Design and Violence

Can code replace trust?

Rachel O’Dwyer

A blockchain is, essentially, a distributed database. The technology first appeared in 2009 as the basis of the Bitcoin digital currency system, but it has the potential to do much, much more — including aiding in the development of platform cooperatives. Traditionally, institutions use centralised databases. For example, when you transfer money using a bank account, your bank updates its ledger to credit and debit accounts accordingly. In this example, there is one central database and the bank is a trusted intermediary who manages it. With a blockchain, this record is shared among all participants in the network. To send bitcoin, an owner publicly broadcasts a transaction to all participants in the network. Participants collectively verify that the transaction took place, and update the database accordingly. This record is public, shared by all, and it cannot be amended. This distributed database can be used for applications other than monetary transactions. With the rise of what some are calling “Blockchain 2.0”, the accounting technology underpinning Bitcoin is now taking on non-monetary applications as diverse as electronic voting, file-tracking, property title management, and the organisation of worker cooperatives. Very quickly, it seems, distributed ledger technologies have made their way into any project broadly related to social or political transformation for the left. While recognising the potential of blockchain as one tool that — in a very pragmatic way — could assist with cooperative activities, much of the current rhetoric around blockchain also hints at problems within the techno-utopian ideologies that surround digital activism, and points to the pitfalls these projects fall into time and again. Chief among these is the idea that we can replace messy and time-consuming social processes with elegant technical solutions. Fostering and scaling cooperation is really difficult. This is why we have institutions, norms, laws, and markets. These mechanisms allow us to cooperate with others even when we don’t know and trust them. They help us to make decisions and to divvy up tasks and to reach consensus. When we break these structures down, it can be very difficult to cooperate. Indeed, this is one of the big problems with alternative forms of organisation outside of the state and the market — those that are not structured by typical modes of governance such as rules, norms or pricing. These kinds of structureless collaborations generally only work at very local kin-communal scales where everybody already knows and trusts everyone else. In Ireland, for example, there were several long-term bank strikes in the 1970s. The economy didn’t grind to a halt. Instead, local publicans stepped in and extended credit to their customers; the debtors were well known to the publicans, who were in a good position to make an assessment on their credit-worthiness. Community trust replaced a trustless monetary system. This kind of local arrangement wouldn’t work in a larger or more atomised community. It probably wouldn’t work in today’s Ireland, because community ties are weaker. Blockchain replaces a trusted third party such as the state or an online platform with cryptographic proof. This is why hardcore libertarians and anarcho-communists alike both favoor it. The claim being made is not that we can engineer greater levels of cooperation or trust in friends, institutions or governments, but that we might dispense with social institutions altogether in favour of an elegant technical solution. All we need is to trust in the code. But this technology doesn’t replace all of the functions of an institution, just the function that allows us to trust in our interactions with others because we trust in certain judicial and bureaucratic processes. It doesn’t stand in for all the slow and messy bureaucracy and debate and human processes that go into building cooperation. In this sense, the blockchain has more in common with the neoliberal governmentality that produces platform capitalists, like Amazon and Uber, and state-market coalitions than any radical alternative. Seen in this light, the call for blockchains forms part of a long line of codified violence enacted through ledgers, automated record-keeping systems, databases and archives that work not to support networks of trust and political dissent but to make these things disappear. While technical tools such as the blockchain might form part of a broader artillery for networked cooperation then, we also need to have a little perspective. We need to find ways to embrace not only technical solutions, but also people who have experience in community organising and methods that foster trust, negotiate hierarchies and embrace difference. Because there is no magic app for society. And there never will be. This is a modified version of a paper first published In ‘Ours To Hack And To Own: The Rise Of Platform Cooperativism, A New Vision For The Future Of Work And A Fairer Internet’, edited by Trebor Scholz And Nathan Schneider (2016).

About Rachel O’Dwyer

Rachel O’Dwyer is a post-doctoral researcher and lecturer in the School of Computer Science at Trinity College Dublin. She is the leader of the Dublin Art and Technology Association ( and the initiator and lead curator of Openhere, a festival and conference on the digital commons She writes about digital media, political economy of communications, and the commons. Her research areas include mobile communications and radio spectrum, open networks and alternative currencies. She is a regular contributor to Neural magazine and the founding editor-in-chief of the open access peer-reviewed journal Interference: A Journal of Audio Culture