Meaning the Software: A Review of David Golumbia’s The Politics of Bitcoin

Stripping politics from academic discourse, something David Horowitz and his right-wing fellow travelers long ago cowed us faculty into doing, creates manifold dangers. We’re seeing them in the Trump candidacy, something even academics are to blame for. We’ve divided societal implications and questions of accepted truth from our narrowed topics, ushering our students into a fact-free Mar-a-Lago ballroom. Stepping down from our own positions of authority, we have allowed others, their positions based neither on tradition nor proven efficacy, to take our places on the dais. We have allowed a neoliberal mindset to gel within American leadership and a Calvinist-style surety to harden within a large swathe of the population. Our relativism and sense of the limits of individual knowledge, stemming from Enlightenment thinking, has been used to turn us into cowards while charlatans seize the opportunity to enrich and empower themselves.

If it’s any solace, we aren’t the only ones lacking the strength of our convictions. Journalists lack it, too. The concept of “objectivity” (a shield against personal responsibility) that grew up among American journalists after the Second World War, migrated into the academy where it has flourished as “impartiality.” In both cases, we have found something to hide behind, something we can use for avoiding difficult choices.

No one is truly impartial any more than they are objective; worse, adherence to the myth of either opens the believer to manipulation by the unscrupulous—as Trump has demonstrated so graphically to journalists this year, much to their embarrassment. They should have known better. James Fallows, Jay Rosen, Jon Stewart and many more (including me) have been pointing out the dangers of journalism’s current model for years—to no effect.

College professors should know better, too. Our own self-satisfaction and inaction is also starting to crumble as the result of outside events—witness the attempt (though failed) by Long Island University to lock its faculty out of its Brooklyn campus this fall. Yet, like journalists, we continue to cling to half-understood principles of intellectual activity that do little more than cloak us from the realities our activities are actually part of. I’m not talking about shared governance or academic freedom but about the idea that we academics operate at a remove, unaffected by the realities of quotidian activity. Politicians (and administrators) come and go, we have long imagined, but our work is eternal.

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It’s true, we all sleep sometime. Somnolent of human necessity, we all miss aspects of what is going on around us and let their implications pass us by. Though I’ve been screaming about journalism for over a decade (since first writing The Rise of the Blogosphere and Blogging America: The New Public Sphere), I have missed important aspects of online communities and activities that should have been coloring all that I was writing. Specifically, I assumed a certain “neutrality” of the structures underlying digital media, seeing the threat to them (if any) as coming from commercial entities controlling them as merchandise and acting through them for sales—and from governments wanting to both control them and act through them for reasons of “security.” I saw the early (now pretty well discarded) distinctions of brick-and-mortar space and cyberspace as romantic gobbledygook of no sustainability, so ignored them—a mistake. Also, though I knew that the internet was a child of what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex,” I never followed through on the implications of that, either. Even the fact that email, when I first encountered it, was limited to universities and the government did not set off the alarm bells that should have rung.

Like so many others, I acted upon a mistaken assumption of ‘the digital’ as value neutral and, as a result, let my inquiries be directed.

For it is not neutral—no more than journalism can be objective or scholarship impartial. No one dealing with the internet and digital possibilities should be able to argue, not with a straight face, that they are acting within a realm of neutrality or even with a sense of neutrality. That’s just as impossible as being objective is for a journalist or being impartial is, if one is a scientist. The very concept of ‘net neutrality’ is absurd, and not simply in its common usage relating to carriers.

Why? Because the net, in its creation, its promotion and its growth, has never been neutral and has never had that as a goal.

Those of us who operate within it and assume it surrounds us without purpose are sadly mistaken.

Via Walter Rodney and his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, I long ago learned that the politics of infrastructure, though often well-hidden, can be pernicious. African railways were built for European military and commercial interests, little or no consideration given to the needs of Africans. Those purposes changed the continent through the routes decided upon for meeting them. As I should have known, there is an ideological component to most any project as well as the practical, as there most certainly has been with the internet—from its very conception to the present day.

I did know this—but I never saw it willingly and never acted as if I did know it. Like the journalists who have long known that their objectivity is bankrupt as effective journalism and the scholars who refused to let the realities of the world impinge on their self-proclaimed and self-promoted impartiality, I did not let this knowledge affect how I viewed and wrote about new media and the digital world, admitting it would have deeply complicated my work, exposing me to question that I wasn’t ready to answer, quite frankly, in my own quest for advancement.

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“The greatest empiricists among us are only empiricist on reflection: when left to their instincts, they dogmatize like infallible popes.” –William James, “The Will to Believe”

“Objectivity,” “impartiality,” “neutrality”: These are Humpty-Dumpty words. “’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’” Most words, to steal from B. F. Skinner, have a demand (“mand”) function or a tactile (“tact”) relationship. If one uses them, one assumes a response within a particular range. These other words move beyond, affecting other expressions and not simply sparking specific actions or recognition of certain objects—relating to what Skinner calls “autoclitics” or perhaps becoming examples of self-strengthening. Like other amorphous words such as “liberty,” “freedom,” and even “currency,” they lend themselves to personal manipulation for the bolstering our own beliefs, both in ourselves and our arguments with others, without forcing us to face the contradictions that almost always exist in their range of meanings or the evolution of their usage. Lack of specific functionality, if we let it (and we do), allows such words to be used vaguely and in varied manners without raising questions of definition or even applicability.

