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Author Information: Gregory Sandstrom, Arena Blockchain, gregory.sandstrom@gmail.com.

Sandstrom, Gregory. “Is Blockchain an ‘Evolutionary’ or ‘Revolutionary’ Technology, and So What If It Is?: Digitally Extending Satoshi Nakamoto’s Distributed Ledger Innovation.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 17-49.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references, and includes the full text of the article. Shortlink, Part One: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47f. Shortlink: Part Two: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47m

Image by Tiger Pixel via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Ideological Blockchain Evolutionism

There is also a position held that promotes what I call ‘ideological evolutionism’ in insisting that blockchain must be called a particularly ‘evolutionary’ phenomenon. This appears to be due largely to a broader ideological framework to which the authors are already committed.

This view requires either that blockchain should not be seen as a ‘revolutionary’ technology or use ideas available in literature produced by academics that promote something akin to the ‘evolution of everything,’ i.e. that ‘everything evolves’ based on the logic that ‘everything changes.’ This ideology is professed in the works of Matt Ridley and David Sloan Wilson among others.

Patrick T. Harker, President and Chief Executive Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, tells us that, “banking evolved its products and appendages just like the first single-cell organisms evolved fins and gills and eventually feet and legs.” (2017: 4) Here an analogy with the origins of life and animals implies that blockchain is an innovation of almost mythical proportion. Though it may surprise the people who use ‘evolution’ colloquially to hear this, not a few people actually do link the rise of blockchain to a broader understanding of life, human existence and their general worldview.

One of the most well-known ideological blockchain evolutionists is Naval Ravikant, co-founder of Angel List. “The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley, one of my favorite authors,” tells Ravikant. “If I can’t verify it on my own or if I cannot get there through science, then it may be true, it may be false, but it’s not falsifiable so I cannot view it as a fundamental truth. On the other side, I do know that evolution is true. I do know that we are evolved as survival and replication machines. I do know that we have an ego so that we get up off the ground and worms don’t eat us and we actually take action.” Ravikant also appeared on a podcast with Tim Ferris using a title “The Evolutionary Angel[1].” In short, Ravikant says, “I think almost everything about humans and human civilization is explained better by evolution than anything else[2].” To clarify what he means, he says,

“I use evolution as my binding principle in that it can explain a lot about how we behave towards each other and why we do certain things. / Ignoring that your genes want you to live in a certain way is a delusion that is going to hurt you. / I think a lot of modern society can be explained through evolution. One theory is that civilization exists to answer the question of who gets to mate. If you look around, from a purely sexual selection perspective, sperm is abundant and eggs are scarce. It’s an allocation problem. How do you choose which sperm gets the egg? / Literally all of the works of mankind and womankind can be traced down to people trying to solve that problem.”[3]

In short, we see an attempt at the ‘naturalisation’ of blockchain technology based on ideology or worldview, rather than ‘science.’

Similarly, but with a more academic focus, Chris Berg et al. (2018) are promoting an institutional evolutionary approach that mixes together ‘development’ with ‘evolution’. They ask: “How do blockchain protocols develop? How do they evolve? It is useful to see the development of blockchain innovation through the entrepreneurial innovation literature. Each sequential adaptation of a blockchain represents a new economic organisation, such as a firm.” (Ibid: 3)

For them, “Blockchain protocols offer us an evolutionary window into institutional change. The protocols are evolving under variation, replication and selection conditions, and researchers have a near complete and comprehensive window into those changes.” (Ibid: 10) This choice of terms follows on the work of Donald T. Campbell who attempted to apply Darwinian principles regarding biology to the human world, using the controversial notion of ‘blind variation and selective retention’ (cf. the Darwinian notion of ‘random mutation and natural selection’), which at the same time dislocates humanity’s power of choice by removing the teleological impulse[4] that is present in non-evolutionary and trans-evolutionary (Sandstrom 2016) viewpoints.

Nick Szabo is a major figure in blockchain space, perhaps most known for his coinage of the term ‘smart contract.’ Szabo is also somewhat prolific in his use of the term ‘evolution’ when it comes to cultural artefacts. He writes, “Common law is a highly evolved system of security for persons and property.” This draws on his general belief that, “Over many centuries of cultural evolution has emerged both the concept of contract and principles related to it, encoded into common law. Algorithmic information theory suggests that such evolved structures are often prohibitively costly to recompute. If we started from scratch, using reason and experience, it could take many centuries to redevelop sophisticated ideas like property rights that make the modern free market work.”

Szabo, however, notes that, “the digital revolution is radically changing the kinds of relationships we can have. … New institutions, and new ways to formalize the relationships that make up these institutions, are now made possible by the digital revolution. I call these new contracts ‘smart,’ because they are far more functional than their inanimate paper-based ancestors.” (1996) At the same time, he reminds us that, “Societies have evolved institutions such as firms and competitive markets to set prices, legal precedents and judicial proceedings to make judgments, and so forth.” (2002) Thus, we are proposed with a digital revolution happening inside of a broadly evolutionary version of human history.

Kartik Hegadekatti (2017) believes that, “Man has not only evolved biologically and culturally but also economically. Human economy has grown over many centuries through continuous addition of value. This value addition has been an evolutionary factor as it has influenced the formation of the main economic sectors-namely Primary, Secondary and Tertiary. Recently after the advent of Blockchain technology, Bitcoin achieved Gold parity. This paper analyses whether such an event will have any impact on the evolution of our economies.”

He suggests that,

“Man first settled down for agriculture, and started the process of economic and social development. In fact, this event led to conditions where mankind could experiment and evolve new economic and social systems. Earlier, during the hunter-gatherer phase, there were very few niche specialties. A hunter had to sharpen his [sic] own spear and go to hunt with the group. Once man settled down, distribution and differentiation of labor started. Villages sprang up where there were blacksmiths, cattle herders, and traders etc. who became part of the then-nascent human society.” (2017: 3)

Further, he writes that, “Consequently we may witness an explosion in technology entities, akin to the industrial revolution; A Technology Revolution. This may culminate in the creation of a truly Artificial Intelligence (as investment and research into Data analytics and automation technology will increase, thanks to investment in Blockchain Technology) leading to Technological Singularity.” (Ibid: 6)

In this final example of ideological blockchain evolutionism, we notice the author predicting a ‘Technological Singularity’ (cf. Ray Kurzweil’s dystopian scenario for humanity), which presents a kind of teleological goal and aim for human-machine interaction. Proponents of blockchain development who share this view may thus somehow still believe in technological revolutions that happen within a broader worldview in which everything, inevitably, is always and everywhere evolving.

Digitally Extending Blockchain

“The idea of cultural evolution strikes me as nothing but a dodge to put off the work of doing th[e] thinking, a piece of displacement activity brought in to dodge the conflict. It is not the right way to grasp the continuity between human and non-human nature. We need to drop it and find a better path[5].” – Mary Midgley (1984)

“Practitioners should be skeptical of claims of revolutionary technology.”

– Arvind Naryanan and Jeremy Clark (2017)

After having considered the ways various people write about blockchain as a constantly changing and ‘evolving’ technology, potentially a ‘revolutionary’ one, in this section I will offer an additional approach to blockchain development. My view is that blockchain technology is an example of a ‘social machine[6]‘ (Berners-Lee 1999) that most closely resembles the educational and agricultural extension movements from the late 19th and 20th centuries, which continue around the world today.

