Sandra Faustino: firstname.lastname@example.org
In this paper, we present an ethnographic account of the quasi-religious romanticism of the crypto-community towards blockchain technologies. To do so, we explore the cultural significance of phenomena such as myth, faith, and ritual, without excluding both the realms of technological practices and techno-scientific narrative. Drawing on a comparison with the legend of King Arthur, we analyse how the legendary creator of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, translates contemporary anxieties resulting from the financial crisis and the centralisation of power. By analysing white papers, we further explore the persuasive narratives which convey how ethics and virtue can be encoded into software, and, finally, we describe the secular rituals that reinforce cohesion among the community – in moments which are often guided by charismatic preachers and specialists. We argue that blockchain technologies have had a symbolic impact in re-invigorating enchantment and material romanticism towards finance and technology, which has had a wider impact on the social perception and acceptance of the transition to a digital society.
Religion; material romanticism; enchantment of technology; faith; cryptocurrencies; ethnography
By carefully scrutinising blockchain technology it is possible to disentangle a mythical narrative that starts out with its founding event – the creation of the Bitcoin open-source software and the release of its white paper under the mysterious pseudonym of Satoshi Nakamoto (2008). The first Bitcoin transaction ever – a pizza purchase made on the 3rd of January, 2009 – was registered in the blockchain containing a headline from The Times: ‘Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks’. This block, with an explicit reference to the crash of the European financial system, became known as the ‘genesis block’, which established the creation of what was soon to become a crypto-community, composed of Bitcoin evangelists, entrepreneurs, enthusiasts, and a myriad of projects originating from various backgrounds, all of whom congregated around the reformative or revolutionary power of this technology. The aim of this paper is to contribute to the understanding of the symbolic impact of blockchain on society, starting with an ethnographic account of the pivotal role of the crypto-community on the rise of fintech and on (re)energising a quasi-religious romanticism towards finance and technology.
Money itself has always been intertwined with acts of faith (Simmel 1978, Humayun and Belk 2017). Benjamin (1996 ) wrote that capitalism is a religion, considering that capitalism is not only conditioned by religion, but that it is essentially a religious phenomenon, where money is equivalent to God (Löwy 2009). It is in line with this perspective that authors have explored  the historical bond between religion and capitalism (Weber 2002 , Konings 2020), religion and debt (Graeber 2014, see also Dalsgaard in this Special Issue), or the mystification of financial markets through intelligible phenomena such as ‘the invisible hand’ of the market (Vogl 2010). In western contemporary society, the romance with the capitalist adventure lives on through the myths of lone entrepreneurs, who sleep in the office and eventually become billionaires (Thrift 2001) and of businessmen who are dedicated to furthering the success of their corporations in a cult-like deprivation of their personal lives (Mooney 2005), or of ‘moral entrepreneurs’, whose obscene wealth is pardoned by philanthropic acts (Fuller 2013). As Thrift points out, in the new market culture ‘it’s the romance, not the finance, that makes the business worth pursuing’ (2001).
Scholars of religion have encountered, across different cultures, a variety of ways through which people seek explanations, create social order or find comfort (Boyer 2001). However, the category of religion in western scholarship is shaped by a rationalist system of thought which confines religiousness to the great ‘corporative’ monotheisms, which historically excludes magic or sorcery, amongst others (Goody 2010, p. 19; see also Durkheim 1962 ). In this sense, the category of religion tends to offer a rigid differentiation between the sacred and the profane. In rejecting this duality, our use of the term religiousness aims to consider ‘what people actually do when they occupy themselves with religious matters’ (Piette 2003), and how those actions respond to a society’s ‘ultimate concerns’ (Tillich 1959), ‘ultimate values’ (Durkheim 1962 ), or ‘ultimate ends’ (Weber 2009a ). Such actions can be ritualised, stylised, formalised, and repetitive (Nadel 1954) – whether they are direct religious acts or secular rituals, such as social practices governing birth and marriage, political meetings, or sports events (Moore and Meyerhoff 1977, Goody 2010). Finally, such actions are framed by tales which have a critical function and reveal latent political and societal implications (Propp 1968 , Barthes 1972 ). Similar to other works in this Special Issue, we understand myth, tale or legend to be conceptual resources which aim to domesticate and symbolically explain a particular state of affairs which is often treated as taboo. In our approach and attempt to understand the role of storytelling, we are just as concerned with the act of telling a narrative as with the narrative itself (Bal 1997).
