This article situates the dark as a liminal and creative space of experimentation where tensions are generative and people tinker with emerging technologies to create alternative futures. Darkness need not mean chaos and fear of violence – it can mean privacy and protection. We define dark as an experimental space based upon uncertainties rather than computational knowns (Bridle) and then demonstrate via a case study of cryptocurrencies the contribution of dark and liminal social spaces to future(s)-making. Cryptocurrencies are digital cash systems that use decentralised (peer-to-peer) networking to enable irreversible payments (Maurer, Nelms, and Swartz). Cryptocurrencies are often clones or variations on the ‘original’ Bitcoin payment systems protocol (Trump et al.) that was shared with the cryptographic community through a pseudonymous and still unknown author(s) (Nakamoto), creating a founder mystery. Due to the open creation process, a new cryptocurrency is relatively easy to make. However, many of them are based on speculative bubbles that mirror Bitcoin, Ethereum, and ICOs’ wealth creation. Examples of cryptocurrencies now largely used for speculation due to their volatility in holding value are rampant, with online clearing houses competing to trade hundreds of different assets from AAVE to ZIL. Many of these altcoins have little to no following or trading volume, leading to their obsolescence. Others enjoy immense popularity among dedicated communities of backers and investors. Consequently, while many cryptocurrency experiments fail or lack adoption and drop from the purview of history, their constant variation also contributes to the undertow of the future that pulls against more visible surface waves of computational progress.
The article is structured to first define how we understand and leverage ‘dark’ against computational cultures. We then apply thematic and analytical tactics to articulate future-making socio-technical experiments in the dark. Based on past empirical work of the authors (Maddox "Netnography") we focus on crypto-cultures’ complex emancipatory and normative tensions via themes of construction, disruption, contention, redirection, obsolescence, and iteration. Through these themes we illustrate the mutation and absorption of dark experimental spaces into larger social structures. The themes we identify are not meant as a complete or necessarily serial set of occurrences, but nonetheless contribute a new vocabulary for students of technology and media to see into and grapple with the dark.
Embracing the Dark: Prework & Analytical Tactics for Outside the Known
To frame discussion of the dark here as creative space for alternative futures, we focus on scholars who have deeply engaged with notions of socio-technical darkness. This allows us to explore outside the blinders of computational light and, with a nod to Sassen, dig in the shadows of known categories to evolve the analytical tactics required for the study of emerging socio-technical conditions.
We understand the Dark Web to usher shifting and multiple definitions of darkness, from a moral darkness to a technical one (Gehl). From this work, we draw the observation of how technologies that obfuscate digital tracking create novel capacities for digital cultures in spaces defined by anonymity for both publisher and user. Darknets accomplish this by overlaying open internet protocols (e.g. TCP/IP) with non-standard protocols that encrypt and anonymise information (Pace). Pace traces concepts of darknets to networks in the 1970s that were 'insulated’ from the internet’s predecessor ARPANET by air gap, and then reemerged as software protocols similarly insulated from cultural norms around intellectual property. ‘Darknets’ can also be considered in ternary as opposed to binary terms (Gehl and McKelvey) that push to make private that which is supposed to be public infrastructure, and push private platforms (e.g. a Personal Computer) to make public networks via common bandwidth. In this way, darknets feed new possibilities of communication from both common infrastructures and individual’s platforms.
Enabling new potentials of community online and out of sight serves to signal what the dark accomplishes for the social when measured against an otherwise unending light of computational society. To this point, a new dark age can be welcomed insofar it allows an undecided future outside of computational logics that continually define and refine the possible and probable (Bridle). This argument takes von Neumann’s 1945 declaration that “all stable processes we shall predict. All unstable processes we shall control” (in Bridle 21) as a founding statement for computational thought and indicative of current society. The hope expressed by Bridle is not an absence of knowledge, but an absence of knowing the future. Past the computational prison of total information awareness within an accelerating information age (Castells) is the promise of new formations of as yet unknowable life. Thus, from Bridle’s perspective, and ours, darkness can be a place of freedom and possibility, where the equality of being in the dark, together, is not as threatening as current privileged ways of thinking would suggest (Bridle 15). The consequences of living in a constant glaring light lead to data hierarchies “leaching” (Bridle) into everything, including social relationships, where our data are relationalised while our relations are datafied (Maddox and Heemsbergen) by enforcing computational thinking upon them. Darkness becomes a refuge that acknowledges the power of unknowing, and a return to potential for social, equitable, and reciprocal relations.
