Foreword for 2023 book edition of Anna Greenspan's PhD thesis 'Capitalism's Transcendental Time Machine'
The book edition is available via Mistakonic Virtual University Press. We thank Peter Heft & MVU Press for their fine work on this publication and being happy with us mirroring the foreword here. Hat tip to CritDrip for the beautiful design, and Amy & Matt for reading it over.
We held a broadcast edition salon to commemorate the ‘Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine’ book launch.
It has been 22 years since Anna Greenspan published Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine as her doctoral dissertation at the University of Warwick, UK. Amongst Greenspan’s acknowledgements, she mentions the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), and indeed, it is difficult at first to completely separate Greenspan’s investigations from the theory-production of the notorious collective. Points of departure, connection, and convergence: Kant and Deleuze and Guattari, alongside Schopenhauer, Spinoza, and Nietzsche, run through the varied CCRU outputs that emanated alongside—and prior to—Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine.
Greenspan’s style of writing in Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine is concise, measured, and didactic in tone—a sharp contrast to the wilder nature of the CCRU corpus. Having said that, both the thematic content of Greenspan’s work and her methodological approach are no less prescient or evocative; they are arguably more so. Greenspan’s materialist analysis of the concept of time is mediated through thinkers as diverse as Plato, Marx, and Foucault. As a result, the text incorporates philosophical positions from ancient to modern eras, in parallel with associated conditions of social and material production. Despite the breadth of the work under discussion, Greenspan’s clarity of thought allows a reader to approach Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine without any prior knowledge of either contemporary philosophy, or the adjacent CCRU body of work. Indeed, Greenspan’s discussion of transcendental materialism, planes of immanence, and machinic autonomy with reference to the temporal drives of capital increases the legibility of other CCRU texts and concepts.
The notion of time is, inarguably, one of the most crucial pillars of the CCRU theoretical fabric, later referred to as ‘accelerationism.’ This isomorphic relation is best described by Amy Ireland when she Tweeted:
Accelerationism is a theory of time. The end.
For Greenspan, as well as for Ireland, the development of conceptions of time can only ever be thought of in relation to emerging techno-capitalist apparatuses—which themselves generate time—and it is the distribution, ordering, and arbitration of time that these apparatuses control. Capitalist time is ultimately born of strict equivalence with capital. In essence, ‘Time = Money.’
Although radically different in scope and historical focus, both Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine and Greenspan’s subsequent work have, at their core, an engagement with Kant’s framing of time as a transcendental structure, delimiting the conditions under which experience occurs. It is this temporal conception that Greenspan rearchitects for the time of machinic capitalism. Her twist on the Kantian subsumption of space into time arises from differing perspectives as to where the conditions of experience are produced.
With Kant, then, the certainty of self-consciousness dissolves into questions about the relation of time to itself.
Within his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant finds two basic requirements for the cognitive faculty of the human subject: sensory perception and understanding. A theory of perception, which is inherently bound to the pure forms of appearance—time and space—is given by Kant in the chapter on the ‘Transcendental Aesthetic.’ In his terminology, space is defined as an ‘outer’ sense, and time as an ‘inner’ sense. Time becomes the necessary precondition for any potential experience, inverting the dependency-relation of pre-modern thought that follows on from the Platonic tradition wherein space is the necessary precondition for subjective experience. The crux of this claim: there is no experience and, subsequently, no synthetic understanding of experience, that can be constructed without this a priori spatio-temporality. For Kant, time is abstract in that it undergirds the potential for experience to even be understood.
Greenspan’s reading of Kant might horrify the secular humanist. Reason is not evaluated as an ordering principle, but rather as a misguided by-product of a process that originates within the realm of the transcendental. The Cartesian notion of the ego as an intentional, legislative force is washed away by the autogenerative alterity of time, with the ultimate determination of human interiority arising from the outside. Given that the interiority of the subject is defined by ‘what happens in Time,’ the exterior is the a priori productive force of time itself. As a consequence, the human no longer appears to be an enlightened subject guided by reason and free will, but instead resembles a puppet unable to grasp what is pulling its strings.
Through her readings of Kant and Deleuze and Guattari, Greenspan puts forward a rectification of the Platonic concept of time which begins with a dualism between time as perceived by the subject, and a realm of transcendent, infinite ‘eternity.’ In the Kantian paradigm, this latter category is structurally immanentized and absorbed into the synthetic a priori. Consequently, exterior time is not only anchored in the subject, but synthetically determines all experience. For Kant, however, time does not only have a generative impact on perception, it also serves as its precondition. To overcome the gap between mind and perception—that is, to explain how the mind subsumes raw sensory material under a concept—Kant needs a joint that is both rational and sensually anchored. This joint—which Kant describes as a schema—allows the application of a conceptuality to a sensual non-conceptuality (experience). The mediating factor is time because it is rooted in appearances and also in concepts, whilst being produced by a different faculty: the productive imagination.