Intersections between religious tales and finance have been explored in the literature, for instance, in revisiting the supernatural character of the zombie in Haiti, where it emerged as a reference to the coloniser – the predator of enslaved labour who was able to carry out the ‘new magic’ of creating speculative wealth (Nelms 2012). The advent of the ‘zombie bank’ as a metaphor after the financial crisis, which alludes to the banks’ exploitation of government bailouts to assure their survival – as Nelm states – highlights how the metaphor still conveys its original meaning. Similarly, Taussig (1980) links the metaphor of the devil in South American plantations and mines to the colonisers who were expropriating the workers’ souls in exchange for money/commodities. De Goede further shows how discussions surrounding the emergence of credit in seventeenth century England involved the production of the metaphor of Lady Credit, who, resembling the ancient goddess Fortuna, would embody the ethical spirit of speculative practices, whilst punishing the greedy and rewarding the virtuous, and thus positively influenced the moral acceptance of speculative practices during that moment in history (De Goede 2001). Such narratives are powerful and give rise to the cultural nuances of the emergence and maintenance of financial practices. In the post-crisis scenario, the growing digitalisation of finance and the sensation that money can be created from nothing (Dodd 2018) still call upon the need for explanatory narratives which are driven by the quasi-religious authority of economists and accountants (Maurer 2003, Nelson 2014), and, more recently, programmers and coders (Introna 2016, Dupont 2018).
Cryptocurrencies, which bring together the abstraction of finance with the abstraction of code, become a material infrastructure which is subject to understandings based on the “rare intersection of technology, ideology, and religiosity’ (Humayun and Belk 2017). However, only a minor part of the literature explores these aspects in the particular case of blockchain technologies (see Humayun and Belk 2017, Golumbia 2018, Cui 2019, Caradonna 2020). Such a reading finds resistance in the form of opposition between the religious  understanding of the world and the techno-scientific understanding of the world: which Weber called ‘disenchantment’ (2009b ) and which Latour (1993) named ‘the modern settlement’. The western constitution of technology as an institutional, scientific, and rationalist realm often dissuades us from engaging with its mythical/conceptual theory of the world, in which the human and the technical do not act in opposition (Latour 1993, Hayles 1999, Ingold 2000, Hefner 2002, Szerszynski 2005, Coeckelbergh 2010, Haraway 2013). In this regard, the literature has discussed how the disenchantment of western society has historically undermined its understanding of the entanglements between science and spirituality in both its own and other cultures (Nadel 1954, Narby and Cronin 1998, Goody 2010, De Castro 2015).
Considering the example of the Trobrianders’ canoes, Gell (1992) speaks of the enchantment of technology as being the pragmatic effect which results from mastering of technology – in particular cosmologic configurations. The canoes exhibited technically-impressive bowsprits, which were so impressive that from afar these were perceived to be supernatural and magical, provoking wariness in the hearts of the majority of observers, and forcing them to offer more valuable items in ceremonial exchange (for more, see Gell 1992, also Malinowski 1922). Gell is interested in highlighting the commonly underestimated and enchanting power of technical virtuosity, which we tend to construe as being somewhat magical, as it transcends our understanding (see also Piette 2014). The same phenomenon was observed later on in the form of the ‘cargo cults’ which emerged in Melanesia during the Second World War. When confronted with military technology which they could not fully understand, Melanesians started to enact rituals where they would simulate certain conditions – an airplane landing on an airstrip, for example – in the hope of being rewarded with an abundance of goods from the coloniser. Just as the mock airstrips in this example failed to produce airplanes, western techno-scientific marketing similarly sometimes fails to produce the announced results in what has been named ‘cargo cult science’ (Feynman 1974).
Cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies emerged during the experience of a crisis – that of the mainstream financial system in 2008. Just as the case of war for the Melanesians, or slavery for the Haitians, the financial crisis gave rise to the design of particular symbolic representations and narratives to help come to terms with uncertainty – as Stiglitz (2009) put it, ‘no one knew what was truth and what was fiction’ (see also Meissner 2017). One decade after the release of the Bitcoin software, it is yet to be understood whether it will produce the results announced by the techno-futurist industry (Kurzweil 2005, Tapscott and Tapscott 2016) and how much of its hype has been derived from the enchantment of a highly encrypted and black-boxed technology which has created money, with the promise to deliver new forms of social organisation (Gell 1992, Davidson et al. 2016). Rather than discussing the ‘moneyness’ of Bitcoin, we aim to explore the pragmatic implications of the monetary narratives surrounding the financial potential of crypto-currencies as a core topic regarding the reputation of this technology. In this sense, we wish to go beyond current debates with regards the nature of money and explore the wider implications of existing expectations regarding future monetary systems (Salazar et al. 2017). We go about this by disentangling and analysing the myths and rituals of particular crypto-communities, in an attempt to ascertain the wider economic and societal impacts that such narratives are capable of bringing about for the consolidation and expansion of fintech. Throughout the empirical section, we discuss the observations made during our fieldwork, which are considered to be manifestations of faith in a technologically-improved society, which involves the search for explanation, social order, and comfort, as well as for ceremonies and preachers – all of which is indisputably disconnected from official religious doctrines as it embodies quasi-religious practices and tales (Boyer 2001, Goody 2010).
