What is the physics of society? Its chemistry, its biology? We are beings who live through these material stuffs. Biochemistry matters for mind and behaviour. For example, the distribution of energy in the form of food is a critical question for health, for cultural symbolism, for life. The distribution of time is another dimension. That happens in a tangible way. Being poor often means not having much time – so much time is spend in trying to get money, to get cheap food, to try and get bureaucratic systems to function as they should. It’s tiring and low energy. Intoxicants and pharmaceuticals are distributed in ways that promote and embed some cultural performances and undermine others. Chemistry is a mechanism of social structuring.
The laws of physics, which ye cannae change, come into my study of distributed cryptocurriences. Encryption is a technique that makes use of a fundamental feature of thermodynamics, entropy. One of the most effective entropy machines of our times is bitcoin, generator of heat and eater of graphics cards. The bitcoin model is simple: venture capitalists generously give to subsidise bitcoin miners who run their network for the benefit of drug dealers. The system consumes between 50 and 75 Terawatts per year. Digiconomist estimates it as the equivalent of dropping another New Zealand or Chile onto the ecosystem. Externalities are significant in the form of pollution. Well, every system generates entropy. Does it create order to pay for it chaos? Bitcoin’s contribution is to use entropy to create an immutable record of transactions giving currency the novel quality of memory (Maxwell, Speed and Pschetz 2017). Bitcoin redistributes time between users of the system. To get past its sluggishness you have to pay.
To an extent this is restating the blindingly obvious (don’t knock it). We live life through physical space and time. Growth, decay, dissipation are incorporated into human cultures. In a more useful sense, successive historical periods make use of and value specific qualities of physics over others. Some of these obdurate qualities lead to predicted inefficiencies such as the practical entanglement of bitcoin which clogs up the whole system. Bitcoin is essentially inefficient because the system both seeks out more powerful computers to run faster calculations, but also is threatened by them. Vastly more powerful quantum computing could present a threat to the blockchain’s security, though it is by no means a closed deal. It is not a story of linear progress but comes about due to a specific entanglement of community and mathematics that makes bitcoin possible in this time and place.