In The State Machine Of Nature, Nothing Will Be Lost ::: Wassim Z. Alsindi
Looking around today at carbon market shock-waves being caused by minor disruptions to fossil fuel flows on account of conflict in former Soviet states, it is uncontroversial to note that we—as humans, on Earth, in 2022 CE—continue to exist under a paradigm of energy scarcity. We rely on indirect and direct sources of Solar-mediated energy to power our own metabolisms as well as to drive the machinery of modern human society. In the position of Homo Sapiens as global apex predator, we have taken the logics of extraction and exploitation to their grotesque apotheoses. Photosynthetic plants, which can fix atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbohydrates using solar photons in the visible domain of the electromagnetic spectrum, are both burnt (for warmth) and consumed (for sustenance) by animals, which in turn are eaten by humans. The anaerobic decomposition of ancient life gives rise, over geological timescales, to the 'fossil fuels' of gas, oil, and coal which continue to power the majority of Earth's power generation and transportation, despite it becoming abundantly clear that the environmental costs are mounting up: in terms of air quality, ecosystem degradation and water pollution in addition to increasing the quantities of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere.
“The Bitcoin ledger is a collective technofinancial hallucination, where capital and energy, deployed over time, create reality.” W. Z. Alsindi, Bitcointingency, Weird Economies, 2022.
Having set the scene in this planetary moment, enter Bitcoin and proof-of-work in early 2009. Proof-of-work is primarily a Sybil-resistance mechanism: preventing malicious actors from flooding the network with spam by making block creation costly. Bitcoin is an event-ordering system above all else, proof-of-work is the mechanism with instantiates this new kind of clock, and the timechain is the verifiable record of the history of the network (also referred to as blockchain). In producing its own temporal regime, it makes a clean break from the outside cycles of calendar and clock. In order to conduct its business in an ‘orderly manner’ without authorities endogenous to the network, Bitcoin relies on proof-of-work to leaderlessly distribute the right to create the next block in the timechain, via a lottery-mediated process which requires enormous (and increasing) quantities of energy and specialised equipment to participate in, incentivising participants with a mixture of protocol-determined subsidies / rewards as well as user-paid transaction fees. Due to the periodic difficulty adjustment of proof-of-work success probabilities, which keeps the rhythm of confirmed blocks steady as the network's overall computational resource scales up and down, Bitcoin’s thirst for computational resources is insatiable by design.
“The mechano-vampiric paradigm of proof-of-work is a growing threat to planetary ecology. The Faustian reality of proof-of-work is that Bitcoin exists in competition with natural life for the harvestable energy this side of the Sun, and it will continue to outbid nature as time and capital accumulate in its ledger.” W. Z. Alsindi, Bitcointingency, Weird Economies, 2022.
Furthermore, the protocol is insensitive to the environmental consequences of the externalities arising from the undesirable by-products of proof-of-work, principally heat and e-waste. As such, Bitcoin is not (e-)waste per se, but rather incentivises its proliferation. A e-waste attractor? The same incentives, under our current paradigm of energy scarcity, lead to Bitcoin mediating a zero-sum game between capital and ecology, in a race to the bottom to secure consistent energy flows. Nothing has made this more clear than the recent geopolitical instability in Eurasia – without a steady supply of baseload power (coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear) to maintain reliable and consistent power generation, load-shedding plans are being made for periods of peak European energy demand in the coming winter. This will lead to brownouts and blackouts as continual power delivery no longer becomes possible. Is Bitcoin the next Gazprom?
“There is no a priori nature. Nature is a construct. Nature is degenerate bourgeois luxury. Nature is death. If nature is unjust, destroy nature.” Cryptographic Poetics Researchers' Union, The Necroprimitivist Manifesto Pt.1, 2022.
Bitcoin’s arrow of time will maintain its inexorable continuation, monetary black hole that it is, sucking capital and energy into its ever-accreting centre of thermoeconomic gravity. Bitcoin is vulnerable at its margins, as technological paradigms and energy sources shift. Whether this is by means of ascendant modes of computation or incremental upgrades to hardware matters less than the fact that a shift occurs, in an inevitably heterogeneous manner. Entrenched polities will continue to exercise temporal privilege in various ways in the Bitcoin network, mostly by way of miners’ affordances in deciding the possible futures of the network’s ledger. Cryptocurrencies employing Bitcoin-style proof-of-work are eternally contingent systems, as network participants can always expend more effort to rewrite the priorly canonical history. This is, in essence, determinacy-as-a-service: certainty comes at a price that only few can truly pay, as it must be paid in perpetuity.
Finally, speculations around teleological termination points for Bitcoin’s thermocapital singularity, both of which presuppose the subordination of natural life to Bitcoin. One is a 'blessed' timeline where proof-of-work provides the necessary economic incentives to bootstrap Earth’s clean energy generation into a boundless—but incredibly unequal—post-scarcity future. One might think of this as a Childhood’s End timeline. The other is less rosy, insofar as Bitcoin would lock capital and ecology into a zero-sum game where resource scarcity tips the balance in favour of competition as opposed to cooperation, and machines become direct antagonists of nature. Perhaps this might be the Stalker/Roadside Picnic timeline, or a Bitlerian Jihad invoking Frank Herbert’s prehistory of Dune. In such a case, rather than being a new form of artificial life as zealots proclaim, Bitcoin appears more akin to anti-life, or even a form of ‘artificial death’. Bitcoin's proof-of-work does not—and cannot—care about life, other than in its need for intelligent agents to continue to provide it with energy. For now, Bitcoin's useful idiots are necroprimitivist humans, but someday non-human agents may meet all its needs and render humans superfluous: or as adversaries in need of destruction. Is Bitcoin a Nakamoto's Basilisk, an Immaculate Misconception which is destined to kill all planetary life, or die trying? To paraphrase Hobbes: in the state machine of Nature, nothing will be lost.