There is a video from 2016 where Nick Land expands on the relationship between blockchains and the philosophy of time. I'm publishing a transcript here to bring the talk to a wider audience.
The book cited by Land is Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time.
Below is the transcript of Land's talk.
I’d like to first of all subscribe to Mo’s conviction about the importance of the Blockchain, that’s a definite tidal element behind the reason everyone’s here, certainly it’s a conviction on my part that makes this a crucial topic to talk about.
So I’ve got two little elements that I’ve picked up about what’s going on here in advance, which is the title—The Spacial Politics of the Blockchain—and a blurb saying that we’re talking here about the ‘triangular relation between decentralized technology, architecture, and the office form,’ so I hope that I don’t leave the orbit of these agenda items. I’ll probably be approaching them from a somewhat abstracted point of view.
What I really want to talk about is spacetime and succession and leading into it with three chained questions. And the first one comes, they’re sort of ordered hopefully in a series of descending trivialities, so the first one is the most trivial apparently but I think it actually has more content than it might seem. And when we’re asking what is Bitcoin, and this is something I don’t know how immersed in this everyone is at this event, I’m probably going to a certain level of immersion but I’m among... I’m sure other people are very happy to go into a more expository mode if that’s helpful, at some stage, about how this actually works, but it’s very helpful that Satoshi Nakamoto’s paper is structured as a definition, because the paper is called Bitcoin: A peer-to-peer electronic cash system, now I think all those elements are extremely, uh, merit extraordinary excavation and there’s a lot going on there, I won’t be digging into all of those, I want to stick to the first word, the indefinite article—a peer to peer electronic cash system, and that, weirdly is an element that people might think has dated more than the rest since 2009, because a huge argument which is raking the world of cryptocurrencies, cryptocurrencies in general, Bitcoin in particular, is the extent to which Bitcoin is the blockchain, and this is a question that isn’t a philosophical question in a straightforward sense—it’s a historical question, it’s a technical question, it’s an economic question, it’s a question about whether the intrinsic dynamics of Bitcoin are such that it will produce the network effects necessary to actually produce a definite article blockchain–The Blockchain.
So are we talking about The Blockchain, or blockchains, with each one being a blockchain?
I’m going to move on immediately to my second question. This one becomes acute by the fact that it’s almost 4 o’clock in Shanghai and one of the close synonyms for spacetime is obviously timezones.
So we’re in different timezones and if we transfer this question about the definite article into this particular area or moment it makes a difference between the question- what is time? A grandiose, traditional, philosophical question, and what is the time? Which seems to be practical, relatively trivial again and it’s one that we’re dealing with, it’s certainly one that I’ve had to deal with to make sure I’m here at the right time. So just by adding the definite article between these two phrases, between these two little questions you actually produce the entire rift of ontological difference, the whole of critique is there.
Between "what is time?" and "what is the time?" is the difference between time as such, the being of time, and what is the time, a fact, a moment, an empirical element. So this slight modification, this slight insertion, opens this gigantic rupture. And the element of time that is going to carry on through this, the actual core definition of time, is succession. And succession we know immediately is relevant to what we are doing because it’s a translation almost directly of the chain in blockchain.
What the chain in block chain is is a succession of blocks. And my third little question is actually getting now massively grandiose actually- before introducing the spacetime question is to ask about a coincidence between five terms- and I think the way we order terms and in particular the way we think relations of coincidence or succession between these terms is going to structure, explicitly or implicitly, the kind of political questions, grand theoretical questions about what the blockchain is, where we are, what it might do, what we want it to do. So these five terms, which I should say I think everyone is going to disagree about the ordering of these terms and in that disagreement of ordering of, as I say particularly, coincidence and non coincidence, is going to be the whole of our political economic space. So these five terms: Capitalism, Globalisation, Modernity, Critique, and (throwing it in for Mo’s skynet) Artificial Intelligence. A huge range of options there is available.
One I think pole position I think is to argue for the extreme coincidence of those five terms. They are basically the same thing being seen from different aspects. But then particular and political ideological projects emerge when people try to desynchronise them and so one might be tempted to argue for a modernity to capitalism, a capitalism after modernity, a post-globalisation that is still part of modernity, modernity after critique, or the whole variation or set of permutations that are all available there and organising all of those things, or terminologically fixing them, is what we do with the ‘Post’ prefix. You know if we want to immediately fix our agenda and give it some definite form that’s kind of particularly susceptible to being carried by political excitement or by fashion you attach a post prefix to it. Post-modernity being one that we’ve already encountered a lot, implicitly I think also- post-critique, or as we’d be more familiar with that, Post-Kantianism.
And, I’m not going to obsess here on the philosophical issue, it’s something that willing to follow up on if people want to talk about it but the argument that I want to make is that the Blockchain makes it impossible to be a Post-Kantian. This is a kind of shocking, from I think a philosophical point, a shocking outcome. And again from a philosophical point of view it makes the blockchain of immense importance. So let me just try and give some grounds for why I might say that.