This paper draws on our own ethnographical studies in the world of blockchain, which were conducted from 2017 to 2019, and which were complemented by the documental analysis of indirect sources. The ethnographic research was carried out on crypto-currency- and blockchain-related events, as well as when observing two start-ups: one in the United States and the other in the Netherlands. The analysis of these start-ups per se has already been undertaken elsewhere (see Faria  2019, Faustino 2019). The research of these organisations included in loco observation, interviews (online and live), and also the observation of online working channels (Slack, Trello, Telegram). A U.S. owned start-up was selected for study during the timeframe when it spun off a E.U. based organisation and moved part of its European team to Oakland, hoping to benefit from the nearby technological epicentre of Silicon Valley. The other start-up was based in the Netherlands and was selected, from among other cases, during the carrying out of fieldwork in this country – as it has stimulated a lively crypto scene over the past years, due to its crypto-friendly regulatory context within the E.U. Attendance at cryptocurrency events in different European countries, as well as in the U.S., provided the opportunity to comprehend wider nuances and diversity within an enlarged community. In total, we carried out 48 interviews, during 6 months of empirical observation both online and in loco.
In the next section, we analyse the legend of Satoshi Nakamoto – the creator of Bitcoin. Drawing on a comparison with the legend of King Arthur, we examine Satoshi’s legend as an expression of contemporary concerns about the financial system, as well as of the faith deposited in technology being able to resolve almost everything (Propp 1968 ). The section that follows on after examines white papers: key documents which govern the disclosure of technical innovation – such as the Bitcoin white paper. As proposals of a techno-mediated social order, white papers persuasively address ethical issues stemming from scenarios of decentralised finance and automated governance. In the subsequent section we examine secular rituals – such as celebrations, assemblies, and ceremonies, where the crypto-community reaffirms itself around the charismatic guidance of preachers and specialists (Boyer 2001, Hansen and Verkaaik 2009). We then close with our final considerations regarding blockchain’s symbolic impact on (re)invigorating a quasi-religious romanticism towards finance and technology.
The legend of king Satoshi and the knights of blockchain
The legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table occurred to us to be an enticing metaphor to start our exploration of the tale of Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin’s creator. There is no scientific consensus about whether or not King Arthur actually existed, despite the several links made to historical ‘Arthurs’ of Romano-British origin who lived during the 6th century (Williams 1962). In an epic and heroic manner, King Arthur is praised for being an exemplary leader and warrior and for having done what no one else had managed to do – to pull the magical sword of Excalibur out of the stone during a moment of national crisis (Simpson 1986, Monaghan 2008). There is also no actual proof that the round table ever existed; it was introduced as a metaphorical symbol of the equality between the King and his knights, in contrast to the conventional monarchy of the time (Williams 1962, p. 78). For these reasons, the romantic tales that were propagated about King Arthur are more mythical than historical (Monaghan 2008).
The horizontality and distribution of power that the metaphor of the Round Table represents in King Arthur’s legend evoked in our imagination the decentralisation proposed by Satoshi’s software to the developers, who maintain equal authority among themselves over the technology when working with blockchain’s open-source code and when proposing new software. Furthermore, similar to King Arthur’s persona, while there is no doubt about Satoshi Nakamoto’s existence per se, there is little certainty about his historical identity and he remains anonymous to this day. It is not known whether he is a man, a woman, or a group of people; as Satoshi is a Japanese masculine name and is very commonly referenced through masculine pronouns, we also adopt this approach in this paper for the sake of simplification. We shall return to the legend of King Arthur below, however for now, let us focus on the legend of Satoshi Nakamoto.
After releasing the Bitcoin white paper in 2008, Satoshi continued to work actively on writing the software’s code up until mid-2010. He then handed over control of the software repository to Gavin Andresen (who would later create the Bitcoin Foundation) and ceased to be involved in regular communications, leaving the decentralised technology in the hands of a ‘leaderless’ organization  (Golumbia 2018). Ever since then, Satoshi has been absent from the relevant discussions and plot twist developments in the crypto-scene, despite the number of candidates, self-appointed or appointed by others, who have claimed Satoshi’s identity, in what has fed speculation for over a decade now. In late 2018, for instance, Satoshi’s online profile posted the single and mysterious word ‘nour’ in an online forum, leaving the entire crypto-community speculating about the meaning of the post – with no consensus. Every time Satoshi speaks, or is suspected of speaking, all the community focus their gaze on him. The massive amount of unspent Bitcoins in his account (visible in the public Bitcoin blockchain) endow Satoshi with the appearance of a ‘wholly ascetic, Buddha-like’ figure in the ‘cryptocurrency theology’ (Golumbia 2018). His refusal to assume leadership in a decentralised community, together with the preservation of anonymity and its political functions (Foucault 1979, Bordeleau 2015), constitute symbols for the modern hacker culture. Not knowing exactly who Satoshi is makes it impossible to forge a charismatic relationship with the leader – such as Steve Jobs achieved – and stimulates the perception that the followers are not solely users, but also members of a community of equals – who are able to freely experiment with the code without incurring judgement from its creator (Humayun and Belk 2018, Nelms et al. 2018).
