My good friend is considering converting his money to Bitcoin and has taken enough steps to convince me that he is convinced this is a good move, though I am not at all convinced that his being convinced is a good move because I cannot, for all I read about it, understand Bitcoin’s attraction and thus understand why someone would trust Bitcoin to both have value and hold value.
I do understand some things about this situation, though.
I understand the techno-libertarian delight in promoting a transaction medium not mediated by a government and distributed in a decentralized network and which eliminates the messy politics of human society through the grace of code. (Question for the techno-libertarian: why the unquestioned trust in a decentralized network when you have shown, through your own coding skills, the ability to hack into supposedly sacrosanct systems. Maginot Line, anyone?)
I understand that we exchange money virtually all the time (e.g., wiring or transferring dollars into an account) and that bit/byte money is just as actual as the paper in our pockets.
I understand that the value of any money is, in part, based on a faith in the institution issuing it that the institution will work to maintain its value and availability.
In short, virtuality powers our financial systems, but it does so in different ways at different levels. At the level of my making an online transfer, the electronic numbers sent back and forth are a much more efficient way to make the exchange than my taking $100 out of my account, filling out a deposit slip, depositing it into that other account, and getting my receipt. The 1s and 0s make for a smoother and more auditable process.
But in the investing world, these virtual exchanges become a kind of commodity that can then be traded, as we saw in 2008. Once solid things, like mortgage contracts, became so virtualized that they eventually just melted away: the mortgage sliced into securitized tranches, which were then re-sliced into another “financial product,” and so on until, at some point, the end-product had no connection to its starting-product, and no one had any control over anything.
Bitcoin strikes me in the same way. Yes, fiat money, issued by the U.S. government, is, in a way, a faith-based enterprise: I trust that the government will do all it can to maintain the value of the currency, and thus my faith in its powers, so that I and others can exchange it for goods and services that promote our common prosperity. But it’s not entirely faith-based. Or, rather, the faith has ties to tangible economic stuff that can inform it and strengthen it; the value is not just pulled from the air or made-up as we go along.
What drives the value of Bitcoin? Bitcoin’s underlying blockchain technology is easy to understand because it’s a ledger than can’t be hacked (yet) to falsify transactions, thus making it easier to trust negotiations and enact contracts. And the miners in the system, who are doing all the verifications in the decentralized ledger to keep it honest, get a reward for their work: Bitcoin. But no one really knows how to value the Bitcoin rewards that miners are receiving. Any value assigned to Bitcoin seems arbitrary, and the volatility of the current run-up and run-down in values, driven in part by new Bitcoin futures exchanges, makes it unreliable as a currency.
Well, my friend will do what he will do and reap what he will reap, and I wish him great luck. My point here is not to explicate Bitcoin but to show how hungry humans are for virtuality, hungry to nest within virtual worlds, hungry to be driven by phantasms, demons, rules-of-thumb, and best guesses and distracted by the endless chatter within their brains, reified in the internet and social media. Visualize a human being as moving through the world enveloped in a fog that is also a screen running endless uncurated programming, all of it real, little of it really real, sleepwalking with eyes shut wide.
Man, that sounds so geezerish, doesn’t it? The “all that solids melts into air” trope, eh? “I remember when reality was real and not virtual!” and so on.
But let us dig into this a bit more. I’m not talking only about the technological virtualities of our brave new world because we employ other kinds of virtuality as well in our lives, such as political ideologies, religious dogmas, racial prejudices, all of which attack the real in the same way, by reducing complexity and uncertainty into a “just-so” story that can be used for distraction, certification, or both.
Just as modern humans hunger for their screens, they hunger for these other virtualities as well, and they have had a longer historical time to ooze their dark nostalgias into our veins and turn the world into a slaughterhouse several times over. We see this in our current American politics, we saw it in the Balkans after 1989, and the ooze continues to stain Europe and Russia and Asia today. Google may have created maps of brilliant cartographic detail, but when it comes to the topography of a human being, large swaths are still marked with the faces of monsters and captioned with “unknown.”
These days I find myself resisting the Netflixing of life – finding the one streaming service to rule them all (and because there is no such single service, we are prompted to pay for many of them to stitch together a seamless streaming life). This also includes going to movies and plays, as well as reading fiction. I find myself mistrusting their intent, which feels very much like a cocooning or a softening of the realities round me – escapades for escape.
I find that I don’t want to be affected, I want to be tutored. I don’t want to be moved, I want to be schooled. Something serious and scouring and loving enough of me to wound me.
Modern science may describe reality, at bottom, as nothing but a stew of quarks and zizzing space, but we live at a Newtonian level of falling apples and cluster bombs, of bodies and suffering. This brings to mind favored words from Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms….Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel the cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.”
We need a better thisness, a different diet of real. Delete Facebook and its offspring. Read more, and read real books with bindings and heft. No plays or movies, art galleries – don’t trust the artistic impulse, too often self-indulgent and selfish. Talk with people and try to use a language that honors confusion and dismay and moves us away from our certainties and judgments.
But not only these penitences for penitence’s sake, a dutiful shriving. Also needed is the infusion of satisfaction, maybe even joy, that comes from what Michael Benedikt calls, in For an Architecture of Reality, “direct esthetic experiences of the real…there are valued times when the world is perceived afresh: perhaps after a rain…or, alone, one sees again the roundness of an apple. At these times our perceptions are not at all sentimental. They are, rather, matter of fact, neutral and undesiring—yet suffused with an unreasoned joy at the simple correspondence of appearance and reality, at the evident rightness of thing as they are.”
He goes on to say that while our modernist selves profess that we live in a solar system of deconstructed worlds, “we are actually one-worldists when it comes to a good cup of coffee” and that “so familiar is the ring of truth, the tenor of reality, the ‘bite and sweet gravity’ (Sontag) of things real and beautiful that if we are, most of us, as I surmise, fairly expert at discerning what is really real from what is not, then there lies a tragedy of some proportion: we will not claim the expertise for fear of appearing unworldly.”
Perhaps this is what my resistance is all about: an effort to become worldly again, to leave Flatland and reĆ«nter the three-dimensional world of Spaceland, to pay a deeper attention to paying attention, to clear out the capitalist fogs and phantasms, to exercise my expertise in knowing what is whole and weighted and dense.
But I think it’s even more than that. It’s about reclaiming our mortality.
Becoming more worldly will give us a ballast that the virtual is designed not to give us so that we can admit what we are too afraid to admit about our human lives: that we don’t really know much of anything, we’re mostly powerless to change anything, our lives are mostly wasted, and we hunger for at least one moment of light before we pass away, Spalding Gray’s “perfect moment.”
Techno-utopianism gets in the way of understanding this. Ergo, let’s get rid of the techno-utopianism so that we can redeem our own vaporous yet meaty selves and live lives that take deep joy both in the thingness of our world and the fact that our “too too solid flesh” will one day gently deliquesce. Becoming fully human in the age of machine learning —bone and gristle resolving itself into a dew—may be the most radical action one can take. And that seems to be the road I’m walking these days.