Open Secrets, Meaningful Entropy, Original Copies, and Other Puzzles from the History of Cryptocurrency
Bitcoin may seem to have suddenly appeared out of nowhere in 2009. In fact, it is only the best-known recent experiment in a long line of similar efforts going back to the 1970s, as technological utopians and political radicals tried to create new currencies to bring about their visions of the future, whether saving privacy, destroying governments, preparing for apocalypse, or attaining immortality. The particular challenge of minting, issuing, and redeeming "digital coins" -- of knowing monetary objects -- was met by creating epistemological hybrids that combined archival practices, accounting, shared consensus protocols and queuing problems, cryptographic signatures, and ways of measuring computational effort adopted from anti-spam research. The curious and often paradoxical objects resulting from this include a property title registry for virtual gold, riddles whose correct answers are entirely unknown but easily verified, a public randomness beacon that proves itself through its own history, trust generated by heat, and ownable things whose existence is constituted solely by their archival records of themselves and their ownership. This talk will explore questions and challenges like: What makes digital objects valuable? What would it take to make a digital equivalent to cash, something that could be exchanged but not copied, created but not forged, which reveals nothing about its users? What can these technologies and practices tell us about the materials and metaphors of proof, objectivity, and authoritative knowledge?