June 10, 2022

Web3 and the New Social Contract

Alex Estorick hosts Paolo Cirio and Max Haiven in conversation about the prospects and perils of blockchain technology
Credit: Paolo Cirio, Printed Matter, NYC, May 2022. Courtesy of the artist
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Web3 and the New Social Contract

Alex Estorick: Both Paolo’s art and Max’s writing skewer vertical systems in ways that feel especially resonant in Web3. Max, you’ve written about Paolo’s work in the past, and I’d like to use that as the basis for a conversation about blockchain, NFTs, and Web3 that addresses the reality they are engineering. Specifically, you’ve talked about how contemporary art and finance are parasitic on the real economy, feeding off wealth external to them:

To put it bluntly, art cannot be corrupted by capitalism because it has always already been derivative of capitalism.¹ 

It seems to me that most artists working with NFTs have now accepted this as fact — that the NFT financializes digital creativity in some fundamental way — but many are embracing it anyway to unlock artistic careers that were previously inaccessible to them.

Paolo Cirio, Printed Matter, NYC, May 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Max Haiven: I was thinking today, before we began, that it’s strange that Paolo’s Derivatives (2020) work and my book on art and money were being completed just as NFTs were emerging in the public consciousness — almost like they were flashes before the storm. Had I written my book a year or two later, it would have been a completely different project. And I think if you were starting to do the Derivatives project now, Paolo, it would have to be a different project. 

Paolo Cirio: That happens to me quite often. I remember when I was finishing the Art Commodities (2014) project, which was about the financialization of digital art, there were these other artists in New York working on the same idea based on the blockchain. So it was definitely in the air.

I’m not all that positive about decentralization for its own sake. In 2014, I did a project about the potential of decentralization, called Global Direct, which was about the promise of global direct democracy through the decentralization of the Web. But that mainly concerned the new political movements springing up at the time, particularly in Europe, that were using Web2. The dilemma then was how to moderate disinformation in a decentralized network, and how to ensure accountability for bad actors or indeed politicians who wished to remain anonymous. The question now is: “How do we establish a common constitution based on ethical principles?” Because we do need some rules in the world, otherwise it’s not a fair game. But we also need to enforce those rules.

Many of the challenges of Web3 are familiar, and have been faced by former political systems and civilizations, but the configuration now is different. Today, in the digital world there is a big push for technological solutions that aren’t founded on ethical principles. But in the physical world we are seeing some improvements in how we discuss race, gender, as well as class. The scary thing is that the Web is getting darker because a decentralized Web without rules is prone to abuse all the time. Web3 currently represents the dark conscience of society. 

Paolo Cirio, Printed Matter, NYC, May 2022. Courtesy of the artist

MH: I think you’re right. It’s an interesting political moment where we’re seeing some measure of progress on certain issues relating to social justice, and then in some ways, a huge reactionary wave in online space. On the one hand, we’ve entered into a daring new digital landscape. Yet we’re also 40 years into a neoliberal revolution where the corporate form has reigned supreme. And I think that corporate form reduces human imagination and agency to a very rigid model of homo economicus, one that is built on a modern colonial and patriarchal model. 

What’s happening in Web3 is that new possibilities are emerging which are formidable and interesting, but innovation is also being pursued by established corporations and the corporate mentality that we’ve all been instructed to emulate. The wolf of individualist accumulation is never far from the door. So while the architecture might be changing, the cosmology feels very similar. I do think there are people trying to break out of that cosmology from within, who are using these new technologies to build new forms of community. But it feels like many of these new communities reflect the elective affinities of hyper-individuated subjects who can only approach collectivity on a contractual basis. Maybe that also helps to explain why the contract — which is one of the most artificial and problematic constructs in human history — remains so pivotal to the imaginary of Web3. This is unfortunate, because it would be wonderful if there could be a greater effervescence of the imagination.

PC: Right now, people focus only on the means of exchange: the coin, the deal, or the contract, and how that contract can be aesthetically or conceptually interesting. But too often we forget the chain of value production, which is real people, real belief systems, informal relationships, and politics, all of which creates the means of exchange. 

The communities that we are seeing emerge in Web3 are highly isolated bubbles. Yes they are connected through solidarity but not the kinds of broad solidarities required for an ethical society that can face down systematic inequality.

In the traditional art world, value is created by curators, critics, academics, and magazines. That kind of system validates a certain kind of artwork or artist. The NFT world works similarly, where you have platforms and NFT collectors who inject value into artists and their work. What I want to know is the chain of value production behind it. What are the criteria that confer value? Because there have been some improvements in recent years, for instance associations of collectors that wish to collect work by ethically-minded artists who leave minimal footprints. These principles should now be applied to the NFT art world. But the question remains: How can we have shared values in a completely decentralized universe? 

Paolo Cirio, Printed Matter, NYC, May 2022. Courtesy of the artist

AE: It seems to me that smart contracts are now central to how value is automated and distributed across a digital ecosystem. But, of course, one thing about smart contracts is that they dictate future performance based on current priorities and ideologies. It’s hard to see how such a vehicle might produce something that really disrupts what we already have.

MH: I’m not against smart contracts in practice as they’re an interesting tool. My concern is that, by using them, we avoid asking a deeper question about what a contract really is. There has been a lot of great work done on the contract in the last 30 years. The great anti-racist philosopher Charles W. Mills produced a wonderful book, The Racial Contract (1997), where he argued that the social contract is the way in which we cede our autonomy in the name of preserving peace. Mills pointed out that actually there are all sorts of contracts that nobody ever speaks about that hold society together. This includes a racial contract that guarantees those with access to whiteness a certain degree of privilege and immunity. 

