Mine the Gap: Bitcoin and the Maintenance of Trustlessness

New Media & Society, Forthcoming

28 Pages Posted: 16 Aug 2018

See all articles by Gili Vidan

Gili Vidan

Harvard University - Department of the History of Science

Vili Lehdonvirta

University of Oxford - Oxford Internet Institute

Date Written: July 11, 2018

Abstract

Subscribing to a techno-utopian discourse replacing institutions and experts with “trust in code,” digital alternative currency Bitcoin is pitched as a “math-based money” governed by incorruptible code rather than human regulators. In three cases, which occurred between 2013 and 2015, we examine this system at moments of breakdown. In contrast to the discourse, we find that power is concentrated to critical sites and individuals who manage the system through ad hoc negotiations, and who users must therefore implicitly trust—a contrast we call Bitcoin’s “promissory gap.” But even in the face of such contradictions between premise and reality, the discourse is maintained. We identify four authorizing strategies used in this work: conflating people with devices, assuming actors conform to notions of economic rationality, appealing to technical expertise, and explaining contradictions as temporary bugs. We contend that these strategies are mobilized widely to legitimize a variety of applications of algorithmic regulation and peer production projects.

Keywords: Algorithmic Regulation, Bitcoin, Cryptocurrency, Critical Code Studies, Distributed Ledger Technology, Peer Production, Blockchain

JEL Classification: Z13, G02

Suggested Citation

Vidan, Gili and Lehdonvirta, Vili, Mine the Gap: Bitcoin and the Maintenance of Trustlessness (July 11, 2018). New Media & Society, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3225236

Gili Vidan

Harvard University - Department of the History of Science ( email )

Science Center 364
1 Oxford Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Vili Lehdonvirta (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Oxford Internet Institute ( email )

1 St. Giles
University of Oxford
Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3JS
United Kingdom

HOME PAGE: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk

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