A virtuous leader of uncertain identity and origins leaves mysterious scriptures and disappears turning his name into a legend. These scriptures are then cherished and supported by a growing community of believers and evangelists who announce the predicaments of a world-changing idea… While this may sound like the beginning of a certain religion, it is in fact the story of blockchain.
In the recently published paper “The Myths and Legends of King Satoshi and the Knights of Blockchain”, the authors, Faustino, Faria and Marques, draw a comparison between blockchain narratives and the tale of King Arthur. In this analogy, blockchain defies the current power structure by decentralizing social relations in a similar way to King Arthur’s institution of round-table discussions, making it possible for each knight to face one another and have a common say on any matter that was relevant to the kingdom.
This type of comparison has gone beyond academic papers and has been proudly embraced and adapted by some members of the crypto-community themselves in their social media.
Screenshot of a twitter post saying: “Satoshi was Merlin. There is no King Arthur. Bitcoin is the Round Table. EAch an every one of us, a knight. Together we bring about Camelot”
Another mythological character of the blockchain narrative is Satoshi himself, a figure created from mystery that has gained legendary status from his/her/their complete abdication of fame and an unspent fortune stored in their Bitcoin wallet. The very first Bitcoin transaction, nowadays known as the “genesis block”, already contained a message about blockchain’s mission in the world. The iconic headline from The Times: ‘Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks’ set the tone for blockchain’s critique; a reference to the crash of European financial system. These originary events in blockchain’s history were powerfully symbolic and contributed to the creation of a social phenomena that permeates the collective imaginary in much the same way myth does.
Faustino, Faria and Marques’ paper also discusses the ritualistic nature of the Bitcoin community, which resembles most religious communities and their periodic celebrations of events. For example, the very Bitcoin halving event is a calendar-bound celebration that reaffirms beliefs and helps retain a collective memory surrounding this technology.
It is interesting to notice what the structuralists would have to say about the mythological nature of blockchain narrative. In “The Structural Study of Myth” Levi-Strauss proposed that there is a universal structure to myth which ultimately aims at achieving a mediation between conflicting terms. Every society develops myth as a linguistic technology to overcome or rather replace their contradictions. In our current era, it seems that the tension between centralization vs. decentralization crystallized as the main dilemma which blockchain technology alongside its mythology aims to intermediate. While blockchain proclaims the possibility for centralization to dissolve, it also implies that every individual will eventually have a central role in society. This indicates that the tension between these two ideas already existed much before blockchain and the choice to shift from one to the other provokes fear and anxiety, which myth usually functions to alleviate.
Take for example the Zuni’s origin myth (a Native American Pueblo community). The myth shows a conflict around the concept of hunting that arises from its ability to produce food and therefore life for the community but in a way that builds itself upon the death of other organisms. In order to intermediate this tension the Zuni tribe used a mythological intermediary that could logically satisfy the contradiction, in this case carrion-eating animals, which are like prey animals but do not kill what they eat. The fundamental conflict is one between life and death, which was underlying that society’s hesitation to embrace hunting as a viable form of survival.
Myths such as these show that before a society can switch towards a new model of social organization it is necessary that the fundamental contradictions in that society’s very core be addressed and conciliated through myth. These challenges transcend the ages; it is no different to think of a society that has just been faced with the major transformative potential of blockchain technology.
Satoshi and whoever else was behind the constitution of blockchain knew to establish the mythological basis necessary for this technology to gain mass adoption.
Surely, when we take a deeper look at the core conflicts behind the emergence of blockchain, we find something more primordial than the question of centralization, but rather the question of trust. From this we can draw a conflicting dichotomy such as trust vs. fear, which is the main contradiction blockchain mythology will be tasked to intermediate.
This contradiction is nothing new to humanity, as we had already ventured into exploring it throughout the history of our transition from nature into culture, and the development of ever more complex human relations, ever more reliant upon trust.
Interestingly, using blockchain as a solution for the contradictions and tensions of financial life is not exactly a new invention. In fact, it is known that the Yapese community, a small tribe from a remote pacific island had already used a distributed ledger over two thousand years ago. Huge disks of limestone were used to track ownership and commercial transactions. The entire community kept track of the ownership history of the disks and any changes were announced to the entire community.
On The Flipside
- What will determine blockchain’s success in this generation is not only an advancement in technology or infrastructure but the development of this underlying myth ingrained in its constitution.
- As history continues to repeat itself, myth remains a force as pervasive as language. Myth organizes our internal unconscious chaos into structures of meaning in a way that is essentially fundamental for our ability to exist as a society. As we dwell in a digitalized, technocentric and hyper-rationalized era, make no mistake, myth will continue to closely follow every human endeavour and will continue to be encountered underneath our narratives of scientific progress, cyberspace and so on as far as our imagination can go.
- The history of humanity’s evolution is not determined by an ability to overcome myth, but rather myth’s ability to adapt and resolve the ever more complex conflicts from our unconscious mind.