It is not necessary and can even be harmful or at least restrictive to use ‘evolutionary’ language to describe this alternative approach. In the current 21st century, we can thus consider the emergence and development of blockchain as a form of ‘digital extension services,’ which I will briefly elaborate on below and further in a forthcoming book chapter (Bailetti IGI, 2019).

The first thing to realise in order to make a simple yet crucial shift in language is that ‘change’ is the master category, not ‘evolution’ or ‘revolution’. That is to say that both evolution and revolution require change to happen, but change need not be either evolutionary or revolutionary. That is what makes change the master category over both evolution and revolution.

This basic semantic point serves an aim to help curb the rampant over-use and exaggeration of the ‘biological theory of evolution’ into the field of technology development that at the same time largely avoids identifying non-evolutionary or trans-evolutionary (Sandstrom 2017c) types of change. Instead, properly identifying the master category reveals that the intended new directions of social and cultural change due to blockchains are happening less rapidly and possibly also less disruptively compared to what many ‘blockchain revolution’ proponents enthusiastically claim.

Here it is worth noting that blockchain technology is based on not a few prior innovations, which when taken into account make it appear less revolutionary and more step-wise logically sequential. Such is the case that Naryanan and Clark make in their impressive paper “Bitcoin’s Academic Pedigree (2017). In it they state that, “many proposed applications of blockchains, especially in banking, don’t use Nakamoto consensus. Rather, they use the ledger data structure and Byzantine agreement, which, as shown, date to the ’90s. This belies the claim that blockchains are a new and revolutionary technology.” (Ibid)

They continue, concluding that, “most of the ideas in bitcoin that have generated excitement in the enterprise, such as distributed ledgers and Byzantine agreement, actually date back 20 years or more. Recognize that your problem may not require any breakthroughs—there may be long-forgotten solutions in research papers.” (Ibid) While nevertheless celebrating the significant achievement that Satoshi Nakamoto made in bringing multiple previous innovations together into Bitcoin, Naryanan and Clark reveal how the ‘revolutionary’ language of some proponents of blockchain can be considered as an exaggeration that avoids its historical precursors and likewise neglects the ‘shoulders of giants’ on which Nakamoto stood.

Junking the Blockchain Hype

Instead of either ‘evolution’ or ‘revolution,’ the alternative term ‘extension’ identifies inherently teleological, intentional and goal-oriented change-over-time. This term also adds considerable untapped value in connecting directly with the history of educational extension and agricultural extension mentioned in the introduction.

In both cases, the extension of knowledge, training and scientific innovations from centres to margins and from people in cities and at research institutes to people in rural areas around the world without convenient access to educational institutions has opened new opportunities for social learning and overall human development[7].

Thus, blockchain framed as an example of ‘digital extension services’ provides an analogy with applications for business, finance, governance[8], military[9], education, agriculture[10], cultural heritage[11], and any and all other institutions in society that may make use of peer-to-peer transaction-based systems that can be measured with data collection.

Burton Swanson et al. define ‘extension’ as “the organized exchange of information and the purposive transfer of skills.” (1997) It was such intentional diffusion of creative innovation and knowledge sharing that led to a worldwide movement of ‘extensionsists’ and ‘extension agents,’ that has arguably become the greatest social impact force, both personally and institutionally, perhaps alongside of universities, football (soccer) and major religions, that the world has ever known and experienced.

This is why I believe a discussion now of blockchain as ‘digital extension services’ is particularly ripe for exploration and why the regularly repeated question of whether or not blockchain is an ‘evolution or revolution’ is not currently as important. If blockchain is going to become a ‘revolutionary’ technology in the digital era, an ‘internet of trust,’ then it will require require some kind of individual and social ‘extension’ motif with goals, aims and purposes in mind in order to achieve this.

At the same time it appears crucial, however, to openly reject ‘evolutionary’ approaches to blockchain as if believing that the origin of Bitcoin did not happen as the result of a random and undirected process that was simply a result of external ‘environmental pressures’ (cf. blind variation and selective retention). Rather, Bitcoin and the technology now known as ‘blockchain’ were created intentionally by a pseudonymous programmer and cryptographer in 2008, with the first Bitcoin mined on January 3, 2009.

If Satoshi Nakamoto’s intentional creation is not credited as such, then an invitation to future blockchain chaos without planning or purpose will be the likely result. In short, an ‘evolutionary’ origins story for blockchain falls short of validity and simply makes no logical sense. Instead, more goal-oriented and teleological discussion is needed about where we are now heading through the use of distributed ledgers, which indeed may bring highly transformative social change to people around the world through digital peer-to-peer interactions.

Investment in Revolution

The question of whether or not blockchain is potentially a ‘revolutionary’ technology and what impact it will have on society raises many difficult questions to answer. To some degree it must involve speculative futuristics. The promises of ‘decentralisation’ and the removal of intermediaries (disintermediation) from digital social transactions that happen across borders and nations using the internet has led to what can be called ‘centre-phobia,’ or the fear of centralised institutions of social, economic and political power. Some proponents of blockchain are even calling for ‘leaderless democracy[12],’ which sounds more utopian and radical than what mainstream blockchain builders are aiming for.

The blockchain feature of having a timestamped, immutable record has many implications, including for deterrence of online criminal activity and financial fraud detection[13]. While much of the zeal for Bitcoin in the early years involved illicit use through the Silk Road website involving weapons, drugs, human trafficking and various nefarious schemes, other non-criminal uses of distributed ledger for ‘social impact[14]‘ soon started to arise that pushed the boundaries of what peer-to-peer networking and transacting around the world could enable.

All of these changes require the intentional and ‘signed’ (cf. key signatures) use of blockchain systems, where users must agree to accept the rules and regulations of the ledger community’s ‘Genesis Block’ in order to participate. Again, the language of ‘extension’ based on individual and social choices seems more suitable than outsourcing the conversation to biological or even environmental language.

To enable easily distinguishing ‘non-evolutionary’ change and ‘development’ from ‘evolutionary’ change, we may simply consider the effects of intentionality, purpose and aim[15]. When we explore the directions and trajectories that blockchain DLT is headed, we mean that people are consciously developing and building it and/or purchasing crypto-assets and digital currencies, i.e. they are ‘extending’ the innovation made by Satoshi Nakamoto with new applications.

Rest assured, however, with this new terminology in hand this does not necessarily mean that any one person knows, or even that it can be known exactly for certain, in which direction(s) blockchain is headed, such that a single person, group or institution can ‘control’ it, as Carter rightly identified above. Yet, while most people cautiously say they do not now know and cannot predict where blockchain is headed in the future, those who are actually building blockchains now should properly be given credit for their work and not left out of the conversation as if their plans are irrelevant to the eventual outcome of the technology’s growth.

Indeed, the goals, aims, visions and plans of many blockchain builders and investors will determine the trajectory of blockchain development; they are the ones who are now ‘in control’ of where the technology is headed since Satoshi Nakamoto has disappeared from public[16].

Similarly, the perspective which holds that all change that is gradual, rather than rapid, therefore, according to biological precedent, automatically counts as ‘evolutionary,’ turns out to be both false and unnecessary upon closer investigation. French Nobel prize winner in Medicine, François Jacob suggested that, “Natural selection does not work as an engineer works. It works like a tinkerer — a tinkerer who does not know exactly what he is going to produce but uses whatever he finds around him… to produce some kind of workable object[17].”

