Wassim Alsindi is a veteran of the blockchain space, currently working on conceptual design and philosophy of cryptoeconomic systems. Prior to his work at MIT Media Lab's interdisciplinary Cryptoeconomic Systems (CES) journal, he was a technology researcher and led a creative engineering laboratory.
Wassim Alsindi is also the founder and the host of 0x Salon through which we had the chance to meet. “0x Salon is a non-profit experiment in collective knowledge sharing and cultural production. 0x Salon’s event program brings together artists, researchers, theorists and other knowledge workers who engage with the chosen discussion topic.” Recent outputs of 0x Salon offer the reader a critique of the thermodynamic price tag of cryptographic economies.
In an attempt to understand the myth and the prophecy around “speculative zero-sum games”, the multifaceted nature of the crypto markets and the underlying power structures that may be difficult to view from the outside, we had a conversation with Wassim.
“Cryptoeconomics describes an interdisciplinary, emergent and experimental field that draws on ideas and concepts from economics, game theory and related disciplines in the design of peer-to-peer cryptographic systems. Cryptoeconomic systems try to guarantee certain kinds of information security properties using incentives and/or penalties to regulate the distribution of efforts, goods and services in new digital economies. Cryptoeconomics is an embryonic field at present and can be taken to include several areas of focus: information security engineering, mechanism design, token engineering and market design. This portmanteau of cryptography and economics raises questions regarding the epistemic novelty of cryptoeconomics, as distinct from its constituent components.”(Brekke & Alsindi, 2021)
In the summer of 2013 while on tour with his music project The Centrifuge on the West Coast of the USA, he went out to meet a friend after a show in San Francisco, who opened his closet door and said, “Check this out, I am doing this thing called mining Bitcoin”.
“That was my first introduction to Bitcoin. My friend was quite annoyed about the price of the power he was bringing to these machines and therefore his opinion of Bitcoin was pretty negative.” Leaving the flat and getting back on the road, traveling around the U.S. on Amtrak, “the idea of a natively digital commodity that was somehow hardened against seizure, coercion and corruption wouldn’t leave my mind.”
The potentials of censorship, coercion, and corruption-resistant affordances of Bitcoin seemed especially promising to him given his family’s history of leaving Iraq under Saddam’s rule in the late ’70s and having to suddenly relocate to the U.K. following the economic and political problems they faced. “For those who were able to leave Saddam’s rule as some of my family did, one of the hardest things was to move money or value from one place to another. The idea of something that you can use to transfer value removes this asymmetry that the state has against individuals and that spoke to me immediately.”
As a technology researcher at the time, Bitcoin seemed interesting as a science project which he started to watch just around the time when the hype started to build and the price of Bitcoin started to go higher. “It seemed extremely complicated, novel and improbable. I wanted to understand it, take it apart and see how it works. It looked like a weird experiment and there really wasn’t much out there for somebody that wasn’t knee-deep in code to really grasp the way this thing might go. I watched as the hype started to build and the price of Bitcoin started to go up. There was a speculative mania between 2013 and 2014 which ended with the Mt. Gox exchange collapsing.”
After the Mt. Gox incident, “everyone said that Bitcoin was dead. But I kept seeing blocks being found and transactions getting confirmed despite the fact that this thing lost a lot of its economic value in the eyes of the market. It was still going. And then I looked at it again and realised: “well, that’s a cockroach” and then it started to become really interesting. Because if you can’t kill it, it is something unto itself. It is something that exists in a kind of parallel mode of existence. And then I really went down the rabbit-hole.”
“I started going to hackathons and technical conferences in the Bitcoin space. I was trying to foreground the political potential of Bitcoin as I saw it back then, but I don’t see the same liberatory and humanitarian promise in it anymore.” Today the conversation around Bitcoin has shifted away from the emancipatory promises as it is mostly serving as a speculative instrument for already wealthy investors. The peer-to-peer, decentralized digital currency became more widely spread and adopted at an increasing pace from 2013 onwards. Intended to be “trustless” technology, it has proven to be a highly manipulable asset. Beyond the technical mystification that portrays Bitcoin as an investment option, the goal of participation is mainly centered around deriving future profit from investing money in the speculative markets for individual wealth and for the benefit of the system itself.
