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An Entropy Engine Forever Externalising w/Wassim Alsindi

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We interview Wassim Alsindi to discuss an array of topics that weave together Cryptocurrencies, DAOs, Tokenspaces, his project 0x Salon, and the evolution of timekeeping.

Wassim Alsindi PhD

Wassim is the founder and host of the 0x Salon, conducting experiments in post-disciplinary collective knowledge practices. The 0x Salon provides an informal space for unstructured discussions of unusual topics and collectively authors artistic and pedagogical outputs based on those conversations. A veteran of the blockchain space, Wassim currently works on conceptual design and philosophy of cryptoeconomic systems at BlockScience, in addition to writing and editorial responsibilities for various publications including the MIT Computational Law Report.

Previously, Wassim co-founded and edited the MIT Media Lab’s interdisciplinary Cryptoeconomic Systems (CES) journal and chaired the CES’19 and CES’20 conferences on-campus. Prior to MIT, he was an independent researcher formulating novel approaches to the characterisation of cryptographic assets and networks such as the regulatory epistemology project TokenSpace. Wassim has also curated avant-garde arts events, led a creative engineering laboratory and published open-source experimental electronic music. Originally with research specialisations in the physical sciences, Wassim holds a PhD in ultrafast supramolecular photophysics from the University of Nottingham alongside degrees in chemistry, astrophysics and finance.

Wassim Alsindi:



Dustin Breiting: The gamut of your academic and theoretical research expands from astrophysics to cryptocurrencies. You’ve also been engaged as a decentralised arts organizer, founder, and manager of creative projects as well as a festival curator. Can you reflect upon the formative moments in your life that helped to shape or nudge you towards certain intellectual trajectories as well as intellectual discoveries?

Wassim Alsindi: Yes, sure. I mean, that is, no small question. I guess we should restart from the start. One of my first memories, I grew up in England, my family is from Iraq, I was born in England, very fortunate. One of my first memories, I think I must have been about two years old, or maybe just a little bit less, I was sitting on my father’s shoulders, and I looked up at the night sky. I pointed at it, and I said to my father, what’s that? And I remember him saying, I don’t know how to, I can’t explain that to you, he said in Arabic, I asked him what it was in Arabic. I didn’t speak English at that moment. I don’t have many memories from my early childhood that are so clear and crisp that have stayed with me. But I do remember looking up at that thing, and then getting an unsatisfactory answer to this explanation. And thinking to myself, well, I better find out or I would like to know more. Astronomy or astrophysics were pretty much my first real intellectual curiosities and they kind of stuck with me.

Even though as you get older, you experience different things, you become acquainted with and enamoured with different things, you go down rabbit holes, you change, you hit adolescence, you get to adulthood, and so on. I was, fast forward a few years, I was at secondary school, in a town called Grantham, in the Midlands of the UK, which is where I actually went to the same high school as Isaac Newton, believe it or not. Across the road from the school Margaret Thatcher, that slightly less salubrious figure from her British life was born in the bedroom above a butcher store in the centre of Grantham.

I went to this very old school, it wasn’t an exclusive school, it wasn’t a private school or anything like that. And there was an astronomy club at the school. And one day, we were doing some amateur observation in the back garden of the headmaster. And they invited the now deceased, then very notable high profile, astronomer and TV presenter, Sir Patrick Moore. And that was really kind of a quite key inspiring moment for me. When we were around in a little semicircle, the headmaster and Patrick Moore and myself and 10 other schoolchildren from the Astronomy Club.

We were going around, kind of everyone giving their hopes, their dreams, and aspirations for the future. What things would they like to do? And a lot of the time, you probably imagine you were there with the famous astronomer talking about the night sky and his television shows and his storied career, as everyone there was saying, I want to be an astrophysicist. I want to be an astronomer.Patrick Moore was saying you can do it, you can, you can be whatever you want to be. And so that stuck with me, I was, I think, 11 or 12, at that age. Then I found another dozen or so years later, I was finishing my university education, my first and second degrees, which I did in Nottingham, Midlands of the UK, and I had the chance to go to Leiden University in the Netherlands, just kind of like the Cambridge the elite University of Netherlands.

Then I was doing astrochemistry, or like, experiments, astrophysics, I suppose you could say. That was a moment that I looked back and I was like, Oh, I actually did it. I sat on my father’s shoulders, looking at the night sky, telling myself, I wanted to know more about that. And then I was in the back garden of the headmaster with the famous astronomer coming, inspired. And then there I was, at the oldest astronomical research Observatory in the world, writing my first papers at the tender age of 22. I suppose that’s one of the strands, and then from there, I went back to England to start a PhD. And then I moved slightly back to an older field that I was working on, which was kind of laser physics, ultra-fast photophysics.

And during that time, I picked up a really kindly mentor who took me under his wing, a very senior Professor called Martyn Poliakoff. He later became the deputy president, the Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, which is the oldest learning institution in the world. And one of the things that he did while we were at Nottingham, he was a very kind, humble fellow, I recommend looking this guy up. He has a very famous YouTube channel with well over a million subscribers called the periodic table of videos. He’s very charismatic, kind of a descendant of czarist Russian emigres. And his brother is the famous playwright Stephen Poliakoff. One of the things he did in Nottingham, he was very much a highly rated communicator of scientific information to the public. That was something that really was impressive to me, and something that I aspired to be myself as well. He started this thing called Café Scientifique, which was a meeting of the minds just in a kind of normal pub bar wax, I think it was called in Nottingham, where a bunch of professors and senior academics, we get together and they would have these kinds of reasonably free-flowing discussions about various topics.

Then when he became the deputy president of the Royal Society, He then took that down to London. So then Café Scientifique, became a much more high profile, fancy event that was interesting to be there in the kind of like, the humble beginnings of it. We talked a little bit about art. So I used to run a kind of tentacular organisation that was a mixture of an events programme, a record label, artist Management Agency, doing curatorial work and also organising discourse programmes, series, events, moderating discussions and the like. And so as a kid, I was always interested in music, I was playing the piano guitar, then puberty hit and I had different wants, needs, and desires so I wanted to play in bands, rock metal music and rebel against whatever orthodoxy was around.