Yet with blockchain the ‘human selection[18]‘ or ‘human extension’ of technology is being done by software developers, legal experts and innovation leaders with particular practical goals and business solutions in mind, even if ‘tinkering’ is the method by which the development occurs. The key is that people are actively involved in plotting the trajectory of blockchain growth and application, in contra-distinction with the mere anthropomorphic appearance (design) of biological change over time.

It simply does not make sense, therefore, when speaking about blockchain technology to use the language of a biologist like Dawkins, who suggested based largely upon a reactionary view, that ‘natural selection,’ “has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.” (1986: 5) Instead, with blockchain, it is our deep sense of purpose, vision, foresight, and planning that will result in new opportunities to apply the technology in potentially beneficial and effective social and cultural, economic and political configurations.

Indeed, the all-too-human sense of vision and deliberate drive, even if the direction was not always entirely clear and involved a kind of groping for solutions towards an unknown future; this is what enabled Satoshi Nakamoto to bring together past innovations, to ideate, code and eventually build a technological, legal framework and community for Bitcoin users in the first place.

To write this off according to a non-inventive theory of biological evolution that has no foresight or personal agency is to unnecessarily reduce and even dangerously dehumanise the conversation about blockchain in a disparaging way. Instead, I believe that aiming to uplift the conversation involving blockchain for humanity’s individual and collective extension and benefit is what the situation now most urgently requires.

What was the problem to which blockchain presented a solution? Was Nakamoto mainly aiming to undermine the power of financial institutions following the USA’s Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, i.e. the great bailout for banking elites at massive cost to millions of citizens? What purposes need there be other than financial ones to inspire the invention of an immutable public ledger that may serve as the basis for a ‘blockchain revolution’?

A public ledger (cf. triple entry accounting) that eliminates the double spending problem for digital transactions involving money is a massively transformative technology in and of itself. Regardless of what purposes Nakamoto had in mind when designing, creating and developing Bitcoin, we now are faced with what to do with this invention in ways that not only disrupt older systems, but that rather may at the same time creatively uplift human development of people around the world. What seems most urgently needed nowadays is a globally-oriented, socially-responsible digital extension services built upon distributed ledger technologies, using a combination of human, informational and material resources to produce it.

Conclusion

“The extensions of man with their ensuing environments, it’s now fairly clear, are the principal area of manifestation of the evolutionary process[19].” – McLuhan (1968)

“Building is the only truth path. Creation.” … “Bitcoin started because of my ideas. It was my design, and it is my creation.” – Craig Steven Wright (2019)

Given the above survey of uses of both terms ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ with respect to blockchain in the available literature, it is clear at least that there is on-going debate between which term is more suitable. My preference is to drop the term ‘evolution’ as unnecessarily ambiguous and imprecise when applied to technology, while cautioning that ateleological language is not particularly helpful or constructive in the conversation about blockchain development.

Likewise, at this early stage of historical growth, we still don’t know what kind of ‘revolution’ blockchain may cause in combination with other emerging digital technologies (IoTs, UAVs, VR/AR, virtual assistants, neural nets, quantum computing, etc.). We may thus look with either some trepidation or tempered optimism at the potential for revolutionary changes with the coming of distributed ledgers, particularly in the way blockchain will impact society, economics, politics, and culture.

In this paper, a brief comparison towards blockchain’s ‘revolutionary’ impact was proposed in the educational extension movement and agricultural extension and advisory services. The worldwide extension movement in agriculture contributed to the so-called ‘Green Revolution[20]‘ of the 1950s and 60s through knowledge sharing and information transfer to farmers who otherwise would not have had access to new seeds, knowledge and farming techniques.

With blockchain as a globally-oriented technology built upon the internet, we are starting to see new opportunities for digital identity provision that opens access to vital resources for those who are currently identity-less, for money transfer across borders (remissions), and for opportunities to bring ‘banking to the unbanked.’ This transformation has the potential to unlock many available human resources that will be able to further develop societies and cultures through savings and investment in peoples’ futures, something now impossible via institutional gridlock, exclusion and information capture.

On the strictly academic level, distributed ledgers may turn out to be the greatest technology created since the ‘social survey’ (or questionnaire) itself with the prospect of gathering big data for multivariate analysis. Now with a partially anonymous (cf. pseudonymous) user platform to protect personal identities from recrimination and ‘outing,’ social scientific research may be able to provide greater safety and security for ethical studies of humanity via digital devices that was simply not available in the past.

Nevertheless, we are still largely in the theoretical stage of blockchain’s coming impact and no mass platform for collecting such linked social data has yet been created where peer-to-peer interactions can produce a cascading global network effect. The question of whether a ‘revolution’ is coming or not due to blockchain DLT is thus for many people one still of sheer fantasy or hopeful speculation waiting for a major consensus-building breakthrough.

The Origins and the Future

Whether or not a person believes Craig Steven Wright was ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ (perhaps with helpers alongside) or not is beside the point that someone must have been the inventive creator of Bitcoin. It simply didn’t arise on its own without an inventor and creator or without a purpose, aim and plan for its roll-out. To posit an ‘evolutionary origin’ for blockchain DLT thus profoundly misses out on the crucial elements of intentional, planned, purposeful technological change. Instead, looking at blockchain as an ‘extension’ of peoples’ choices places priorities on human values and desires, which are not to be ignored, but rather individually and collectively celebrated.

That said, in closing it is worth noting that a ‘revolution’ would only happen involving blockchains if the technology is not limited in usage to banks, multi-national corporations, and intermediary holders of financial power that collect fees without adding actual value to communities and users. Rent-seeking behaviour and currency speculation indeed has levied a massive cost on human civilisation in terms of widening the inequality gap within and between nations.

Similarly, writes Lawrie, “the Extension Movement … had to battle against the prejudice of those who would prefer university education to remain a privilege for the few.” (2014: 79) An overall struggle for power can and therefore must be expected in attempts to control distributed ledgers via ‘super users’ and centralised databases that sell user information. If the champions of blockchain DLTs are also champions of human freedom and dignity of person, the result may turn out better for a majority, rather than a minority few.

The dangers also adds caution and concern to those who focus on blockchain’s supposed ‘revolutionary’ impact as something necessarily disruptive and even destructive. The rhetoric heats up especially when blockchain is framed as a kind of deterministic, unavoidable and inevitable change driven by forces outside of human control.

Does technology have a ‘mind of its own?’ If not, then who is in control? Who is innovating? Who is guiding, choosing and directing the development of blockchain technology? And are they creating it for their own selfish gains or for the broader aims of society and culture? These questions animate the underlying concerns in this paper that mainly attempted to distinguish between random, unguided and guided, responsible technological change.

While it is true that in some sense the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto does not matter anymore, as the so-called “genie is out of the bottle[21]” now with blockchain. I believe it is nevertheless wrong to suggest that no one is or even should be in control of blockchain development, even though Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared. The growing number of people now building blockchain technologies will create a new horizon in which this technology will impact humanity in the coming years in a profound way. We may therefore watch with interest at the various ways P2P and E2E digital interactions on a global scale will change the course of human history in the near future to come.

