One of the greatest violences of capitalism is the myth of its immortality: the persistence of the idea that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” Both the economic right and the neoliberal “middle” sing the praises of capitalism as the peak of human civilization, and they utilize the vehicles of cultural hegemony to support this idea. Meanwhile, the political left, which is currently defined in large part by its opposition to the domination of capitalism, has gotten caught in that cycle of opposition. Post-capitalism has been relegated to a thing of the future, while analysis of today hinges on the misconception that capitalism is here to stay until the prophesied revolution saves us from its evils and excesses.
Following one of the golden rules of capitalism, that it subsumes all of its counter cultures, technology companies and their marketing departments have seized this desire to escape from our dystopian present by capitalizing on the liberatory language of techno-optimism to claim that they are here to deliver us from evil through their revolutionary innovations. But from the parables of Thoth to Theranos, we should know better by now than to trust technologists self-promoting their inventions and investments.
While there may be an over-exaggeration of the emancipatory potential of certain emerging technologies, there is still a kernel of truth buried in the marketing. What we’ve been experiencing since the advent of the Information Age is a fundamental shift in our socioeconomic reality away from capitalism and towards something else. But it’s not a revolution — a foundational reconstitution of the status quo catalyzed by outside forces — but rather a slow-burning evolution, brought through both the refinement of capitalism of old alongside the introduction of new means of production, extraction, and subjugation made possible through the proliferation of digital technologies.
If our society is an operating system, then what we’re experiencing is a system update featuring:
• data as a form of capital
• vectoralism as a mode of production
• data and the tools, platforms, and protocols that are used to CRUD, extract, store and “transport” it as means or factors of production
• the creation and extraction of data as relations of production
• alienation from self through abstraction of attention as a parallel for the abstraction of labor under capitalism
• the emergence of new classes (vectoralist, hacker)
• the emergence of new class relationships (intraclass warfare, creative conundrum, precariat/salariat)
This evolution, like all economic transitions of this scale, has necessarily been violent, and with it we are seeing new forms of asymmetrical class warfare. However, we lack the language to unpack the everyday violences (some new, some refurbished) that shape our reality.
In this essay, we put the philosophy of McKenzie Wark, Slavoj Žižek, feminist scholars, Web3 participants, and the techno-skeptical in conversation with one another to define what violence means in this new era. From there, we will dissect the Web3 ecosystem, a battlefield on the frontlines of this disguised evolution, in order to see how these “virtual violences” shape our lived reality to ensure that power remains in the hands of a finite elite.
The biggest barrier to understanding, and thus combatting, violence as it operates in today’s highly virtual world is that the transition we’re experiencing is largely defined by the domination of abstraction over the material world. McKenzie Wark, the scholar most active in raising the alarm on this economic shift, labels this era as vectoralist, defined by the source of the ruling classes’ power: the vector. To simplify, where landlords control land and capitalist bosses control labor, vectoralists control “any means by which information moves.”
Even though we’ve been living through this Information Age for decades now, discourse on class antagonism still tends to focus on wealthy technologists as capitalist actors accumulating financial wealth or influencing politics, rather than valuing the data that centralized entities control in and of itself.
What makes vectoralism an evolution of our economic system rather than simply a variation of capitalism is that this “abstract information” itself — packaged as data — has its own intrinsic value. While meaningless information exists in nature, data is created through the process of abstracting that information, giving it meaning and form in some record, often digital. This form is considered valuable by capitalist standards because of its myriad functions within this system. Data is used as a currency in and of itself (with cryptocurrencies) but is also the medium for traditional financial institutions to measure and keep track of value (a bank doesn’t need physical cash so much as ones and zeroes). However, data is so much more than just a medium for capital; it is also the raw abstract material used in producing digital assets, the code that machines use to complete processes, the intellectual property produced, the commodity consumed.
This is why for Wark, abstraction for the sake of itself, as opposed to just its use in capitalist marketplaces, is a force to be reckoned with within this economic era. She begins “The Hacker Manifesto” with the excerpt:
There is a double spooking the world, the double of abstraction. The fortunes of states and armies, companies and communities depend on it. All contending classes — the landlords and farmers, the workers and capitalists — revere yet fear the relentless abstraction of the world on which their fortunes yet depend. [...]