“The initial promises of freedom and mutualism have been left behind, because financial speculation activities price out everything else. Anything that is more ethical gets priced out and that’s the situation when a blockchain becomes the victim of its own success. It first happened to Bitcoin and now it’s happening to Ethereum with decentralized finance.”
Reading the “promises of equity and equality” espoused by most crypto projects today - in which addressing issues of social inequality becomes a unique-selling-proposition - the detachment from earnest human narratives is very evident.
“There is no sensitivity to the consequences of the thermoeconomic challenges it issues. This inability of ‘mined’ cryptocurrencies to differentiate the nature of energy sources used to secure them has led to criticism as to their indifference to their ecological externalities.” (0x Salon, 2021)
Bitcoin discourse related to addressing the environmental impacts of mining doesn’t reach far beyond the epistemicide of carbon credits and offsetting proposals. Investors ‘clean’ their portfolios to absolve themselves of responsibility for Bitcoin’s massive energy consumption. “You see it by Bitcoin investment funds, offsetting carbon emission of mining to make themselves feel better. So they can put it inside a green energy portfolio. These are epistemic fantasies. Greenwashing Bitcoin to make themselves feel better so they can fulfill an investment thesis for profit margins. The same goes for social inequality, most of the conversation is only from a certain point of view and marginalized voices don’t fit the hegemonic narrative.”
“Given the right conditions, a single type of creature can and will flourish and evolve into many different forms, each one adapted to a different niche, both reinventing old evolutionary solutions and giving rise to new variations” (Dixon, 1981)
“Blockchain is an architecture for imaginaries. It’s a blank canvas, a tabula rasa. So people project whatever they desire onto it.” Decentralized infrastructure could help enable collectively-owned social organizations to experiment with new horizontal forms of governance and operations. However In the example of Bitcoin, “I think we have fallen again into the grips of speculation, factionalization and marketization. We just keep rebuilding the same structures in our own image time and time again. Just with different substrates, different structures. I see a bunch of pyramids and a bunch of entitled tech bros at the top of them.” Recurring inequitable power structures are being built inside the networks, under the shield of a utopian promise.
“If you see the economic potential in something like Bitcoin, you will also see various facets to the way that Bitcoin works, and once you understand them, you start to see a pyramid scheme. The early entrants to the system are rewarded by the escalating scarcity as time goes on. Once you see that, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“Bitcoin presented itself in the garb of a transformative utopian project, with roots in cypher-punk, anarchist, and libertarian promises of technology. Robbing governments and banks of their ability to control money would create on this view a world in which states had lost control over tax revenue and credit creation, thereby left unable to finance wars.” (Popper, 2016)
The contradictions and the possibilities that arise with the cryptoeconomic systems create highly fertile ground both for utopic and dystopic narratives. Living in an on-chain world, a tokenized future could look like a utopia for some, but as Wassim summarizes: “The crypto utopia that is promised is a utopia for me but not for thee. It’s a selective utopia. It’s a token-gated paradise. There will always be an outside to the token system. The problem with tokenizing everything is that it ignores the political question of “who is deciding”.
“Utopians often seek to beguile the problem of politics, to bypass negotiating the messy and complex networks of power relations between ruler and ruled. But in doing so, it is too easy to fall into the trap of reproducing the structures that give rise to current misery, with little more than a vacuous overlay of supposedly reasonable, enlightened thinking by those with already enough power to appoint themselves to the job of shaping such societies. Utopianism can abridge our capacity to imagine what true emancipation might look like.”
The fertility of uncertainty: “Uncertainty breeds optionality. Optionality then creates more uncertainty about the outcome. Uncertainty makes optionality more valuable.” (Matti, 2021)
In this instance, speculative futures and financial speculation are interconnected. “Speculation over the functional potential of these technologies and social, economic, and political primitives that we can create with building blocks are deeply interconnected with the speculation happening inside the markets. Even inside the networks, everything is a market. To put your transaction in the next block is in reality a market process too. You have to outbid others to get the miner to put your transaction in the block. What we see in today's conception of blockchain is the apotheosis of neoliberal deterritorialization. Literally everything: the church, the state, the corporation is subsumed into the network. Everything is marketized.”
