In this two-part article I speculate on the possibility of ledger societies as outgrowths of existing ledger communities underpinned by distributed ledger technologies (DLTs, of which blockchains are a type), and particular forms of ritual practice that DLTs provoke in users. Fundamentally, rituals reveal social anxieties and how communities, social institutions and organisations cope by regulating and mitigating those anxieties.
Today’s technologies and the drive for innovation from private and public sectors alike supports ritualization and disrupts ‘cybernetics of adaption’ (Rappaport, 1971, p.72) within societies by rapidly overthrowing existing networks and systems. DLTs are a new stage of control and authority that innovation has brought to our attention, and law and regulation must take them seriously.
Roy Rappaport’s (1971) reading of intersections of information, communication, regulation, verification, and ritual reflects important facets of our contemporary technological age. For instance, much of what Rapaport describes is playing out in social media today, not least in the non-instrumental or non-purposeful communications that make-up Facebook, Twitter, or WhatsApp content minute by minute, hour-by-hour.
Rappaport defines ritual as ‘conventional acts of display through which one or more participants transmit information concerning their physiological, psychological, or sociological states either to themselves or to one or more other participants’, to which he further adds that, ‘”pattern” or “structural” information is not all that is transmitted by the contents of rituals. So is quantitative information’ (1971, p.63). This latter part of the definition is important because it signals the potential for the existence and performance of ritual in mundane, bureaucratic contexts such as accounting and booking-keeping, as much as it does in the elaborate dramaturgies of social networks.
The inherent meaning and symbolism imparted by and derived from rituals does not begin and end with qualitative, ineffable, or transcendental measures of value. To support his view of ritual quantification, Rappaport points to Melanesian pig feasts in which communication of social and political status and influence occurs in the number of valuables distributed, a process he suggests that makes rituals ‘public counting devices operating by principles similar to those employed in analogue computers’ (1971, p.63).
We should understand ritual, therefore, as involving rigid formality and repetition embedded within a larger system of symbolism and meaning, where verification is a key part of the sequenced actions of the ritual used for communicating and transmitting qualitative and quantitative information (Hobson et al, 2018, pp.2-3). And verification has particular importance not as a by-product of ritual or something required to enable the performance of rituals, but as an integral part of the ritual process itself because of the need to close, what Rappaport calls, credibility gaps in the information that members of society share and rely upon.
Yet verification of ritually shared information does not guarantee its inherent trustworthiness. We often here about the problem of “rubbish in, rubbish out” in database systems for example, and that issue applies here as an example of a credibility gap. Instead, the ritual process, including verification, that sits within a larger system of information transmission, must, according to Rappaport, also sanctify the information, thus providing ‘the quality of unquestionable truthfulness imputed by the faithful to unverifiable propositions’ (1971, p.69). There is, therefore, a need for individuals, nodes, or entities to have belief in the information systems they rely upon and to which they become subject, and not merely the technical competence to engage with them.
Sanctifying systems of information delivery has the effect of promoting willingness among individuals to verify information. It is from here that a community adheres to the ritual performance of the information communication and can grow and thrive based on symmetries of information and value, and increasingly trans-jurisdictional synchronicities. Put another way, ritual creates organisation and belief in the system, and sanctity of information defeats randomness: all measures necessary for a community and a society to grow healthy cybernetic regulatory processes.
This point is crucial for understanding DLT use and the growth of ledger societies. The ledger sanctifies the information or data exposed to it and promotes willingness amongst DLT users to verify the information. From there, the ritual of verification gathers pace, creating and growing cohesive communities around specific DLTs. It is the sort of patchwork growth we are seeing with cryptoassets and tokens. Once these systems attain a critical mass of users through network effects a ledger society emerges.
‘Although rituals consist of actions’, claims Grimes, ‘it’s almost impossible to discover, or even imagine, a ritual without its attendant material culture’ (2011, p.77). As mediums of record and a source of control, therefore, ledgers need a material, object form and an attendant obligatory symbolic status for performing ritual. ‘Symbols are both the resultants and instigators of [the ritual] process’, argues Victor Turner, ‘and encapsulate its properties’ (1969, p.53). An obvious device for access to and inclusion in the ledger society is, at least by present standards, the smartphone.
In his book Order and Dispute, legal anthropologist Simon Roberts (1979) asks that, ‘given the operation of socialization processes, and the reinforcing effects of ritual, how far does compliance with socially approved patterns of behaviour have to be enforced by further control mechanisms?’ In a ledger society, smartphones drive socialisation processes as the ritual object par excellence and, to answer Roberts, provide a natural extension of the machinery of control.