Of course, such words can also be used for obfuscation. Listeners, with their own conceptions of the words, can easily mistake what the user is saying, something taken advantage of by ideologues and totalitarian regimes—as George Orwell makes so clear in 1984. In addition, as William James declares, “one’s conviction that the evidence one goes by is of the real objective brand, is only one more subjective opinion added to the lot.” We ring the coin of our own beliefs, satisfied that it rings true whether it clunks counterfeit or not. If someone points it out, well, that’s not what we meant, anyway.

Basic stuff? Old hat? Yes. Remember, while information has grown, humans have not. They have the same foibles and inclinations today that they had during Orwell’s time, or James’s. Or of Montaigne’s, for that matter, who wrote that a “rhetorician of times past said, that to make little things appear great was his profession.” There’s a corollary: Many of us today strive to make great things appear little. “It’s been done.” “It’s been said.” These are no more than examples of that.

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The little can have big impact; the little is not necessarily small. David Golumbia’s new book, The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism, consists of some 76 small pages of text—yet it wields quite a punch, especially if you are not ready for it. Whether it will give my investigations a new direction or not remains to be seen, but it has awakened me from slumbers of my own. As a result of it, I am at least going to have to go back and re-examine the history of the digital age from the establishment of PARC and of ARPANET on. Golumbia’s focus is narrow—but the implications of his work are broad. They explode, for one thing, the very concept of “neutrality” in relation to the internet.

Not only are these implications broad, but they push aside unspoken assumptions long at the core of both my thinking and my utilization of the growing digital aspects of our human environment. Whether or not one gives a hoot about Bitcoin—or about extremist machinations—this book brings up points whose sharpness we all should feel. If, that is, we style ourselves as students of the digital—and especially if we feel we can approach it from a stance of neutrality. At the end of the book, Golumbia writes that “it is hard to see how this minority [of non-rightist members of the Bitcoin community] can resist the political values that are very literally coded into the software itself. Recent events have shown repeatedly that we discount the power of engineers and/or ideologues to realize their political vision through software design at our peril” (75-76). The jump between the narrow Bitcoin world and the larger one encompasses what I see as the main thrust of the book: What was once promoted (and even designed) as a digital world free from government oversight is no more than an attempt to re-order the world as a whole. None of us should be neutral about that.

Putting it that way makes it sound as though I (and Golumbia) have succumbed to conspiracy-theory fantasies. But it is not so simple as that. I see no cabal, no group of plotters trying to bring down my world. Simply ideologues who manipulate the glass through which we see the world, and who do it while we sleep. By showing the relationship between the developers and promoters of Bitcoin and visions of the roles of money (and currency) going back to John Birch Society founder Robert Welch (and before), Golumbia demonstrates how unwarranted assumptions, such as the idea that the Federal Reserve has the power to ‘print money’ or that inflation results from that, grow from ideological seeds.

Toward the start of the book, Golumbia touches on something that is, to me, much more interesting than the manipulation of perceptions of Bitcoin itself (though his description of that is certainly fascinating). He makes an important point about the attempt to divide the digital world from the experiential one, something I love in the fiction of William Gibson but that, as a practical matter, I have always brushed aside. Visions of a brave new freedom of the internet always seemed overblown to me, as did attempts to see the digital as a new land where only the users create the rules. Golumbia writes:

In practice, opposition to “government regulation of the internet” is best understood as a core (and important ways vague) tenet, around which circulate greater and greater claims for the “freedom” created by digital technology. At its most expansive, cyberlibertarianism can be thought of as something like a belief according to which freedom will emerge inherently from the increasing development of digital technology, and therefore entails that efforts to interfere with or regulate that development must be antithetical to freedom—although what “freedom” means in this context is much less clear than it may seem. (3-4)

Using Bitcoin as his example, Golumbia makes clear the chilling implications of this mindset. At another point, he argues that:

One of the sites of most significant overlap between Bitcoin discourse and far-right political extremism can be seen with particular clarity in the use of the right-wing keywords “tyranny” and “liberty.” The most florid claim of Bitcoin advocates is that Bitcoin poses “an existential threat to the nation-state,” because nation-states supposedly live in fear that their hold on monetary policy via central banks like the Federal Reserve is threated by the existence of alternatives to money. (44)

Bitcoin enthusiasts want it to be that way. Yet, though they posit a divided world of the digital and the physical and imagine the digital as their own unfettered playground, their ultimate goal is to disprove that distinction, bringing their own manipulations down into the physical. They decry government regulation but promote regulation through software coding, never admitting that the only difference is who is the master, not the particulars of the universe.

By ignoring the political implications of the expansion of the digital aspect of our world, we are allowing ideological enthusiasts—especially those on the libertarian right—to control the discussions and the metaphors and even the very worlds we use concerning our visions of our world as a whole. In our enthusiasm for the new and the newly possible, many of us, including me, have ignored the ways in which our own thinking and vocabulary concerning our expanding world have been manipulated. There is nothing neutral about the actions of ideologues—and nothing neutral about our subsequent reactions, even if we don’t recognize the impact of the ideology. To bring forward a concept from the sixties, by our inaction, we act.

Golumbia, in his small but important way, is helping wake us to the falsity of our perceived neutrality. Our impartiality. Our objectivity. I hope his work inspires more scholars than have done so to date to go back and examine with care the development of today’s underlying assumptions about the digital aspect of our world.

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