I suppose back then I was making a mixture of black metal and dungeon synth since I suppose you might call it now, so quite weird stuff. Anyways I went to university in Nottingham and I wasn’t making so much music or doing so much creative stuff then, I was pretty busy doing my chemistry studies, but I remained a connoisseur, like a record collector and a connoisseur. Then a little bit later towards the end of my Ph.D. I then started the Centrifuge which was what started off as an event series and then a record label, we moved the events down to London from Nottingham, Nottingham is quite a small town that wasn’t really on the map. Then going down to London, we put things a bit more on the map. And then in 2010, I moved to Berlin to kind of spread the thing across Europe. That was a wild adventure for me who had spent most of my 20s in a darkened room in a university laboratory.

Then I was gallivanting around with my music heroes and touring with them and all the rest of the interesting activities that might entail. But yeah, so I suppose the most relevant strand to where we are today is that the supernatant side of that, which was the discourse series and then became curator at a small Swedish arts festival called Norbergfestival. It was a very cute and communist endeavour, which got more money from the Swedish government than it did from ticket sales that gave a great deal of intellectual freedom. I was charged with, as well as being one of the music creators for the main programme. I was also running the workshops and the discourse series.

For example, we had in 2017, we had a conversation with Benjamin Noys on Accelerationism, Maligned Velocities was doing the rounds at that time. And I guess that was my first entry point into some of the kind of more weird theory, vanguard philosophy, stuff that seems to be so prevalent these days. And yeah, so there was kind of like a few wilderness years between, say, 2015 and 2018. I was travelling a lot. The music thing had kind of come to an end. And I hadn’t gone down the rabbit holes that I found myself down now.

Around 2017 I started writing papers, like research papers on cryptocurrencies and the like, I’ll just say that where I found cryptocurrencies was quite interesting and weird. In 2013, I was on a tour on the west coast of the United States with a few artists from the record label.

And one of them said, after the show in SF, hey let’s go hang out with my friend, who is doing an internship at Intel. So we went over to this friend’s place in Santa Clara where he lived in a little shoebox condo. And he opened his closet and said, check this out, I’m doing this thing called mining Bitcoin. And this was April 2013, I believe. And he didn’t have many nice things to say about Bitcoin, because power in California is very expensive.

He was mostly grumbling about how much it was keeping costing him to keep the lights on this GPU rig that he was running was basically spent apart from the station we covered in Intel. But even despite all of that, he seemed to be not very happy with his choices. So I didn’t get a particularly favourable impression of Bitcoin, at that stage. But anyway, that idea kind of was planted, the seed was planted in my mind. I brewed on that for a while, which I guess we might come back to later. But yes, skip forward a few years, I was writing papers, going around giving talks to a team, I went back into the university environment, at first in a business school in the UK.

And then it was a wider cryptocurrency lecture circuit between 2018-19, doing independent research, trying to bootstrap an organisation that would make open source research outputs, and trying to fund this thing without joining one of the network tribes, without taking too much, without being influenced too much by anyone network or token or coin or anything like that. That was actually very hard during the crypto winter during 2018 or 19. When everybody felt very poor, and nobody wanted to fund things that didn’t explicitly improve the investment proposition or the raison d’etre for various your particular network. I couldn’t really get that thing off the ground, financially speaking.

I was quite happy with the work that I was doing and I standby most of that, which I think we might talk a bit about that later. But anyway, I was also trying to get a position in UK academia. I was applying for everything from postdocs to professorships at this time around 2018-2019. I was striking out, I didn’t get a single interview in a year as applying for like in computer science departments, economics departments, wherever else there was something even vaguely relevant. And I suppose this was a testament to the lack of maturity of academic research in the space at that time, especially explicitly interdisciplinary or crypto native research. I didn’t get a single interview for maybe fifteen jobs I applied for. I was pretty disheartened.

At that point, I was just pushing on writing my papers and doing my thing. I suppose I was a bit bloody-minded. And at one point, I was sitting in my dressing gown and my parent’s conservatory in Doncaster, in South Yorkshire where they lived above a coal mine. I was reading MIT’s newsletter, MIT Digital Currency Initiatives newsletter, which was a precursor to a journal that they wanted to set up, and at the bottom of the newsletter, was an advert for the job to run the journal. And I thought to myself, well, MIT feels quite far away at the moment. But I’ve got this application, which doesn’t seem to be working anyway. Let me just spend an hour like the other thing, and I’ll send it out, send my message in a bottle. And yeah, one thing led to another, interviews led to work in trials. And I got this position to be the managing editor and co-founder of MIT’s crypt economic systems journal a blockchain journal-based Media Lab and the 11th hour.

There was a snag, which was, you can have the job, but there’s no visa. You can’t move to Boston as originally intended. Now it’s on you to figure out some other kind of time before we give the job to someone else. And so it is at that point that I said, well, I’ll go back to Berlin for a few years. But that was my natural choice. I do not want to stay in England. And I’ll do it from there as a contractor. One that came back to Berlin in March 2019. I guess about two and a half years ago.

Not long after that, I happened to cross Trust, the workers club, co-working space, digital project studio, that I’m based at now. I decided to show up as a kind of bit grumpy and overworked university person, trying to find some way like with good internet that I could fight to keep my job pretty much.

But there were some really inspiring things happening at Trust, which really influenced me a lot. In particular, the reading groups that we would have, like a big table at the front of the workspace, where different residents here or the members, workers, and others working on engaging projects would gather materials, and we’d sit around and discuss things in their current epistemically interesting, undefined way.

For me, coming from a STEM background, to be surrounded by designers, philosophers, artists, theorists, and all the rest of it, was like a completely new world to me. Like I showed up, there’s a Cybernetics library here at Trust. And I swear that I’d read almost none of the books in it. When I arrived, I never even heard of most of them, or the famous philosophers that we talked about today, as if we used to go drinking with them. I’d heard of almost none of them just a couple of years ago. That was a massive inspiration to me, I suppose just tying it all back together. From the Astrochemistry and the science that was the kind of the meeting of the minds and Café Scientifique, with the arts, running the discourse programme at Norberg Festival and doing our discussion programme, and then there was what was happening at Trust reading groups and other interesting and unusual discussions. I think those three moments are really the crucial kind of synthetic points for what has been happening more recently.

