are in these Tokens unique, therefore, the appeal of Benjamin's aura. It is not surprising that it is precisely in the art market that there is a wave of investment. The valuation of the NFT goes in a completely opposite direction to the technical reproducibility of computational digital means. The association of a sign or a material object with an NFT proves that that good is unique.

But this association and its appreciation are obviously not new. Just remember, for example, the importance of copies of books signed by the author, which tend to increase in value over time. The author's signature is a kind of analog NFT. The paintings always had the author's signature, which proves the authenticity of the painting. But it is possible to look at more prosaic examples. For example, in albums of children's or youth stickers, there were always those that were rarer, becoming coveted among collectors. We can imagine in one of these albums, a sticker that has only a single print, so that only a collector will be able to finish the album. Just imagine how this unique figurine would eventually become valuable for its rarity. But obviously only for those who play the album game. And then there is a different perspective to think about cryptocurrencies from NFT.

The association between NFT and the game of cards shows that there is a relationship between these Tokens and the games (games)[13], whether analogue or digital. In fact, applications for games Fingerprints are another growing trend in NFT usage. But this relationship is also valid for all creation based on blockchain, including cryptocurrencies. It is not difficult to see the similarities. One token cryptocurrency like bitcoin could be compared to the “chips” of any game. Let's assume that a certain game has, like the bitcoins, a limited amount of chips. At the start of the game, players have an equal starting amount of chips and there is also a “pool” of unowned chips.

In the course of the game, some win and some lose. The cake shrinks. The sum of the chips always remains the same, but the distribution becomes more and more unequal. When the game ends there is a winner, who is the one with the most chips. At the end of the game, the chips have no more value, and they are redistributed to another round starting again from a zero situation. The description of this game is quite similar to what happens with the bitcoin, but there is no restart. While it lasts, the bitcoin it works like casino games, where players accumulate chips and then can exchange them at the “box office” for “real” money. But the important thing about this comparison is to note that the value of the chips only lasts during the game. If the game ends, the chips lose their value.

NFTs are clearly an extremely artful technique of creating a digital record's uniqueness through its scarcity. Digital records could be infinitely “copiable”, but the combination of the “cash book” record and the cryptographic code allows a specific NFT to be traced. They reveal that the “value” of cryptocurrencies comes from technologically induced scarcity. If Benjamin saw in the fascist ritual the tendency for the “re-auratization” of the aesthetic object by the spectacle, for technology blockchain the “re-auratization” of the digital sign arrives through the “gamification” of the market via digital technology. But the "game” is not synonymous with any game, but a game with defined and closed rules. Those who later enter this “game” no longer find the situation of equality and symmetry as when the game began, but a greatly modified and asymmetrical situation.

In “The science of concrete”, in the book the wild thought (1989), Lévi-Strauss distinguished between the game and the rite. The first evolves from a situation of symmetry to asymmetry; the second tends from asymmetry to symmetry. The French anthropologist says that the game is disjunctive and the rite is conjunctive. However, the rite, stems from an asymmetrical situation, defined by a previous game, and from this “privileged” situation engenders an organic relationship between two asymmetrically distributed groups. In other words, the function of the ritual is to “normalize” a privileged situation that was generated from “moves” performed immemorially by a game that started with the players in equal positions.

The game's ritual fictionally restores the aura of digital objects that, in principle, would be fully reproducible. In fact, all platforms promote artificial scarcity in this seemingly infinitely reproducible medium. The “aura” of the NFT, these pseudo-unique objects, is obtained by a technical protocol. The game movement, from symmetry to asymmetry, is clearly given in cryptocurrency technology as the bitcoin. If the bitcoin is a game platform, it is ritualized as a “game” in which participants normalize the rules and current configuration. The “credit” that in fiduciary currencies is a fundamental element of their value, in cryptocurrencies is replaced by credulity in the transparency and fairness of the game.

If digital technology allows for an advance in technical reproducibility, the blockchain and its derivatives, cryptocurrencies and Tokens, guarantee digital scarcity. In this sense, the fascination of the NFT comes from its irreproducibility, that is, from its bias against the “productive forces”. This is not the same as saying that it is useless or useless technology. As a registration and proof of authenticity technology, the blockchain it is a powerful tool. It makes various processes auditable and reliable. It can become a tool of law, changing contractual relationships (smart contracts, smart contracts). It can also be used to guarantee the reliability of votes and elections, currently contested by far-right movements. A voter, a vote can even be an insignia of a political application of the NFT.