[In] any production of knowledge where data can be gathered, where information can be extracted from it, and where in that information new possibilities for the world are produced, there are hackers hacking the new out of the old. While hackers create these new worlds, we do not possess them. That which we create is mortgaged to others, and to the interests of others, to states and corporations who control the means for making worlds we alone discover. We do not own what we produce — it owns us.1
Our material world is increasingly shaped by the digitization of our reality, and the extraction of data from all actions, objects, and subjects by default without the consent of the digitized, for uses over which we have no say. This abstraction that increasingly shapes the same material world that this data is abstracted from results in the domination of Baudrillard’s simulacra, a shared false representation of reality created by mass media technologies, over the “real world.”
But the problem of understanding violence under this economic system goes beyond virtuality and abstraction, and has its roots in how we define violence more broadly as a society. Merriam-Webster2 defines violence as “the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy.” However, feminist scholars have argued for decades that this defintion fails to truly capture the multiplicity of violence, beyond that which is visible and quantifiable. Emma Renold and Christine Barter explain this “under-develop[ment]” of the term in The Meanings of Violence:
[T]raditional common sense understandings of violence often emphasise visible, physical and quantifiable (and consequently preoccupation with male) violence over less visible manifestations such as emotional, verbal or psychological harm (Gabe _et al._ 2001) — an outcome that feminist scholars suggest may omit behaviour that many people understand and experience as violence.3
Applying this deconstruction to the current Merriam-Webster definition, we offer an alternative reading of the term violence: actions that result in injury, abuse, damage, or destruction. In this definition, two things have shifted: not only has the need for physicality been removed, but the intentionality implied by “so as to” accomplish specific, premeditated harmful ends has also been reframed. This second change comes from our understanding of objective and subjective violences through the work of philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
Our feminist framework expands the scope of what we consider to be violent — under this new understanding, sexual assault, anti-abortion legislation, and misogynistic slurs can all be considered violence. Still, it does not provide the additional depth needed to understand how these three instances of violence interrelate with each other.
In defining objective violence, Žižek makes the case that there is a commonly overlooked type of violence defined by its lack of an easily discernible source, which exists in contrast to “directly visible ‘subjective’ violence, [which is] violence performed by a clearly identifiable4 agent.” For him, objective violence takes two forms: symbolic violence, “embodied in language or form,” and systemic violence, “the often catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems.” He argues that these two kinds of objective violence are invisible because they form the very baseline for our understanding of reality, and ultimately, that “we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from [subjective violence, and] perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts.”
We have not begun to “disentangle ourselves” because we have yet to reach a critical mass in understanding that there is an ongoing shift in power from economic capital to data, i.e., we are currently in an emergent vectoralist era. In the remainder of this piece, we draw from our expanded definitions of violence and this vectoralist framework in an attempt to “perceive the contours of the background.” We deconstruct the use of language as symbolic violence, and the use of design and code as systemic violence, which ultimately establishes a platform for subjective violence by discernable actors within both the virtual and material realms.
To illustrate what is meant by virtual violences, we turn to the world of Web3 as a microcosm of this new era, not because Web3 marks a new turn in how the “web” works as the name implies, but precisely because this isn’t true.
While the “minters” of the term would have us believe that Web3 is enabling a decentralized people’s revolution, the main differentiation between Web2 and Web3 is (the idea of) ownership. Despite the implication of a fundamental shift in how we engage with the internet, Web3 really offers an alternative to how we conduct transactions. The “magic” of Web3 is that it enables the digitization of capital under libertarian values that best serves the technical elite by freeing their financial capital from state regulation. The tech literate can create their own micro-economies governed by their own rules, which they literally encode into systems. This hybrid, financial-technology industry of cryptocurrencies, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), and decentralized apps (dApps) can interface with Web2, and certainly depends on it to exist. (Basically all Web3 projects still maintain a standard website, and most Web3 communities still use centralized Web2 platforms for communication.5) But there is no reason to believe that Web3 will inherently take the place of Web2, as the naming suggests.
Language subconsciously creates associations in our minds, but because they are seen as “just words” that are used en masse, there are no individual actors that can be held accountable for their use and no central authority that can be compelled to switch to more neutral language. This lack of a “clearly identifiable agent” that makes symbolic violence objective necessarily means that these violences have a degree of plausible deniability baked into them.