Angela Mitropoulos’s book, Contract & Contagion (2012) is also a fascinating study of Ancient Roman and Greek law, which argues that, much like the origins of the state, the origins of the contract are violence. The West still assumes that a smart contract is just a smarter form of some fundamental element of human society. But what if the contract was always a violent institution? What if it wasn’t a mechanism for achieving peace? I think your recent work, Paolo, is really interesting because you’re engaging with the smart contract as a way of revealing its limits. 

Right now, we need to conceptualize a contract with other species who aren’t assigned human agency or legal personhood. Because, at the moment, the contract is a way of insulating ourselves from the reality of being an interconnected, vulnerable species on a finite planet at a moment of great danger. Of course, we can try to shape our horizon by drafting the “ideal contract.” But that is really a form of cruel optimism that, in any case, locks us into future potentials. For me, the key questions are: “What if we stopped believing in a form of subjecthood that could sign a contract and be bound by it” and “what is the means by which that contract will be honored and enforced?” The argument that code can answer such questions avoids the real issue of who wields the powers of enforcement.

Paolo Cirio, Printed Matter, NYC, May 2022. Courtesy of the artist

PC: I’ve always been against the notion that the code is the law. For sure, the blockchain and smart contracts do represent an improvement in security, but cryptography is not perfect. I am not against contracts, but we also need democratic structures that secure the fairness of those contracts. If the climate crisis carries on its current trajectory, we are going to see the collapse of infrastructures, including the Internet. How can someone living in a rural area, or indeed on an island, rely on a smart contract if they cannot access the Internet? Is that contract void? In reality, it’s our contracts with the state that should be our focus.

MH: I think you’re totally right. The idea that these contracts are going to live on forever ignores the infrastructural substrate on which they are built. 

I would trade all of the smart contracts in the world for some sort of global contract that meant that everyone would have access to everything they need, even if that meant we couldn’t run the kinds of technological infrastructure that we enjoy today. 

Our whole telecommunications apparatus relies on a secret contract that states that 60% of the world’s population is going to suffer so that a smaller percentage of the global population can enjoy ever more sophisticated technology. But where are the contracts that would prevent an ecological nightmare from occurring? If we’re going to live in a world of contracts, let’s actually envision a global contract that halts the extinction of species, including our own.  

AE: You’ve both touched on the colonial associations of contracts. For me, Web3 will not produce the kind of equity it promises unless it receives this kind of critical appraisal now. Scholars like Luke Hespanhol have also recently queried the benefits of new technological paradigms for Indigenous communities. Of course, blockchain technology depends upon a Western model of linear time. Yet it also offers a reliable means of verifying ownership without relying on centralized authority. 

Paolo Cirio, Printed Matter, NYC, May 2022. Courtesy of the artist

MH: I think that there are possibilities for blockchain-based authentication systems to lock in provenance. But I think there’s also an interesting philosophical debate to be had about how blockchain-based timestamping might produce a nightmare version of the clock time introduced at the beginning of capitalism. That locks us into an industrial version of Bakhtin’s chronotope, where we wake up at the whistle, go to the factory, and come back from the factory. Today’s digital platforms synchronize us according to much the same form of quantifiable, linear time. 

Of course, time is always a social construction, but we don’t yet have a name for the contemporary form of time when we’re constantly in front of a terminal and ought to be working, but can’t. Or when we’re on the clock for eight hours a day and then feel forced to respond to emails at 00.30 at night. That temporal ecosystem is a product of digital technologies.

PC: I’m also worried that we have timestamps for everything — every transaction, every fact — all of it recorded. We do need history, for sure, but history is also a political tool. 

MH: I see the rise of the blockchain and Web3 as part of a protracted crisis of capitalism and global systems that is causing us to question very deep, basic concepts that we are habituated to, including the very nature of time, sovereignty, community, and contracts. In that open space, I fear that people will gravitate toward familiar concepts that are repackaged in new forms — like how sovereignty has moved from the level of the state to the level of the individual. 

In a sense, we’re reaching for the past to try and understand the future. But it feels like we’re using old conceptual tools to understand new technologies. At best, I think that will prove disappointing. At worst it will be very dangerous.

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Paolo Cirio engages with the legal, economic, and cultural systems of the information society. He shows his research and intervention-based works through photos, installations, videos, and public art. His work as been collected by numerous collections around the world including by KADIST, Paris; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Fondazione Modena Arti Visive, Modena; Stefano Cecchi Trust Collection, Turin; Beep Collection, Barcelona; as well as other private collections. Cirio’s awards include the Prix Ars Electronica, Linz, the Eyebeam Fellowship, New York; and NEA Grant with ISCP, New York. Cirio has lectured at leading universities and institutions around the world and, in 2022, became Visiting Research Fellow for Media Studies, Investigative Art and Public Engagement at Ca’ Foscari University, Venice.

Max Haiven is a writer, teacher, and Canada Research Chair in the Radical Imagination. His most recent books are Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire (2022), Revenge Capitalism: The Ghosts of Empire, the Demons of Capital, and the Settling of Unpayable Debts (2020), and Art after Money, Money after Art: Creative Strategies Against Financialization (2018). Haiven is editor of VAGABONDS, a series of short, radical books from Pluto Press. He teaches at Lakehead University, where he co-directs the ReImagining Value Action Lab (RiVAL).

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save

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¹ M Haiven, Art After Money, Money After Art, London: Pluto Press, 2018. 137 and 15.