In short, blockchain technology is a non-evolutionary or trans-evolutionary phenomenon that is potentially revolutionary for how it will restructure human society and culture based on immutable, timestamped distributed public ledgers. Blockchain as a ‘social machine’ heralds digital extension services and a new era of social change-over-time. Let us be ready and unafraid to face the challenges that this technology brings as it both disrupts, re-creates and unites people in a way that was unimaginable until Satoshi’s blockchain was invented to change the world.

Contact details: gregory.sandstrom@gmail.com

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Sandstrom, Gregory (2017a). “Enter Blockchain: The Non-Evolutionary Recovery of Genesis  in Contemporary Discussions of Innovation and Emerging Technologies.” https://medium.com/@gregory.sandstrom/enter-blockchain-the-non-evolutionary-recovery-of-genesis-in-contemporary-discussions-of-96ae135413a6

Sandstrom, Gregory (2017b). “Who Would Live in a Blockchain Society? The Rise of Cryptographically-Enabled Ledger Communities.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5: pp. 27-41. https://social-epistemology.com/2017/05/17/who-would-live-in-a-blockchain-society-the-rise-of-cryptographically-enabled-ledger-communities-gregory-sandstrom/

Sandstrom, Gregory (2017c). “Evolutionary Epistemology.” Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Theory.

Sandstrom, Gregory (2016). “Trans-Evolutionary Change Even Darwin Would Accept.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 11, 2016: pp. 18-26.

Sandstrom, Gregory (2010). “The Extension of ‘Extension’ OR the ‘Evolution’ of Science and Technology as a Global Phenomenon.” Liberalizing Research in Science and Technology: Studies in Science Policy. Eds. Nadia Asheulova, Binay Kumar Pattnaik, Eduard Kolchinsky, Gregory Sandstrom. St. Petersburg:  Politechnika: pp. 629-655.

Sandstrom, Gregory (2010). “The Problem of Evolution: Natural-Physical or Human Social?” In Charles Darwin and Modern Biology. St. Petersburg: Institute for the History of Science and Technology, Russian Academy of Sciences: pp. 740-748.

Sinrod, Margaret Leigh (2018).  “Still don’t understand the blockchain? This explainer will help.” https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/03/blockchain-bitcoin-explainer-shiller-roubini

Smart, Paul R. (2012). “The Web-Extended Mind.” In Special Issue: Philosophy of the Web, Metaphilosophy, 43, (4): pp. 426-445.

Smart, P.R., & Shadbolt, N.R. (2015). “Social Machines.” In Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, Third Edition. IGI Global: pp. 6855-6862.

Staples, M., S. Chen, S. Falamaki, A. Ponomarev, P. Rimba, A.B. Tran, I. Weber, X. Xu, L. Zhu (2017). “Risks and Opportunities for Systems Using Blockchain and Smart Contracts.” Data61 (CSIRO).

Swan, Melanie (2015). Blockchain: Blueprint for a New Economy. Sebastopol: CA: O’Reilly.

Swanson, Burton E., Robert P. Bentz and Andrew J. Sofranko (1997). Improving Agricultural Extension: A Reference Manual. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/docrep/w5830e/w5830e00.htm

Szabo, Nick (2002). “Measuring Value.” http://www.fon.hum.uva.nl/rob/Courses/InformationInSpeech/CDROM/Literature/LOTwinterschool2006/szabo.best.vwh.net/measuringvalue.html

Szabo, Nick (1996). “Smart Contracts: Building Blocks for Digital Markets.” http://www.fon.hum.uva.nl/rob/Courses/InformationInSpeech/CDROM/Literature/LOTwinterschool2006/szabo.best.vwh.net/smart_contracts_2.html

Tapscott, Don & Alex (2016). The Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World. Portfolio Penguin.

Town, Sam (2018). “Beyond the ICO Part 3: Evolution Versus Revolution.” https://cryptoslate.com/beyond-the-ico-part-3-evolution-versus-revolution/

Trujillo, Jesus Leal, Stephen Fromhart & Val Srinivas (2017). “Evolution of blockchain technology Insights from the GitHub platform.” Deloitte.

Walport, Mark (2016). “Distributed Ledger Technology: beyond block chain. A report by the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser.”

Williams, Sam (2002). “A Unified Theory of Software Evolution.” Salon.

Wright, Collin (2018). “The New Evolution Deniers.” https://quillette.com/2018/11/30/the-new-evolution-deniers/

Wright, Craig Steven (2019). “Careful what you wish for…” https://medium.com/@craig_10243/careful-what-you-wish-for-c7c2f19e6c4f

Wright, Craig Steven (2019a). https://medium.com/@craig_10243/proof-of-work-1a323e82fd9

Videos

“Alex Tapscott: Blockchain Revolution | Talks at Google” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PdO7zVqOwc

“Are Blockchains Alive? Co-evolving with Technology” – Amanda Gutterman (ConsenSys) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7GkkGTnVwA

“Block Chain Revolution | Giovanna Fessenden | TEDxBerkshires” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMhZTEQZJPI

“Bitcoin and the history of money” – “Let’s take a look at the evolution of money.” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IP0jCjyrew8

“Blockchain – evolution or revolution?” –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LojzPukAtmM

“Blockchain Evolution & Empowerment” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSUC9NFccNk

“Blockchain Evolution 2” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCPqXHt-z0k

“Blockchain Evolution or Revolution in the Luxembourg Financial Place? – Nicolas Carey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wp9FB_JQlgI

“Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CULUqgfVteg

“Blockchain Evolution” – Complexity Labs – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rO2LSBDekvE

“Blockchains’ Evolution by natural selection like biology’s genetics” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JEFGtsu0s4

“Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGcuJoFZLOY

“Chandler Guo on The Bitcoin & Blockchain Revolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7g2JFn68LU

“Cryptos Are The EVOLUTION of Money and Blockchain is the REVOLUTION of Trust! Vlog#18” – Siam Kidd – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nu2F6_K0S0

“DigiByte Blockchain – The evolution of the Internet & the revolution in the financial systems” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8h10ckU0sE “The revolution has already begun.”

“Don Tapscott – The Blockchain Revolution – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZEmaSbqfYQ

“Evolution of Bitcoin” – Documentary Film – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUpGHOLkoXs

“Evolution of Blockchain And Its Future Moving Forward In 2018!” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWlMoxMTbDQ

“Evolution of Blockchain in India:The value of Ownership.” – Mr.Akash Gaurav – TEDxKIITUniversity – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtTJmb0jYzE

“Evolution of the Blockchain Economy” – Jeremy Gardner – Startup Grind – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7cPy6ITUm4

“Future Evolution of Blockchain” – Silicon Valley TV – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_6m7LYIEo4

“Future Thinkers Podcast – a podcast about evolving technology, society and consciousness. https://futurethinkers.org/

“Genetics of Blockchain Evolution” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fFsmuvyXeE

“Keynote: Blockchain’s Evolution: Digital Assets are getting Physical” – FinTech Worldwide” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1p5PUn4z_Gs

“How the Blockchain revolution will change our lives? | Eddy Travia | TEDxIEMadrid” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErxKm0b0DIU

“How the Blockchain Revolution Will Decentralize Power and End Corruption | Brian Behlendorf” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tv-XR6gXfLI

“Interview for Bitcoin And Blockchain Evolution Podcast – Sarah Herring – “Evolution – There is a Revolution coming!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIZJsFotDdg

