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Thursday, May 28 • 10:20am - 11:35am
Currency, Community, and Commits: The Political Economy of Open Access

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A panel of three papers:

Bitcoin and Potosí Silver: Historical Perspectives on Cryptocurrency
Zac Zimmer

The specter of exhaustion always hovers over a mine
--Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert

In a recent article, Finn Brunton proposed that new cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are metaphysically elegant parallel constructions that unite computing and money, two pillars of a globalizing economy. Although there have been previous historical attempts to create "digital money," Bitcoin (which first appeared in 2009) offered an elegant solution to the underlying cryptographic problem with an open-source digital money system: the technology anonymized buyers and sellers while transparently publishing the transaction record to eliminate double spending of the same "bitcoin." This solution is based on a "proof-of-work" scheme that, in turn, is built upon an extractive metaphor: users "mine" bitcoins with powerful computers, and this expenditure of computational energy is rewarded with new bitcoins "extracted" from the digital bedrock.

This technological innovation purportedly allows for the disintermediation of financial transactions, eliminating the need for a central bank or other authority to issue and police currency. How strange, then, that this high-tech development brings us back to an earlier moment in the history of money: the extraction and circulation of resources, with scarcity itself as the guarantor of value. Many of the minds behind bitcoin take Austrian economics to be gospel, the true "gold standard" in currency matters. It is no coincidence, then, that the entire rhetorical structure around this and other cryptocurriences is build upon an extractive metaphor that takes gold mining as its first instance.

By hardcoding various baseline assumptions into their networked ecosystems—assumptions about economy, sociality, labor, and exchange generally—Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies provide an unexpectedly candid and transparent starting point for the critical thinking of money in a networked and digital environment.

I am specifically interested in four themes revealed—perhaps inadvertently—by bitcoin's code and surrounding infrastructure: extraction, inflation, ecology and work. In order to think these four themes, I propose to historicize them through a comparison between contemporary cryptocurrency mining practices and the Potosí silver mine in colonial South America.

Potosí accounted for a plurality of sixteenth century New World silver, and New World silver made up three-fours of the global supply in the sixteenth century. The silver strike at the Cerro Rico had rapid and massive economic, social and political impacts that reverberated around the entire globe, and the silver extracted from the Viceroyalty of Peru (and later of New Spain) can serve as a material and historical analog to the supposedly frictionless circulation of digital bitcoins that characterize our contemporary technological boom.

There is a well established bibliography analyzing the impact of Potosí silver on the European and global sixteenth century economy, while recent historical scholarship has reassessed Potosí from ecological perspectives. There are also significant historical studies of the mita, the Andean forced tribute labor system, as it relates to Potosí. I will use these four themes—extraction, inflation, ecology and work—as thought experiments to think through the deeper implications of bitcoin and the creation of value within cryptocurrencies in general.

"Game-Maker Games" and Their Discontents
Robert Domanski

In October 2014, Microsoft released Project Spark – a game that enables users to create their own games. This was only the latest case in a familiar trend where digital gaming media is increasingly reliant on user-generated content, transposing Web 2.0 principles of a decade ago to the gaming industry. Increasingly, game-makers no longer need to be game programmers; they only need to be proficient in using commercial software platforms. This emerging development is potentially transformative for the entire gaming space. But who will own what rights over new games being created?

This paper will explore the commercial co-optation of the user-generated content trend within the gaming community using Microsoft Spark as its focus. Contributing to the academic discussion on consumer co-creationism and the economics of non-market social production, it will analyze to what extent such “game-maker games” lead to cultural and economic value versus to what extent are they a form of rent-seeking. Finally, it will address how, if commercial gaming platforms like Spark continue to emerge and ultimately dominate the space, what are the consequences for intellectual property rights and licensing arrangements?

This paper will be related to the stated HASTAC conference themes of: Games and gaming; the communication of knowledge, publishing, and intellectual property; and how the interplay of science and technology are producing new forms of knowledge that are disrupting older forms and reifying power relationships.

The Fallacy of “Open”
Sava Saheli Singh

social media platforms like twitter promised openness, democracy, and access. this is still true in many ways, and for many people. as academics, some of us have availed of the rewards of a system in which we have spent time assembling and nurturing communities - be it for academic, personal, or general interest. we have created academic identities, career connections, and informal scholarly work. but it is important to be aware of the combination of technical know-how, internet savvy, and signalling (Donath, 2007) it takes to achieve any of this.

a couple of years ago an intense online debate (referred to as #twittergate) broke out about the ethics and etiquette of using twitter at conferences (Cottom, 2012; Gould, 2012; Risam, 2012). it highlighted interesting points on multiple sides of what it means for scholars to be “open”. there are/were those scholars who were rightfully mindful of making their ideas too public for fear that those ideas would be appropriated. there are/were those scholars who believed that sharing work and working openly has huge benefits to those who did so in the form of feedback, collaborations, and support. and there are/were those scholars who thought somewhere in between those two spaces.

there are good examples of how conducting scholarship in the open can lead to opportunities, connections, publication, and even jobs - a great example is Jessie Daniels’ post on her experience of moving from tweet to blog post to peer-reviewed article (Daniels, 2013). and there are examples of how being open has meant that people are left open to abuse and harassment because others don’t agree with their views.

what is interesting about both these examples is that whilst they highlight both the benefits and dangers of open scholarship and the networks surrounding it, due to the very nature of the medium they can be hugely polarizing. critics and commentators and too easily/lazily divided into the ‘techno optimist’ or ‘fear mongering’ camps when discussing the roles of new technological platforms.

in this presentation, I will talk about what “open” means for online academic communities, especially on twitter. I will highlight the good and the bad, and make suggestions for the better. what contexts are most conducive to open? how can "open" be harmful? what populations thrive under structured or semi-open online spaces, like hastac.org? I want to push back against the hype of technological adoption, silicon valley enthusiasm, and the fallacy of how “open” is a good thing for everyone. I do this not to cast a negative light on any of these spaces; on the contrary, I do this in order that we continue to (re)create spaces where people can avail of the positive experiences that live up to the promises of that hype.

avatar for Ruth Shillair

Ruth Shillair

PhD Student, Michigan State University
I'm interested in: human behavior in cybersecurity, how to improve learning about online safety (digital hygiene), and digital divide issues.

avatar for Robert Domanski

Robert Domanski

City University of New York
avatar for sava saheli singh

sava saheli singh

NYU, United States of America
sava is currently a PhD candidate in the Educational Communication and Technology program at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. she looks at the role twitter plays in academic communities and communication. she pays special attention to when, why, and how these constructs and flows break, and how to subvert them.
avatar for Zac Zimmer

Zac Zimmer

Assistant Professor of Spanish, Virginia Tech
Zac Zimmer–assistant professor of Spanish at Virginia Tech and faculty affiliate with the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) and Science and Technology in Society (STS)–received his PhD from the Department of Romance Studies, Cornell University. His research explores questions of literature, aesthetics, politics, and technology in Latin America. | | His current project, tentatively titled First... Read More →

Thursday May 28, 2015 10:20am - 11:35am
Room 106 Kellogg Center

Attendees (16)