Bitcoin: The Crossroads of Politics and Technology

The bright spot in the digital takeover

Strauss and Heidegger, the greatest philosophical antagonists of late modernity, agreed on one thing: technology had become the greatest problem for philosophy, and in that sense the greatest challenge to politics and the greatest threat to humanity.  

For Strauss, Machiavelli’s recognition that Christianity had become institutionalized by the Catholic Church on the basis of weakness and inertness led him to accept the necessity of renegotiating the basis of political philosophy in order to preserve philosophy itself. Machiavelli also recognized that philosophy had lost its capacity to preserve itself because the good city according to classical philosophy lost its ability to defend itself against an array of, according to philosophy, bad cities or peoples. The bad, focused on acquisition or ease, violated the philosophical prohibition on the practice of science by instrumentalizing knowledge away from the peaceful understanding of nature.  

That is, military science in the hands of the bad overwhelmed the good city in a manner philosophy could not stop. The twin challenges of the weaponization of scientific knowledge and the weakness of religious wisdom required of philosophy a strategic lowering of horizons—giving the people what they want in terms of power and satisfaction—in order to strengthen regimes where virtue still existed and secure a fighting chance for philosophy.  

By Strauss’s own time, Strauss argued, Machiavelli’s great wager had paid off, insofar as his enemies had been defeated, but in victory, modern political philosophy clearly could not stand alone. While the religious wisdom of weakness had largely collapsed, the secular weaponization of knowledge had conquered the world and all but destroyed even the plausibility of the restriction of science to natural science, that is, to the mastery of philosophy over instrumental knowledge. The militarization of technology and the technologization of politics laid the ground for humanity to be forced into a choice between mutual annihilation and the world homogenized state—both of which once again mortally threatened philosophy.   

Heidegger, meanwhile, concluded that the triumph of the technologization of being had decisively defeated both modern and classical philosophy, such that only a god could save us now. Only religion, that is, could cause people to in their very existence be and know themselves to be ensouled creatures rather than interchangeable and individually insignificant units of (as we might say) human resources in a “standing reserve,” the same, in fact, as any physical thing subsumed into the all of technology. 

Wrestling today with these matters, we should be struck that neither Strauss nor Heidegger, despite their potent insights, could fully anticipate or grasp the nature of the digital medium and the machines that suffuse it. Today, the problem is not “tech” in some general sense or even military tech in particular, but rather digital machinery in its specific novel characteristics. For the first time we are confronted with discarnate devices that have achieved a singularity of presence and reach—operating in a sphere where neither space nor time, as we understand them, exist. The single entity these devices form is at the same time an environment to which they belong and the formative power of a new environment within which we are incorporated. While it is correct to see this entity-environment as more of a swarm than a mob, what awaits if the swarm breaks utterly free of human mastery is an entirely new reality.  

To a degree, David Gelernter illustrated the issue and the stakes in a “manifesto” of his own (recall: he was maimed by the Unabomber) called The Second Coming. “The future,” he foretold, “is dense with computers.” 

They will hang around everywhere in lush growths like Spanish moss. They will swarm like locusts. But a swarm is not merely a big crowd. The individuals in the swarm lose their identities. The computers that make up this global swarm will blend together into the seamless substance of the Cybersphere. Within the swarm, individual computers will be as anonymous as molecules of air.  

His reference to “cyber” to describe the digital sphere may sound quaint or cringe until you remember that cybernetics—a coinage first made not by Norbert Weiner but André-Marie Ampère, the inventor of the electric telegraph whose name is given to the measurement unit of electric current—means, in Greek, steersmanship; the helmsman of the ship is the kybernetes, a term that still appears in our governor and government, and even more plainly in gubernatorial. What we confront is a situation where we are completely enclosed within and dependent upon a “ship” that is both entity, environment, and navigator, that is, by the obsolescence of “cybernetics” in Ampère and Weiner’s sense of the science of communicative control over both living and non-living animate beings.  

This is a situation, in other words, where human government can no longer exist, because the space and time of human beings has been usurped and foreclosed by entities we once, in our ignorance, created.  

Obviously this is a situation in which politics, the definitive human activity expressed in and through the polis—the city, or, later, more broadly, the regime—is impossible; one in which, therefore, human activity—human being—disappears (as far as we know) from the universe.   

Escaping this trap, and the extinction that follows, might be done by one of two ways: either the elimination of the digital entities that might enslave and then eliminate us, or the restoration of our mastery over them. Conceding that the first approach seems already beyond possibility, and is probably even so actually not truly desirable, the second is hinted at in Gelernter’s Second Coming: “Software can solve hard problems in two ways: by algorithm or by making connections—by delivering the problem to exactly the right human problem-solver. The second technique is just as powerful as the first, but so far we have ignored it.” Dismayingly, this is largely still the case, although less so than might be feared. One technology created within the digital medium has arisen with a clear and already well-functioning capability to move us past the passive faith in algorithmic fiat that today characterizes the approaching singularity of weaponized information—back into the position of human beings extending rather than eliminating our senses and faculties to conduct arms-length but trustably face-to-face collaborative work in culture creation and valuation. This is bitcoin, a world computer capable of swallowing existence in the manner of the digital medium as such, but amenable, right now at least, to our restoring human mastery by imposing upon our technology the burden of furthering and supplementing our distinctly human endeavors without scandalously supplanting them.  

Bitcoin, and so far nothing else within the digital medium, provides us with an escape back into humanity that restores the possibility of a refounding of our political life in a situation where space and time as we know them have been, if not actually destroyed, then, as of right now, thrown into question, put on trial, or otherwise had their sovereign reality put into a state of exceptional weakness. Through bitcoin, which must be seen in this light as first a fundamentally political digital entity, humans can direct energy into the reassertion and the rebuilding of distinctly human spacetime, the reality in which our faces—and other knowledge-symbols of our being as incarnate selves formed and stamped in the divine image—can remain intelligible and authoritative, and in which our bodies and our arms can remain engaged in the competition and conflict which is, despite their sufferings and risks, inseparable from the being gifted to us by God.  

James Poulos (@jamespoulos) is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.