Time thus becomes an abstract diagram in Kant’s transcendental philosophy, without which cognition and epistemology would be impossible:
The schema is neither an image nor a concept, but a diagram. Like all true diagrams, it is not a static representation, but a functional machinic component […] With the chapter on ‘The Schematism’ then, Kant frees time from being locked into any particular determination—either on the side of the image or on the side of the concept—and makes of it instead the abstract plane of connectivity on which his whole system depends.
Even if Kant’s discovery of the transcendental has freed time from empirical movements and located it in an immanent outside, according to Greenspan, the true horror is only beginning.
Thus, abandoning both the interiority of the subject and the transcendent, eternal idea, the Critique of Pure Reason subordinates thought to the abstract production of time.
Neither a materialist analysis of history—via Karl Marx—nor a Kantian transcendental critique can alone shed light on the conditions of this abstract production. At this point, Greenspan turns to concrete and material practices of timekeeping to establish a connection between the abstract concepts of transcendental philosophy, and the technologies of time measurement.
These technologies simultaneously shape, and are shaped by, the production-logics of capitalism. The clock, which for the first time enabled a truly autonomous mode of timekeeping, was first essential to ensure the synchronization of industrial production and transport systems, while also being an instrument and symbol of hierarchical power.
The introduction of global temporal standards such as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), time-zones, daylight saving time, and network-mediated machinic temporalities all served to imbue timekeeping practices with greater precision and universality. This was motivated by the desire to better serve capital flows, enforce authority, and to cement the production logic of ‘Time = Money’ as a universal and commensurable epistemological infrastructure.
[T]he production of capitalist time converges with the Kantian system inaugurating a revolution—not in time but of time—which substitutes a transformation in time-marking conventions for a much more fundamental shift in the nature of time itself.
Aeonic occurrences break down the distinction between the constant structure of time, and the changes which occur inside it […] Aeonic events do not occur in time not because they belong to a transcendent outside, but because they are flat with the single plane of immanence which collapses the distinction between time and that which populates it.
For Deleuze and Guattari, transcendental critique has to be progressed vis-à-vis Kant in a non-epistemological manner. Firstly, the synthetic a priori is freed from the interior of the individual subject via the recognition of the unconscious mind. Deleuze and Guattari use the third injury to humanity—Freud’s discovery of the unconscious and its immediate Oedipalization by normative psychoanalysis—for a detailed, generative critique in which the political conditions of production are approached in holistic and material terms. Kant’s binary distinction between essence and appearance is then flattened through a Spinozistic, monist interpretation of materialism.
Spinoza’s concept of the plane of consistency is read by Deleuze and Guattari as an abstract machine of production, which is by no means to be understood as a metaphor. The bodies on it, bodies which can be described mainly by temporal properties—slow, fast, at rest, and so on—are real phenomena. While on this plane of production, effects are expressed by speed and affect, juxtaposed with a plane of “forms, substances, and subjects.” One plane is assigned to linear time-production, which subjectivizes, while the other is “simultaneous[ly] too-late and too-early,” as this plane itself produces time.
Through her reading of Deleuze and Guattari, Greenspan invokes two conceptions of time, both defined by Deleuze in The Logic of Sense: Chronos and Aeon. Chronos is characterized as linear, successive, metrical time, which corresponds with the empirical ego’s experience of corporeality and causality. In contrast, Aeon is an empty time of intensive quantities and multiplicities, in which affects emerge through interactions of ‘Thisness.’ At this point, it might dawn upon the reader as to why Greenspan mentions the focus on “the occulted nature of time” at the beginning of her thesis: Thisness, or Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘haecceity,’ is a de-subjectified mode of individuation—that is, an effect or mode with individuality but without subjectivity. Without explaining the exact derivation of the term via Medieval scholars (and Deleuze’s inversion of it), it can be stated that haecceity denotes an individualization without a subject—an event which temporally precedes any subjective individualization process. Haecceities present a conceptual tool to decompose the Indifference of Identity through affects of preindividual events. In A Thousand Plateaus, the reader finds several examples of such presubjective processes: a certain hour of a day, the wind, the atmosphere, etc. In Greenspan, as in Deleuze and Guattari, haecceities appear as networked and temporal entities; it is solely the interplay and networking of different presubjective processes which give rise to an emergence of affects.
[I]t is not in the same time, in the same temporality. Aeon: the indefinite time of the event, the floating line that knows only speeds and continually divides that which transpires into an already-there that is at the same time not-yet-here, a simultaneous too-late and too-early, a something that is both going to happen and just happened. Chronos: the time of measure that situates things and persons, develops a form, and determines a subject. Boulez distinguishes tempo and nontempo in music: the “pulsed time” of a formal and functional music based on values versus the “nonpulsed time” of a floating music, both floating and machinic, which has nothing but speeds or differences in dynamic. In short, the difference is not at all between the ephemeral and the durable, nor even between the regular and the irregular, but between two modes of individuation, two modes of temporality.
