Spring 2020
Virtual Currencies and the State

Virtual Currencies and the State

Prompt for Discussion

Contributors: Bill Maurer, Lev Menand, Lana Swartz, J.S. Nelson, Benjamin Geva, Hilary Allen, David Golumbia, Finn Brunton, Gili Vidan, Marcelo De Castro Cunha Filho, Susan Silbey, John Haskell, Nathan Tankus, Katharina Pistor, and Joseph Sommer

On October 10th, 2019, the SEC brought suit against Telegram, asserting that its $1.7 billion offering of Gram “tokens” violated federal securities laws.  The same week, five large investors including Visa, Mastercard, Stripe, eBay, and Mercado Pago pulled out of Facebook’s virtual currency Libra, apparently taken aback by the fierce criticism leveled at Libra by politicians and regulators.   These events were striking, occurring as they did against a baseline of official inaction, ambivalence, or accommodation of virtual currencies.  It is an opportune moment to ask:  What are virtual currencies – money, securities, or speculative assets?   How do they relate to modern political communities and to the financial architecture that those states support?  Why at this moment have governments chosen to crack down on virtual currencies?

The movement towards virtual currencies took off in 2008, when an anonymous person or group introduced Bitcoin.  In the decade that followed, Etherium, Peercoin, and others offered similar products:  digital assets created and maintained by a decentralized set of participants that can be traded for goods and services.  Many users praised virtual currencies on the ground that they eliminated the role of law, the government, and/or the financial industry.  According to the Bitcoin model, rules intended to operate mechanically control the production of virtual currencies and limit the quantity of virtual currency ultimately created.   Exchange occurs according to a technology that Marco Iansite and Karim Lakhani describe as “an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.”  (Harvard Business Review, 18 January 2017.)  The same description suggests the theory underlying virtual currencies:  as a community of independent users opts in and confirms the transfer of digital assets, it makes unnecessary both public payment systems and commercial banks as financial agents.  

Within the virtual currency family, differences in technology, industry location, and ideology have emerged.  While Libra claims the mantle of virtual currencies, for example, it does not use a blockchain nor, at least in its initial version, a decentralized network of users to confirm transfers.  See FT Alphaville.  And rather than aiming at avoiding governmental oversight, it offers a vision of financial inclusion.

In this roundtable, we invite participants to comment on the questions recently raised by the difficulties faced by Telegram and Libra.  What are virtual currencies and how do they relate to public moneys?  What is the theory of value that virtual currencies offer and are those theories supported historically?  Are these monetary systems that are working outside the state – or payments systems derivative of state power?    How do the differences between Libra and more traditional cryptocurrencies explain the governmental response? Are virtual currencies meant to fix problems with the current monetary or payments systems, and if so, what problems?  Or are virtual currencies meant to evade those systems?  


July 3, 2020
Why Do We Keep Taking the Cryptocurrency/Blockchain Scam Seriously?
David Golumbia, Virginia Commonwealth University

June 12, 2020
Decentralization: The Rise of a Hazardous Spec
Gili Vidan, Harvard University

April 28, 2020
Virtual Money at the Edge-of-State
Finn Brunton, NYU Steinhardt School

April 22, 2020
Payment in Virtual Currency
Benjamin Geva, Osgoode Hall Law School of York University

April 15, 2020
What lies behind the apparent trust in cryptocurrencies?
Marcelo de Castro Filho, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Susan Silbey, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

April 9, 2020
Virtual Currency (in the Shadows of the Money Markets)
John Haskell, The University of Manchester
Nathan Tankus, The Modern Money Network

March 31, 2020
The Case for Cryptocurrencies as a New Category of Regulated Non-Sovereign Fiat Currency
J.S. Nelson, Villanova Law School

March 11, 2020
How is Private Money Possible?
Joseph Sommer

March 4, 2020
Starbucks, Libra, and the Boring Future of Money
Lana Swartz, University of Virginia

February 26, 2020
Cryptocurrencies as Privately-Issued Moneys
Hilary J. Allen, American University Washington College of Law