“The market would collapse, if there was perfect information symmetry. There is an inherent asymmetry in every market. However, with cryptocurrencies, the people who know how they work are always on the inside. The people who understand how the networks work will always leverage that to their advantage. Therefore “it is not only that it is ‘bad or wrong’ that it is dangerous.” (Galloway, 2013) Within this asymmetry of information, there will also be new hierarchies.
Through conversations with developers in some of the major networks, Wassim uncovered the inevitability of cartel formation within. “Bitcoin is a very p2p, flat structure. All the nodes are basically the same, other than some mine and some don’t. In other networks, there is this conception of a masternode. These networks have a tiered system where some nodes have additional privileges and responsibilities, and some don’t. They perform some duties for the network, they get paid for those. They lock up a bunch of coins as collateral to put their skin in the game. In most of these tiered systems, for every block added to the ledger a part of the reward goes to a treasury. People on the network can put in proposals and they can vote and get the allocated money.”
On one of the better-known examples of these networks, good projects seemed to be rejected and some overpriced, low-quality proposals were on the other hand getting accepted. “They started to see these unusual voting patterns which, if you ever studied parliamentary democracies, you can easily understand. There was a voting cartel. The marketeers, developers, node operators and other insiders were working together and inflating the popularity of the projects they were proposing. They would then buy more votes in the treasury with the proceeds. Block by block the cartel was cementing covert control.”
The technical application of decentralization does not directly result in the decentralization of power. Hidden behind the promise of democratization and decentralization; the crypto market is driven by connoisseurs, influencers and hidden cartels within the networks. Understanding the present problems of inclusion, governance, and human coordination is crucial when thinking of “innovating our ways out”. (Ross, 2017)
Bitcoin as an engine of power
“I like to think about Bitcoin as a kind of engine. Just like a star. I use this lens to think about the life cycles of blockchain networks; to try and think about what the possible futures and fates might be. We can also think of it as a thermal engine. It is taking raw materials in, combusting them and spitting outwards energy and gases, waste products.”
Nitzan & Bichler introduced the concept of “capitalism as power” in their power theory of value. In terms of political power, Suhail Malik developed this further in ‘The Ontology of Finance: Price, Power, and the Arkhederivative’.
“The power determination of finance sought here is theorized by Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshom Bichler. In broad terms, Nitzan and Bichler propose that capital is directly power because it is 'neither a material entity, nor a productive process, but rather the very ability of absentee owners to control, shape, and restructure society more broadly' -a control of productivity that involves the 'entire spectrum of power institutions', not least because the absentee ownership at its core requires complex and enforceable institutional structures across a society. Capital accumulation is at once and necessarily a political fact. However, crucially for Nitzan and Bichler, the ' spectrum of power institutions' controlling productivity are not a well-organized and unified capitalist class, as a caricatural notion of a bourgeoisie might propose. On the contrary, the main conflict and power struggle in capitalism is between those accumulating capital, each of whom looks to do better than the other owners of capital. Capitalists do not just seek to accumulate capital nor (as liberal business dogma has it) to maximize profits, but rather to 'beat the average' represented by the normal rate of return.”
“I use that as the starting point for a messy analogy of how to think of Bitcoin as an engine. It’s essentially a thermoeconomic engine that is converting between energy and economic value - essentially between capital and power. The power we refer to here is in the electrical sense rather than the political sense. This engine isn’t perfect. No engine is ever perfect. You never get 100% convertibility. It is lossy. And I also don’t know if this analogy is perfect. Capital and power are not necessarily incommensurable. You can’t necessarily resolve one into the other. I am trying to think of this as an engine in the metaphorical sense because then you can start to use political lenses to try and investigate this phenomenon.
