Bitcoin Is Logos, Bitcoin Is Techne

Part XIII of the Bitgenstein Serialization

photo by Aaron Burden, via Unsplash

“To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.”

- Ludwig Wittgenstein

LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman infamously said on the Tim Ferris podcast that Bitcoin is like a Wittgenstein language game, with no elaboration whatsoever! Were I to pick up the baton, I would refer to Philosophical Investigations and the dictum that, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” In other words (no pun intended), Hoffman is characterizing Bitcoin as understandable only by interpreting the actions of the participants as essentially consisting of communication with other participants, hence expressing in a codified grammar what they mean and relying on this grammar to understand what others mean.

I think it is worth invoking Norwood Russell Hanson once again to appreciate the position of a functionally illiterate outsider in the presence of such a language game; an adherent of the (admittedly satirical) semantic theory of money. If perception is theory-laden, and if our theory invalidates the possibility of a new money monetizing from scratch, and that money takes the form of a language we don’t speak, and we won’t learn this language because we think it can’t exist … we are just about guaranteed not to understand it.

That Bitcoin can be thought of as a language game clarifies why it is inherently peaceful. Money is an information system that records and updates who has done work that is valued by others, such that credit can be universalized and socially scaled. Frederic Lane and Reinhold Mueller note in Money and Banking in Medieval and Renaissance Venice that, “both ‘medium of exchange’ and ‘standard of value’ are sufficiently ambiguous to make ‘moneyness’ a matter of degree,” and that, “conceptually and historically the two are separable.

This recording and updating is a technical problem, and candidate technical solutions ought to be evaluated not on how and how well they fit sufficiently ambiguous definitions, but on how and how well they work; be they Rai stones, gold ducats, or dollar-denominated bank liabilities; physical or digital; abstract or instantiated; debt or pure asset. The solution provided by Bitcoin is in some sense the purest yet conceived in that it captures this information as speech — we only use software to check the grammar.

As was made clear by Ross Stevens at SaylorCon, Ammous’ framing of “salability across space” and “salability across time” is now firmly in the lexicon. It is worth teasing out further in the context of understanding Bitcoin as language, and money as an information system. The essence of temporal salability is soundnesss; the essence of spatial salability is portability. Prior to Bitcoin, the two were in inescapable tension; economic development induces a market demand for money to be increasingly purely informational, as commerce itself becomes more complex than movement of specie can efficiently support. But information is, by its nature, not scarce at all, and so retaining some semblance of scarcity in informational money, hence temporal salability, requires trust in a centralized source of truth.

Note this does not imply “fiat”, but rather “fiduciary”, from the Latin fiducia, for trust. With relatively sound specie held in reserve by relatively prudent bankers, “bank money” — payment purely by debit and credit of accounts with a bank — in thirteenth-century Venice was relatively trustworthy, and in fact dominant and thriving. Not to mention in Genoa, Florence, Barcelona, and Bruges, interoperable via bills of exchange; all a little less temporally salable, perhaps, but vastly more spatially salable. But of course, Bitcoin resolves the underlying tension entirely. It is digital (that is, informational) scarcity. We get the portability of email with no trust, just verification.

this historical and technical argument expressed in meme form

A Bitcoin transaction is a global speech act that means, roughly, I am provably entitled to this portion, x, of the money supply, and am now transferring it to somebody else, in a language that everybody remembers forever and which can’t be used to lie. This is why efforts to ban Bitcoin, while they will certainly be attempted, will also almost certainly fail. Bitcoin is the ultimate samizdat. Bitcoin is logos.

This is also a source of great optimism given prevalent legal and social commitments to protecting politically undesirable speech. Naïve as I am sure it will seem to some, I think one of the most important US Supreme Court cases of the next 20 years will be the ruling that the right to broadcast Bitcoin transactions is guaranteed under the First Amendment. Prior to this, while the legality is still up in the air, I fully expect a sitting congressperson to invoke congressional privilege and “broadcast” a transaction by dictating its hexadecimal representation on the floor of the House or Senate.

This will probably be followed by tweeting one, working one into a public deposition, embedding one in a flag — which will end up on t-shirts and lapel pins, as well as fully physically to be waved around as a staple at protests. Don’t Tread on My Node! You either make countably infinite sets of numbers, letters, and colors illegal — whatever that even means — or you accept that Bitcoin is going to happen.