This inversion of the Platonic division of lived time and static infinity reanimates an immanent eternity as the proper locus of experiential production. However, in this plane of Aeon, neither static forms nor transcendent ideas manifest themselves as images in the world. Instead, the effects of interaction of non-uniform singularities manifest in Aeonic events that virtually haunt the sphere of Chronos.
Instead of claiming that these conditions are created in the “mind of the knowing subject,” Greenspan draws upon Deleuze and Guattari, claiming that these conditions of experience are in fact “produced by techno modernity.” The place of production is always the outside: the market and the technological-capitalist machinery.
An act of calendric insurgency, Y2K threatened the authority of the Gregorian calendar by replacing it with cyberspace’s own cyclical count. Operating in this manner, it constructed itself as a time-bomb that permeated the distributed network of contemporary technology by directly targeting the pre-existing unity of capitalist time.
As a literal and figurative representation of the limitations of digital timekeeping and machinic mnemotechnics, Y2K was an atimely exemplar of an Aeonic occurrence. Much of the work that went into producing Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine was undertaken with the prophesied chaos of the year 2000 looming on the horizon, foretold but not yet actualized. Y2K heralded the dawn of the new millennium in the Gregorian calendar, dovetailing eschatological premonitions of apocalypse with concerns regarding the widespread and synchronized failure of critical, technical infrastructure worldwide.
Towards the end of the twentieth century, concerns began to mount that many antiquated computer systems would experience issues at the end of 1999 due to the way that they recorded time. Many mainframe and punch-card computing systems that were built in the 1960s and 1970s were still in use decades later, their useful lifetimes extended far further into the future than their creators would have imagined. As a result, the year count in their primitive digital timekeeping systems only extended to two digits—e.g., ‘1984’ would be represented as ‘84’)—in order to minimise the use of then-precious memory and storage space. The cost of storing information was prohibitively high in the early days of digital computing (as high as $1/bit in the 1960s). A century—or millennium—change would thus potentially cause unpredictable effects to the systems reliant on these machines, as ‘99’ (1999) rolled over to ‘00’ (2000).
At the root of this issue was a divergence between human and machine time. Instead of staying in sync with the human (with ‘00’ referring to the year 2000), computers disrupted the linear accumulation of numerical time by rolling back to 1900 when ‘99’ reverted to ‘00,’ spiraling back to the start of the century as the number buffer ‘overflowed’ and began the two-digit loop anew.
The increasingly networked and interdependent paradigm of computation only exacerbated this problem. The 1990s saw a transformation of the Internet from the domain of a niche cadre of computer technicians, to a mass-usage medium, as captured by the notion of ‘eternal September’ in 1993. While this drive towards the distribution and networkization of computation led to paradigm-shifting affordances in the scale and dispersal of computing resources, it had the side effect of creating new fragilities and contingencies, some of which may not have been immediately apparent. The encroachment of Y2K brought these frailties to the forefront of mass consciousness. All that having been said, it is remarkable to look back at the turn of the millennium and see that, ostensibly, nothing happened. At the stroke of midnight, the mouth of the looming time-spiral simply dispersed.
Y2K occupies the whole of time, to a greater or lesser degree. Y2K will never be anything other than a virtual catastrophe. Though it has had enormous effects inside empirical history, it impacted Chronos only as a pure potentiality; as an immanent machinic accident, Y2K is intensive rather than actual. As such, it must be considered not as a moment extended or unfolded in Chronos, but rather as a plateau or, in other words, a virtual occurrence composed on the immanent and intensive plane which constitutes the exteriority of Aeon.
A key concern within Greenspan’s thesis is, ‘in what ways did this catastrophe manifest?’ For the first time in the machine age, it became impossible to address the question with any degree of clarity or confidence. In the logic of Greenspan, Y2K could be said to have happened in Aeonic (transcendental/virtual) time but not in Chronic (empirical/actual) time. Perhaps the most pertinent consequence of Y2K itself—the fact that this question could even be asked by Greenspan, regardless of the event’s ‘actual’ occurrence—was a resurgent Millennialism pre-Y2K that made evident the conceptual cracks in an established global, temporal hegemony that began with the imposition of GMT. These ruptures became evident not only to those working directly with computational time-systems—at the time, a vanishingly small percentage of the global population—but to a broad social milieu of radicals across the religious and political spectrum, all of whom began to prepare for the ‘Approaching End’ with renewed energies.
Technologies are shot through with myths that frame the story of time, myths of utopia and cataclysm alike. So it should not be surprising that many of the stories circulating about the “information revolution” feed off the patterns of eschatological thought, nor that technological images of salvation and doom keep hitting the screens of the social imagination.
