Is The Future Forked?! On Rob Myers’s cryptocurrency-sci-fi

Category : blogging · by Feb 20th, 2017

DOWNLOAD BAD SHIBE BY ROB MYERS HERE with illustrations by Lina Theodorou

Such future. Very crypto. Much catastrophe. Wow.

Bad Shibe is published as the Internet of information (the World Wide Web) is being superseded as the next big thing by the Internet of value and assets (the blockchain). It invites us to imagine what kind of society emerges when a system designed to verify the transfer of digital assets is combined with a world where reputation is based on “followers” and “likes”. It is a tale of loss of innocence, and it is also packed full of good jokes!

Information isn’t what it used to be. Once regarded as an infinite resource and wellspring of universal emancipation, decontextualized information now washes through our societies like toxic waste, glutting electronic superhighways and neuronal byways, and confuzzling global populations. And so, the cryptocurrency evangelist speaks to a present-day yearning for a global system that might provide a trustworthy structure — an economics of information, and an informational economy.

The story deals with the implications of a new wave of fully financialised planetary-scale automation and the struggle to discern right from wrong when human and machine agency merges. It also invites us to think of humans and societies as much as the effects of technology as its beneficiaries.

About the Author

“In a post-truth world, authenticity and accuracy are the twin chambered beating heart of communication” Karla Ptáček, Avatar Body Collision

Rob Myers is an artist, hacker, and writer. For more than two decades his work has probed and clarified the significance to society of practices in expressive and engineering cultures, from the apparently mundane and bureaucratic to the deeply mysterious. Through his artworks, many of which take the form of software, he plays with concepts of art, value, authorship and creation in the age of digital networks. My appreciation of Rob Myers’s oeuvre has developed and intensified over the last decade. And it is no exaggeration to say that his art and writing have made it possible for me to endure the difficulty (and with it sometimes boredom) of learning about the emerging technical protocols of our age that lie beyond the candy coated surfaces of the social web, and the new analytical approaches and techniques for exploring their consequences.

Bad Shibe is typical of his work in many ways. The text is packed with delicious references and jokes that derive from high, low and pop cultures; from art, literature and computer science; from “maximally pre” and since-net. It is simultaneously high art and high geek. Its time-of-writing is encoded in every utterance of its characters, the topics of their conversations, and the structure of their grammar and syntax.

World Shibe Web

“My mouth goes “Ew!” and my face is totally onboard with that.” – YS is disgusted by the Salesbro’s display of antique money.

Bad Shibe is a meditation on the emergence of ideologies propounded and executed by an elite of technical experts who are also free market believers. YS lives in a post-gender, post-fiat (government backed) money era in which tweens work in orchards to pay for school.- YS is a little wrapped up in themselves and gives a running commentary of their every action, in a way reminiscent of MUDs and MOOs – early virtual worlds in which you write your world, relationships, and passage through them into existence. In the tradition of some of the best dystopian literature (by for instance Russell Holborn, Kathy Acker) the mode of language is fundamental to its worlding. The categories of speaking, thinking, intending and acting overlap for YS in ways that conventional language doesn’t allow. This overlapping affects how bodies, beliefs and consciences work in this future anarchic higgledipiggle of dustbowl landscapes, green shield stamps, milk crates, apples, wraps, blue hair, drones, phones and 3D printers, and a city that resembles circuits. A symbolic world as much as a material one.

Concepts of sin, illegality, hazard, faith and social embarrassment are interchangeable for YS – a confusion that plays out in subtle yet profound ways in the story. It is also possible YS is not entirely in control of their phone and is able to affect the world in ways they have not yet understood. The narrative is powered by a surge of jealousy which causes YS to doubt the integrity of the reputation market that is their whole world, and to feel bad.

Bad conscience: the 3000+ year old innovation of city dwelling priesthoods that enabled the masses to internalise the techniques of their own oppression now mediated through the Panopticon conceived by enlightenment utilitarianism guru Jeremy Bentham, and the Netopticon via which corporations and states are able to track and monitor our every action online. The Netopticon 2.0 dramatised in Bad Shibe institutes the 360 degree all-dimensional, all-perspectival review, analysis, critique and management of the algorithmic citizen by the algorithmic citizen. As a result, the entanglement of emotional, legal and financial relations is complete. In the near now of Bad Shibe, morality is reduced to what is provable (YS tells us “the market doesn’t care about motivation”), in the service of the market, on the blockchain, and therefore it is forever.

Some readers might like some background on cryptocurrencies and the blockchain, with which the speculations of Bad Shibe concern themselves.

What do we need to know about cryptocurrencies and blockchains?

“Pups love AreWeThereYet, but it’s just a game. It’s the underlying currency protocol and the analytics overtop that matter..” – UnoY

A cryptocurrency is digital, but it can be used and exchanged like other currencies. The “crypto” bit refers to the techniques used to prevent counterfeiting and maintain its security. Bitcoin, the leading example of cryptocurrency was launched by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008, just as, and in part perhaps because (there is evidence to suggest) the banks were being bailed out by government with taxpayers’ money. Cryptocurrencies are not issued by a central authority like a country, nor controlled by a central bank. Instead, their value and use as an exchange medium is reached by consensus between its users using blockchain technology. In cyptocurrency, trust in the mathematics of cryptography and the fairness of market forces replaces trust in people and institutions.

