In digital we trust: Bitcoin discourse, digital currencies, and decentralized network fetishism

Baldwin, Jon (2018) In digital we trust: Bitcoin discourse, digital currencies, and decentralized network fetishism. Palgrave Communications, 4 (1). pp. 1-10. ISSN 2055-1045


This paper outlines how the digital currency and network technology of bitcoin functions and explores the context from which it emerged. Bitcoin was conceived in 2008 as an attempt to alleviate trust in government and banks which was at a low during this period of financial crisis. However, with bitcoin trust does not dissipate, rather it shifts. Trust moves from trust in banks or states to trust in algorithms and encryption software. There is a move from conventional trust in the gold standard—“In Gold We Trust”—to the trust announced on U.S. currency—“In God We Trust”—to trust in software and networks—“In Digital We Trust”. The hyperbole of bitcoin discourse is deemed to be an expression of the Californian Ideology, which itself often conceals a right-wing agenda. The paper analyses the hype behind the celebration of decentralised digital networks. It proposes that a form of network fetishism operates here. The failure of bitcoin as a currency (rather than as a hoarded commodity in an emergent bubble) and as an idea might be attributed to the failure to see how ultra-modern digital networks conceal very traditional consolidation of power and capital. The rise and fall of bitcoin, in terms of its original ambition, serves as a cautionary tale in the digital age—it reveals how ingenious innovations that might challenge power and the consolidation of capital become co-opted and colonised by capital. Finally, the paper offers a discussion of the possible progressive uses of the digital technology bitcoin has facilitated.

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