Smartphones have assumed a prominent ritual status in contemporary societies. As Adam Greenfield maintains:
The smartphone is the signature artefact of our age. This protean object has become the universal, all-but-indispensable mediator of everyday life. Very few manufactured objects have ever been as ubiquitous as these glowing slabs of polycarbonate. They have entered the texture of everyday life just about everywhere, digesting many longstanding spaces and rituals in their entirety, and transforming others beyond recognition.(2017, p.9)
Distributed ledgers on smartphones introduces us to the world of cryptophones, which are no less a ritual object than its forebear and prone to redefine the relationship between individual and society still further. The particular example of the Taiwanese manufacturer HTC is interesting, although there are a variety of smaller companies such as Sirin Labs and Krip also building customized cryptophones. HTC are one of the first companies to build a cryptophone that not only provides the user with on-board encryption and decryption capabilities for enhanced security and access to cryptocurrency exchanges for trading tokens, but more recently a phone that enables a full node on the Bitcoin ledger, and the capability to develop and use distributed applications on the Ethereum blockchain.
This makes the HTC cryptophone significant, technologically and culturally. Mass adoption of distributed ledgers through the medium of a familiar device is perhaps an obvious corporate strategy, but one that speaks directly to consumer concerns over data privacy and security, and what I have described elsewhere as data dysphoria, the pervasive unease surrounding a lack of control over personal data proliferation and exploitation (Herian, 2020).
Caught within the neoliberal interpretation of social good, verification becomes both an obligation and a duty, perhaps even a measure of existence. As the HTC marketing implores: ‘Don’t trust, verify. Don’t wait for others to verify your transactions. Verify yourself, anytime, anywhere’. Also, HTCs injunction ‘don’t trust, verify’, in the neoliberal tradition that Stuart Hall identifies, is the perfect ‘market inflexion and conceptual revamp’ of the old Russian adage, adopted by grandees of late 20th century US foreign policy, ‘trust, but verify’ (2017, p.324).
‘Bureaucratic organization tends to appear’, argues Beniger, ‘wherever a collective activity needs to be coordinated by several people toward explicit and impersonal goals, that is, to be controlled’’ (1984, p.13). Amongst other things, cryptophones unlock the potential to work on a broad spectrum of ledger-based applications and domains in the service of impersonal networked bureaucracies, each a ritual of verification that inevitably structures meaning and experience for the entity.
A relatively low number of commercial and non-commercial distributed ledgers, even less so cryptophones, means an anarchic tendency not yet quashed by a mainstream interest in the technologies remains in ledger communities. The libertarian spirit of ledger communities is strong and cleaves to cypher-punk attitudes that prefigured and make up a history of the crypto movement.
Something of Stuart Hall’s notion of ‘resistance through rituals’ is also at work in the ritualising I have identified (2017, pp.191-197). For Hall, this mode of ritual was integral to youth subcultural group formation and cohesiveness. But these cultural trends, I suggest, still echo in what Victor Turner may have called ‘liminal’ and Hall’s contemporaries Rachel Powell and John Clarke might have identified as ‘marginal’ ledger communities, the characteristics of which become more extreme as they both approach the margins and resist dominant culture ( Turner, 1969; Powell and Clarke, 1989).
Esoteric know-how, group cohesion via ‘white paper’ mission statements, self-regulation, self-bureaucracy, rule by entrepreneur, and a powerful belief in the symbolic authority of tokens and the cryptographic arts, these are features that promote in the entity a sense of individual liberty which gathers intensity and marginality the further from the central dominant culture the ecosystem, community, and, ultimately, the individual extends.
Given the ethos of ledger communities it is understandable that rituals of verification are always already rituals of resistance against centralised institutions of authority, governance and regulation, with each verification, reinforcing and affirming the established values of the community. Conditioned by ritual, members process ledger entries (‘anytime, anywhere’) to cement ‘the unity of the group’ and perpetuate ‘a necessary sense of continuity’ (Roberts, 1979, p.35).
As the arch blockchain enthusiasts Michael Casey and Paul Vigna proclaim, with evangelical fervour so redolent of the blockchain community: ‘Whether it’s with a blockchain truth machine or some other decentralizing, liberating technology, we owe it to humanity to try and restore human agency to the business of just being in the world’ (2018, p.220). As laudable as Casey and Vigna’s idea may be, neoliberal ledger societies foster something different: processes at once incremental and grandiose that are rooted in what the German poet and cultural essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger calls ‘social control by self-organization’ (1982, p.62). Ledger societies maintain authority, control, and policies tested using information flows that, echoing long held fears regarding the social pervasiveness of computing, guarantee no fact goes unrecorded, nothing is forgotten nor lost, nothing forgiven (Warner and Stone, 1970, p.24).
Dr Robert Herian is a Senior Lecturer in Law at The Open University Law School. Robert is Co-founder of the Law, Information, Future, Technology (LIFT) research cluster.
Email Robert, or tweet @OU_LIFT.