DB: Correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I’ve gathered, you would describe yourself as a former Bitcoin maximalist and recently your work has charted out in general, or maybe we can just reference what you’re doing with 0xSalon. I think we will further explore this in upcoming questions but you focus on the intensive thermodynamic implications that have been associated and have driven a lot of conversation and controversy orbiting around Bitcoin, particularly focusing on what you characterise as ‘The Indifference Engine’ which is the notion of cryptocurrencies and their insensitivity to the energy sources that are used to secure them. We have those questions of negative externalities or just also as well, ecological externalities. Perhaps could you also chart out your trajectory where maybe you had an initial embrace of Bitcoin, what would also be some misgivings or what precipitated these misgivings whether it has been revolving around the energy consumption, centralization of miners, highlighting the specific political associations as well?

WA: I think you’re largely correct in your characterization of me as a former repentant Bitcoin maximalist. I think maybe it’s nice to kind of chart the journey a bit. And because it’s not quite a linear progression, the thing is, we contain multitudes as humans; we’re not necessarily consistent bags of meat and water throughout our lifetimes. When I first found Bitcoin, as I mentioned earlier in 2013, the idea of this uncensorable, untraceable, borderless means of digital value transfer really spoke to me, like the benefits of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies, and it really spoke to me, and I think it was, especially because of my family history. As I mentioned earlier, my family’s from Iraq, and they very hastily had to leave the country just before I was born. In fact, my parents came to England on their honeymoon, and my father is still on his honeymoon, he never went back, it got really bad. This was just before the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1970s. They also had political problems with the Saddam Hussein regime, which complicated matters quite a lot more. Most of my family that managed to escape from Iraq had to do so without taking anything with them. You couldn’t take dollars; they couldn’t take dinars, they couldn’t take gold.

They couldn’t take family heirlooms or sentimental objects, and they were left with pretty much nothing and had to start pretty much from scratch. It was like you couldn’t really transfer money. Letters would get intercepted; there will always be somebody listening to you on the phone. If you said something, they didn’t like, the phone would get disconnected. It was like they were already living under the oppression of the state apparatus in a political and economic sense. The potential affordances of cryptocurrency to be able to kind of redress some of the asymmetries that the state holds over its subjects immediately jumped out to me.

Back in 2013, these things just looked like science projects. I mean, where we are today is almost unimaginable compared to where we were when I first started paying attention to this stuff. And so yeah, it looked like a cool science project. And I didn’t really know that it was going to end up here. But those concepts, those principles, and those ideas really spoke to me. So in 2013-2014, there was a market and mania, and this is all lost in history.

Now even if you look at the price chart, you won’t even notice it—such a tiny blip—that Bitcoin ran up to almost $1,000, I think, in 2013–14, and this was around the time that the MT Gox crypto trading exchange lost a bunch of coins, got hacked, and essentially went into insolvency. And it’s still trying to sort that out in Japan at the moment. Most of the trading was done on this one exchange; they had loads of coins, but most of the supply was on this one exchange, and then it was all gone. And everybody was saying Bitcoin is dead. I mean, I know this is such a cliche now that it has to be trite. There is literally a website called Bitcoin Obituaries, which you can go to and see every time that somebody has declared the end, the demise of Bitcoin. People are really saying that this is such a big economic hamstring that Bitcoin would not recover from it. But I just remember looking at the network and seeing that transactions were still getting broadcast and blocks were still getting found. And I was like, “Well, everyone’s saying it is dead, but it looks alive to me.” And then I started to think of Bitcoin as a cockroach, like the cockroach of money. And then I thought, “Well, that’s actually quite interesting.”

If this thing is really resilient and doesn’t bend to the will of oppressors, or whoever would want to influence and tinker with it, then there might be something here, this might have some staying power. That’s when I started paying more attention. Let’s say that’s on the benefit side. And we can always frame these things in terms of costs and benefits. I try not to go down moral lines, or use moral arguments because I don’t think that’s helpful. We can’t really engage in a meaningful discussion, if we are just kind of saying Bitcoin good or Bitcoin bad. I think it’s better to frame these things in terms of costs and benefits. At the start, I was really focused on the benefits, I thought this was digital, fantastic, affordances, unique, and potential affordances should this thing mature into something that could be used as a global asset of value or payment system or money, or whatever you want to think of these things as. Of course, on the other side, two benefits are the costs. And back in 2013, the costs didn’t seem that clear.

It was just like a little toy project. And obviously, as time has gone on, things like the amount of energy that has been used to do Bitcoin mining, to secure the network, which has been increasing at a very rapid rate, are one of the relationships to time that Bitcoin has, which is even more severe than the price, notwithstanding the recent fluctuations in the hash rate, due to China making micro-regulatory restrictions on who can mine, which I think are temporary.

There’s a Bitcoin saying, which is, ‘when in doubt, zoom out’. And I think that’s also appropriate for the hash rate. The hash rate is recovering; it’s just had seven successive upward difficulty adjustments, which tells you that the hash rate is increasing again after this big decline. But anyway, the thermodynamic side or the ecological side, particularly energy consumption, is the main bugbear, as you noted in the reference to the 0XSalon research topic.

The Indifference Engine, the point we’re trying to get out here, is that a Bitcoin and a proof-of-work cryptocurrency—cryptosystems that are built on the same template—actually lack the sensibilities to reason about their ecological externalities. It’s not that they don’t want to care, it’s that they cannot care.

They do not have the capability to care about where their energy is coming from or what happens to the waste heat, carbon dioxide, and all the rest of it, that is emitted. Because of that, we hear these arguments about greening Bitcoin, we use solar, we use hydro, we do this and that. That’s all well and good from the human side. But the fact is that the inhuman management system that is Bitcoin does not and cannot care. As long as there’s a cheaper marginal source of energy, then that, like Bitcoin, will kind of flow down this gradient to suck that up. In the wet season in the south of China, that might be hydropower, but in the dry season, it might be brown coal. The point is really that it’s not just that Bitcoin doesn’t care, it is that it cannot care.

In terms of, let’s say, the socio-economic side, you mentioned that mining centralization is actually a whole stack of centralising features, in all, drive Bitcoin. I suppose that might be because we’re witnessing this particularly pure and virulent strain of capitalism, almost like, there’s still capitalism incarnate that we see in Bitcoin, where everything is so incentivized with direct economic rewards that, yeah, things like economies of scale are unavoidable. In Satoshi Nakamoto’s white paper from October 2008, they described a machine democracy in essence, the one CPU-one vote, the idea being that the mining would be widely distributed, and relatively egalitarian.