And yet, despite such a nuanced reputation, Satoshi’s only legacy is the initial software and the original text in the form of the Bitcoin white paper, e-mails, and forum posts.1 These are mostly emotionally-dry technical descriptions and relate discussions between Satoshi and other developers working on the Bitcoin protocol. We sustain that Satoshi’s legend stems not from the charismatic performance of the subject himself, but rather from the technical complexity of his creation. Even though Bitcoin was the result of decades of cryptographic research following previous experiments with digital money (Chaum 1985, May 1996, Szabo 1997, Wei Dai 1998), Satoshi was able to solve the famous double-spending problem that prevented previous experiments from succeeding, showing an indisputable mastery of code. Despite the collective work involved in the history of cryptography, the interest in unmasking the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto seems to us to be key to understanding the value system behind Bitcoin (Swartz 2018). Initially praised by ‘goldbugs, hippies, anarchists, cyberpunks, cryptographers, payment systems experts, currency activists, commodity traders, and the curious’ (Maurer et al. 2013, p. 2), Bitcoin introduced the possibility of being able to disrupt the monopoly of central banks and governments over money, in an unprecedented manner. Furthermore, the ‘genesis block’ – with its inscription of a headline referring to the bailout of banks – has been widely understood to be a symbolic proof of Satoshi’s hostility towards states, banks, and the wider status quo.
Technical virtuosity soon turned into strategic power. Bitcoin was launched immediately after the triggering of the 2008 financial crisis, and the technical advances that blockchain contributed to in that historical moment enhanced its seemingly revolutionary powers, influencing discussions about both the refusal and reform of the mainstream financial system (Swan 2015, Dodd 2018). This technology was gradually and steadily taken into consideration by different societal spheres, and as a minimum was portrayed as a remarkable technical achievement – what Bill Gates termed ‘a technological tour-de-force’.2 Blockchain’s efficacy has now caught the attention of banks, governments, and regulatory bodies, all of which are increasingly investing in the development of their own blockchains (Maurer 2016, Swartz 2017, 2018, Campbell-Verduyn and Goguen 2018, Herian 2018, Faria 2019).
We believe that Satoshi’s tale, by fomenting the image of an anti-establishment coder who frees society from centralised power, represents an explanatory function with regards to the symbolic impact of technology on society. It discloses contemporary anxieties regarding the centralisation of money, and, more generally, about the centralisation of power. Just as the tale of King Arthur discloses the disquiet of the Roman Britain empire over its own sovereignty in the face of invasions (Monaghan 2008) and renews faith in a better future, Satoshi responds to a fairly widely-shared social concern about zombie banks and ruthless financiers (Nelms 2012), deemed to be responsible for the financial crisis. It is thus possible to reason why the emergence of Bitcoin has also developed a legendary aura around Satoshi – as a historical recitation based on the achievements of just one  human actor. The metaphor of King Arthur has its limitations and it is not our intention to insist that it has symbolic relevance throughout our whole analysis. Rather we propose to analyse the emergence of Bitcoin through the lens of the tale of Satoshi Nakamoto as one of the many cultural phenomena prompted by Bitcoin. In this sense, Nakamoto embodies the reputation of a noble altruist in the crypto-community, offering salvation from a crisis by introducing decentralisation as a new ruling power: a round table of equals rather than of a despotic sovereign. Furthermore, Nakamoto’s reputation illustrates the growing status of the modern hacker, who, when competing with the modern financier, possesses special skills which are sometimes perceived as being magical.
We next examine Bitcoin’s white paper, alongside other white papers which we discovered during the carrying out of our fieldwork. These are texts that bring together technical innovations with increasingly complex forms of social order, which reveals how the mastery of decentralised money appears to represent proof of the capacity to be able to technically master other processes – such as the production of social relations (Gell 1992, Davidson et al. 2016).
If it doesn’t have a white paper, it doesn’t exist
Bitcoin’s inaugural moment was the publication of its white paper in the Cryptography Mailing List. White papers are formal documents where a new or improved technology is presented to the public (Malone and Wright 2018). The production of this type of document has become a convention for every project in the crypto-community: as we heard someone say, ‘if it doesn’t have a white paper, it doesn’t exist’. Bitcoin’s white paper was a nine page document, written in a fairly technical language which solves the previous limitations of digital cash experiments. In the white paper core issues at stake within the mainstream monetary systems are addressed in computational terms, such as incorruptibility: Satoshi mentions ‘banks’ only once and usually prefers to use technical terminology, such as ‘third parties’. A few dry and assertive comments regarding the financial system appear mostly in the introductory first paragraphs, such as: ‘while the system works well enough for most transactions, it still suffers from the inherent weaknesses of the trust-based model’; ‘financial institutions cannot avoid mediating disputes’, or, ‘what is needed is an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party’ (Nakamoto 2008, p. 1). Throughout the 12 sections of the white paper, Satoshi demonstrates the robustness of his invention, including the solution for the double-spending problem – which at that point represented the computational challenge that no other developer had been able to solve.3 Before concluding, he presents mathematical equations, probability calculations, and lines of code to corroborate his claims. The Bitcoin white paper can be considered to be a founding ‘sacred text’, which later inspires the production of new versions as the material and visible ramifications of a growing community of peers increase (Nelms et al. 2018). In this sense, and despite the non-acknowledgement of the collective work behind Nakamoto’s discourse, Humayun and Belk (2018) propose that Satoshi is a ‘founder of discursivity’, with his work setting out the scope and rules for other texts, allowing for difference, while remaining embedded throughout the later versions (Foucault 1979).
