Towards a Situationist Blockchain
Announcing a new art project challenging the financial ideologies of digital ledgers
In 2009, Bitcoin was introduced to the world through a white paper published under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. The paper's rejection of centralized banking, and its links to the cybersecurity and privacy movements, soon led to its embrace by a cadre of techno-libertarians and anarchists. Bitcoin proposed a "trustless" method for securing the exchange of funds without intervention by a third party. Along the way, this decentralized alternative to banking accumulated a veneer of revolutionary potential, as many technologies do. The rhetoric of liberation, freedom from work, and shared prosperity surrounding Bitcoin was difficult to disentangle from its origins in radical anarchist politics.
But Bitcoin rhetoric is often decisively libertarian, market-focused, and capitalist in its assumptions. Freedom is defined as economic freedom. Shared prosperity is really only shared between investors: everyone who gets rich. And while there is some discussion of how things might be different when banks are replaced by decentralized nodes on a network, there is precious little discussion about what those changes might look like, or how its benefits might be equitably distributed. It appears that, rather than reinventing a financial system, cryptocurrency discourse is dedicated to rebuilding it with new owners.
Of course, critiques of cryptocurrencies abound. Michel Bauwens writes that "cryptocurrencies are a disaster" from a psychological view:
“On the one hand, they are a very powerful agent towards the ‘transactionalization of life’, that is of the fact that all the elements of our lives are progressively turning into transactions. Which overlaps with the fact that they become ‘financialized’. Everything, including our relations and emotions, progressively becomes transactionalized and financialized, and the Blockchain represents an apex of this tendency. This is already becoming a problem for informality, for the possibility of transgression, for the normation and normalization of conflicts and, thus, in prospect, for our liberties and fundamental rights, and for our possibility to perceive them (because we are talking about psychological effects).”1
As part of an artist and research residency at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Media Enterprise Design Lab and King’s College, London, Şerife Wong and I wanted to reappraise the rhetoric of blockchain revolutions from another set of priorities, and so we turned to another set of origins.
The Situationist International
The Situationist International was a French anarchist movement inspired by surrealism, Dada, and libertarian Marxism. They proposed that we navigate the world through a "mystifying illusion" of “spectacle,” a force present in our advertising, films, even vacations and leisure. The spectacle is an endless stream of distractions, constantly consolidating control of our free time and orienting it toward economic productivity.
We spend hours of "free" time on social networks, for example, turning leisure into data which is collected and sold by those providing us with a distraction we never seem to really want or enjoy. This is, fundamentally, an employee relationship being given freely to corporations: time spent on networks is pro bono data collection work. UX interfaces and digital interactions extend the spectacle, rewarding us all with illusions in exchange for distracting us from all the ways we actually wish to live.
Situationists saw the individual as more than “workers,” life as more than economic productivity, and the role of “governance structures” as more than protecting humans as tools of economic prosperity. Rather, we could be agents directing our own lived experiences. We are, however, constantly being diverted from those lives by a series of endless distractions — the “spectacle.”
For the Situationists, both capitalist and communist ideologies ignored this facet of human experience, redirecting human being into an instrument of productivity. Debord wrote that the Situationists aim "to abolish not only the exploitation of humanity, but also the passions, compensations and habits which that exploitation has engendered."2 At the same time, it was acknowledged that the Spectacle was too powerful an enemy. Any resistance would quickly be recuperated into the Spectacle itself. Instead, resistance was a constant struggle for moments of autonomy, and the concept of recuperation could be wielded both ways.
As the Situationists sought to center the vitality of lived experience as the aim of revolutionary action, we aim to center it in the aim of a Situationist blockchain.3 The Spectacle can be found in all the trappings of the attention economy and its links to surveillance capitalism.
As Jenny Odell writes in How to Do Nothing:
“We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like ‘annoying’ or ‘distracting.’ But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for self-reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to ‘want what we want to want.’ Thus there are deep ethical implications lurking here for freedom, wellbeing, and even the integrity of the self.”
LutteCoin is the result of a ludicrous question: What if we designed a cryptocurrency from a Situationist perspective. In his book, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization, Alex Galloway warns about the power embedded into the rules that govern such network arrangements. He writes:
"Protocol then becomes more and more coextensive with humanity’s productive forces, and ultimately becomes the blueprint for humanity’s innermost desires about the world and how it ought to be lived. This makes protocol dangerous ... because it acts to make concrete our fundamentally contingent and immaterial desires” (p. 245).