For example, one might say that the term “DeFi”, establishes a word association in our minds with a revolutionary defiance of established norms, or that the DAO acronym shares a link with the pinyin spelling of 道 (or the Tao of Taoism, literally “the way”)6, or that the label “Web3” implies a kind of forward progression in the state of how the internet itself works, and thus embeds a positive bias into any conversation about the space. But to phrase these observations as accusations against specific individuals takes us into the realm of conspiracy. The construction and use of language (and other symbols) is violent not in spite of having no discernable actor, but is effective precisely because we can’t point to individuals — the language becomes a lie with (seemingly) no liar.7
But the symbolic violences of Web3 only begin with the creation of new terminology: the use of existing words, misuse of language, and erasure of terms all come together to create the shared simulacra masquerading as objective truth.
One of the reasons this is even harder to understand in the context of Web3 is that when we think of “violent language,” our minds immediately go to negative associations: slurs and curses. But in the positive language of Web3, we see one of the recurring themes of symbolic violence within this vectoralist era: it is explicitly rooted in a techno-optimistic “toxic positivity.” A culture constructed of new in-words hacked from old N-words.
Misha da Vinci’s Twitter thread from April 2022 of “Web3 lingo” showcases a wide variety of these first three categories: BTFD, DYOR as creation; GM, GN, WAGMI as toxically positive use (that could even be argued as misuse); and BUIDL, HODL, FREN, and the sarcastic “probably nothing” as more direct misuse. While many technologies require glossaries in order to fully understand the complexities of their inner workings, the use of language in Web3 resembles the alternative lexicons of cults more than a technical dictionary. For example, the crypto community’s use of the term GM is stripped of the real meaning of “good morning” and instead functions as a gatekeeping mechanism to easily identify who belongs to the group, similar to the misspellings of build, hold, and friend. WAGMI is a transparent example of “loading the language,” defined by the Cult Education Institute as “communication shortcuts… [which] can have the effect of stopping critical thinking… essentially restricting and ultimately often constricting the mind.” Finally, the Ethereum Foundation’s “movement away from [...] ‘Eth2’ terminology” in January 2022 after at least four years of using it as shorthand to refer to its long promised shift to a more sustainable technical infrastructure represents an erasure of language that ultimately serves to make the (centralized) maintainers of the project less accountable for their past promises.
These particular uses of language are hard to point out as violences because of their objectivity. What critics of Web3 often get wrong is that they presume that the violence of the ecosystem is primarily active, intentional, malicious. But the use of cult language with no cult leader is at once reality and a beautiful metaphor for symbolic violence. Participants in the ecosystem use this language to gain credibility within the space, and in the process unwittingly participate in cult practice that can have a negative effect on them. The symbolic violence here isn’t actively perpetrated by Web3 enthusiasts; in fact, they are often the greatest victims of it. It is the people that believe in the promise of a new internet, that “HODL” at all costs, and see DAOs as “the way” that suffer when this presented reality turns out to be an illusion.
In Web3, the language of decentralization is the result of the capitalist subsumption of techno-optimism, or hope for a world in which Wark’s hacker class is able to use abstraction to wrestle power from vectoralists. While, theoretically, anyone can create their own chains, DAOs, and NFTs, and this is the baseline from which Web3 is discussed, there is an unspoken rule that those who want to get involved need a certain level of technical literacy (or alternatively, possession of financial capital to pay a developer) to hold power. But more importantly, on a fundamental level, these technologies by default reward early adopters and hoarding of resources that naturally incentivizes centralization.
This is what gives symbolic violences their depth and impact. Here, toxically positive language conceals systems that on a technical level, when functioning properly, will not create the decentralized reality that is held up as a fundamental pillar of the ecosystem that this language implies. These systems that create centralization, resulting in subjective violences, are what we’re referring to as systemic violence.
Blockchains form the technical backbone of Web3. The proof-of-work (PoW) validation method used by both Bitcoin and Ethereum (despite the latter's promises to transition to proof-of-stake (PoS) validation) requires ever-increasing amounts of energy to “mine,” or validate, new blocks. So, while theoretically anyone can participate in mining, in reality it is nearly impossible for an individual to “win” in the competition to validate new blocks against industrial-scale miners such as the Genesis Mining farm — which consumes more electricity than any other company in Iceland.