Kant deals with Space and Time in a very sort of complicated way especially, time slips around and does a whole bunch of different things so this is a nutshell version of it but I think it’s sort of historically relevant to the way things have developed which really focuses on what Kant called the Transcendental Aesthetic, his basic argument about the two forms of Space and Time. He defines space in terms of geometry, that’s to say he thinks geometry formalises the necessary structure of space and shows us in doing that space is actually a subjective structure that is imposed on the world. Similarly, arithmetic, again dominated by succession, is the same in relation to time as geometry is to space and the difference between geometry and arithmetic is the formal mathematical definition of the difference between space and time. The reason why I think it’s become a general syndrome for people to think that Post-Kantianism is not only possible but almost mandatory and something that is so inevitable that it fades into the intellectual background of our culture is the fact that the Transcendental Aesthetic as Kant set it out comes to seem implausible. And it comes to seem implausible first of all because Kant seems to take Euclides parallel postulate as if it were an axiom. That’s to say that he assumes that the geometry that Euclides laid out was a timeless, necessary structure of geometrical understanding. Obviously in the modern period the parallel postulate comes into question, people play around with different versions, different geometries based on varying the parallel postulate and this seems to suggest that Kant simply can’t be trusted to tell us what is necessary in these basic forms of sensibility. but an even more devastating challenge takes place- with the construction of spacetime.
Spacetime is as everyone knows, huge. Einstein is used as an icon of a kind of an ultimate modern possibility that at least reflects, if not in a more fundamental way driving, trends towards relativisation, a collapse of a certain modernist optimism maybe as a sort of doorway therefore into post-modernity. And there’s a reference that I’d really like to introduce here, a book that is very widely and very justifiably respected and I think makes a massive contribution to this, which is by Peter Gallison. It’s called ‘Einsteins clocks, Poincaré maps, Empires of Time’. It’s a truly excellent book and what Gallison argues there is that Poincaré was dealing with exactly the same historical problem that Einstein was dealing with but dealing with it in a way that was reflected through a certain kind of bureaucratic, administrative, practical concerns, that were not primary for Einstein but were totally converging on the same set of real issues, which were inescapable issues, of again I come back to these five terms, inescapable issues of capitalism, globalisation, modernity, which is to say why he called- in his title he talks about the empires of time.
In France where Poincaré is obviously working there is a hugely distributed global imperial apparatus that is wanting to standardise time for purely practical reasons, and in doing so it comes across some purely practical questions; if you’ve got two clocks in different parts of the empire or widely distributed in space, and you’re trying to actually establish that they are both synchronised you have an extremely intricate technical question. Because any signal that you send from one clock to another clock to check whether they are actually keeping time properly is itself going to take time. Even if, obviously in the electrical age, you’re sending signals at approximately light speed, you still have a time lag and this problem, on this extremely just straightforward technical bureaucratic level, of making sure that your clocks are telling the same time that you have achieved actual practical time standardisation, is Einstein’s problem seen from another facet.
Galison’s point is you’re not dealing with two separate issues here you’re dealing with the same issue exactly. Einstein as this sort of abstract physicist is very happy to see it as a problem of physics a problem of speculative theory, Poincaré is never willing to abandon that problem as a practical administrative problem. And Gallison says this is why we know Einstein as the great theorist of spacetime and Poincaré is seen as having somehow missed the ball, somehow failed, to quite reach the proper level of abstraction of this problem.
In failing to reach this level…
[Land was interrupted at this point, lost his train of thought and began his summation instead.]
The blockchain solves the problem of spacetime. The problem of spacetime is that according to Einstein and the notion of spacetime says there is no such thing as absolute succession. Therefore there is not even time, in any distinctive sense- distinct from a dimension. That’s why spacetime is treated as a 4 dimensional structure. This is in the theorisation of the blockchain, the problem is approached through something called the ‘Byzantine’s General problem’ and the ‘Byzantine’s General problem’ is exactly the same as the problem of relativistic spacetime. Let me just quote: from Satoshi Nakamoto responding to a question by James A. Donald on the cryptography mailing list where there are a lot of blockchain theories put together.
He says “ Every general in the Byzantine’s general’s problem, just by verifying the difficulty of the proof of work chain can estimate how much parallel CPU power per hour was expended on it, and see that it must have required the majority of the computers to produce that much work in the allotted time… the proof of work chain is how all synchronisation, distributed data base, and global view problems you’ve asked about are solved.” And these problems synchronisation, distributed data base, and global view problems, they are the problems that relativistic spacetime says are impossible to solve. Relativistic spacetime is the theory that these problems are insoluble and instead of a solution to these problems you have general relativity.
So the claim here, we probably don’t have time, I won’t try to justify it further than to say this is the claim being made, but the claim being made here is that the blockchain is Post-Spacetime and that means that we are not Post-Kantian. We are not Post-Kantian because the Kantian Transcendental Aesthetic is not disrupted by Einstein spacetime, instead, it is the draft it is the blueprint, it is the precursor for the spacetime of the blockchain which has now been instantiated by the Bitcoin technology. So we have now artificial absolute time for the first time ever in human history. And this therefore is scrambling these narratives it’s scrambling our sense of pre and post, what is the actual set of successions in the most concrete sense we’re dealing with this.