While Bitcoin introduces decentralised money, later projects have attempted to decentralise other socio-economic relationships. The second most relevant white paper in the history of blockchain was published in 2013 to present the Ethereum platform, which was written by Vitalik Buterin, the 18 year old ‘prodigious child’ (Caradonna 2020) who referred to Ethereum as being ‘a magic computer’.4 While Bitcoin’s white paper presented the first cryptocurrency, Ethereum presented the novel possibility of programming other things using the same protocol, such as self-executing contracts. Ethereum’s 36 page long white paper, which is written in a more marketable language, affirms ‘vastly more power than that offered by Bitcoin scripting, because of the added powers of Turing-completeness’ (Buterin 2014, p. 13). This innovation introduced a significant schism with previous developments, as now, as well as currency, one could programme any sort of socio-economic coordination. For this reason, the emergence of Ethereum steered scholarly  research from discussions about cryptocurrencies to discussions regarding blockchain-based organisational forms of governance (Swan 2015, Davidson et al. 2016, Swartz 2017, 2018). Such endeavours invariably express their own moral rationale towards just what exactly socio-economic relationships should be like, i.e. cooperative and anarchist inspired projects (see Lopes in this Special Issue) coexist with market-centric, anarcho-capitalist ventures (see Faria in this Special Issue). While Bitcoin’s white paper stands out for its dry and technical language, most of the white papers that followed include persuasive language and blatant ethical considerations. In doing so, they crystallise a particular expectation towards the digitalisation of society, which then regulates the adherence of the community to the proposed software.
During our fieldwork, we followed a start-up called the Economic Space Agency (ECSA), which is based in Oakland, U.S. Its proximity to Silicon Valley encouraged close contact with other members of the crypto-community, such as talented code developers and wealthy investors. As ECSA was working on its own white paper, it received a visit from a former Ethereum team member who mentioned how the Ethereum white paper had been a ‘visionary document’ and that it had played an important role in the project’s stability:
Even after the trust broke down and the team fell apart, the white paper functioned as a decentralized coordination mechanism. For me, that’s the only reason Ethereum succeeded. (...) My advice definitely is to make sure that the vision is articulated as much as possible. (ECSA visitor A, Oakland, April 11, 2017)
According to the ECSA team, their own platform introduces new technical affordances that overcome Ethereum’s centralised ‘magic computer’ and introduce further decentralisation, as well as the scope for deploying a series of pre-made algorithmic financial instruments, such as derivatives. The convention of producing a white paper was not taken lightly by ECSA, an organisation mainly composed of academics. For ECSA was all too aware of the importance of language and was committed to the political translation of what the technical really is (see Faustino in this Special Issue, and Faustino 2019). Endless versions of ECSA’s white paper were created, commented on, and revised collectively in search of the most persuasive and flawless narrative. Indeed, as we write, ECSA has announced the release of a three-volume white paper: Economic, Technical, and Political. By means of this atypical format, ECSA’s white paper is bestowed with a trait of its own which reveals a new schism, both in terms of content and shape. Furthermore, contrary to Satoshi’s 9 page-long white paper introducing Bitcoin, ECSA’s paper communicates a more elaborate tale.
We analysed an anarcho-capitalist project in the Netherlands called Bitnation, whose 42 page-long white paper was released in 2017 to introduce Decentralised Borderless Voluntary Nations (DBVN). As the name implies, the innovation at stake here is derived from the technical ability to programme a decentralised jurisdiction. Bitnation’s white paper states that in ‘the current world order, citizens are forced to compete with one another to receive their desired governance outcomes’, and it goes on to introduce a ‘global free market for governance services’ (Tempelhof et al. 2017, p. 4). Bitnation’s white paper swiftly outpaces Ethereum’s marketable language with a more sophisticated aesthetic approach, whilst introducing infographics and providing famous quotes for each section. All the software functions are described, sometimes in very technical terms, but always without displaying the code or mathematical models used. Through persuasive language, this white paper introduces Pangea – a global market for governance services. Pangea is the first ever digitally-constituted nation that represents both a reputation system which is managed by an algorithm named Lucy, and a monetary system which rewards participants according to their virtuous behaviour (for more detail, see Faria 2019).