Bitcoin is Techne

photo by Garett Mizunaka, via Unsplash

“The Venetians were not thinkers: they were doers. Empiricists par excellence, they mistrusted abstract theories.”

- John Julius Norwich

Recording and updating the speech act of transferring value is a technical problem, to which Bitcoin is a technical solution. It is not an idea about how things ought to work. It is a real thing that does work. Although the observation may seem flippant, the distinction is enormously important.

Nic Carter put it to Frances Coppola recently that in order to make an apple pie from scratch, you have to first invent the universe, by which he was conveying that if you want to create a robust, fast-settling, online payments system with finality, you need to create Bitcoin. No alternative has ever actually worked. Given the problems Bitcoin solves are very clearly not just academic but are core to human civilization, actually working is rather important. Bitcoin is techne.

I think this captures what is likely the biggest hurdle for most newcomers who do actually make an effort to understand the details, because, on the face of it, Bitcoin is completely absurd as an engineering construct. Miners do WHAT?!? Coins are stored HOW?!? etc. — we’ve all had these conversations. Even the mathematically inclined who enjoy toying with the cryptographic primitives may very reasonably think, should they lack the wider context, this is completely ridiculous because everything is fine. But with the proper context, we can of course say, this is exactly as ridiculous as it needs to be because everything is not fine.

And yet there is a particular brand of skeptic who professes to admire some or most of Bitcoin’s design, but can’t bring themselves to get fully on board because of some pet problem Bitcoin seems not to fully solve, or some pet issue with the way in which Bitcoin solves the problems it clearly does solve. Coppola is very much in this camp. I would argue Peter Schiff and Mike Green are too. All are interesting and serious people who seem to have the right attitude on many issues Bitcoin touches, with the mysterious exception of Bitcoin itself. On Bitcoin, all adopt variations of this pedantic quibbling that is superficially sophisticated but really the most meretricious and unserious position of all because nothing remotely practical is offered instead. They deal with reality not as it is but as they would like it to be. Their “solutions” are clean, slick, and are never going to happen. Bitcoin deals with reality as it actually is. It is ugly. And it works.

This entire line of argument will likely never go away, given it was refuted in its entirety as early as May 2011 in the now legendary Bitcoin is Worse is Better, by Gwern:

The sac­ri­fice Bit­coin makes to achieve de­cen­tral­iza­tion is — how­ever prac­ti­cal — a pro­foundly ugly one. Early re­ac­tions to Bit­coin by even friendly cryp­tog­ra­phers & dig­i­tal cur­rency en­thu­si­asts were al­most uni­formly ex­tremely neg­a­tive, and em­pha­sized the (per­ceived) in­effi­ciency & (rel­a­tive to most cryp­tog­ra­phy) weak se­cu­rity guar­an­tees. Crit­ics let ‘per­fect be the en­emy of bet­ter’ and did not per­ceive Bit­coin’s po­ten­tial. How­ev­er, in an ex­am­ple of ‘Worse is Bet­ter’, the ugly in­effi­cient pro­to­type of Bit­coin suc­cess­fully cre­ated a se­cure de­cen­tral­ized dig­i­tal cur­ren­cy, which can wait indefi­nitely for suc­cess, and this was enough to even­tu­ally lead to adop­tion, im­prove­ment, and growth into a se­cure global dig­i­tal cur­ren­cy.”

Embracing this engineering ethic will immunize the curious to such inane posturetalk as Nassim Taleb’s unpredictable outbursts on “complex systems”, “volatility,” or “scale transformations,” or Eric Weinstein claiming that, “we need to get rid of the blockchain so that it’s a locally enforced conservation law that replaces space-time with a system of computer nodes.” If you want to embed Bitcoin in a gauge theory, Eric, go right ahead. I look forward to reading the BIP. But please actually do it. Don’t burble Chomsky sentences in the metalanguage and expect to be taken seriously. Of colorless green ideas a decentralized currency is not made.

continue to Part XIV:

or go back to Part XII:

n.b. This is a serialization of my previous trilogy on Bitcoin, economics, and capital markets: Wittgenstein’s Money, The Capital Strip Mine, and, Bitcoin is Venice.

follow me on Twitter @allenf32

maybe a squirrel. maybe not. views my own, not my employer’s.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store