February 20, 2020
Money at the Zero Lower Bound
Bill Maurer, University of California, Irvine

February 14, 2020
Regulate Virtual Currencies as Currency
Lev Menand, Columbia Law School

D. Golumbia, Why Do We Keep Taking the Cryptocurrency/Blockchain Scam Seriously?

July 3, 2020

David Golumbia, Virginia Commonwealth University

Author’s Note: this is a companion piece to one that explores the facts around cryptocurrency and blockchain fraud called “Cryptocurrency Is Garbage. So Is Blockchain” (copies are available on Medium, SSRN, and Academia.edu). That piece was originally composed for this forum but grew beyond its limits. Some of what is discussed here presumes facts and arguments described in that piece. 

In the longer piece on which this one follows, I do what I can to show that nearly all of the claims for cryptocurrency and blockchain are false, and most are based on outright fraud.

If this is correct, it leaves us with a glaring question: why does the crypto-blockchain story persist, and why does it attract so much attention, despite its being false and/or fraudulent?  

Some of the answers are obvious. Clearly, the fact that a lot of people have made a lot of money on Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is a big part of it. Of course, in every way, that money was earned via get-rich-schemes and other scams. Even those have an obvious attraction for many of us. 

A slightly less obvious answer is ironic. Crypto advocates love to say that blockchain technology is “censorship-resistant,” a claim that has driven development of blockchain and cryptocurrency from the fever dreams of far-right cypherpunks. In their minds, software must be allowed to run, preferably anywhere, regardless of what governments—democratic or otherwise—say about it. Not just software as written code, but the running of code itself, is speech, they say, and so any attempts to regulate what software can do is “censorship.” (This claim, like so much that animates cryptocurrency, is entirely fraudulent, based on a fantastic misrepresentation of case law advocated by “digital rights” organizations up to and including the cypherpunk-founded Electronic Frontier Foundation.) 

One of the true technological innovations in blockchain is that it is, indeed, very hard to shut down. No matter how much energy it wastes, as long as there are processors to run it, energy to power the processors, and network connectivity to share transaction data, it is hard to imagine how it could be shut down entirely. (To many critics, that is not a good thing.)

This makes for a truly interesting phenomenon. I’ve argued at length, following the work of legal scholars, that running software is not and must not be viewed as speech. According to that reasoning, it is false to say that blockchain is uncensorable; stopping it would not be censorship. But practically speaking, at least so far, it is apparently unstoppable, or at least difficult to stop. And because it is unstoppable, people keep talking about it: and so in practical terms, blockchain itself might not be uncensorable, but talk about blockchain does appear to be uncensorable.

This kind of paradox or double truth is found everywhere when we contemplate the guiding question of this essay. Blockchain works, but it doesn’t; cryptocurrency isn’t money, currency, cash, or securities, but it is continually called that, and many people treat it as if it is, and so on. 

This has created a powerful cognitive dissonance that haunts all aspects of blockchain discussion. Blockchain is used for almost no real-world purposes, and almost none (and maybe none) of the purposes claimed for it, while people talk about it incessantly. Yet many technologies are used for those purposes, often ones that pundits claim blockchain will replace, and virtually nobody talks about those. Why is it so much more interesting to talk about blockchains that don’t do very much, than it is to talk about the flavors of SQL, iterations of HTML, spreadsheets, relational databases, existing encryption schemes used by banks, and so on? In reality, implementations of these software products and packages dwarf implementations of blockchain to such a degree that, if drawn on a graph, blockchain would not be visible at all. These technologies really have changed the world. They interest almost nobody, at least not in the breathless, “revolutionary” manner that blockchain does, particularly with regard to culture in general. 

The stark disconnect between those revolutionary cultural claims and the facts of what the software does has always seemed to me the real story of cryptocurrency and blockchain. As time goes on, this only comes to seem more and more true. 