Bitnation’s charismatic founder and leader told us her story during a meeting. She spoke of how she had become disillusioned with nation states and violence following her experience working as a defence contractor in conflict areas. She firmly expressed her belief that a blockchain-based system is the only way to provide peace and to end government violence, adding that democracy had failed. She went on to state that she decided to create Bitnation as she was driven by a quest to end state-based genocide. Her personal story acts as an illustration of the project’s values, and other Bitnation  collaborators with whom we spoke also invoked her life story to better explain the project. One of them told us:
During her time there (...) she was exposed to Bitcoin for the first time. (...) She wrote the whitepaper about (...) decentralised governance service providers. This is the very very original edition, before she started Bitnation. (Michael, Lisbon, November 7, 2016)
The founder’s personal story plays a relevant role in Bitnation’s tale. It recalls unhappiness regarding an initial state of affairs – the experience of a crisis – before proposing a solution based on universalising the founder’s beliefs (Propp 1968 ). The technical advances that occurred, such as the development of the Lucy algorithm, are expected to automatically regulate and enforce virtuous social interactions in the absence of mediating institutions. In a far more ambitious way than Bitcoin, projects such as Ethereum, ECSA, or Bitnation all forcibly advocate a particular technologically-mediated social order, which is appealing to the concerns of contemporary individuals and accordingly nurtures cohesion among their followers (Durkheim 1962 , Boyer 2001). In the next section, we now explore the role of secular rituals as vehicles for maintaining a collective memory and for reinforcing a sense of community through moments of guidance.
Secular rituals: ‘happy Bitcoin halving #3’
Similar to the calendar-bound celebrations that reaffirm certain forms of belief systems or social institutions, such as the celebration of the 4th July in the United States (Goody 2010), the crypto-community has also installed non-spatial, calendar-bound celebrations of key events enacted in cyberspace. For instance, the first Bitcoin transaction ever made – the purchase of two pizzas for 10,000 Bitcoins (which is worth over 80 million dollars today) – is celebrated on every 22nd May as ‘Bitcoin Pizza Day’. ‘Bitcoin Halving’ is another festivity, even though it is celebrated only every four years, or, more precisely, every 210,000 blocks. In the cases of halving, the Bitcoin reward for miners (users who are responsible for validating new blocks in the network) is divided by two. As of 12th May, 2020, halving lowered the Bitcoin reward to miners from 12.5BTC to 6.25BTC. This occasion was followed closely by the crypto-community in a festive spirit – with websites hosting live countdowns to the Halving and, in 2020, wishing users a ‘Happy Bitcoin Halving #3’. These cyclical celebrations – the first marking the birth of Bitcoin, and the second commemorating the passage to a new economic configuration at every 210,000 blocks – perform an important role in retaining a collective memory about the technology’s achievements.
In October 2016, we participated in a ‘Bitcoin Wednesday’, which was organised at the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam. In the crypto-community, this kind of gathering is a common, spatially-situated event, which is easy to come across in many cosmopolitan cities around the world, whether it be on an occasional or a regular basis. These events constitute the temporary expression of a group gathering in physical proximity as a means of significantly binding people together. The charismatic figure Andreas Antonopoulos was billed to attend that ‘Bitcoin Wednesday’ and the excitement was palpable. Programmers, investors, amateur users, and speculators were among the audience, as well as the merely curious. Attendees spoke about Antonopoulos with reverence, citing him as: ‘a star in the Bitcoin universe’, and ‘one of the special people, at the top, bridging different worlds within the industry’. When he finally walked on to the stage, having already experienced the presentation of various other projects, the audience was finally able to hear about the potential of Bitcoin and blockchain in captivating words in alternation with detailed descriptions of technical features which only half of the audience seemed to understand. In his message, Antonopoulos spoke of the inevitability of the disappearance of fiat money and the perils of its control by state and financial intermediaries. These claims were made attractive by him invoking situations of debt-related confiscated goods and other emotionally appealing stories. Money represents not only a form of power, he said, but also a form of trust, freedom, and democracy. According to Antonopoulos, Bitcoin represents absolute freedom: ‘Banking as an institution’, he finalised, ‘is obsolete’.
 Antonopoulos is described by the crypto-community as a ‘Bitcoin evangelist’ and as a ‘Bitcoin Jesus’. Similar to the Hansen and Verkaaik’s notion of the charismatic preacher (2009), which they put forward by elaborating on Weber’s idea of charisma (1978) and on Bourdieu’s idea of the mystery of ministry (1991), Antonopoulos personifies the social fiction of a group. Indeed, the mystery of his ministry is further illustrated by another particular historical event: a disagreement took place among the Bitcoin community regarding a change in its original code in 2017. A split was thus made: the original Bitcoin (BTC) continues to this day, however, as of 1st August 2017, when Bitcoin block number 478,558 was processed at around midnight by a Chinese mining pool employing the new protocol, Bitcoin Cash (BCH) came to be and followed its own separate path. A Bitcoin investor named Roger Ver held the title of ‘Bitcoin Jesus’ at the time, on the grounds of his early endorsement of the cryptocurrency, however, when he supported Bitcoin Cash, the community remaining faithful to the original Bitcoin elected a new Jesus in the form of Andreas Antonopoulos. In Golumbia’s words:
[Antonopoulos] had only recently climbed out of debt, and survived mostly on five-dollar donations from Patreon supporters. Antonopoulos’s modesty, not to mention his emergence from the desert of penury, more than satisfied those angered by Ver’s support for BCH. Suddenly, Antonopoulos was ordained the new “Bitcoin Jesus” by a flank of supporters, some of whom banded together to donate around fifty BTC to him—making him a millionaire overnight. (2018)
Charismatic preachers such as Antonopoulos maintain a lay relationship with technology, as they are not writers of code, but rather investors, promoters, or entrepreneurs, whose oratory powers turn them into competent translators and moral strategists (Alberoni 1984, Hansen and Verkaaik 2009). As a personification of the group, they can also perform the key role of steering a direction through the unknown (Hansen and Verkaaik 2009), as illustrated by the schism between Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash.