Anyone or hobby computer enthusiasts will be able to spin up a node, synchronize that with the network, and look for blocks. That sounds great. But I think you could say that, among other things, this is one thing that the forebears presented to the Bitcoin creators. I did not anticipate this massive wholesale consolidation of the mining industry. Now both the design and the manufacturer of the machines, these application-specific integrated circuit machines, these kinds of single-purpose devices that just know how to do the hashing function on Bitcoin, and then also the conglomeration of massive mining farms, massive data centers full of these machines, are under the control of one or a few people. Smaller miners would coalesce into informal cooperatives that we call mining pools, to reduce the variance and their kind of statistical volatility in the probability of finding these blocks.

These are all kinds of cartel-like, oligarchy-like, or closed small group governance structures, which I think is not really what Bitcoin was meant to be about, it was initially this kind of infrastructure, the mutualist project,” to borrow a term from Lana Swartz. The economics of Bitcoin are architected from the transaction side, which also lends itself to certain kinds of, I suppose, you could say blockchain gentrification, where essentially, everything is marketized. And with these blockchain systems, you could think of it as neoliberal deterritorialization par excellence. But really, the key market here is the market to be included in the next block. I just like to disambiguate. For anyone else that’s listening, there’s kind of like a queue forming of people that want to get their transaction, the next block.

They usually kind of rank the transactions according to how likely it is that the miner will put them in a block, based on the fee or bribe that they paid the miner. But because of this, it’s basically based on your ability to pay. It’s like that’s how you get a block. That way, imagine the time period of high network demand: the people that can pay more, will get their blocks and their transactions included in a block, and others won’t.

That means the more financialized, the more profit-seeking, the more capitalist. And, by implication, we might imagine the less ethical transactions and activities, ones that will ultimately be enshrined in the clinical history of the network. I think this thing is actually kind of unavoidable, it’s very hard to see how, when the thing becomes popular, this seems to happen again, and again. First, it happened on Bitcoin. Now it’s happening on Ethereum. Decentralized finance, or DeFi, is a good example of this. Where there are financial use cases, people do these transactions for profit motives. And that’s pricing out a lot of other stuff that could be happening on Bitcoin, or Ethereum. And you could imagine more like mutualistic projects, less profit-driven projects, projects that are doing things for charitable or nonprofit reasons.

That’s kind of the economic cost of this kind of gentrification on the blockchain. Then just say something about politics and culture. Let’s hope we will keep it to proof-of-work networks like Bitcoin, or Ethereum, for now, unless we decide to go elsewhere. The way that these networks work, they’re actually very defensive, if you think about them in this sense, so cryptography is like the shield altering the sanctity of the transaction ledger, changing the history, who owns what, in that network, by requiring a great deal of energy to be expended in the search for these blocks? The mining is kind of like a lottery and bingo combined. To get a lottery ticket, you have to do some work. And that’s the mining—this computer crunching hashes at millions upon millions of iterations per second to try and find a winning lottery ticket. To get a lottery ticket, you have to do some work.

If they find one, then it’s kind of like a flip in a game of bingo, where you have to get the others, the rest of the network, to agree that your lottery ticket is the one that we should use and not some other one that was also valid that was found around the same time. The reason I mentioned that, is that you have this very hard boundary between the inside and outside of Bitcoin in this kind of cryptographic and thermodynamic sense. And that’s from the system’s view. What we posit at the 0xSalon with the Indifference Engine is that this is also giving rise to like an economic penumbra at the heart of this inside/outside deviation and also with the socio-political side.

There’s very much this culture of purity in Bitcoin, in particular, where it’s almost a monotheism. They’re rejecting the false idols of the other coins, the other networks, the other parameters, the other consensus mechanisms, and the rest of it, saying that only Bitcoin is pure. I’ve heard Bitcoin described as the Immaculate Conception, and that no other coin can be recreated in its image. Because every other coin was founded by a person, it has its own intentions, and is compromised in various ways that are impure and imperfect. That’s the kind of ideological moat that Bitcoiners have, and having these kinds of attitudes makes things very resistant to change.

That’s one of my main criticisms of the culture of Bitcoin: that it’s extremely conservative. We’ve seen some technological strands of libertarianism in the past. And I would say that Bitcoin is kind of the next iteration of the escalation of an extreme techno-libertarianism, where you might even say that a sufficiently incentivized Bitcoin, holding this asset, is essentially wrapped in this ideology. Why can’t we remove the mining altogether? And, as we know that blockchains don’t pivot, they fork. When you have a conservative constituency, and this tendency of blockchains to diverge, to come into progeny networks when there’s a schism. I don’t think you can actually change Bitcoin, there will always be a conservative movement that will want to stay keeping things as they are.

The one data point we have on this one, there have been many forks of Bitcoin, many attempted schisms, and they’ve all fallen by the wayside. But all like they’ve largely fallen by the wayside, let’s say, but let’s cast our minds back to 2015. With Ethereum and the DAO, there was a big catastrophe with the first centralised hedge fund on Ethereum, I suppose you could say investment funds, on Ethereum, 40% of the currency was locked in this thing. And due to a bug a problem with the programming language and Ethereum at the time, Solidity. And the bad guy got all the stuff. And there was a schism between two branches where one said, “The rules are the rules, that guy keeps the stuff,” and the other was like, “This is crazy we should change the rules so that the bad guy doesn’t get the stuff.” The network, which kept the rules as they are, is still going, and that’s called Ethereum Classic. We can talk a bit more about that later, if you like. These blockchains are very hard to kill. Right? They don’t really go away, as long as you have this kind of core, highly incentivized, economically and ideologically incentivized group of stakeholders. It’s very hard to imagine how Bitcoin goes away. I don’t see it.

DB: Picking up also on this thread, concerning mutualistic pools of funds, and, in general, the significant shift towards the dynamics of, let’s say, crypto can shift towards more cooperative ends. What is your assessment right now concerning the evolving space of DAOs in this respect? There have been characterizations of DAOs as potentially viable non-state actors if you want to look at it through the lens of an International Relations framework or a notion of an archipelago network or networked islands. Do you envision the potential, even though, of course, there’s a cornucopia of DAOs out there? At this point, it’s questionable what we could say about their ability to be a kind of political entity, do you see something in the future, some kind of territory that could be charted out in this respect, because you also see DAOs tackling the question of common goods?