“John McAfee on Infowars: Nothing Can Stop The Blockchain Revolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CssU9WBHx6k

“Make the blockchain business case: Evolution, not revolution” (only title, not in video) – PWC – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjr_Wqwk1SI

“The blockchain evolution, from services…to smartphones.” – Mingis on Tech – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvn5zZj5IR8

“The Blockchain Evolution” – Hewlett Packard – https://www.hpe.com/us/en/insights/videos/the-evolution-of-blockchain-1712.html

“The Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeyeKXmqQn8

“The Blockchain Evolution” – Cambridge House International” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nELBTdqeKuQ

“The Evolution of Bitcoin – Bill Barhydt – Global Summit 2018 | Singularity” Universityhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZjK1i9CE6U

“The Evolution of Blockchain and Global Vision (Shanghai)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56rOLarCttA

“The Evolution Of Blockchain Over The Decades” – With David Birch” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yC8oBJSQ6vc

“The Evolution of Blockchain technology” – Amir Assif. Microsoft Israel” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_eKp1z5hj0

“The Evolution of Blockchain: How EOS is reinventing blockchain” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8aDGf8WpKs

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – Nicola Morris – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSy-UJn1G1I

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – The State of Digital Money 18′ conference” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWfNVTgbqjc

“The Blockchain Revolution – Graham Richter, Accenture” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYTmjZmsUm4

“The Blockchain Revolution | Rajesh Dhuddu | TEDxHyderabad” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrnvX92vlu8

“The Blockchain Revolution by Talal Tabaa – ECOH 2018” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvRJ1kEQ2so

“The Blockchain Revolution Changing the Rules https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTgG8XzcVC0

“The Blockchain Revolution in Business and Finance” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SUfz6p0a7Y

“The blockchain revolution, the ultimate industry disruptor” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hEiHR-K_KY

“The Blockchain Revolution: From Organisations to Organism | Matan Field | TEDxBreda” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OSbseTJWfY

[1] https://tim.blog/2017/06/04/nick-szabo/

[2] http://www.businessinsider.com/angellist-ceo-naval-ravikant-shares-his-favorite-books-2015-8

[3] http://www.killingbuddha.co/the-present/2016/10/17/naval-ravikant-on-the-give-and-take-of-the-modern-world

[4] “Being teleological is the second worst thing you can be as a Historian. The worst is being Eurocentric.” – Joel Mokyr

[5] “Biological and Cultural Evolution.” 1984. ICR Monograph Series 20. https://idriesshahfoundation.org/biological-and-cultural-evolution/

[6] Berners-Lee writes of “interconnected groups of people acting as if they shared a larger intuitive brain,” defining social machines on the internet as “processes in which the people do the creative work and the machine does the administration.” (1999) Smart and Shadbolt provide an updated version: “Social Machines are Web-based socio-technical systems in which the human and technological elements play the role of participant machinery with respect to the mechanistic realisation of system level processes.” (2014)

[7] “Extension lectures offered many middle-class women almost their only contact with education beyond the secondary level, and in consequence women came to use the new movement in greater numbers than any other social group, and frequently displayed the greatest personal application.” – Lawrence Goldman (Dons and Workers, 1995: 88)

[8]  A blockchain is “a place [digital ledger] for storing data that is maintained by a network of nodes without anyone in charge.” – Jeremy Clark (2016, https://users.encs.concordia.ca/~clark/talks/2016_edemocracy.pdf)

[9]  See Kevin O’Brien’s (2018) “China, Russia, USA in Race to Use Blockchain for Military Operations.” https://bitcoinist.com/china-russia-usa-blockchain-military/ and Salvador Llopsis Sanchez’ “Blockchain Technology in Defence.” https://www.eda.europa.eu/webzine/issue14/cover-story/blockchain-technology-in-defence

[10] Andrew Braun’s (2018) “Blockchain & Agriculture: A Look at the Issues & Projects Aiming to Solve Them” https://blockonomi.com/blockchain-agriculture/ and “Digging into Blockchain in Agriculture.” https://blockchain.wtf/2018/11/industry-impacts/digging-into-blockchain-in-agriculture/

[11]  Zohar Elhanini’s (2018) “How Blockchain Changed The Art World In 2018.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/zoharelhanani/2018/12/17/how-blockchain-changed-the-art-world-in-2018/#30caa5333074

[12] “Without the need for any central control or mediator blockchains allow for leaderless democracy – a new way of governing human behaviour online through ‘one computer one vote’.” http://kmi.open.ac.uk/projects/name/open-blockchain

[13] “Bitcoin is an immutable evidence system, a ledger that stops fraud.” – Craig Steven Wright https://medium.com/@craig_10243/the-great-mining-swindle-2dec8ffa819d

[14] https://consensys.net/social-impact/

[15] “As a result of the new scientific orthodoxy, the origins of organisms and of artifacts are nowadays seen as radically different: blind natural selection versus the purposive, forward-looking, and intelligent activity of designers.” – Phillip Brey (2008)

[16] However, with the noteworthy possibility that Craig Steve Wright was Satoshi Nakamoto, as he is now claiming, as he did in 2016: “I was Satoshi.” (2019)

[17]  “Evolution and Tinkering.” Science, Vol. 196, No. 4295, June 1977: pp. 1161-1166.

[18] This term was used in 1890 by A.R. Wallace, co-discoverer of ‘natural selection’ with Charles Darwin, to distinguish human-made things from natural organisms, after Darwin’s death.

[19] War and Peace in the Global Village. With Quentin Fiore. New York: Bantam, 1968: p. 19.

[20] “The first Green Revolution enabled developing countries to experience large increases in crop production through the use of fertilisers, pesticides and high-yield crop varieties. Between 1960 and 2000, yields for all developing countries rose 208 per cent for wheat, 109 per cent for rice, 157 per cent for maize, 78 per cent for potatoes and 36 per cent for cassava. This success was most felt with rice growers in Asia and lifted many out of poverty. … Capital investments and agricultural extension services are key for farmers to properly adopt new technologies and raise their farms’ productivity. ” – Liu (2017)

[21] As Joseph Lubin of Ethereum and Consensus says, “She’s big, she can’t go back in.” [21] http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/668104-the-entrepreneur-joe-lubin-coo-of-ethereum/

Author Information: Gregory Sandstrom, Arena Blockchain, gregory.sandstrom@gmail.com.

Sandstrom, Gregory. “Is Blockchain an ‘Evolutionary’ or ‘Revolutionary’ Technology, and So What If It Is?: Digitally Extending Satoshi Nakamoto’s Distributed Ledger Innovation.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 17-49.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references, and includes the full text of the article. Shortlink, Part One: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47f. Shortlink: Part Two: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47m

Image by Kevin Krejci via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

“If you cry ‘Forward!’ you must without fail make plain in what direction to go. Don’t you see that if, without doing so, you call out the word to both a monk and a revolutionary they will go in directions precisely opposite?” – Anton Chekhov

“I’m better with code than with words though.” – Satoshi Nakamoto[1]

Did Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, actually invent anything new that had not previously existed before? Should people stop referring to a ‘blockchain revolution’ and instead call blockchain a ‘technological evolution’ that happened gradually and was caused randomly by environmental pressures rather than the intentional acts of a unique inventor? These basic questions make up the core of this paper, along with the suggestion that an alternative way of describing blockchain development makes considerably more sense than using the concept of ‘evolution’ in the digital era.