The fate of cryptocurrencies lasts only as long as their game is played and as long as players “suspend” their disbelief (Suspension of Disbelief) to participate in his fiction.[14] When the game ends, however, disbelief returns and the chips are redistributed, and in the end, the winner equals the loser, as he will only have worthless chips left.

* William Preger He holds a PhD in Literature Theory from UERJ. He is author of Fables of Science: scientific discourse and speculative fables (Ed. Gramma).

 

References


BENJAMIN, Walter. The work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility. Trans. Francisco de Ambrosis Pinheiro Machado. Porto Alegre, ed. Zouk, 2012.

DEBORD, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 2002.

LÉVI-STRAUSS, Claude. The Wild Thought. São Paulo: Papirus, 1989.

PARANÁ, Edemilson. Bitcoin: the technocratic utopia of apolitical money. São Paulo: Literary Autonomy, 2020.

 

Notes


[1] I use here the second version of the essay, which is different from the better-known version translated by Sérgio Paulo Rouanet.

[2] Ironically, bitcoin is subject to a series of “financial scams” ​​and “pyramid” strategies whereby early investors profit from late investors. In fact, technology can guarantee the “cybersecurity” of information, but not its trust, which is a social determination.

[3] It is not the intention of this article to provide a detailed explanation of the blockchain. For the purposes of the topic, it is sufficient to consult the corresponding entry in the wikipedia, or access https://tecnoblog.net/responde/como-funciona-blockchain-bitcoin/.

[4] In fact, one country, El Salvador, became, in September/2021, the bitcoin currency valid throughout the national territory and plans the total monetary replacement by electronic money. Check https://www.tecmundo.com.br/mercado/226637-veja-el-salvador-mes-adotar-bitcoin-moeda.htm. But even the IMF considered such a move extremely risky: https://economia.ig.com.br/2022-02-02/bitcoin-el-salvador-fmi.html.

[5] Check PARANÁ, 2020 and https://www.ihu.unisinos.br/159-noticias/entrevistas/601812-o-fortalecimento-do-bitcoin-significa-a-transferencia-de-riqueza-e-poder-a-correntes-politicas-aliadas-ao-capital-entrevista-especial-com-edemilson-parana.

[6] Its supposed immateriality is also contradictory, because while analog money is a social variable of mediation that transcends the material form of currency or paper, cryptocurrency is a digital “token”, that is, the registration sign that must be kept in the memory of thousands of machines. Observe the issue of energy consumption in transactions commented on later.

[7] This computational operation is even remunerated and there are bitcoin platform participants who accumulate coins just by performing this task.

[8] This energy consumption consumes more energy than many countries, such as Argentina.  https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/feb/27/bitcoin-mining-electricity-use-environmental-impact.

[9] However, the bitcoin is limited by the algorithm to a certain number (something around 21 million). Limiting the amount of cryptocurrencies is an essential feature of its architecture: the bitcoin it is thought of as deflationary money, which cannot grow infinitely. In this respect, it is not really fiat money, as it cannot be used in the credit function. Therefore, in principle, there are no “debts” in bitcoin. Either you have or you don't have cryptocurrency. This has decisive consequences for the use of the platform as a monetary medium.

[10] Unfortunately there is no good translation for token. A more faithful translation would be bookmark (like a bookmark) or “card”. About this last option, later.

[11] Confer https://www.nft-commerce.eu/.

[12] Confer https://www.insider.com/reality-star-made-200k-fart-jars-selling-them-as-nfts-2022-1.

[13] In Portuguese we do not have a good translation to distinguish between game e play. The first term refers to a game as a closed whole, including its rules. Play refers to a “move” (move) of that game. A game without closed rules, however, is not a game but a "joke". These distinctions should be fundamental in game theory.

[14] Confer https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspension_of_disbelief#:~:text=Suspension%20of%20disbelief%2C%20sometimes%20called,for%20the%20sake%20of%20enjoyment.

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