This is not to say that we envision a utopian life without the shadow of hierarchy, but rather an encouragement to dig into those shadows made visible only by the brightest of lights. The idea of digging in the shadows is borrowed from Saskia Sassen, who asks us to consider the ‘master categories’ that blind us to alternatives. According to Sassen (402), while master categories have the power to illuminate, their blinding power keeps us from seeing other presences in the landscape: “they produce, then, a vast penumbra around that center of light. It is in that penumbra that we need to go digging”. We see darkness in the age of digital ubiquity as rejecting the blinding ‘master category’ of computational thought. Computational thought defines social/economic/political life via what is static enough to predict or unstable enough to render a need to control. Otherwise, the observable, computable, knowable, and possible all follow in line.
Our dig in the shadows posits a penumbra of protocols – both of computational code and human practice – that circle the blinding light of known digital communications. We use the remainder of this short article to describe these themes found in the dark that offer new ways to understand the movements and moments of potential futures that remain largely unseen.
Thematic Resonances in the Dark
This section considers cryptocultures of the dark. We build from a thematic vocabulary that has been previously introduced from empirical examples of the crypto-market communities which tinker with and through the darkness provided by encryption and privacy technologies (Maddox "Netnography"). Here we refine these future-making themes through their application to events surrounding community-generated technology aimed at disrupting centralised banking systems: cryptocurrencies (Maddox, Singh, et al.). Given the overlaps in collective values and technologies between crypto-communities, we find it useful to test the relevance of these themes to the experimental dynamics surrounding cryptocurrencies. We unpack these dynamics as construction, rupture and disruption, redirection, and the flip-sided relationship between obsolescence and iteration leading to mutation and absorption. This section provides a working example for how these themes adapt in application to a community dwelling at the edge of experimental technological possibilities.
The theme of construction is both a beginning and a materialisation of a value field. It originates within the cyberlibertarians’ ideological stance towards using technological innovations to ‘create a new world in the shell of the old’ (van de Sande) which has been previously expressed through the concept of constructive activism (Maddox, Barratt, et al.). This libertarian ideology is also to be found in the early cultures that gave rise to cryptocurrencies. Through their interest in the potential of cryptography technologies related to social and political change, the Cypherpunks mailing list formed in 1992 (Swartz). The socio-cultural field surrounding cryptocurrencies, however, has always consisted of a diverse ecosystem of vested interests building collaborations from “goldbugs, hippies, anarchists, cyberpunks, cryptographers, payment systems experts, currency activists, commodity traders, and the curious” (Maurer, Nelms, and Swartz 262). Through the theme of construction we can consider architectures of collaboration, cooperation, and coordination developed by technically savvy populations. Cryptocurrencies are often developed as code by teams who build in mechanisms for issuance (e.g. ‘mining’) and other controls (Conway). Thus, construction and making of cryptocurrencies tend to be collective yet decentralised.
Cryptocurrencies arose during a time of increasing levels of distrust in governments and global financial instability from the Global Financial Crisis (2008-2013), whilst gaining traction through their usefulness in engaging in illicit trade (Saiedi, Broström, and Ruiz). It was through this rupture in the certainties of ‘the old system’ that this technology, and the community developing it, sought to disrupt the financial system (Maddox, Singh, et al.; Nelms et al.). Here we see the utility of the second theme of rupture and disruption to illustrate creative experimentation in the liminal and emergent spaces cryptocurrencies afford. While current crypto crazes (e.g. NFTs, ICOs) have their detractors, Cohen suggests, somewhat ironically, that the momentum for change of the crypto current was “driven by the grassroots, and technologically empowered, movement to confront the ills perceived to be powered and exacerbated by market-based capitalism, such as climate change and income inequality” (Cohen 739). Here we can start to envision how subterranean currents that emerge from creative experimentations in the dark impact global social forces in multifaceted ways – even as they are dragged into the light.
Within a disrupted environment characterised by rupture, contention and redirection is rife (Maddox "Disrupting"). Contention and redirection illustrate how competing agendas bump and grind to create a generative tension around a deep collective desire for social change. Contention often emerges within an environment of hacks and scams, of which there are many stories in the cryptocurrency world (see Bartlett for an example of OneCoin, for instance; Kavanagh, Miscione, and Ennis). Other aspects of contention emerge around how the technology works to produce (mint) cryptocurrencies, including concern over the environmental impact of producing cryptocurrencies (Goodkind, Jones, and Berrens) and the production of non-fungible tokens for the sale of digital assets (Howson). Contention also arises through the gendered social dynamics of brogramming culture skewing inclusive and diverse engagement (Bowles). Shifting from the ideal of inclusion to the actual practice of crypto-communities begs the question of whose futures are being made.