So we began with a ludicrous proposition: that a Situationist Blockchain ought to do the opposite of blockchain protocols. It ought to redefine concrete desires into immaterial ones.
LutteCoin is a cryptocurrency reimagined from a Situationist position, embraced as a tool for producing new life experiences. LutteCoin reimagines blockchain as a tool for rejecting coerced economic productivity and exchange. We asked whether blockchain could create a governance structure that achieved the opposite of the technology’s original ideological intent, which is complete financialization — the ledgerification of the world.
Briefly: Your computer, smart phone, smartTV, fridge, etc, all become useless, because the entirety of their processing power is used to validate blockchain information in exchange for the possibility of a reward. You can never use these devices again. In exchange, you know that you’re being productive: you’re mining cryptocurrency. This also means you can never access the currency you mine. It’s “burned,” your device is “bricked,” and you end up with something unexpected: the complete liberation from the seduction of digital spectacle.
LutteCoin turns to the tools of the Situationists, especially "detournement," a tactic of reclaiming tools of "the spectacle" and transforming them into something that can, however briefly, reveal and unwind it’s power. Situationists took advertisements and comic strips, erasing words to replace with their own propaganda. Likewise, we borrowed the iconography of cryptocurrency’s spectacle: motivational photographs of office workers, posing Christ-like in short moments away from offices. Promotional videos. Our white paper steals the format of the Bitcoin proposal, down to its structure and the selection of its fonts. And, of course, the tool itself: a crypto wallet.
Whereas Bitcoin relies on Proof-of-Work (POW) as its method of validating a mining node’s version of the ledger as accurate — to establish trust — we invented a Proof of Non-Work (PNW) Protocol. PNW brings elements of the pure gift to the Blockchain. It’s an alternative to extracting and burning resources as the sacrificial evidence of your commitment to the ledger.
We wanted to break the delivery devices of the spectacle. As engines of productivity, the laptop, smartphone and wearable device are a deeply ingrained delivery vehicle for distractions we do not know we do not want. Today’s computing devices offer a trade-off between social interaction and creativity on the one hand and endless manipulation and spectacle on the other. They are relentlessly optimized to polarize, distract, and inflame, hijacking lived time to analyze and sell back to you through marketing. These devices and platforms are, to state the obvious, transforming your time and leisure into "commodities." The Situationist Blockchain beckons you toward severing your relationship to that tyranny of interactive productive spectacle, to bite the hand that feeds you — even when it’s your own hand.
Non Fungible Gestures
In the dream logic of surreal situations, the pure gift replaces existing economic models, and vast sums are accumulated by tech giants such as Facebook or Google by turning off the engines of their networks. Bricking cloud servers and iPhones is the ultimate gift, an act of de-commodifying commodities in ways that absolutely cannot be returned by the receiver. In exchange, they receive an inordinate sum of social capital. This would be reflected in the massive sums of cryptocurrency they would instantly acquire, as hundreds of thousands of their machines mine dead time for a dead currency. Acknowledging the uselessness of this wealth is the final step of the Situationist revolution, an unattainable dream.
The Situationist Blockchain is presented as a Non Fungible Gesture, a gift given freely with the aim of imagining a world beyond financialization and commodities. It reclaims the rhetoric of radical change and dares the dreamers to dream of something aside from a salvation to be delivered through financial instruments. To reassess the waiting game of accumulation, the constriction of light flickering from glass boxes, and pursue the richness of the moment’s immediate possibilities.
What happens then?
LutteCoin is a project of the Excavations: Governance Archaeology for the Future of the Internet residency held virtually at University of Colorado Boulder and King’s College London. Its aim is to explore pre-digital mechanisms across diverse societies and cultural practice through creation-oriented research. Curated by Federica Carugati (King’s College London), and Darija Medic and Nathan Schneider (Media Enterprise Design Lab, University of Colorado Boulder), with support from the Eutopia Foundation and in collaboration with DiploFoundation.
The work was also presented during the UN’s Internet Governance Forum in December 2021.
1 Bauwens, Michel (2017). “The Financialization of Life,” P2P Foundation. https://blog.p2pfoundation.net/the-financialization-of-life/2017/09/10
2 Debord, Guy (1957). Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency's Conditions of Organization and Action.
3 See Alastair Hemmens and Gabriel Zacarias (2020) “The Spectacle,” in The Situationist International: A Critical Handbook.
4 Martin, Keir (2012). The ‘potlatch of destruction’: Gifting against the state. Critique of Anthropology. 2012;32(2):125-14