The Socio-Technological Lives of Bitcoin

Theory, Culture, and Society, 36(4), 49–72

Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies, and blockchains have become buzzwords in the media and are attracting increasing academic interest, mainly from the fields of computer science and financial economics. In this essay, I argue that cryptocurrencies and blockchains are important objects of general social science research and thought, but not for their ‘moneyness’ per se. Through a historical sociology of the antecedents and discourse leading up to Bitcoin, I show that it was never meant to be ‘money’ in the economic sense, but rather a solution to a technical puzzle for preventing opportunistic actors from double-spending digital ‘coins,’ as well as a fervent ideology surrounding online privacy and infringement of individual rights in the digital age. Drawing from themes in science and technology studies, I suggest that Bitcoin and other ‘cryptoassets’ are properly socio-technological assemblages that constitute new and important objects of social inquiry that must be understood beyond the myopic context of crypto-money. I conclude by proposing three alternative ontologies for blockchains relevant to economic, political, and social life: as systems of accounting, as organizational forms, and as institutions in their own right.

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