While it is unoriginal to ask whether blockchain distributed ledger technology should be thought of as an ‘evolution’ or a ‘revolution,’ since many people have asked it already (see bibliography below, including texts and videos), in this paper I’ll go a step deeper by looking at what people actually mean when they refer to blockchain as either an ‘evolution’ or a ‘revolution,’ or rather inconsistently as both at the same time.

In short, I’ll distinguish between their colloquial, ideological and technical uses and ask if one, both or neither of these terms is accurate of the changes blockchain has made, is making and will make as a new global digital technology.

Introduction: From the Book of Satoshi

In the Foreword to The Book of Satoshi: The Collected Writings of Bitcoin Creator Satoshi Nakamoto, libertarian Bitcoin activist Jeff Berwick wrote: “Bitcoin has changed everything. Its importance as an evolution in money and banking cannot be overstated. Notice I don’t use the word ‘revolution’ here because I consider Bitcoin to be a complete ‘evolution’ from the anachronistic money and banking systems that humanity has been using—and been forced by government dictate to use—for at least the last hundred years.” (2014: xvii)

While I don’t really understand what he means by a ‘complete evolution,’ Berwick’s attention to the difference in meaning between ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ regarding Bitcoin nevertheless sets the stage for this exploration of blockchain technology, as we consider its current development trajectory. Which term is more suitable?

Worth noting, nowhere in Satoshi Nakamoto’s collected writings is either the term ‘evolution’ or ‘revolution’ to be found. Berwick’s interpretation of ‘blockchain evolution,’ framed within his worldview as an anarcho-capitalist, is thus of his own making and not one that derives from Nakamoto himself. I’ll touch on why I believe that is below. Also of note, the book’s writer and compiler of Nakamoto’s writings, Phil Champagne, states that, “Bitcoin, both a virtual currency and a payment system, represents a revolutionary concept whose significance quickly becomes apparent with a first transaction. … Bitcoin has therefore clearly sparked a new technological revolution that capitalizes on the Internet, another innovation that changed the world.” (2014: 2, 7)

Champagne closes the book stating, “Satoshi Nakamoto brought together many existing mathematical and software concepts to create Bitcoin. Since then, Bitcoin has been an ongoing experiment, continuing to evolve and be updated on a regular basis. It has, so far, proven its utility and revolutionized the financial and monetary industry, particularly the electronic payment system, and is being accepted worldwide.” (2014: 347) The use of both ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ in past and present tense shows a debate exists even within this one book about which term best fits blockchain’s current and future status in society.

This paper will look closely at the difference between these two terms as they relate to blockchain, largely staying away from speculation about cryptocurrencies, i.e. digital tokens, crypto-assets, and/or crypto-securities. It will primarily serve to catalogue the way people have used these two terms with respect to blockchain and cryptocurrency and ask if they are suitable or unsuitable terms. In conclusion, I offer an analysis of why the distinction between these two terms matters as different ways to describe change-over-time and assess an alternative model to analyse and discuss these changes called ‘digital extension services.’ 

Reflexive Background and Context 

To set the background and context, let me write reflexively about why I am writing this paper. Over the past 15+ years studying the topic, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on how the term ‘evolution’ is used outside of the natural-physical sciences, in theories such as ‘social and cultural evolution,’ ‘evolutionary economics’ and ‘technological evolution.’

I wrote a master’s thesis comparing the concepts of ‘evolution,’ ‘extension’ and ‘Intelligent Design,’ and have published more than 20 papers and delivered more than 30 presentations at international conferences outlining and exploring the limits of ‘evolutionary’ thinking as well as promoting the notion of ‘human extension’ in social sciences and humanities[2].

My interest in this paper is to clear up what appears as massive public confusion and oftentimes puzzling equivocation about various types of change-over-time, especially non-evolutionary changes such as revolution, development, emergence, and extension. Some people think there is no such thing as a ‘non-evolutionary’ change since all change must be ‘evolutionary,’ in response to which I would like to set the record straight.

There are undoubtedly some people who will consider this paper and having written it to be a complete waste of time and for them, it’s best to stop reading at the end of this sentence. However, others may find in this exploration a key distinction towards gaining even a small bit of insight and perhaps some understanding into the considerable differences between biological change-over-time and technological development[3], innovation and planning, the latter which generally fall outside of the meaning of ‘evolution.’

Notably, I find it somewhat humorous for having studied this rather arcane social epistemological topic quite closely for many years to be able to write this paper now. It’s meant that I’ve had to lock horns repeatedly with ideological (young earth) creationists, Intelligent Design advocates and evolutionists on many occasions along the way[4]. What I have discovered is that sometimes choosing the right term matters and sometimes it doesn’t; some people want to use a term to mean whatever they want it to mean[5] and it’s most often not worth taking the time in trying to stop or persuade them.

When I learned in 2016 that blockchain technology is about more than just cryptocurrency, and that it also has potentially significant and far-reaching implications for a variety of social, cultural and educational uses, it simply made sense to bring some of the knowledge I had gathered as an associate professor and researcher into my study of distributed ledgers, which is what leads to this text.

In Q3 2017, I asked and answered myself on Twitter as follows: “Is blockchain really evolving of its own accord? No.” I copied that message to the Managing Director of the Blockchain Research Institute (BRI) in Toronto, Hilary Carter, who I had met that summer at the Blockchain Government Forum in Ottawa. She replied: “Agreed! Evolution is a series of beneficial genetic accidents. Blockchain and the development of the community is entirely intentional.” (24 Sep 2017) That exchange happened after I had recently arrived in Yangon, Myanmar, first to teach, then to work as Director of Blockchain Innovation at an educational technology startup company. I had many new things and needs to focus on and didn’t think about it too much further at that time.

However, after returning to Canada in 2018, I later raised this topic again directly in conversation with Carter[6]. While she still stands behind the view that blockchain is indeed a revolutionary phenomenon and that its development is based upon the various intentions of its builders and creators, she also suggested that, “the blockchain ecosystem is [an] evolution,” that it is in a state of maturation, and that, “no one is controlling it.” It is the latter contention that I’d like to take up again now and ‘unpack’ during the course of this paper.

Carter’s view, to which I will return below, raises an important question about how blockchain was invented, as well as the way that blockchain ecosystem development is currently being planned and executed, and both how and why people are aiming for social scalability and public adoption. Also, it raises the question of what then counts as the ‘blockchain revolution’ that BRI founder Don Tapscott wrote a book about with his son Alex in 2016.

To me, Carter’s original comment that blockchain development is ‘entirely intentional’ is obviously correct and requires no further commentary for validation. However, it also signifies that there is at least some type of ‘control’ when it comes to actual blockchain technology building, even if the trajectory of distributed ledgers aren’t being controlled, nor are they entirely predictable, by any single person or company, anywhere in the world.

My prior research in sociology of science had shown that while the term ‘evolution’ is used by not a few people in a basic colloquial sense simply as a synonym for ‘change,’ it can also be used, and not rarely, in an ideological sense that draws on ‘cultural evolutionary’ theories in SSH or in the case of technology, one that adheres to the so-called ‘laws of software evolution[7]‘ (M. Lehman). It is the latter usage of the term ‘evolution’ that I wholeheartedly reject and think has caused great damage to human self-understanding and initiative.