Y2K—we argue—heralded the now-evident Balkanization of machinic and networked temporalities, manifest through the overflow of the incessant accumulation of Chronic time though the finite nature of digital address space. Temporal scarcity realigning Time and Money as necessarily strict equivalents in the emerging techno-capitalist hegemony—in order to support its globe-spanning apparatus of time-production—was shown to have been built on shaky techno-material foundations. The temporality of Y2K, according to Greenspan, was the time of cyberspace. With its counting and representation, its standardization beyond space—except for limitations of optical and electronic signal transmission—once again enacted the Kantian paradigm. An absolutely universalised temporal schema was produced which was necessary to connect spatially separated network participants using a synchronous distributed computer system such as the Internet.
Cyberspace, as the technological system of global capitalism in its contemporary phase, supplements—and in part even replaces—the previous dependence on physical trade routes and transportation networks with a virtual web in which geographical boundaries have become redundant. Dependent on instantaneous communications irrespective of place, this virtual web makes the demand for a standardized time that accompanied previous technological grids even more urgent. Cyberspace, like the capitalist system itself, is a distributed network which can only be united by a precisely synchronized and globalized time.
By cementing the primacy of machinic time in cyberspace over the time of the clock and/or calendar, Y2K signaled the dawn of a new Millennialism which willed on the ongoing collapse of time into money as virtual spatio-temporalities allowed for most of the physical and corporeal limitations to information processing and transfer to be mediated away.
The virtual nature of Y2K—a nature which allowed it to be entirely affective (as a potentiality) and yet never empirically manifest—suggests that it cannot be understood through the successive temporality of Chronos. Rather, Y2K is a sign—which operates as both a name and a date—for an event composed on the intensive plane of Aeon. It is as an Aeonic event that Y2K makes the connection between the transcendental philosophy of time and the socio-economics of capitalist timekeeping practices […] it dissolves the distinction between time and the materiality of timekeeping systems.
The groundwork laid by European colonization of much of the world, centering zero-time in London’s Greenwich, was rapidly overlaid by the signal cables of pre-millennium globalization. This was the beginning of the world running on Unix Time, the first digital timekeeping metric, distributed according to Network Time Protocol (NTP).
At this juncture in the journey—positioned at the precipice of the millennium of machine time—we largely phase out of the specifics that Greenspan laid forth in Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine. Immediately following the temporal rupture and virtual catastrophe of Y2K, Greenspan’s account reached its own “teleological termination point” with the publication of her thesis by the University of Warwick. With the benefit of hindsight—arguably a transcendental time machine of its own—here follows a speculative continuation of the trajectories extant within Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine.
Our goal is to situate and further develop Greenspan’s theories in the context of the present day (2022). Within the moment of Y2K, there was present an understanding that the machinery of networks and digital computation facilitates new potentials for universalities and totalities. The remainder of this accompanying text serves to propose an extrapolation from Y2K to the present, through a historical examination of different modes of networked time, culminating in Bitcoin’s decentralized clock.
All of the techno-economic affordances of virtual capital flows through cyberspace are rendered achievable through the proliferation of chronometers for cyberspace, in the ascendance since Y2K. Digital timekeeping at scale began in earnest at the dawn of the 1970s, with the creation, ex nihilo, of Unix Time.
Unix Time is a 32-bit integer counting system, representing the number of seconds that have occurred since the Unix Epoch—00:00:00 UTC on January 1st, 1970. It takes its name from the early multiuser operating systems derived from the original Unix project, which began development at AT&T in 1969. The start date was decided upon by programmers ostensibly out of convenience as the beginning of this novel, and ultimately hybrid, time with one foot in the digital, was still being rooted in the calendric. Unix Time is the first instance of a purely digital time, and is distributed to other computers via NTP, a ‘time-sharing protocol.’ The architecture of NTP relies on different strata of timeservers, all of which themselves receive time from a master atomic clock. This master clock regulates Chronic time through the stochastic measurement of the radioactive decay of elementary matter via a quasi-digital binary process.
With common computers, we take timekeeping for granted. However, there is a rigorous mechanism that works behind the scenes. The Network Time Protocol (NTP), for instance, addresses the timekeeping issue using a hierarchy of servers distributed globally. This includes up to 15 Stratums the routing paths of which are developed to synchronize in the most optimized manner. This is also enabled by the construction of a Bellman-Ford shortest-path spanning tree that decreases both latency and transmission time inconsistencies.
NTP must take into account the locations of both the timeserver and the client, given variables such as network latency and the physical constraint of the speed of light. Unix Time is not trivially spatialised, but relies on organized networks of strictly hierarchical nodes providing an intermediation between the speed of light and spatial distribution of nodes. This is undertaken in order to facilitate the homogenous and globalized temporality of post-Y2K capitalism handed down from the temporal authority of atomic clocks to all clients in the network.
With Y2K now decades in the past, another Aeonic Epochalypse is looming. In 2038, the integer representation of Unix Time will bloat above the limitations of a 32-bit string, and the procession of techno-time is set to again panic, overflow, or simply freeze in place. Although Y2K38 is ostensibly bound to similarly remain virtual(ized), its appearance on the horizon renders explicit the tradeoffs required to maintain control of the unilateral, downward flow of temporal authority. Starting from stochastic clocks, cascading through time server networks, and from there to individual laptops, PCs, and phones; from the network’s eye view, we humans exist as hapless subjects between virtual cataclysms brought about by techno-capital.