Three years later, in 2019, we attended the Web Summit held in Lisbon, Portugal, which is a pivotal ceremonial event in contemporary technological culture. In itself, the event was a demonstration of the faith in technology’s achievements for whoever was searching for proof, which was manifested by robots circulating among the audience and the opportunity for participants to experiment with virtual-reality headsets. In addition, there was a chance to hear successive short talks delivered from dozens of different stages which either affirmed technological solutions for existing problems, or discoursed about futuristic themes: such as humans living on Mars, or awarding robots civil rights. This event represents a type of periodical assembly which serves to bring together tech creators and enthusiasts from all over the world in one particular place for a limited period of time. Such an event represents more than just enabling the temporary expression of an assembled group, as it is characterised by the explicit ceremonial dimension which is embedded in its formal, stylised, and ritualised format.
The Web Summit represents a unique opportunity for the crypto-community to gather around revered characters who are in effect charismatic preachers, or as Boyer calls them – specialists. Similar to pastors, priests, rabbis and monks, these persons are reputed to hold special abilities and thus accrue additional benefits on the basis of such a reputation (Boyer 2001, p. 272). The programme of the Web Summit is mostly marketed as being a unique opportunity to see and hear those whose special abilities are commonly linked to technical mastery, such as robot designers, app inventors, data scientists, or artificial intelligence developers. One such specialist who was present at the 2019 Web Summit was David Chaum, a cryptography pioneer who is considered to be the inventor of digital cash (eCash) in the 1980s. eCash maintained a tremendous influence on subsequent experiences with digital currencies, as well as on the cypherpunk movement which emerged in the late 1980s (Swartz 2018). In a talk entitled ‘The evolution of currency’, Chaum presented his latest project, a platform called Elixxir, to a packed audience which was both sitting and standing. He focussed on privacy issues, singling out state surveillance by saying ‘Snowden has proved that we have no privacy’. To conclude his perfectly-rehearsed 20-minute presentation, he labelled his  platform as being a technology which is ‘in the original spirit of blockchain’, attesting to his own adherence to the perceived original values of the Bitcoin code. In effect, Chaum’s narrative thus relates crypto-technologies with the ability to circumvent governments and to Nakamoto’s tale – which is a significant statement, bearing in mind that blockchain was being presented as the ideal technology for governmental systems on other stages at the Web Summit.
Celebrations, assemblies, and ceremonies such as those described above constitute secular rituals which comprise a pilgrimage to the temporarily configured spaces that bring together members of a perceived community (see Lopes in this Special Issue). Such events often exhibit stylised, formalised, and performative behaviours (Moore and Meyerhoff 1977, Goody 2010), and they reinforce a sense of community through moments of guidance and live interactions regarding issues which are conveyed as being systems of belief. Additionally, such events communicate tales, mark calendar celebrations, allow participants to vent their militancy, and convince those who are in search of proof (Boyer 2001, Piette 2014). During these processes, charismatic preachers and specialists guide both physical and virtual movements for networking and community building in their role as evangelists bearing the news of blockchain’s revolutionary powers.
Final discussion: ‘do you really need a blockchain for that?’
Throughout this paper, we have explored the quasi-religious behaviour of the blockchain evangelists, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts who exhibit faith in the technology’s reformative or revolutionary power. We commenced by discussing the legend of Satoshi Nakamoto as a tale whose primary aim is to translate contemporary anxieties about the financial crisis and present blockchain’s potential to save society from the centralisation of money and power (Barthes 1957, Bal 1997). By means of the analysis of white papers, we traced the proliferation of persuasive narratives which propose the advent of techno-mediated social order, which is anchored in ethical and moral discourses. Finally, we ended our analysis by describing secular rituals and events which bring together members of a perceived community, reinforce their cohesion and networking, and produce comfort during moments which are often guided by charismatic preachers and specialists (Hansen and Verkaaik 2009). This approach served the purpose of empirically illustrating a larger sense of religiousness which is seldom evoked in sociological and anthropological accounts of blockchain technology – which Dodd (2018, p. 49) describes as a ‘quasi-religious zeal’ towards a ‘godlike technology’. For this reason, our analysis also sought to explore the secular without entirely refuting the dimension of enchantment and religiosity that the wider community itself construes and feeds into its narrative and behaviour towards the financial-technological realm.