WA: Regarding DAOs and such, that’s something I’ve been saying for a while. Yes, I love the idea of DAOs. It’s a nice encapsulation of a kind of digital utopian ideal, that we could have a kind of flat, egalitarian structure where there are no leaders, and you just have a sort of set of ritual ceremonies, rules, and protocols, however you describe those. And from there, we can build kind of a microcosm of society on this novel substrate, but my question has been for the last several years, and it is now: Are we being kind of pushed along by the drives of capitalism to accelerate the development of these primitives and substrates before they’re naturally ready? I would say that in the last, let’s say, 12 or 18 months, there has now been a DAO ecosystem where that wasn’t really the case before.

There were just a handful of smaller projects, and the like, but now you’ve got quite a lot of tooling. It’s not that hard to get one of these things spun up and running. Given the speculative mania around crypto-assets in general, but I think more specifically around digital art non-fungible tokens and the rest of it, we’re starting to see kind of collectors clubs opening up under the auspices of DAOs. Now, we can actually debate whether they’re DAOs or not, what the definition of a DAO is or is about, and whether they’re using some of the organizing principles of DAOs to collect artworks, which they believe will increase in value. Then they’re issuing tokens representing fractional claims on those assets. When I see that, I feel like this is making the world a better place, I don’t know if that’s true.

I don’t really know if I want to see that. Obviously, you can’t stop it. I’m not particularly worried about these kinds of art collected DAOs, I will just also make the point that by fractionalized NFTs, you make them more fungible, and so we’ll talk about TokenSpace later, I know that by making something more fungible, you run the risk of it becoming more like a security again. That’s one thing; I don’t think the fractionalization of these tokens is thought about too clearly. But yes, we can come back to that later. I want to say something about the substrate, like what we’re building these DAOs upon. As many of the listeners will know, Ethereum is the network de jour.

The idea was with Ethereum that you could kind of build anything on there; it was meant to be like a fully extensible architecture for whatever cryptographic imaginary you might want to imagine, develop, and build on today. But there are some limitations, physical ones, and also social ones. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the current iteration of Ethereum is about to sunset, and because the big network, network-wide protocol upgrade has been in the works for a very long time.I would say that Ethereum doesn’t look like a great substrate to be building resilient, multi-generational institutions upon, right now, not at all. We use this kind of idea of networked islands in the kind of DAO imaginary. I wonder about these network islands, and if we’re building castles in the sand on these islands.

You have to have some concerns about the fragility of Ethereum and the unfitness of purpose of various aspects of the system. And I appreciate that there are these concerted efforts to upgrade the network and upgrade various things about it from the language to the team to be replaced from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake for paralysed blockchains, to sharding to improve the throughput. But I don’t believe that stitching all these things together is simple. And one of the analogies I heard a long time ago about Ethereum, probably from an uncharitable Bitcoiner, that always stuck with me is that looks a bit more like a tech company than a crypto network. There seems to be a lot of directionality, and a lot of intentionality in the way that it is thought best to improve the network, to upgrade it.

The analogy goes a little bit, something like this, that Ethereum is like a plane that’s coming into land, and all the engines are on fire. There’s no pilot, and we’re still learning how to build the plane. And so yeah, I have a lot of concerns about people rushing too quickly into building long term projects, infrastructure, things for public goods, things for the Commons, for the building for the underserved, and all the rest of it, using this extremely untested and like, arguably, quite fragile infrastructure. There’s my concerns there. And yeah, I would like to see a greater variety of projects, which imagine alternative economic modes. We’ve seen an awful lot of capitalism on the blockchain and I am pretty tired of capitalism on the blockchain by now, I would like to see something else. That is the gauntlet that I would like to throw down to anyone that’s listening to this. Can we build anti-speculative mechanisms, anti-capitalist practices, somehow?

DB: I think also just I was wanting to perhaps expand upon that, because, of course, there you see within the space especially, I mean, a lot of the terms that become imported such as holocracy, sociocracy, and aspects of quadratic voting to try in many ways to level out, what we see is replicating a lot of dynamics, as you’re pointing out in DAOs, where, even with tokens, it’s replicating, in essence, just having equity, and having generally, the ability to leverage and influence, shape, let’s say, the whole, more or less focus, and we’re also hijacking it in this case. You have some strong qualms about it. Do you see perhaps any specific, maybe not a particular DAO? But are there any projects that are on your radar that you think are perhaps at some level of carving out or sculpting post-capital alignments. Perhaps this term is overused, perhaps it has lost some of its meaning, but we will use the term “Commons” in this case. Do you see some projects aligning, and in some respects, are they really trying to push and achieve those ends where they’re departing from a capitalist ideology or, in general, that kind of predisposition?

WA: I see young seedlings and saplings in the ground that good people, people who are genuinely looking for alternatives, are nurturing and caring for.But they seem to be in the early stages, or more of an R&D theoretical side, and not so much, let’s say, extant blockchains in the wild, that they’re being built upon and being used to do X, Y, and Z.

In terms of public goods or the Commons, there is the Commons Stack, which is kind of building a series of community-oriented, Open-Source infrastructure, and that is going hand in hand with parallel development of similar tools for the blockchain space. It is more of a for-profit model, this is almost like a “buy one, get one free kind of model” or something like that, where there are some kinds of shops, like R&D shops, developing technologies, but they’re also feeding those into something that is much more communistic and is looking to find alternatives. But I think things like Commons Stack create a set of tools that people can adopt and use as they see fit.I don’t see that developing into like, they’ll have a blockchain and they’ll do X, Y, and Z with it. But the tools—at least, it’s very important, the tools and the infrastructure is there for people to pick up should they wish to imagine something different.

I think I should also mention Gitcoin, which I’m sure is familiar to a lot of people, especially if they are familiar with the Ethereum space. So Gitcoin is using quadratic voting, which is kind of like a nonlinear anti-oligarchic voting mechanism, to try and determine the source or the destination of various funding calls for public goods and for investing in the Commons.