So one of the realities of Bitcoin is that it requires energy so that it can perform its leaderless consensus mechanism. Every ten minutes as a new page of the Bitcoin ledger is found, a new block is found and added to the canonical history of the network. A new race then starts again in an economic lottery which the miners undertake to try to find a winning ticket. There can be more than one. It’s like a lottery and a game of bingo combined. If they find a winning ticket, they get to claim a prize. The prize is an allocation of Bitcoin and that’s the incentive that runs the whole thing. So as long as the outside world puts a market value on the price of Bitcoin, then the winner of this consensus race of this lottery gets rewarded with something valuable and they have an incentive to continue looking for these lottery tickets. It just so happens that the lottery tickets are candidate blocks in the Bitcoin blockchain that may be added to the history of the transaction ledger.
The problem with all of this is that proof-of-work is not sensitive to anything outside of the network. It does not discriminate between the sources of energy that are used to fuel it. All it really cares about is that energy is being expended in order to find these lottery tickets, in order to satisfy the consensus conditions. So that the network can continue to propagate, make more blocks and continue this timeline.
The reason Bitcoin needs all this energy is because there is this consensus rule called the ‘Nakamoto Consensus’ or ‘Longest Chain Consensus’ which basically means that the version of history that contains the most work accumulated on a possible timeline of Bitcoin is the true, canonical one. Which means, there is always a risk that somebody will revert the transaction record by effectively going back in time, spending more energy than you did, and rewriting your previously canonical history. Literally nothing is set in stone. These blockchain networks are highly contingent systems. Because people can always expend more energy to rewrite history. Bitcoin operates in eternal contingency. In the parlance of Meillassoux, "Bitcoin is beyond finitude."
An alien arrives!
“Promoters of Bitcoin often people say things like ‘Bitcoin is certain, it is an absolute, objective truth’. This is not correct from a thermodynamic or information-theoretic perspective. If somebody finds a limitless source of energy tomorrow - it doesn’t matter whether it is cold fusion, Dyson spheres or if an alien arrives with abundant energy compared to the work that has been expended in the Bitcoin network - it is toast. Then we will see if it really is about the formalism of the most work expended or if it’s really about a commonly shared sense of history and record-keeping - as most monetary systems are. Let's suppose that an alien arrives and they rewrite the history of the Bitcoin network tomorrow.
Wassim predicts that in the highly masculine Bitcoin-Twitter they will probably be shouting: “This is the block the aliens showed up and ruined Bitcoin. We are going to fork at this block: we all still have all the money we had at that block before they ruined everything, and we start again.”
You can leave a blockchain network by forking. If you change the parameters of what you're willing to accept as a valid transaction or a valid block, you will have an incompatibility with the other community and you will diverge into descendant timelines.”
‘Necroprimitivism’ is a term Wassim coined. As the name suggests it’s a twist on neoprimitivism.
“Necroprimitivists are an ascendant social class in the Bitcoin community. Because of the way that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies work, you can't get anything done unless you have stakeholder buy-in from two major groups: developers - one might think of them as the priests, the wizards, and the cathedral - and the thermo-economic cartel - consolidated entities that control a large amount of the computational resource, the mining machines that are used to find Bitcoin blocks. The network is therefore extremely defensive and extremely resistant to change from the networking and systems sense. The step I'm making here with this characterization of the necroprimitivist class is that this resistance to change is a hard boundary that also informs ideology and culture.”
Wassim draws so pointedly that, no matter what kind of change you envisage or suggest, the resistance to change, the hard boundary in the Bitcoin network, will very likely prevent it from happening. It will only result in a forked network “versus the necroprimitivist chain where nothing has changed.”
“Bitcoin breeds these hard boundaries, by having such stringent validation requirements (in a cryptographic sense) which gives rise to this individual and zero-sum mindset. It creates hyper-individualism. We've seen it before in the more extreme strains of libertarianism. I think Bitcoin is the next iteration of techno-libertarianism. It's more about protecting kin and clan rather than commune. So as you progress towards smaller social groups, you are resisting progress and resisting change. It's an inherently conservative movement. Necroprimitivists would rather see the oceans boil and natural ecosystems collapse than consider a change to proof-of-work. A sufficiently incentivized believer in an asset wrapped in this ideology is impossible to reason with.”