Let it be clear, however, in stating this that I am not one of the ‘new evolution deniers’ (Wright 2018) pursuing an anti-biology or anti-science blank slate ideology that doesn’t acknowledge change-over-time, which is evident in many ways across a range of cultural issues. Rather, I’m a dedicated social scientific researcher and more recently community builder of blockchain technology who rejects the notion that ‘no one is in control’ of what is being developed (i.e. ‘unguided evolution’).

Likewise, I strongly reject the misanthropic worldview that claims ‘there is no purpose[8]‘ (Dawkins) in change-over-time. I oppose both of these positions as dehumanising. So, with this context provided, the following sections present my research findings into how other people use the terms ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ with respect to blockchain technology.

Equivocating Between Evolution and Revolution 

“Bitcoin is a completely new narrative. It alters everything, and in 20 to 30 years from now, people will not recognise the world we are in because of Bitcoin.” – Craig Steven Wright (2019a)

Many writers on the topic of blockchain switch back and forth equivocally between ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution,’ apparently without much rhyme or reason, not carefully distinguishing between them. Rather curiously, this includes the Tapscotts. “We strongly believe that India has the potential to lead the blockchain revolution[9],” said Don Tapscott in 2018.

And there are indeed many places where Don and his son Alex use the term ‘revolution’ to describe blockchain in their 2016 book, which I will outline in the following paragraphs. They write, “Like the first generation of the Internet, the Blockchain Revolution promises to upend business models and transform industries. But that is just the start. Blockchain technology is pushing us inexorably into a new era, predicated on openness, merit, decentralization, and global participation.” (Ibid) This type of language continues throughout the book, which explains why they gave it the title they did.

However, they also use the term ‘evolution’ to describe technological change. “The Web is critical to the future of the digital world,” they say, “and all of us should support efforts under way to defend it, such as those of the World Wide Web Foundation, who are fighting to keep it open, neutral, and constantly evolving.” (Ibid)

They quote Blake Masters, who states, “Bear in mind that financial services infrastructures have not evolved in decades. The front end has evolved but not the back end. … posttrade infrastructure hasn’t really evolved at all.” (Ibid) Likewise, they cite Joseph Lubin, who says:

“I am not concerned about machine intelligence. We will evolve with it and for a long time it will be in the service of, or an aspect of, Homo sapiens cybernetica. It may evolve beyond us but that is fine. If so, it will occupy a different ecological niche. It will operate at different speeds and different relevant time scales. In that context, artificial intelligence will not distinguish between humans, a rock, or a geological process. We evolved past lots of species, many of which are doing fine (in their present forms).” (Ibid)

The Tapscotts in this vein also consider human-made technology itself, not just biology, as an ‘evolutionary’ phenomenon. They thus label one of their chapters, “The Evolution of Computing: from mainframes to smart pills.” (Ibid) “Unlike our energy grid,” they say, “computing power has evolved through several paradigms. In the 1950s and 1960s, mainframes ruled—International Business Machines and the Wild ‘BUNCH’ (Burroughs, Univac, National Cash Register Corp., Control Data, and Honeywell).

In the 1970s and 1980s, minicomputers exploded onto the scene.” (Ibid) They continue this line of thinking, suggesting that, “Driven by the same technological advances, communications networks evolved, too. From the early 1970s, the Internet (originating in the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was evolving into its present-day, worldwide, distributed network that connects more than 3.2 billion people, businesses, governments, and other institutions. The computing and networking technologies then converged in mobile tablets and handhelds. BlackBerry commercialized the smart phone in the early aughts, and Apple popularized it in the iPhone in 2007.” (Ibid)

Yet at some point unstated, they switch back to ‘revolutionary’ language, suggesting that, “We’re beginning the next major phase of the digital revolution.” (Ibid) They cite Michelle Tinsley of Intel, who “explained why her company is deeply investigating the blockchain revolution: “When PCs became pervasive, the productivity rates went through the roof. We connected those PCs to a server, a data center, or the cloud, making it really cheap and easy for lean start-ups to get computer power at their fingertips, and we’re again seeing rapid innovation, new business models.”

Just imagine the potential of applying these capabilities across many types of businesses, many untouched by the Internet revolution.” (Ibid) In short, their view is that “the technology is always evolving and designs are ever improving.” (Ibid) This encapsulates their equivocating meaning of ‘blockchain revolution,’ from one of the most widely cited texts in the field of blockchain technology.

Carter followed up with me after receiving the first draft of this paper to clarify her position. She explains, “We’ve evolved from single-purpose peer to peer electronic cash to Ethereum to private distributed ledgers to Cryptokitties. Everything is intentional. Evolution post-Bitcoin is more a figure of speech to reflect that blockchain systems have changed[10].” She continues, saying that, “Blockchain was no accidental software that emerged from the first generation of the internet.”

This sentence brings in another ‘change-over-time’ term with the notion of ’emergence,’ that adds to the linguistic feature of this analysis. Carter concludes that, “maybe ‘matured’ is a better word [i.e. than ‘evolution’] – because of the creativity of humans, not because of fortunate digital coincidences.” This explanation from the current leadership of the BRI helps to make sense of the variety of ways that people around the world are now speaking about the ‘growth,’ ’emergence,’ ‘maturing,’ ‘development,’ ‘advancement,’ ‘expansion’ and other ‘change-over-time’ metaphors to describe what is happening with distributed ledger technologies.

But What Are the Meanings of These Words?

Moving on to another writer and public figure, managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde similarly switches back and forth between ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ in seemingly an unsystematic way. She confirms that, “the fintech revolution questions the two forms of money we just discussed—coins and commercial bank deposits. And it questions the role of the state in providing money.” (2018)

She continues, however, saying, “I have tried to evaluate the case this morning for digital currency. The case is based on new and evolving requirements for money, as well as essential public policy objectives. My message is that while the case for digital currency is not universal, we should investigate it further, seriously, carefully, and creatively.” (Ibid)

One of the most prolific speakers and writers about blockchain, Andreas Antonopolous (2017), believes, “Over time, the way transaction fees are calculated and the effect they have on transaction prioritization has evolved. At first, transaction fees were fixed and constant across the network. Gradually, the fee structure relaxed and may be influenced by market forces, based on network capacity and transaction volume.” (2017: 127) … “Beyond bitcoin, the largest and most successful application of P2P technologies is file sharing, with Napster as the pioneer and BitTorrent as the most recent evolution of the architecture.” (Ibid: 171) He states that,

“the bitcoin network and software are constantly evolving, so consensus attacks would be met with immediate countermeasures by the bitcoin community, making bitcoin hardier, stealthier, and more robust than ever. … In order to evolve and develop the bitcoin system, the rules have to change from time to time to accommodate new features, improvements, or bug fixes. Unlike traditional software development, however, upgrades to a consensus system are much more difficult and require coordination between all the participants.” (Ibid: 256)

Further, he argues that, “Consensus software development continues to evolve and there is much discussion on the various mechanisms for changing the consensus rules.” (Ibid: 266) We thus see a major focus on ‘evolutionary’ blockchain change.