I will just say also, like a little bit of an advertisement here, that the Trust that the studio workers club that I’m based at, is in the process of starting a public goods working group, where we’re going to go through various economic primitives and paradigms and try to imagine some alternatives. Hopefully, also build some prototype tooling that other people might be able to use to push those things forward out in the wild. I don’t want to sound too much of a doomer it’s more that I’m disappointed with the extant reality, what I see around me today, but I still have hope. And I still have faith that there are plenty of good people out there who are motivated to seek alternatives to the post-capitalist mess we find ourselves in. There are glimmers of light.

DB: I would like to shift gears actually to discuss, for example, one of your projects, TokenSpace, which was your endeavor to map out a taxonomy of fiat currencies, commodities, and cryptocurrencies through measuring and providing parameters that evaluate them on their respective meta-characteristics such as securityness, commodityness, and moneyness. Could you provide an overview and sketch out this project? If I understand, this is what you did in 2018. I think this was in relation to your association with MIT, if I’m not mistaken.

WA: Yes, actually, it predated my work at MIT, just slightly. I was literally in the finishing stretch of getting this done. Again, tokens-based, like a long monograph, kind of book thing. I was just finishing that, as I unexpectedly got the job at MIT in the spring of 2019. I actually didn’t publish it until August 2019. Because I became extremely busy during the founding of the journal with Joi Ito and Company at the Media Lab. But yeah, sure, I can give a little bit of an overview of that. The idea was to survey the landscape in 2017, during the real market mania, at the peak of the last speculative fervor, and I was just getting increasingly upset, worried that everybody was just talking about cryptos, coins, or tokens as if they were this kind of contiguous mass of stuff.

You should treat them all the same, and, by extension, they should be regulated the same. What I saw was quite a wide spectrum of different kinds of projects, networks with different kinds of characteristics that didn’t seem to fit neatly into any kind of one set of legacy finance characterizations or phraseologies. It’s kind of a weird project to task yourself with. But I wanted to find a way that we could disambiguate a little bit about these things by using, like, a thorough approach but then also being able to generate outputs that would be easily possible for somebody that didn’t have deep technical knowledge of these systems. The people I was thinking of, as the target audience for this project, were regulators.

I actually had some contact with regulators from 2017 onwards, I met with people in the UK, various arms of UK government regulation, the Financial Conduct Authority, Her Majesty’s Treasury, the Bank of England, and so on. And yeah, back then they were really kind of punch-drunk from this crypto stuff. It kind of blindsided them and came from nowhere. They didn’t know what to do about it. They’re getting increasingly worried about the threat to the financial stability of the existing system. And so I was worried that there was going to be a very kind of brute force, regulatory crackdown coming from multiple governments that would just kind of kill everything. And I didn’t think that was fair or right. I set out to try and find a way to easily pass along the similarities and differences of these things.

I found a really crucial paper by a researcher called Nickerson. That paper, basically contained within it a methodology—like a recipe—to create taxonomies and classification systems based on similarities and differences. The important attributes of different objects, whatever they might be, are different kinds of academic objects. I applied this to cryptocurrencies and started thinking about what were the overarching discriminants, the meta-characteristics, the things that we’re really trying to tell by doing this, by going through this process, and as you mentioned, these meta-characteristics, and moneyness, is something that I didn’t invent. This has been around for ages, people have always been talking about it, like, is this money or is it not money? How much money is it? And so I kind of replicated that across a couple of other areas to make an analogous concept of commodity.

There’s this concept of securities, the idea being that these are non-binary characteristics, the conversation, you would always hear that back in 2017. And still now, is token X a security or is it not? Is it one, or is it zero? And that’s not it; it’s probably like, that’s what the regulator wants. So that’s what a lawmaker wants; somebody wants an asset designer, some kind of clear line in the sand that tells you, “You’re going to jail, or you’re not going to jail. It’s cool or not cool. But reality is messy. These systems are complex. It’s very hard to accurately characterize these things with such a blunt instrument. There was a really key moment in 2018 when one of the SEC officials, William Hinman, made some comments about Ethereum.

The comment they made was that when Ethereum did its token sale in 2015, it looked like a security. But over time, as the network matured, and the use of the token proliferated, Ethereum tokens were basically used to pay for gas to pay for computation on the Ethereum network. So as the network became more useful, you could say that the token had utility, had to point to something that existed beyond speculation, all the rest of it. The point that he made was that the network had become sufficiently decentralized over time to avoid it, having the classification of the security, and that all sounded like quite an unwieldy post hoc rationalization to me. I wanted to find a way that we could build something that’s approaching a systemic framework to rationalize these kinds of evolutions of the networks over time. The different proportions of these different characteristics of how much money, commodity, or security these things look like, based on the design choices based on network architecture, based on the legality of social and political power, and all the rest of it. So yeah,

I used this Nickerson paper to make a bunch of taxonomies for each of the match characteristics for the securityness, qualities, and minus. Then I crunched the numbers, so I got a bunch of network data for the major cryptocurrencies at the time, and started coming up with scores for these things. Then I could also put in legacy assets as well. That’s nice, because then you can do kind of apples to apples comparisons of like, Apple stock, Bitcoin, gold bars, sacks of grain—you could actually put anything in one of these vector space diagrams.

I’m not saying it’s completely objective; it is not, because a lot of these things were kind of judgment calls. This is what I was quite honest about when I wrote everything up. I said, “Look, this is partially objective. It’s partially subjective. And partially objective is partially qualitative, partially quantitative.” I got a bit of pushback from that. A lot of people were like, “But Wassim, I want something objective. I said, “well, I don’t think you can actually have it in this case, I don’t think that’s possible to get this kind of completely objective, “read. ” I think it might be something that’s palatable, especially if you’re a legislator and an asset designer, for somebody to say everything’s great. Everything’s not great. But the reality, as we said earlier, is kind of messy, that was all that preceded MIT from 2017 to early 2019. I then went to work as a DCI at the Media Lab to start the journal. And one of the people I worked with at the Digital Currency Initiative was a gentleman named Gary Gensler, who was the former head of the Commodities and Futures Trading Commission in the United States. And he was quite involved with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.