Having passed through the Aeonic Rubicon of Y2K and into the age of ascendant cyber-spatio-temporality, the focus of this text now shifts to the structure and composition of these nascent, virtualized, temporal regimes. For Greenspan, the development of conceptions of time can only ever be thought of in relation to a techno-capitalist apparatus, which itself generates time: the time.
[T]here are mechanisms through which the machinery of techno-capitalism has the capacity to create the form of time itself, rather than just operate within time. And that’s its most abstract power […] if you have the capacity […] to create a form of time at this abstract level, then there’s a realm of experience or appearance or manifestation that happens inside that. That’s the ultimate abstract power of techno-modernity.
But the time is only one possible instantiation of a temporal regime, even one mediated by a digital networking apparatus such as the post-2000s Internet. Temporal regimes—mechanisms for the distribution of temporal authority—can be imagined with a variety of different structural cues, which can be considered within the rubric of two architectural ethea.
First, there are centralized ‘command-and-control’ structures for the authoritarian dictation and imposition of universalized, temporal constructions. Such structures are common in history, seen in the imposition of Western temporalities in colonized lands—such as Railway Time in India—and GMT as canonized by a coalition of Imperial-friendly states in the late nineteenth-century. This is the architecture of post-Y2K time: ever-more-precise measurements of sub-seconds cascading downwards through layers of authority via NTP. Contemporary examples of these methods include digital and Internet standardizations such as Google’s Spanner, as well as ‘spatialized network clocks’ such as the USA’s Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite array. The power centralization in all of these approaches remains tightly concentrated within institutions of material science, policy production, and militarism.
The continuing efficacy of these institutions is, however, in crisis. Post-Y2K capitalist time is fragmenting as the cracks appear in a previously hegemonic temporal regime. The decidedly non-virtual crisis of capital in 2008 led to a fundamentally different approach to digital time production, with decentralization and peer consensus being the foundational elements informing the nascent architectural designs. This is the second form of temporal regimentation, and a multitude of novel timekeeping systems adopting the logic of decentralization are being built around protocols governing the creation of a canonical ordering of networked events, recorded in a distributed but shared and verifiable timeline.
The invention of a peer-to-peer consensus algorithm in applied computer science points to a problem of industrialization that Greenspan also discusses: how can clocks, and the production processes associated with them, be synchronized? In post-Fordian capitalism, this question shifts again, as capital itself becomes the very means of production: how can information technology systems determine an order of events (for instance, transactions of capital)? Decentralized ledgers start here with a fundamentally paranoid foundation of ‘trust minimization’: asymmetric cryptography allows the validity of transactions to be confirmed by all participants at any time, with little effort required. The information technology system becomes immanently verifiable without any kind of transcendent authority.
Rather than marking the passing of seconds, minutes, and hours, these systems order transactions broadcast from anywhere in the topology of the network, agreeing upon discrete units of history as a method of mutual yet competitive time creation and the construction of a shared historicity. The passing of time is dictated not by institutions in control of atomic clocks, but via a variety of different protocols aimed—at least in theory—at decentralizing time-production away from a single point of control (and failure).
Can we see in these two architectural approaches to techno-capitalist temporality—command-and-control, and peer-to-peer—respective tendencies and affinities with Chronos’ time of order and precision measurements, and Aeon as the emergent and immanent temporality of opportunity and subjective perception? It would appear that, in these realized networked timekeeping systems, both Chronos and Aeon co-exist in tension, in some form of spectral superposition, existing in mutual opposition, yet reciprocal necessity.
We propose that distributed, consensus-based timekeeping technologies—incorporating the mnemotechnics of what are commonly known as blockchains, but more fittingly referred to as timechains—can be apprehended as a realized instantiation of a generative substrate for the spawning of occurrences in virtual time as a by-product of their production of Chronic order. This ‘ultimate abstract power,’ and the concomitant shift in the temporal apparatuses at our disposal, has ramifications regarding the increasingly fragmented era of patchwork modernity that now delimits the preconditions for experience itself. This fragmentation is not merely a point of analytic interest, however. In the past, radical movements with temporal secessionism at the core of their manifestos include the May Fourth movement in China, French Revolutionary Time, and the rearchitecting of time-zones by nation states to distance themselves temporally, economically, and politically from their imperial and colonial oppressors.
[M]odernity is expressed by and through the then new technologies of the clock and the calendar and the form of time that they produce. And I think that you could read the May Fourth Movement as, in some way, an acknowledgement of that. The May Fourth thinkers who wanted to embrace this particular mode of the Gregorian calendar, this particular mode of temporality, thought that this new form of time was the transcendental condition under which China could be modern. I don’t think they were necessarily particularly Kantian, but they nevertheless understood that in some way.