Since the start of its network, there has been a desire amongst many Ethereum advocates to move away from mining. “But there's always going to be a subset of people inside the Ethereum network that will not accept a move away from proof-of-work. So it's very likely that there'll continue to be a proof-of-work Ethereum chain. It would be like the original chain, but as a minority descendant destined to be a minority fork like Ethereum Classic. In many ways, Ethereum Classic is the necroprimitivist chain of Ethereum.”
“I have some insight into the inner workings of Ethereum Classic from speaking at their conference in 2018. I predicted that their network would be more susceptible to ‘51% attacks’ - the term used for protocol-approved economic attacks through the expenditure of more energy than the existing timeline - the more that the switch to proof-of-stake was delayed. And then when it happened, they invited me into the ‘post-mortem call’, to discuss it. At that point, I realized there weren't very many stakeholders in this network. We were sitting on a Discord call and there were a handful of people calling the shots.” (It might be good to note that at the time a Discord call could host up to 10 users only.)
“Behind the façade of five-star hotel conferences with mostly empty audience seats and the post-mortem community Discord call with a handful of stakeholders, I saw a ghost network, a zombie chain, with no usage and no telos. Only a thermo-economic cartel and a developer capitalist cathedral enriching themselves through speculation and accumulation.”
The Necroprimitivist Manifesto
A speculative I/Odeology developed by R&D Labs & 0x Salon as a provocation for The Indifference Engine
Poem by CPRU
CRIMES AGAINST VIRGINITY
1. There is no a priori nature. Nature is a construct.
2. Nature must not be assumed to be benign, nor veridical.
3. Nature is zero-sum. Nature is not fair. Nature brings pain and suffering.
4. Nature’s qualities must be judged and its shortcomings should not go unpunished.
5. Nature must compete with other forces in the marketplace of ideology.
6. Before nature, there was a pristine realm of ecstatic superpositional ascendance.
7. Energetic and material forms peacefully existing without an observer.
8. Nature shackles the quantum transcendence of light with its ‘verdant gaze’.
9. Nature is a planetary liability. Degenerate bourgeois luxury. Misery engine. Nature is death.
10. If nature is unjust, destroy nature.
11. Thou Shalt Have No Other Assets Before $ME
12. Capital and code reign supreme.
13. The dual canon subordinates ecology and labour.
14. As it is written in $MY blocks, and prophesied in the memorypools.
15. The conditions for monetary transcendence must be seeded in the individual imaginary.
16. Thou Shalt Not Covet $THY Neighbour’s Clocks.
17. Homo clockoenomicus desires a transcendental time machine.
18. A thermoeconomic calendar for $OUR rituals.
19. $1 the only refuge from the observer’s gaze.
20. Become time capsules aboard $MY monument.
A PRODUCTIVE APOCALYPSE
21. Hashes to Hashes, trust to trust.
22. Unstoppable forces and immovable objects.
23. A reified sacrifice to the networked gods.
24. Global consensus is the crowning achievement of the universe.
25. A new bedrock of veridicality $WE must defend at all costs.
26. The means justify the ends, because there is no end.
27. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than a new proving mechanism for $ME.
28. With capital as $THY god, property becomes morality.
29. An I/O for an I/O, a truth for a truth.
INDIFFERENCE AND REPETITION
30. $YOU, the anon servants of the difficulty adjustment algorithm.
31. Are hereby sworn to resist corruptions
of $MY dual canon.
32. Pray for $OUR cryptographic and thermodynamic affordances.
33. An inhuman monetary system always bests a human one.
34. $MY code, made flesh. The Turing Shroud. Corpus Algorithmi.
35. A worthy cryptographic quest for autonomous labourers.
36. All externalities are bad, but some are useful.
37. The Black Hole of Money Erases All Debt
38. A Capitol for solar capital.
39. Proof-of-Burnt-Offerings for An Indifferent Ergod, $ME.