APLA at AAA 2018: No Small Change

Doing Anthropology in a Bitcoin Bubble

Old School Revival” by Steve Jurvetson. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Thursday, November 15th 2:00 PM – 3:45 PM
San Jose Convention Center, LL 21 D

Co-Sponsored by the Society for Economic Anthropology and APLA


Since 2011, anthropologists have been researching cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and the blockchain technologies on which they are based. As its dollar value skyrocketed (and plummeted) and mainstream companies proposed new applications for blockchain systems in payments, finance, law, and logistics, Bitcoin has survived multiple bubbles of attention. Today, myriad enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and investors argue that blockchain technology can “disrupt” industry and government, decentralize decision-making, and make possible radically new social, economic, and political infrastructures. Critics, meanwhile, identify contradictions between how Bitcoin and blockchain are promoted and their evolution in practice. Championed as liberating and decentralizing, their distribution is perversely concentrated. Promoted as democratizing money and finance, cryptocurrencies are too volatile to serve as a stable media of exchange. Popularized as obviating the corruption of traditional intermediaries, the Bitcoin community has been recentralized and professionalized as it has been adopted for use as a speculative asset. Finally, while blockchains are said to automate trust in law and politics, applications often ignore the social context of contracts and governance.

Despite their revolutionary reputation, the cultures of Bitcoin and blockchain echo patterns of socioeconomic contest and cooperation that have long been the focus of anthropological investigation. As technologies that facilitate distributed record-keeping, blockchain systems represent the leading edge of much longer, global histories of accounting—the way humans keep track of reciprocal obligations, coordinate distribution and redistribution of resources, preserve collective memory, and negotiate authority. The cultural implications of blockchain technology touch on reckoning in all of its senses, from mathematical to moral.

Anthropologists have argued that received stories and histories of money naturalize currency as a manifestation of value and erase the social entanglements that constitute its transactional regimes. Distributed ledger technologies like the Bitcoin blockchain, however, foreground these regimes by replicating the transaction record across the full network and thereby making every transaction is (hypothetically) visible to all users at all times. As Deborah Thomas suggests in her recent American Anthropologist editorial (“Money and Its Effects”), while the social and political implications of this technical design remain unexplored, we argue that cryptocurrencies and blockchains are already generating anthropological insight.

This roundtable brings together a group of anthropologists currently engaged in ethnographic fieldwork across multiple sites in the transnational cryptocurrency community and blockchain industry. Topics considered include money, payment, financial markets, and cultures of speculation (Ferry, Graif, Nelms); supply chain security and energy logistics (Maurer, Bakke); development and human rights monitoring (Quick, Qureshi); law and contracts (Maurer); and labor, data, and identity management (Calvão, Falls).

In keeping with the theme of the 2018 AAA meetings, we ask: If Bitcoin and blockchain technologies promise new forms of decentralized cooperation, coordination, and automation, what new forms of risk, adaptation, or resilience might they also herald? We propose that the conference in San José—the epicenter of contemporary disintermediation ideologies, start-up culture, and venture capitalism—offers an ideal venue to showcase ongoing ethnographic research and explore new trajectories for research on the interplay of cultural and technological change and exchange.

Chairs: Gretchen Bakke (Humboldt University, Berlin) and Joe Quick (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Organizers: Farah Qureshi (University of California Irvine)
Discussant: Susan Falls (Savannah College of Art and Design) and Elizabeth Ferry (Brandeis University)

Roundtable Presenters: Bill Maurer (University of California Irvine), Taylor Nelms (Filene Research Institute), Peter Graif (The Open Institute – Kathmandu), and Filipe Calvao (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies)


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