He unexpectedly found himself with quite a lot of free time shortly after that, and he ended up at MIT in Business School in Sloan as a professor, where he gave some really seminal lectures on blockchain and money. You can watch them on YouTube, they’ve had billions of views. Gary is a great orator. And yeah, it just so happened that we were having a conversation at a retreat. The following summer, when Gary came up to me and said, Hey, Wassim I read your paper on token spaces; you know, not many people around here are writing about Aristotle and blockchains.I was a quite junior staff member at the, at the Media Lab, and I didn’t think too much more of it. Until then, there had been a change of government in the United States more recently, and Trump was out and Biden was in, and the new head of the Securities and Exchange Commission is one Gary Gensler.

It’s just interesting that I don’t think many people read the paper at the time. But some of those people were quite influential, quite important in terms of regulation in terms of, like, how to know when an asset is, how to classify an asset, how to call a spade a spade, how much the spade is, and so on. But there’s also another kind of design priority, as well as giving regulators clarity, which is for asset designers, token issuers. And because they could then use this thing backwards, the way I framed it in the monograph, it’s still, I think, quite easily possible that you could use token space as you’re designing an asset to try and nudge its characteristics in a favourable direction, which might make things look less like a security when you want them to, less like money when you want them to, or more like a commodity when you want them to, for example.

We’ve actually even used it in these circumstances, Some work that I’ve been doing, which isn’t public, but some work I’ve been doing on some work in progress token systems where we’ve inverted TokenSpace, used it as an asset design tool, to try and avoid pitfalls. Let’s say on that project, which I can’t name I wanted to make sure that the assets didn’t look like money because we didn’t want this regulated project to be seen as competing with the US dollar. We were building something that had a security token component in it. So it’s absolutely fine for that to look like a security. In fact, the more security-like, the better, because we’re calling a spade a spade. The other asset was kind of like an economic coordination token that wants to look as much like a commodity as possible. So we’re using this thing. I guess this is one of the ways it was intended to be used. To try and avoid these kinds of quagmires of regulatory unclarity.

I don’t think it had a huge amount of impact at the time. But one of the nicest things a law professor said to me when they read it was in 2018, is that he thought it was 10 years ahead of its time, I thought that was quite fanciful because Bitcoin was not even 10 years old at that point. But here we are, seven years later, and people are still ignoring it. I just mentioned that I am hoping to extend the classification framework in other directions. We also thought that I’m done DAOs would be quite nice thing to characterise the similarities and differences of using a similar framework for DAOs would be quite nice. And I will just mention that my colleague and good friend Kei Kreutler, in her essay, Eight Qualities of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations, uses the same Nickerson taxonomy method to find some of these overarching characteristics of DAOs.

DB: Excellent! I’m curious to see that in the future there might be a survey of DAOs, in particular. I love her work. I think it would be nice to see hopefully some symbiosis or some synergy going on there. Let’s move to 0xSalon. Could you introduce it to listeners? If we have to put it in ontological terms that way, or in general, what are you exploring? There’s quite a broad palette of focuses there, whether you’re looking through the frameworks of epistemology, sociology, economics, thermodynamics, algorithmic governance, or cryptonomics. Secondly, I’d be quite interested in the most recent iteration, in which you’re focusing on or it’s focusing on transcendental time machines. I suppose this is alluding as well to Anna Greenspan’s PhD essay, which, very crudely, I can characterize as focusing on the nature of capitalism discovering and unleashing a whole entirely new concept of time. I suppose that’s probably one aspect of it. Her work is richer than that, and I assume you are also drawing from a whole cornucopia of thinkers.

WA: Yeah you’re right to say that 0xSalon is a little bit hard to define or like to kind of put in a box, I suppose that might be partially deliberate. I’ll start from the start again. About 18 months ago at the start of the pandemic, I had the crazy and badly timed idea to design an event series. It’s partly due to the inspirations that I mentioned earlier, Café Scientifique in Nottingham and the reading groups and Trust and the discourse programme at Norberg. The idea was that we would sit down once a month, a group of friends and colleagues, usually between 10 and 20 people and talk about different subject different topics. And we could go anywhere.

I wonder if the range comes I have quite a wide degree, a wide scope of interests. I tend to fall down rabbit holes quite easily. And so maybe this was just a way for me to exercise my obsessions as I would pass through them one by one. As I get to my curiosities, we get activated in various, various directions. So essentially, the 0xSalon is an informal research collective. We’ve been cycling through different unusual topics. And they’re having these post-disciplinary discussions. But then also, from there, like a community coalescing around the events. We started wanting to chronicle the conversations themselves, which we hold them behind closed doors. That’s something that’s quite important to us, in order to have a free-flowing conversation.

We don’t broadcast the recordings or anything like that. We wanted to, but we still wanted to share some of the things that we talked about things, things that we say and things that we do inside the Salon. We started making outputs, and these have kind of gradually broadened in their scope and type from written ones. The first one I wrote on epidemic trespassing, which was kind of like my attempt at doing some kind of like a monolithic synthesis of the topic and our twist on it. At a shorter kind of vignette-style Blog Post reports on algorithmic realism, we did a few on more ecological matters forests and trees. And now we’re starting to write up notes trying to make outputs on their transcendental time machines and the indifference engine. We also started more recently, like making video lectures and audio outputs, except podcasts, YouTube videos, just because they’re a bit easier to pull together than write-ups.

As we found ourselves, actually, the pace of the event series is such that, and we don’t have that much people power over here. And so we kind of got a little bit left behind with the pace of the event series, hoping we can catch up a bit now because we put out a call for research residents not so long ago to be housed here at Trust. We’re overwhelmed by the quality and number of applicants. So instead of pointing two, we’ve appointed five, so we now have a team of six. I’m really hoping that we can start catching up and get our epistemic house in order. So yeah, that’s a little bit about the Salon and where we’ve been coming from. But yeah, the topics are extremely wide-ranging, I suppose that’s also a reflection of who’s in the room. So we also tried to have a really broad spectrum of representation in the room, as it’s everything from, artists, philosophers and designers and architects and scientists and social scientists and everything in between.

