Peter Wolfendale is a philosopher based at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. His interests range from metaethics to artificial intelligence. He was a founding voice in one of the truly original branches of thought that found expression on the internet, left-accelerationism, as well as a pioneering figure in the blogosphere. Suffice it to say, if it’s on the cutting edge, Wolfendale has thoughts about it.
CoinDesk reached out to Wolfendale for an interview about Bitcoin to ask why it’s a tool for emancipation, how it reproduces existing forms of prejudice and what it might mean for the future of capitalism. Here is what he had to say:
How does your interest in philosophy intersect with Bitcoin?
For the better part of the last decade, my work has been driven by the idea that philosophy of mind and philosophy of artificial intelligence are essentially the same thing: To understand what it would be to create systems that are generally intelligent and practically autonomous in the way we are is essentially to understand what we are ourselves.
This intellectual journey convinced me that philosophy of computer science isn’t a niche subfield, but a lens through which the others need to be understood. Not only are individual human beings already computational, but so are the social, political and economic systems that we’ve built for and out of ourselves.
It’s impossible not to be awed by the ambition of the cryptocurrency community: to reinvent money for the age of planetary-scale, distributed computation. It’s also impossible to deny that it’s made a lot of concrete progress in a short space of time. But my job is to see if they’re guided by the right abstract questions about money and similar social institutions, and to tentatively suggest some better ones.
What are the most exciting things happening in crypto?
Some people are excited by crypto as a source of ROI (return on investment). Others are excited by it as a way of designing and implementing new sorts of social organization. These aren’t mutually exclusive, and a lot of people are motivated by both. But there’s an understandable tendency to overestimate how compatible they are, and the resulting hype can push the ecosystem in questionable directions.
The obvious example here is NFTs (non-fungible tokens), which are really interesting from a technological perspective, but are caught up in exactly the wrong sort of excitement. They’re a direct demonstration that scarcity is a precarious substitute for use-value. The really exciting things are better ways to handle anonymity, decentralization and coordination. From a feature perspective, that means the spread of zero-knowledge proofs, systems optimized for dapps and multi-chain interoperability, and mature proof-of-stake protocols with on-chain governance.
You’ve said in the past that bitcoin is more or less recreating existing monetary phenomena – from banks to bank fraud. Is there a way to develop an alternative monetary framework that doesn’t repeat errors or make things worse?
People often say that money does three jobs: a medium of exchange, a store of value and a unit of account. Bitcoin started out as a decentralized medium of exchange, but it’s not really very good at that. Instead, it’s become popular as a store of value: not so much digital gold coins as a distributed Fort Knox.
This is predicated on the belief that at some point it’ll become stable enough relative to other assets to function as a unit of account. The problem here is that it’s less about bitcoin being good at this job, than a self-fulfilling prophecy driven by network effects.
Money also quantifies privilege. It gives you access to a certain share of the output of the whole system of production, a share you earn by having a stake in that system. These aren’t the only sorts of privileges that can be quantified. If you acquire shares in a company, you don’t just get…