Though PoS validation is more environmentally friendly than PoW, it’s not much better from the standpoint of decentralization, considering that it requires nodes to stake their currently held coins to be entered into a pool of potential validators. Concretely, if Ethereum ever switches to PoS (an event currently known as “The Merge”), it will require nodes to stake 32 ETH (at the time of writing, $53,070.72
$47,124.64 $37,961.60 $95,253.12 ) in order to even become eligible in the contest to validate the chain’s next block. (Pooled staking is technically allowed, but will require going through third parties, which also act as centralizing forces in the Web3 pipeline.)
By design, PoW validation requires ever increasing amounts of energy (and by extension, money for energy) to function. By design, PoS validation incentivizes hoarding of currency. Because carbon emissions and minimum stakes are elements required to make these systems run, they form the baseline for what is considered the reality of Web3, and are thus taken for granted.
But it's important to remember that even though these objective violences may not be immediately identifiable as violence, that doesn’t mean that they are victimless; it means the victims are innumerable. How do you calculate the number of people that have suffered in the gap between the Web3 language of decentralization and the reality that cryptocurrencies remain highly centralized even by today’s standards of wealth concentration?
Though it might not be a precise measure of the true human cost, David Rosenthal, digital preservationist and Web3 watchdog, has offered us a start by quantifying inequality within the ecosystem in his 2018 analysis Gini Coefficients Of Crypto Currencies:
Most cryptocurrencies will start with a Gini coefficient of 1; [Satoshi Nakamoto mined the first million Bitcoin](https://bitslog.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/satoshi-s-fortune-a-more-accurate-figure/). As adoption spreads, the Gini coefficient will decrease naturally. The question isn't whether, but how fast it will decrease.
On Steem, ckfrpark is concerned that it [hasn't decreased anything like quickly enough](https://steemit.com/bitcoin/@ckfrpark/gini-coefficient-and-the-fate-of-cryptocurrency):
“Cryptocurrency as of September 2018, has not been narrowing the gap between the rich and poor but also is aggravating the inequality in our society. Based on the three major cryptocurrency wallets, Bitcoin, Ethereum and Ripple, top 1% shares the property value of the rest 99%, resulting in a drastic figure of Gini coefficient of 0.99. If we consider those who do not own a cryptocurrency wallet, it would result as radical figure of over 0.999999 Gini coefficient” [sic].
The Gini coefficient is an incomplete measure of centralization within blockchains, as it focuses exclusively on the distribution of financial wealth through holders of coins (i.e., measuring capitalist centralization). However, when we instead focus on technical centralization, a better measure of vectoralist control because it determines who fundamentally controls the network, the reality is potentially even more alarming. Rosenthal quotes the paper “Decentralization in Bitcoin and Ethereum Networks”:
On average, 61% of the weekly power was shared by only three Ethereum miners. [...]
Although miners do change ranks over the observation period, each spot is only contested by a few miners. In particular, only two Bitcoin and three Ethereum miners ever held the top rank. The same mining pool has been at the top rank for 29% of the time in Bitcoin and 14% of the time in Ethereum. Over 50% of the mining power has exclusively been shared by eight miners in Bitcoin and five miners in Ethereum throughout the observed period. Even 90% of the mining power seems to be controlled by only 16 miners in Bitcoin and only 11 miners in Ethereum.
And while the Ethereum blog will techno-optimistically insist that the move from PoW to PoS is inherently a positive shift, Rosenthal points out that,
[E]ven among the "whales", the distribution of wealth is extremely unequal [which], incidentally, explains the enthusiasm of the whalier Ethereum whales for "proof of stake" as a consensus mechanism. They could afford to control Etherum's blockchain by staking a small fraction of their wealth.
In other words, if “The Merge” happens, a technical shift will occur in the Ethereum infrastructure that will make it easier for wealthy ETH holders to take over the entire chain by staking their own fortunes and colluding with other actors “illegally.” Right now, that kind of takeover is impossible with Ethereum’s PoW validation. What we have before us is a trolley problem that helps us see systemic violence more clearly: here the responsibility doesn’t lay with us as railroad switch operators, but with the railroad company deciding to either run on power that actively destroys the planet or charging $47,124.64 for a ticket and a chance to drive the train.