Contention and redirections are also evidenced by ‘hard forks’ in cryptocurrency. The founder mystery resulted in the gifting of this technology to a decentralised and leaderless community, materialised through the distributed consensus processes to approve software updates to a cryptocurrency. This consensus system consequently holds within it the seeds for governance failures (Trump et al.), the first of which occurred with the ‘hard forking’ of Bitcoin into Bitcoin cash in 2017 (Webb). Hard forks occur when developers and miners no longer agree on a proposed change to the software: one group upgraded to the new software while the others operated on the old rules. The resulting two separate blockchains and digital currencies concretised the tensions and disagreements within the community. This forking resulted initially in a shock to the market value of, and trust in, the Bitcoin network, and the dilution of adoption networks across the two cryptocurrencies. The ongoing hard forks of Bitcoin Cash illustrate the continued contention occurring within the community as crypto-personalities pit against each other (Hankin; Li).
As these examples show, not all experiments in cryptocurrencies are successful; some become obsolete through iteration (Arnold). Iteration engenders mutations in the cultural framing of socio-technical experiments. These mutations of meaning and signification then facilitate their absorption into novel futures, showing the ternary nature of how what happens in the dark works with what is known by the light. As a rhetorical device, cryptocurrencies have been referred to as a currency (a payment system) or a commodity (an investment or speculation vehicle; Nelms et al. 21). However, new potential applications for the underlying technologies continue emerge. For example, Ethereum, the second-most dominant cryptocurrency after Bitcoin, now offers smart contract technology (decentralised autonomous organisations, DAO; Kavanagh, Miscione, and Ennis) and is iterating technology to dramatically reduce the energy consumption required to mine and mint the non-fungible tokens (NFTs) associated with crypto art (Wintermeyer). Here we can see how these rhetorical framings may represent iterative shifts and meaning-mutation that is as pragmatic as it is cultural. While we have considered here the themes of obsolescence and iteration threaded through the technological differentiations amongst cryptocurrencies, what should we make of these rhetorical or cultural mutations?
This cultural mutation, we argue, can be seen most clearly in the resurgence of Dogecoin. Dogecoin is a cryptocurrency launched in 2013 that takes its name and logo from a Shiba Inu meme that was popular several years ago (Potts and Berg). We can consider Dogecoin as a playful infrastructure (Rennie) and cultural product that was initially designed to provide a low bar for entry into the market. Its affordability is kept in place by the ability for miners to mint an unlimited number of coins. Dogecoin had a large resurgence of value and interest just after the meme-centric Reddit community Wallstreetbets managed to drive the share price of video game retailer GameStop to gain 1,500% (Potts and Berg). In this instance we see the mutation of a cryptocurrency into memecoin, or cultural product, for which the value is a prism to the wild fluctuations of internet culture itself, linking cultural bubbles to financial ones. In this case, technologies iterated in the dark mutated and surfaced as cultural bubbles through playful infrastructures that intersected with financial systems. The story of dogecoin articulates how cultural mutation articulates the absorption of emerging techno-potentials into larger structures.
From creative experiments digging in the dark shadows of global socio-economic forces, we can see how the future is formed beneath the surface of computational light. Yet as we write, cryptocurrencies are being absorbed by centralising and powerful entities to integrate them into global economies. Examples of large institutions hoarding Bitcoin include the crypto-counterbalancing between the Chinese state through its digital currency DCEP (Vincent) and Facebook through the Libra project. Vincent observes that the state-backed DCEP project is the antithesis of the decentralised community agenda for cryptocurrencies to enact the separation of state and money. Meanwhile, Facebook’s centralised computational control of platforms used by 2.8 billion humans provide a similarly perverse addition to cryptocurrency cultures. The penumbra fades as computational logic shifts its gaze.
Our thematic exploration of cryptocurrencies highlights that it is only in their emergent forms that such radical creative experiments can dwell in the dark. They do not stay in the dark forever, as their absorption into larger systems becomes part of the future-making process. The cold, inextricable, and always impending computational logic of the current age suffocates creative experimentations that flourish in the dark. Therefore, it is crucial to tend to the uncertainties within the warm, damp, and dark liminal spaces of socio-technical experimentation.
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