One of the most interesting notions in discussions of digital technology (and all technology) is the idea that when a technology is really useful, it becomes invisible. The sentiment is sometimes associated with Steve Jobs talking about the technology used by Pixar for animating Toy Story around 1995, and sometimes with Dev Mukherjee, who in 2003 was a Vice President for Strategy at IBM and in a speech at a business conference stated that “technology becomes truly useful when it becomes invisible.” 

Technologies like SQL, HTML, relational databases, the iPhone as a whole, and so on have become “invisible” in this sense: they serve hundreds of thousands or millions of users, frequently at enormous scale, and yet most of those users could not tell you a thing about how they work, if they know they exist at all. 

That doesn’t mean the iPhone is invisible: it means that the iPhone itself is made up of thousands of technologies synthesized together, and that outside of development circles, and even inside of them, virtually nobody knows how they do what they do. They work: that’s the important thing.

Blockchain is the opposite of invisible. It isn’t just visible, it’s ultravisible. It’s visible even when it isn’t actually doing anything. In not a few corners of the internet, it’s basically the only technology anyone talks about, and they talk about it a lot.

Yet it hardly does anything. Blockchains run, to be sure: but do they do anything at all for consumers, companies (other than those in the blockchain space itself), or other users the way SQL or accelerometers do? It’s not even a fair question: it is hard to find any credible examples of blockchain working that way. 

This also isn’t to praise invisibility per se. Those of us who study technologies, culture and cultural systems are often committed to exposing exactly how things work that go almost entirely unnoticed. I would love to see more thick cultural criticism about things like the movement and position sensors in iPhones and the cultural affordances of relational database models. And, as the work of the scholars of money contributing to and organizing this forum suggests, money itself, which remains in far too many ways not just invisible but resistant to rigorous analysis.  

Many of us are drawn to proven, clear, or at least plausible stories of achievement and advancement. Some, arguably fewer than those, are drawn to stories that are at best unlikely and more often altogether implausible. Much as a considerable portion of the current Republican base is drawn to stories about climate change, abortiion, evolution, and the conduct of prior Democratic administrations that make their lack of contact with reality central pillars of their appeal, far too many are drawn to blockchain and to cryptocurrency precisely because its promises are implausible. They promise to “stick it to the man,” even if we have no good idea who “the man” is or why we are “sticking it to him” by proclaiming that the US dollar has lost 95% of its purchasing power in 100 years, or that the Earth is flat. And the blockchain story is similarly resistant to fact-checking—indeed, it seems to benefit, like climate change and Flat Earth stories, from the certainty with which it can be disproven. Try arguing with a cryptocurrency devotee over not whether what cost 5 cents in 1920 costs $1 today (which is true enough), but about what that means (almost nothing, since the price of everything, including labor, has risen at about the same rate, so that if you had 5 cents in 1920, you are also likely to have $1 today) and you’ll encounter just the kind of dramatic cognitive dissonance I’m gesturing at. 

Blockchain and cryptocurrency attract those who find simplistic explanations superior to complex ones, and to people who (consciously or unconsciously) identify with the perpetrator and not the victim of fraud. This is part of why the project is so inextricably bound up with right-wing politics: no matter how much rhetoric it uses of “helping” the “disadvantaged,” the blockchain proponent or software developer nearly always depicts him- or herself in the position of power. Frequently they engage in a version of rhetorical three-card monte, pointing at (often simplistic, but sometimes accurate) problems with world financial systems as “proof” that the world needs cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin, despite having not only no evidence that Bitcoin addresses those problems, but having to engage in significant deception about the ways that Bitcoin usually only offers to make those problems worse, sometimes much worse. 

Despite the fact that blockchains will undoubtedly continue to run, until and unless they start to be adopted with anything like the scale and influence that technologies like the iPhone and SQL are, it would behoove informed commentators to refrain from speaking as if they are anything but a very specialized and new form of “vaporware”—technology that exists, but that does not do what is claimed for it. Further, if and when blockchain does start to do any of the things claimed for it, discussions of its role must remain grounded in well-informed analyses of the other technologies and systems within which it is embedded, and must be able to answer the question: why are we paying attention to this, instead of something else?