This change to the Ethereum network is just one example of how systemic violences form the technical foundation that makes subjective violences possible. But focusing on the potential for a hostile takeover of the Ethereum network may give the false impression that other subjective violences are not actively happening in the Web3 space.
In fact, subjective violence is rampant in all Web3 ecosystems. Subjective violences are those that have more easily discernible actors, both as perpetrators and recipients of violence. Someone that loses money in a rug pull scam is a victim of subjective violence, while someone that purchases CSAM (Child Sexual Abuse Material) through a blockchain powered exchange is a “discernible actor” who perpetrates subjective violence, even if they are not easily identifiable.
The documentary Line Goes Up — The Problem with NFTs features some of the most comprehensive documentation of subjective violence within the NFT and Web3 ecosystems. Some of the most dramatic cases featured in and outside of that documentary include: crypto “rug pulls” conducted by the developers of coins through technical exploitation, which made up 37 percent of the over $7.7 billion in total crypto scams in 2021; Bored Ape Yacht Club, a NFT collection, was accused of serving as a covert vessel for Neo-Nazism and committing fraud by gifting NFTs to celebrities and asking them to lie about purchasing them; wash traders collectively made nearly $8.9 million in profit while leaving evidence that NFTs were used for money laundering.
While we commonly think of these subjective violences as “bugs,” it may be more useful to think of them as “features” that benefit the ruling class — those with the financial capital and/or technical ability to activate them. We understand through Žižek’s definition of violence, and the above example of the possibility of abuse in a PoS Ethereum network, that it is exactly when systems are working “properly” that the widespread subjective violences that are now commonplace within the ecosystem can occur.
DAOs are a useful case study to illustrate how these three kinds of violence — symbolic, systemic, and subjective — interact with and amplify one another. A DAO advertised as “trustless”8 and “autonomous” (symbolic violence) that treats human interaction as friction and uses “smart contracts” to automate around it (systemic violence) is optimized for scamming (subjective violence), via exploitation of the gap between the simulacra created through language and the reality created through code. However, this hypothetical DAO implies that the real problems within this space are criminal “bad actors” that take advantage of exploits within the system, while failing to consider the power imbalances that predicate violence. Thus, an even more direct example of the violent capitalist-to-vectoralist handoff would be the world of NFTs.
While inheriting all of the positive narratives surrounding the decentralized blockchain upon which it is built, this ecosystem has been designed using the same technologies that create centralization within Web2, from calling on centralized APIs to web platforms that act as gatekeepers and governing bodies. Ironically, these “centralized failsafes” are actively used to protect highly visible players in the space. Take, for instance, OpenSea’s takedown of “Ryder Ripp’s Bored Ape Yacht Club” NFTs for copyright infringement. The marketplace, supposedly built on decentralized, censorship-proof technology, made the call to delete a known artist’s collection shortly after he published research accusing one of the biggest names in the industry of basing the visual language of their entire project on white supremacist dog whistles.9
Meanwhile, countless art pieces have been stolen, turned into NFTs without the consent of smaller artists and sold through the same marketplace. Though automated tools exist to flag and notify the artists themselves of the infringement — such as DeviantArt Protect, which had flagged more than 50,000 NFTs based on their site alone as of December 2021 — the same platforms that have made exceptions for highly visible entities do nothing to integrate such tools into their networks, and require creators to manually file DMCA requests for each stolen work. OpenSea benefits from the narrative of decentralization that surrounds NFTs and Web3, while simultaneously relying on the (centralized) U.S. court system for enforcement and replicating the injustices of the art world, where wealthy businesses (galleries, record companies, etc.) can afford litigation and resources for identifying theft of IP.
This is exactly the same type of violence on behalf of centralized authorities that made the 2008 financial crisis feel so insidious — real people lost their homes while corporate banks were bailed out. Now, the tools and platforms that claimed they’d disrupt the extractive art market are propping up a “gallery” that underpays the original artist and derives value from programmatically generating neo-Nazi imagery.
These tools at best allow, and at worst are designed for, the emergent ruling class of technologists to distance their wealth from the state and existing financial institutions along with the limited protections guaranteed to those subjugated under those central authorities, solidify code over law as the linguistic medium for shaping our material world, and decouple labor from compensation.