Given that distributed ledgers are “an example of technology that doesn’t happen in time, (instead) happen(ing) to time,” this text may shed light on how we may organise within a new temporality, reconfiguring the delimitations of our conceptual apparatuses in the process.
Cyberspace’s emphasis on temporal precision and accuracy is primarily due to the intimate interactive dynamics which have developed between technology and economic systems. In cyberspace, flows of capital—which are never anything other than digital code—are continuously subjected to virtual transactions that are sensitive to minute variations in time. As digital code, time and money have converged on a single numerical and technical plane, making the conversion between the two ever more immediate and immanent.
In the years since Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine was written, instantiations of peer-to-peer networked computing architectures have emerged that can be understood as mediating between real and virtual temporal regimes, such as those of Aeon and Chronos. In keeping with the timekeeping systems of the past, revelatory and eschatological legends are projected upon these novel computational substrates by the faithful and critics alike, as humans strive to demystify and de-esotericize these nascent complex and headless technologies.
Much has happened in the reification of techno-materialities since Y2K, which can be retrospectively linked to, and rationalized by, the conceptual themes and trajectories explored in Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine. The processes of techno-capitalist time-production, so pointedly characterized by Greenspan, have been exemplified by a novel technical system bridging the real and virtual, incorporating Deleuze and Guattari’s transcendental materialism at its very core. In this section, approaches are explored that capture the material and conceptual implications of the Balkanization of timekeeping using a theoretical foundation built upon Greenspan’s work. A particular focus will be placed on distributed ledger technologies such as the timechain. What roles do Chronos and Aeon play in the basic mechanisms of these emerging timekeeping concepts?
For what is crucial in the convergence of time and money on the digital plane is not only the immanence and speed of quantitative conversion, but also the increasing importance of systems and transactions that are hypersensitive to the date.
On All Hallows’ Eve, 2008, a short technical paper was circulated on the Cypherpunks Mailing List by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, describing a novel peer-to-peer protocol design called Bitcoin. The system’s design was intended to implement a network that would enable users to exchange messages. The network would satisfy its security, consensus formation, entropy generation, and coin distribution requirements via an energy-intensive process known as proof-of-work, also referred to as ‘mining,’ analogous to gold. Proof-of-work connects the virtuality of the inside of the network with the materiality of the outside ‘real world’ through a lottery-style race to compute ‘costly’ and otherwise useless hashes, producing large amounts of heat and e-waste as by-products.
In this paper, we propose a solution to the double-spending problem using a peer-to-peer distributed timestamp server to generate computational proof of the chronological order of transactions.
Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin whitepaper §3, 2008
Cryptocurrencies are timestamping and event-ordering systems at their core. In addition to the network architecture and consensus mechanisms, Bitcoin also employs a noteworthy approach to record-keeping: a discretized, linear, append-only data structure most fittingly referred to as a timechain (also referred to as a blockchain). This data structure, and associated mechanisms to achieve decentralized network-wide consensus, provide a high degree of assurance that the network will respect a particular set of transaction orderings, which, when chained together in a precisely specified sequence, manifest a canonical historicity.
Bitcoin is a decentralized timestamping server, and the transactions are simply messages changing the effective balances that each network participant has access to. These balances are denominated in the native unit of the system, BTC, and are used to pay transaction fees to miners, functioning as the de facto currency with which value is redistributed amongst the users of the network. Satoshi Nakamoto used the word ‘timestamp’ on fourteen occasions in the Bitcoin whitepaper. Bitcoin is an abstract timekeeping daemon incarnated through cryptography, economics, and thermodynamics. After Kant, Deleuze and Guattari, and Greenspan, we can regard Bitcoin (and other timechain networks employing peer-to-peer consensus mechanisms) as a new form of time production that is ever more deeply connected to capitalist processes than anything that preceded it.
Aeonic events do not occur in time not because they belong to a transcendent outside, but because they are flat with the single plane of immanence which collapses the distinction between time and that which populates it. Equally immanent within any given moment of Chronos, in Aeon “everything happens at once.” Operating with a mode of distribution that is incommensurable with the order of Chronos, Aeonic events cannot help but scramble the linear sequence of extensive time.
Timechain technology achieves its own temporal synthesis vis-à-vis the mediation of both a virtual and recorded event by way of a ‘schizotemporal duality’ extant in such peer-to-peer networks. Proof-of-work functions as a leaderless consensus mechanism whereby the recording of virtual events (transactions) towards a ledger takes place, creating a chronological, numerical order, thereby materializing the potential of an immanent peer-to-peer network through computation and energy.
Characterising this biphasic dualism is far from straightforward, but Greenspan’s work relating to cyberspace time provides a sound baseline from which to make onto-epistemic approaches. Aspects of cyber-clock time and block-clock time were characterised by Greenspan in Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine with reference to a more general conception of “cyberspace time.” Greenspan considered cyberspace time to be inhuman, mechanically simulatory, and implying quantisation. As cyberspace is nonlocalizable, its regime of time would be transglobal or post-global—today we might use the term decentralized. An immanent machinic culture (peer-to-peer), cyberspace-time would measure nothing outside of its domain of orientation (hard-bounded). As an abstract yet empirical method of timekeeping, cyberspace-time would require a larger paradigm shift than the clock was to the calendar.