It has kind of upsides and downsides that say, so it means that we can have a really wide-ranging conversation, and we can kind of go like through the topic, all sorts of different strands of making unexpected syntheses and all the rest of that. But then you have the challenge of communication, like, how does one navigate. So we all have different backgrounds, different training, different epistemic baggage from that, we use different words to mean the same thing. We use the same words to mean different things. So it’s very easy to end up talking past ourselves unless we find a way that we can engage clearly. One of the things I think was quite helpful for us, at least in the early days, was some other thing that I was doing at MIT, at the Media Lab that the journal, I was essentially an epistemic emissary going between different fields. So with things like cryptocurrencies, there isn’t really a field. It’s all-new, right? It’s a mix of computer science and economics and law, and social sciences and everything else falls into that. And all of those fields and backgrounds and persuasions have their own languages and traditions, both in terms of like terminology, epistemology, publishing, and all the rest.

Recently, we actually had a Salon last night that draws on the topic of transcendental time machines. It is indeed a reference to Anna Greenspan’s thesis from the CCRU days at Warwick from the year 2000, capitalism’s transcendental time machines which word on the street is, was the best-written thesis out of all of the CCRU days. I’ve read it, and I can’t say I understood all of it. It gets pretty, gets pretty deep into Kantian conceptions of temporality. And that it’s like a little bit beyond my paygrade. But it’s very well written. And the synthesis that she’s making in terms of the capitalist drivers of timekeeping and precision, are really resonant. And that’s something that we’re drawing on in the Salon. So there’s a nice paper called Deleuze’s Third Synthesis of Time by Daniela Voss from 2013.

There is a very succinct encapsulation of Greenspan’s concept of cyberspace time, which is essentially the kind of the driving force of the thesis, I’m just going to give you the rundown just so that we have some kind of Cliff Notes for the topic. So yeah, Greenspan is essentially saying that cyberspace time can’t be considered humanistic, it is an inhumanistic domain. 

They are machines of simulation, which implies the clockwork universe is deterministic and transglobal or a post-global domain, as cyberspace is non-localizable and does not exist in a place; it is kind of everywhere, right? It’s kind of ethereal in that sense. It’s an immanent machinic culture, in which time measures nothing outside. So this is kind of like a bounded system that has its own temporal logic that is not necessarily enmeshed with the external temporalities of the calendar and the clock. To that extent, we can call it some kind of abstract time. And I suppose relating it back to some of the topics that we’ve been talking about already today. The thesis was written in 2000, and at the end of it, Greenspan is making the point that, I believe it is Deleuze that talks about the aeonic occurrences. It’s kind of fractures in time with discontinuities in temporal logics. And she’s using the example of Y2K, the year 2000, and the Millennium bug flip, that was associated with it, as being one of these temporal discontinuities.

I think given the interest of a lot of CCRU, and post-CCRU people in Bitcoin, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies, one might imagine that had she written a thesis 10 years later, it might have had Bitcoin front and center while the cryptocurrencies were front and center because these blockchain networks also create a new kind of temporality. It wasn’t just the sole topic of our conversation yesterday, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot. And you have this kind of dual set of temporal domains in something like Bitcoin and the Proof-of-Work network, let’s say, where you’ve got a kind of continuous-time view of the network and the network view, you’ve got all the nodes, they’re broadcasting transactions to each other, and they’re propagating across the network. And then you’ve got this kind of discrete-time, which ticks with the sequential cadence of blocks being added to the chain. 

There are interesting concepts of kind of temporal arbitrage and temporal stoppage time attacks, which can happen because of this membrane, this barrier between your continuous time on the network level, and this discrete-time of the blockchain. I am writing something about that at the moment where we’re going to talk about forks, orphans, 51 percent attacks, fake timestamps, front running, mine extractable value, and other things that might sound like jargon to the untrained ear. However, these are some of the weird consequences of the weird temporality of blockchains. We didn’t just stop there. We were talking about the history and evolution of timekeeping.

Thus, I read a book called About Time by David Rooney, who is the former curator of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and their timekeeping collection, as well as the clockmaker’s collection at the Science Museum, both of which I visited last week. Rooney was making the point that our timekeeping methods or timekeeping technologies have been evolving over time. We all know about sundials. You might know about water clocks; these are kind of like using nature to help us regulate our days. But we don’t necessarily get such a precise sense of time, we’re kind of still a little bit bound by the calendar of the rising and setting of the sun and keeping the days counting in that way. Also, using no gravity weights, the mechanical clock started getting developed in the Middle Ages.

Well, I mean, in the Middle Ages in Europe, it seems that the further East or the mechanical clock before that, they don’t see too many records in the West paying heed to that, and then I suppose we ended up with electronic, atomic, and then now nuclear ionic clocks. So, I found out in the course of researching this topic that this is the new most accurate clock in the universe. So first there were atomic clocks, in which we used the stochastic radiative decay of things like caesium atoms to very accurately record the passage of time. The next evolution was using atoms, which have been called using lasers to fractions above fractions of a degree above absolute zero, to measure the oscillations, the vibrations, for thermal energy in the atom itself. But what we’re doing now is using a laser to track the oscillations of a neutron inside an atom that’s been laser-cooled to fractions above absolute zero. I believe the current iteration is a thorium atom. If it keeps the time, it will lose less than a second over the entire age of the universe, whatever that is. It seems like we have pretty precise clocks right now. Then there was something interesting about time and power: how temporal domains have been used to instill order on a regional level, but also in a kind of international colonial sense.

The church has always used the virtue of temperance in a kind of religious imaginary. For centuries, the church has been using time to regulate calls for prayer. Towns and cities would use curfews as a way of instilling social order. In factories, the drive for capitalist productivity led some factory owners to develop crooked clocks so that they could extract more time from labor at the expense of fairness. And also in trading, there would be regulations of time and space to do with, just like market trading; there are no stock markets or financial markets. I’m talking about turnips, and you want to sell them in the town square.

We even went as far as quantum physics, loop gravity. You know what happens to o’clock when he goes inside a black hole? The evolution of the imaginary of temperance, the Christian virtue, was initially drawn with two jugs of water, with water flowing from one side to the other to mark time as a water clock does. And then there was an hourglass and new temporal technology. And then, in the 16th century, she started appearing with mechanical clocks. And so what I am still waiting for is to see a picture of temperance drawn in a kind of like, you know, the Judeo Christian imaginary holding a high precision laser clock. If you see that, Dustin, please let me know, or if anyone else sees that, I’d love to see it.

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