None of this is particularly new. What we’re seeing here parallels the violent transitions of power changing hands from one powerful ruling class to a parallel one — comprised of many of the same individuals — that we’ve seen time and again throughout history. A common label applied to the dawn of the Information Age has been “the Third Industrial Revolution,” and it is from these past economic evolutions (that have been facetiously labeled as “revolutions”) that many of the violences we have seen in Web3 have emerged.
First is the symbolically violent use of the term “Industrial Revolution,” which implies that industrialists were the drivers of societal change, obscuring the fact that the real animating force of the first and second “Industrial Revolutions” were slavery and sharecropping, respectively. In the language of decentralization, we see echoes of industrialization masking a reality of ownership and power imbalance.
During these eras, the United States — and other “industrializing nations” to a lesser extent — was able to test and “perfect” the limits of labor under capitalism, in the Taylorist sense of “scientific management,” first on a class of people deemed inhuman, and then on a disposable work force legally subjugated through Jim Crow. These enslaved and “indentured” people served as a source of energy, and in a more abstract sense, a form of technology in and of themselves.10
The progression of the internet to “Web3” is not one from capitalist dystopia into Fully Automated Luxury Communism — it’s more fallacy than FALC. At best, this “evolution” parallels the change from Black Americans being explicitly barred from land ownership under slavery to the unkept promise of 40 acres and a mule. Sure, we could theoretically own land, but legal infrastructure designed to appease former slave owners kept us from building any significant wealth or power, all while gaslighting the world into inaction by projecting an image of a more racially equitable country. Now, in the era of Web3, technologists designing the technical infrastructure of what they promise to be “the new world” hold the same kind of power as “antebellum” lawmakers. They promise freedom from vectoralist empires, but their freedom is that of free markets. Ultimate control of smart contracts (and DAOs, dApps, NFT tools, cryptocurrencies, and blockchains more broadly) is held by the people that design and code them, just as sharecroppers had agency in name (“it’s called sharecropping, after all!”) but no substantive legal recourse in the case of abuse.
As many members of this emergent ruling class stop hiding the racialized violence that underpins their power, it becomes easier for us to see the lineage of industrialized racism that vectoralism inherited and hacked from capitalism. It is exemplified in the racist culture of Tesla’s “plantations,” the anti-Black and xenophobic racism encoded into Palantir’s predictive policing technologies, or BAYC’s normalization of neo-Nazi symbols.
This non-physical, or virtual, culmination of many forms of abuse climax in dehumanization, a profound spiritual violence — the negation of the human spirit, the essence of what it means to be a human being with unique desires and the agency to enact that will.
From chattel slavery to tech-optimized mass incarceration, one could argue that the greatest violence of industrialization is the industrialization of dehumanization, the violent abstraction of the human being into something else — tradable commodity, tool, energy source. It is through pursuit of this ultimate goal that so many other forms of violence, from lynchings and murder to legislation and coding, are justified. It is objective, in that it is not a negative externality, but a requirement for the system to function. Capitalism cannot function without profit generated through labor that is taken from the worker. This alchemy, this lie of creating something from nothing, is what makes the machine work.
What has changed in the abstract Information Age isn’t the occurrence of these kinds of violence, but rather, how they’re enacted and their scale. Whereas this industrialized spiritual violence was once “confined” to 25 million people during the transatlantic slave trade and brutally enforced through subjective, material means, through digitization this industrialized dehumanization has been taken to a humanity wide scale.11
For individuals, it is the abstraction of our passion with all the content we create for no compensation and upload to feed algorithms; it is the abstraction of our attention and desires with each second spent scrolling, listening, watching, and liking content, systematically placing ourselves into hard-coded categories that shape what we’re exposed to; it is the abstraction of our value as we are packaged in bulk by these categories and sold to advertisers for capital that we will never see. For digitized society, it is the fabrication of shared simulacra slowly displacing any sense of true reality. These various abstractions are the alchemy of vectoralism. Our “free” use of services generates outsized value for vectoralists in the form of capital, data, political power, and more. We shouldn’t be asking how much we would pay them for use of service — we should be asking how much they owe us.
