Blockchain: The White Man’s Burden

David Golumbia
17 min readFeb 21, 2020
“The White Man’s Burden (Apologies to Rudyard Kipling),” Victor Gillam, Judge magazine, 1 April 1899
“The White Man’s Burden,” (Victor Gillam, Judge magazine, 1 April 1899). Image source: Wikipedia

Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a talk delivered at The White West III: Automating Apartheid (Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria, Feb 13–14, 2020). A fuller version with complete references is in preparation for the conference proceedings.

Abstract
In the developed world, blockchain promoters insist the technology will solve what they call problems of governance, finance and trust, though historically these have almost exclusively been considered “problems” by the far right. In the developing world, promoters invert the terms of the bargain, arguing that the world’s most impoverished people need blockchain to make themselves more politically and economically equal. These suggestions reiterate in remarkable ways the “white man’s burden” discourse of earlier colonial periods, far in excess of more recent (and still often misguided) schemes to improve the circumstances of people in the Global South. Further, where those recent schemes can at least claim at some level to be honestly committed to helping people, blockchain promoters transparently pursue their own self-interest, often at very significant cost to exactly the people they claim need the technology. In this way as well as many others, and despite its claims to technical innovation, blockchain represents a return to forms of politics many of us thought had long been eliminated from serious consideration in the global polity.

Blockchain Is Garbage: Some Background

It is conventional to begin any work on blockchain by explaining “what blockchain is,” in which one repeats the same advertising slogans that have been stated endlessly by digital evangelists. There is every reason to wonder about the functions of this rhetorical form, so I’m going to try to keep this as brief as possible, and to focus in particular on facts that the sloganeers rarely include in their catechisms.

A “blockchain” is a software model used to track the storage of data not itself directly located on the blockchain — the simplest description usually given is that of a “ledger,” meaning an accounting record of transitions. Blockchains require each machine that is truly participating in them to run and host essentially the entirety of the ledger. Each machine running the blockchain participates in…

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David Golumbia

Professor, Writer on Digital Studies, Language, Theory