The temporal production via Bitcoin’s network, proof-of-work, and the timechain ledger proceeds in two modes. Firstly, a continuous cyber-clock mode exists where nodes propose transactions in ‘real-time.’ After being broadcast and propagated through the network by nodes relaying transactions to their peers, these ‘unconfirmed transactions’ are then held in mining nodes’ working memory, typically traditional RAM. Collectively, this provisional memory is referred to as a network’s ‘mempool’ (memory pool)—itself pure virtual potential—as the sequence of events to be confirmed and canonized has yet to be determined. This is an existence outside of time, in deep contingency.
Secondly, a discrete block-clock mode ticks to the sequential cadence of confirmed blocks that is strictly under the regime of Chronos. In this sense, proof-of-work is the immanent timekeeping mechanism, which leaderlessly transmutes virtual network activity through the computational power of capital into ordinally sequenced batches of pure Chronos. The affect of abstract virtualities such as capital itself leaches into the sequencing and ordering of time itself.
Invoking the neomillennial spirit, the thermodynamic costliness of proof-of-work might be regarded as a burnt offering for an indifferent god. In the collapsing of one temporal mode into the other, the opportunity for arbitrages, slippages, and other temporally adversarial behaviours emerge. Bitcoin transactions are confirmed by miners selecting the user-broadcast proposals they wish to include in an upcoming block, typically prioritized by the size of transaction fees paid. As exemplified by Greenspan at length in Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine (with myriad historical references), in Bitcoin, the marshals of temporal production apparatuses once again wield outsized influence over which events are included within the timechain, and in what order. On the timechain, history will always be written by the winners, to paraphrase the tired cliché. The timestamps supplied by Bitcoin miners utilise the Unix Time format mentioned earlier, as 32-bit unsigned integers commencing in 1970. They are not vulnerable to the Epochalypse bug in 2038, when 32-bit signed integers using original Unix Time will overflow its limit. The Bitcoin network will instead ‘run out of time,’ ceteris paribus, in 2106.
The cyclically rhythmic and discretized temporality of cryptocurrency networks—the block-clock mentioned earlier—is hardly something to set one’s watch by. As proof-of-work is a random, lottery-style process involving a search for a possibility space that iteratively uses brute-force computational repetition, the time between candidate blocks that fulfil the network-mandated validity conditions is variable. As a result, the time between blocks is unpredictable and can differ widely. The network periodically recalibrates difficulty: the probability of a given hash satisfying the conditions for block creation, which in turn serves to adjust the inter-block cadence. In Bitcoin, a median inter-block cadence of 600 seconds is targeted, but it is entirely feasible to take twice as long to find a block, with the next block following just a handful of seconds later.
A mitigation that is taken in Bitcoin to deter attacks employing deliberately false timestamps—a moving average of the most recent eleven confirmed blocks’ timestamps, known as Median Time Past (MTP)—also has a side effect of helping make longer-term unions of block and clock times, such that temporal averaging measures are routinely used in slow-block networks such as Bitcoin. The miner-supplied timestamp of the latest block must always be greater than MTP. Thus, MTP is the monotonically incrementing temporal machinery facilitating the Chronic production of Bitcoin’s timechain.
To conclude this introductory statement on Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine, we usher the reader to bathe directly in the shifting tides of Anna Greenspan’s transcendental materialism rather than in this mere diffraction of speculative extrapolation. Here we recap our attempt to bring Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine into the 2020s as Greenspan so clearly and concisely dragged Kant, Descartes, Marx, Bergson, Deleuze, Guattari, Foucault, and others beyond the threshold of the third millennium.
Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine’s arrow of time begins with Kant’s Copernican Revolution, twisting the Platonic vision of transcendent eternity through the newfound primacy of time over space achieved via pure interiority, with the epistemological status of a synthetic a priori form. Employing Kant’s transcendental aesthetic, Greenspan yields a dualistic sense of time. This sets up a discontinuity between the insideness of time, which can be measured, and the experience of duration as the passage of time as an outsideness.
Contorting this through Deleuze’s exotic interpretation of Kant’s theory of time, Greenspan invokes the Deleuzean concept of Aeon to flatten the outside of a somewhat Kairotic or Bergsonian duration into an extensive plane of immanent intensities. Greenspan then brings this into the era of computation, digitalia, machinery, and cyberspace-time.
Through an examination of the events incident with the nascence of the third millennium, Y2K is proffered as a then-present example of an Aeonic occurrence. Such manifestations of Aeon present themselves as ruptures, caesuras, and discontinuities in the metaphysical fabric of time. Y2K unfolded a new temporal regime, a new techn(e)o-millennialism, with eschatological undertones of apocalyptic prophesies harking back to the myths and spiritual technologies of Abrahamic faiths. Heralding the dawn of the age of cyberspace, machinic temporality takes precedence over the time of clock and calendar from here onwards.