In this era of violence, when the sword has been augmented by the pen, which has been augmented by the keyboard, it is particularly important to understand the double edged nature of our words to protect ourselves from violence of all varieties, but also to make sure we’re wielding our own weapons effectively (in this case, demanding data autonomy). By lifting the veil and understanding the nature of invisible violences, we can finally begin to halt and heal from it enough to ask the important questions: How am I both a victim and perpetrator of harm? How can we avoid recreating old violences in new systems? When are intentional violence, non-violence, and anti-violence necessary in the design of technologies?
This willingness and ability to question is what marks the difference between hope and the “blind faith” Jasmine Sun refers to in “Take Back the Future!,” what is illustrated in this essay as toxically positive techno-solutionism. Faith believes in a future at whatever cost where violence is justified by the ends, while hope sees the violence and believes in our collective ability to understand it, and do better.
Kadallah Burrowes (they/them) is a trans-disciplinary artist and creative technologist committed to using emerging technologies for social good. Their current research is in distributed artist and activist communities, while their art is currently focused on collaborative social art practice. Their work as a designer of ethical technologies has been recognized internationally by Microsoft, Intel, Biodesign Challenge, Cre8 Summit, and Zaojiu Youth.
1 This quote has been taken from a copy (Anarchist Library) of a copy (Anarcho-Transhuman) of the Hacker’s Manifesto.
2 At the time of writing, this is the same definition featured on Wikipedia, speaking to how symbolic violences replicate and embed themselves into our world.
3 In supporting this quote, Renold and Barter cite Hanmer and Saunders 1984; Kelly 1988; Maynard 1993; McNeill 1987; Stanko 1990, 1995; Wise and Stanley 1987. It’s important to note that this Merriam-Webster-Wikipedia definition of violence stands despite at least 40 years of critique questioning its effectiveness, one of the effects of objective violences with no easily discernible actor to advocate to.
4 Throughout the essay, the term “identifiable” is often swapped with “discernable.” While subtle, this shift is made in part to recognize the anonymity promised by many emerging technologies. For example: people committing crimes using anonymous blockchain technologies may not be easily identifiable, but we can still discern them as actors from the background through their wallet addresses.
5 Earlier drafts of this essay focused on the symbolic violence of Discord using the language of self-sovereign servers to describe chat communities that are really owned and policed by the centralized company. The basic argument is: Discord uses the term “server” in the UI while using the “guild” in the API, giving an illusion of control over the server that doesn’t exist. Inside that gap, in just the first half of 2021, Discord reports having deleted 470,465 non-spam accounts and 43,044 servers, of which 11,951 were deleted preemptively.
7 This is the case with Web3 because it is now accepted and used universally by developers, users, journalists, and the general public alike, even if we know the founders of Ethereum were the “first” to use the term.
8 “Trustlessness” is a myth fundamental to the functioning of the Web3 ecosystem. Two great pieces of writing on this are “‘Trustless’ isn’t a thing” by the Monadical staff that unpacks the necessity of trust in technical networks and “The myth of trustlessness” published in New_Public which analyzes real world cases where people abused “trustless” systems at the expense of network participants.
9 This case may not be as open and shut as presented in this essay. Bored Ape Yacht Club is currently suing Ryder Ripps for copyright infringement and organizing a “campaign of harassment based on false accusations of racism.” Read gordongoner.com or watch the YouTube video titled “BORED APE NAZI CLUB” and draw your own conclusions. But this section isn’t really about BAYC and Ryder Ripps as actors — it's about OpenSea’s role in replicating a dynamic where businesses have more power than artists.
10 During the “Industrial Revolution,” roughly 20 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Marx wrote: “Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value; it is the colonies that have created world trade, and it is world trade that is the pre-condition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.”
11 Capitalism wielded violence against workers as well as slaves and sharecroppers even during the “Industrial Revolution.” American chattel slavery may have been one of the most visible forms of this specific kind of industrialized violence, but colonization of the world over lead to various innovations in extracting labor. But even with those caveats, American chattel slavery set the foundation for anti-Black racialized violence that still underpins our global economy. This essay in no ways tries to argue that the abstract violences we all collectively experience somehow trump the racialized violence of the transatlantic slave trade. A more accurate reading would be that these forms of violence are invisibly distributed on a much larger scale, but in the spirit of evolution, are still perpetrated much more frequently against people of color.