The value of a cryptocurrency is set by market supply and demand, just as with gold or silver. Hard metals derive their value from scarcity and the difficulty of extraction, with cryptocurrencies the only difficulty is computational, the only scarcity by design. Miners’ machines run software that uses processing power and lots of energy to compete for coins. To mine new coins, these computers periodically gather up a “block” of new transactions from across the network and then race to solve a difficult mathematical puzzle for that block. The winner is said to have successfully mined the block, granting them ownership of the freshly minted coins and any transaction fees paid by users.

This new block incorporates a reference to the previously mined block (represented by its “cryptographic hash” ID number), and joins a sequential, unmovable chain of blocks. The security and stability of a blockchain is maintained because all users hold a record of every transaction made. Because each new block takes so much computational power to mine, it very quickly becomes prohibitively expensive to hack the currency.

The blockchain solves the longstanding computer science problem of the (delightfully named) Byzantine Generals: “How do I prove that the payment I have received can be honoured, in order that I may release my asset to the payee?”

The initial advertised benefits of cryptocurrencies (there are lots of altcoins now all with slightly different features) included the lack of interference by states and banks, the “trusted third parties” Nakamoto’s white paper, required in all solutions to the Byzantine Generals problem; the low cost of payment processing (compared with wire transfers); and the ability of its underpinning blockchain technology to provide infrastructure connecting transactional apparatus to secure votes and shares holdings. Because of the anonymity of transfers, Bitcoin is also said to have facilitated money laundering, the trading of illicit goods and nefarious services such as assassination markets.

What do we need to know about Dogecoin?

Dogecoin is a real world altcoin, from which the near-future society of Bad Shibe seems to have evolved. It’s not hard to see why Myers would chose this lovable altcoin at the basis for his story.

Dogecoin launched in December 2013 as a joke cryptocurrency based on a dog meme. The central design of the crypto-token is the enchanting face of the shiba inu puppy which exudes trusting, playful positivity. It says “WOW” and is encircled by the words “very currency wow much coin how money so crypto plz mine v rich” in the delightful meme based language of Doge, so satisfying for joking. And as Brett Scott writes:

The Doge is a figure without ego, with cross-cultural, cross-gender, and yes, even cross-species appeal. We can all get something from the gaze of the Shibu. This is reflected in the resultant community that has emerged around Dogecoin, people who refer to themselves as ‘shibes’ and give each other gifts of Doge. While the Bitcoin subreddit has turned into a moshpit of aggressive trolling, Dogecoin forums feel inclusive and accepting, cohering around a surreal world of esoteric slogans and acts of goodwill.

The Dogecoin currency is “dug” at high frequency, for low financial value. Users both express and inspire generosity, through extravagant tipping, showing their appreciation, or admiration of others. This proved to be a remarkably successful community building strategy. In 2014 (at the time that Myers was writing Bad Shibe) the fiat-value of the currency blew up unexpectedly, and by January it had achieved a market capitalisation of $60million. Shibes adopted the phrase “going to the moon!”, which originated with Bitcoin, using it ironically to describe the coin’s rising value (making everyone holding it rich)

Two years is a long time in Doge years

Rob Myers wrote Bad Shibe in 2014. Since 2013 blockchain-based platforms like Ethereum have been under development to enable software programmes known as “smart contracts” to perform actions and administer capital across digital networks without human user verification. The result is Decentralized Autonomous Organisations, and Applications (DAOs and DAPPs), that act like computer viruses with wallets in their pockets. They have ambiguous legal status, and therefore operate outside of government regulation. While this is one of the main attractions to people whose political complexion we might describe as anarcho-capitalist and who ask “what has regulation ever done for us?”, there is growing concern about the impact of these technologies. As Dr Catherine Mulligan puts it “The redefinition of society will happen in smart contracts and these kind of places unless the law courts are actively ensuring that people aren’t getting disenfranchised” and the worry is that society is being restructured by a small unrepresentative group of technocrats while “it’s something that everyone needs to participate in – the discussion about society and economy and also governance, how we rule ourselves.”

Bad Shibe explores a number of threats to a society operating on the logic and infrastructure of cryptocurrency systems, smart contracts and DAOs and anticipates “The DAO hack” of 2016. The software fork that followed was highly controversial and split the community in a moment reminiscent of the theological schisms of medieval Christianity. Breaking with one of the core tenets of blockchain ideology, that all actions on the blockchain are immutable and sit forever and into eternity outwith potentially corrupting human influence, it prompted a true crisis of faith in the blockchain community. It is also the subject of one of the best jokes in Bad Shibe (look out for the Claes Oldenberg reference).

Some final thoughts

Bad Shibe is fiction based in fact.

It helps us to feel our way around some of the consequences of the global infrastructure under construction. This is conceived by one blockchain start-up, BackFeed as “a social operating system that enables massive open-source collaboration without central organisation” for a world free from the tiresome daily deliberations, discussions and negotiations of both ethics and politics. One in which we could avoid all conflict (from the horrors of war to blushes of social embarrassment) simply by hard-wiring social softwares for justice and good manners. In this universe the only limits we face are to our powers of imagination, innovation, organisation and coordination. We could do away with the need for trust, by creating and maintaining a shared open record of all actions and transactions, and mechanising all incentives and punishments, from now to eternity. A universal, decentralised and frictionless infrastructure to facilitate the productive forces of free markets – to satisfy every desire of every shibe?

Ruth Catlow February 2017