In the orbit of the temporal rupture and virtual catastrophe of Y2K, Greenspan’s account arrived at its “teleological termination point” as her doctoral dissertation was submitted to the University of Warwick. Our wish for this supplementary text is to situate and further develop Greenspan’s theories of time in the context of the present day (2022).
Ultimately, we conclude that the non-event of Y2K paved the way for the ascendancy of machine time. The rapid proliferation of networked modes of being—not least the Internet itself—was accompanied by a concomitant increase in importance in modes of temporality which facilitate and govern the synchronization of widely distributed computational apparatuses. These approaches take varying flavors and architectures, with some protocols resembling the hierarchies of authority that human societies have taken since time immaterial, and others that instead opting for the immanent flatness of a peer-to-peer structure without intermediaries. Arguably the most evocative and provocative exemplification of the new affordances of contemporary chronotechnics is what we refer to as timechain technology, the linear and append-only data structure that gives decentralized networks such as Bitcoin their vertebral historicity. Timechain-architected distributed systems—and the mechanisms by which peer consensus in the absence of trusted authorities is achieved—can be regarded as a process of transforming virtual network activity, through the computational power of capital, into ordinally sequenced batches of pure Chronos. The timechain instantiates a new clock, a new kind of time, far more removed from that of the diurnal clock and solar calendar than has ever been witnessed before.
What can we imagine to be the next part of this story? Does this trajectory end here, with the prophesy of Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine seemingly fulfilled? We suppose not. But unlike Bitcoin’s radical mechanism of synthesizing historicities, as mere humans we have no way of peering beyond the veil and seeing which of our possible futures may be borne out. This is perhaps the most reassuring matter of all: that in the age of ultra-precision and Chronic segmentation, the future is anything but certain. One speculation seems uncontroversial: that capital, and those entities in the service of it, will continue to desire, enact, and exploit ever-grander conceptions and architectures of temporal engineering. For as long as there is value to be redistributed, there will be incentives to engineer more sophisticated machinery with which to manipulate the nature and flow of time. Today, whether we acknowledge it or not, we all live inside Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine.
Wassim Z. Alsindi, Max Hampshire, and Paul Seidler
Berlin, Germany and Vienna, Austria
Thanks to Matt Colquhoun and Amy Ireland for helpful comments during the preparation of this article.
1: Amy Ireland, “Twitter Post,” published May 5, 2018. https://twitter.com/qdnoktsqfr/status/992961115112882176
2: Anna Greenspan, Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine (London, CA: Miskatonic Virtual University Press, 2023), 28.
3: See CCRU, “Who’s Pulling Your Strings?” in Writings: 1997–2003 (Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic, 2017): ((::))–:(:)((:)) [17–30].
4: Greenspan, Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine, 39–40.
5: Ibid., 36.
6: Ibid., 57.
7: Ibid., 104.
8: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Volume 2, trans., B. Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 262.
10: Greenspan, Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine, 12.
11: Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 262.
12: Greenspan, Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine, 131; Anna Greenspan, “Interview,” in Temporal Secessionism Sourcebook, 65–78 (Plaza Protocol, 2021), 70. https://www.plazaprotocol.si/assets/other/Temporal_Secessionism_Sourcebook.pdf
13: Greenspan, Capitalism’s Transcendetal Time Machine, 120–121.
14: Ibid., 113.
15: Erik Davis, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, (London, UK: Serpent’s Tail, 2004), 302.
15: Greenspan, Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine, 116.
16: Ibid., 133.
17: Ibid., 109.
18: Olga Hryniuk, “Ouroboros Chronos provides the first high-resilience, cryptographic time source based on blockchain technology,” on Input|Output, published October 26, 2021. https://iohk.io/en/blog/posts/2021/10/27/ouroboros-chronos-provides-the-firsthighresilience-cryptographic-time-source-based-on-blockchain/
19: Nascent, “Distributed Temporal Mutations: Consensus-Systems as Novel Temporal Regimes,” in Temporal Secessionism Sourcebook, 79–97 (Plaza Protocol, 2021), 88. https://www.plazaprotocol.si/assets/other/Temporal_Secessionism_Sourcebook.pdf
20: Greenspan, “Interview,” 77.
21: Ibid., 70.
22: Ibid., 72.
23: Greenspan, Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine, 116.
24: Ibid., 122.
25: Satoshi Nakamoto, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” on Bitcoin, published October 28, 2008. https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf
26: Greenspan, Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine, 104.
27: Ibid., 115.
28: Wassim Z. Alsindi, “Bitcointingency: An Economics of Indeterminacy,” on Weird Economies, published February 14, 2022. https://weirdeconomies.com/contributions/bitcointingency
29: Greenspan, Capitalism’s Transcendental Time Machine, 109.