As observed in the doctrines of economics (Nelson 2014), we sustain that the tales regarding algorithmic governance and decentralised finance have been conquering ground by building upon already-existent myths of quantification and calculus, while extending them to the realm of computer code and granting increasing authority to software developers (Maurer 2003, Introna 2016, Dupont 2018). Similar to other tales, their persuasive efficacy is seemingly proportional to the intelligibility of their inner-workings, which induces a certain type of enchantment (Gell 1992) and favours the presentation of these technologies as representing black-boxed ‘magical’ solutions for wider challenges. In recent years, as different sectors became acquainted with blockchain, online literature has proliferated under titles such as ‘do you really need a blockchain for that?’.5 It now transpires that many companies that were wishing to keep up with innovation wanted to implement a blockchain, whereas, in reality, what they needed was just a conventional database. This curiosity, which was manifested by not only the financial sector, but also the health and logistics sectors, for instance, illustrates a generalised faith in technological innovations as being qualitatively better and more financially rewarding. Furthemore, as we saw in the case of the Netherlands, such curiosity also thrives on the lobbying carried out by enthusiastic entrepreneurs near regulators and supervisors, as well as in the workplace (Faria 2019, 2021). Amongst other factors, the consolidation and expansion of blockchain technologies has thus benefited from the  cohesion and growth of the social group which emerged from an online cryptographic forum, and which has now reached as far as banks’ digital innovation task forces and the stages of the Web Summit.
This is partly a revelation of the process by which the financial mainstream sector appropriated decentralised technologies to strategically overcome the mistrust generated by the financial crisis, and it actually takes quantification doctrines further. Nakamoto’s legend – which portrays the hacker as the hero, and the banker as the villain – conveniently supports the idea that this technology has been created in accordance with differing ethics. The introduction of blockchain technologies in the banking and financial sector appeals to the renewal of public faith, framed by tales of higher scrutiny, safety, and oversight, to enable this sector to get back to business as usual (Maurer 2016). Our analysis thus suggests that crypto-financial tales narrow the possibilities for the democratisation and demystification of finance with respect to the need to reform the mainstream financial system, by somehow re-creating and updating the fictional and engaging nature of mainstream practices.
Overall, the quasi-religious romanticism of fintech has been translated into the wider society through the overarching narratives of the ‘cashless society’ and of ‘the digital economy’ – which positively support the hypothesis of the emergence of fintech solutions to install digital payment systems and digital governance (see Ertürk et al. in this Special Issue). Although these wider narratives give rise to a variety of uncertainties regarding fundamental social issues, they are met with the industry’s persuasive tales about a better future, and with ritualised ‘performative politics of incarnation’ within formed communities (Thrift 2001, p. 418, Mooney 2005, Fuller 2013). Such compelling tales are fundamental for addressing the growing opaqueness of fintech, together with other areas of development, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and robotics. These tales (re)invigorate the phenomena of re-enchantment (Gell 1992) and material romanticism (Coeckelbergh 2017), both of which enable ‘leaps of faith’ when it comes to transforming society by technological means.
For a collection of the complete writings of Satoshi Nakamoto, see https://satoshi.nakamotoinstitute.org/.
The Byzantine Generals problem: a metaphor of two generals from two different armies who need to agree on the exact moment of when to attack, but can only communicate by sending messengers – who could be prevented from delivering the message in question.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s). Funding
Notes on contributors
Sandra Faustino is a PhD student in Economic Sociology (ISEG-IUL), has a MA in Development Studies (ISCTE- IUL) and a BA in Journalism (ESCS-IPL). She did research on blockchain-based financial technologies within the project ‘Finance Beyond Fact and Fiction: Financial Transformations in Post-2008 Europe’, in the Research Centre in Economic and Organizational Sociology of the Lisbon School of Economics of the University of Lisbon (ISEG/UL)  (2016/2019). Her main interests are framed by the fields of the social studies of finance and science and technology studies, and concern the political dimensions of technological development.
Inês Faria is a researcher at the CSG-SOCIUS/ISEG, University of Lisbon. Inês has a PhD in Medical Anthropology from the University of Amsterdam, focusing on reproductive health and reproductive technologies. Since 2016 she has been developing research about ‘alternative’ and mainstream financial uses of blockchain technology, she was involved in the project Finance Beyond Fact and Fiction that explored financial changes and continuities in Europe after the 2008 crisis. Currently, Inês continues working about the relations between technology and society regarding the areas of finance, but also of healthcare, respectively in European and sub-Saharan African contexts.
Rafael Marques is currently assistant professor at ISEG where he teaches undergraduate courses in Sociology and Economic and Financial Sociology, master courses in Business Ethics, Financial Ethics and Ethics of Academic Research and PhD courses in Economic Sociology. During his academic career he also taught courses in Comparative Social Policy, Political Sociology, Organizational Sociology, Organizational Behavior, Introduction to Management, Negotiation and Conflict, and Change Management. He has an MBA and a PhD in Economic Sociology. His main areas of research are Ethics, Moral Sociology, Social Theory, and Economic Sociology. He is finishing two papers on Time and Social Theory: ‘The Problem of Chronocentrism in Lay and Academic Sociology’ and ‘Uchronian Thinking in Gabriel Tarde’s novels’.
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