Yet in the final paragraph of the book, Antonopolous says, “We have examined just a few of the emerging applications that can be built using the bitcoin blockchain as a trust platform. These applications expand the scope of bitcoin beyond payments and beyond financial instruments, to encompass many other applications where trust is critical. By decentralizing the basis of trust, the bitcoin blockchain is a platform that will spawn many revolutionary applications in a wide variety of industries.” (Ibid: 304) The future of blockchain, therefore might be revolutionary based on many ‘evolutions’ of the technology.

In Life after Google: the Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy, George Gilder flip-flops back and forth between evolution and revolution with little apparent consistency, speaking about “the root-and-branch revolution of distributed peer-to-peer technology, which I call the ‘cryptocosm’,” (2018: 44) then stating that, “[t]he next wave of innovation will compress today’s parallel solutions in an evolutionary convergence of electronics and optics.” (Ibid: 58)

He suggests that, “[a] decentralized and open global rendering system is foundational for disruptive services and platforms to evolve from the post-mobile world of immersive computing, just as the open web was formed in the creation of Google, Amazon and Facebook.” (Ibid: 205) However, he also notes that, “Far beyond mere high-definition voice, 5G is the technological infrastructure for a coming revolution in networks. It enables new distributed security systems for the Internet of Things, the blockchain ledgers of the new crypto-economy of micropayments, and the augmented and virtual reality platforms of advanced Internet communications.” (Ibid: 231)

Gilder’s language seems to sometimes be more about appearance than substance, as he writes, “In the evolving technological economy, shaped by cryptographic innovations, Google is going to have to compete again.” (Ibid: 239) Further explaining, he notes that, “The revolution in cryptography has caused a great unbundling of the roles of money, promising to reverse the doldrums of the Google Age, which has been an epoch of bundling together, aggregating, all the digital assets of the world.” (Ibid: 256)

One key formulation renders his ideological views visible, reflecting his affiliation with the Discovery Institute: “The new system of the world must reverse these positions, exalting the singularities of creation: mind over matter, human consciousness over mechanism, real intelligence over mere algorithmic search, purposeful learning over mindless evolution, and truth over chance. A new system can open a heroic age of human accomplishment.” (Ibid: 272) Gilder seems to have no difficulty both denying and accepting ‘evolution’ at the same time, regardless of the fact that everyone agrees both ‘minds’ and ‘matter’ are involved in developing technologies.

Uncertainty Too From Financial Technology Leaders

Hanna Halaburda writes for the Bank of Canada (2018), saying, “The market’s excitement about blockchain technologies is growing and is perhaps best summarized in the increasingly popular slogan ‘blockchain revolution.’ It is estimated that the blockchain market size will grow from US$210 million in 2016 to over US$2 billion by 2021.” (2018: 1) Later in the paper she uses both terms, suggesting that,

“The broadening of the meaning of ‘blockchain’ to include smart contracts, encryption and distributed ledger could simply reflect the evolution of a term in a living language. However, precision matters for estimating costs and benefits, or even for predicting the best uses of blockchain technologies. Smart contracts, encryption and distributed ledger each bring different benefits. And since they can be implemented independently, an optimal solution for a particular application may include only some of these tools but not others. This may matter for the future of the blockchain revolution.” (Ibid: 5)

In conclusion, she accepts the same terminology as the Tapscotts, saying, “The blockchain revolution has brought distributed databases to the forefront and may result in wider adoption and new ideas for their use.” (Ibid: 9)

Andrea Pinna and Weibe Ruttenberg (2016) write that, “Over the last decade, information technology has contributed significantly to the evolution of financial markets, without, however, revolutionising the way in which financial institutions interact with one another. This may be about to change, as some market players are now predicting that new database technologies, such as blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies (DLTs), could be the source of an imminent revolution.” (Ibid: 2) “It is not yet, therefore, clear whether DLTs will cause a major revolution in mainstream financial markets or whether their use will remain limited to particular niches.” (Ibid: 32)

Former Chief Scientific Advisor to the British Government, Mark Walport (2016) suggests, “The development of block chain technology is but the first, though very important step towards a disruptive revolution in ledger technology that could transform the conduct of public and private sector organisations.” (2016: 10) He continues, “Regulation will need to evolve in parallel with the development of new implementations and applications of the technology” (Ibid: 12)

However, he also distinguishes a ‘revolutionary’ dimension to the technology, saying, “We are still at the early stages of an extraordinary post-industrial revolution driven by information technology. It is a revolution [that] is bringing important new benefits and risks. It is already clear that, within this revolution, the advent of distributed ledger technologies is starting to disrupt many of the existing ways of doing business.” (Ibid: 16)

And then he reverts back to evolutionary language, saying, “The terminology of this new field is still evolving, with many using the terms block chain (or blockchain), distributed ledger and shared ledger interchangeably.” (Ibid: 17) He emphasizes that, “M-Pesa challenged the notion that value transfer for exchange transactions had to be done through banks, and leapfrogged several developmental stages. But these innovations still rely on an existing hierarchical structure, using proprietary technology and trusted intermediaries. Though the change improves customer convenience, and significantly reduces costs to users and customers, this is evolution rather than revolution.” (Ibid: 54) Walport is one of the few voices insisting that changes in blockchain development are happening at a rather slower than rapid pace, which seems to determine his choice of terms.

Sam Town makes clear his preferred terminology between the two notions, stating, “While the ICO as it exists today may be gone tomorrow, the blockchain brings evolution, not revolution.” (2018) Here he seems to be suggesting that while ICOs may not last long as a credible method of fundraising, at least not without more stringent regulatory oversight, that nevertheless blockchain distributed ledger technologies will indeed have lasting and significant impact on finance and economics.

Does Evolution vs Revolution Matter?

Ugur Demirbas et al. (2018) also write to intentionally distinguish the two terms, saying, “In summary, while digital transformation shows disruptive influence on individual elements, its overall effect is rather evolutionary than revolutionary. The impact of DT in the context of the overarching corporate sourcing strategy is an incremental change than a disruptive creation of something completely new.” (2018: 8)

Again we see an explanation given that ‘evolutionary’ is preferred because of the pace (slow) and type (incremental) of change or the people’s aims and goals involved in developing the technology. They also indicate ‘disruption’ and ‘something completely new’ in their meaning of ‘revolutionary,’ which we will look at again below.

Jagjit Dhaliwal (2018) says that, “We all know that the Blockchain technology is revolutionizing our future by providing distributed networks, allowing peer-to-peer transactions without intermediaries. We have come a long way in a really short period of time from the inception of Bitcoin, one of the first cryptocurrencies based on Blockchain technology.”

He continues saying that, “Everyone is curious about which platform and cryptocurrency will win the race. The DLT landscape is changing rapidly and evolving really fast. I won’t be surprised if some of the solutions in this article will [sic] extinct soon.” Dhaliwal thus likewise shows that the pace of change impacts his choice of terms, though it is unclear how ‘rapid change’ and ‘fast evolution’ differ from ‘revolutionary.’

In a paper curiously named “The Evolution of Blockchain Development” (2017), the team at Alibaba Cloud similarly suggests that, “Blockchain as a technology has evolved rapidly in the past decade.” They continue, however, by appealing to readers: “Let us discuss a few major innovations that have revolutionized this field[11].” This is yet another example of the confusion in using the terms ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ when there is no clear explanation of what differentiates one from the other.

Megan Ray Nichols weighs in on the ‘revolution’ side, when she says, “blockchain is serving as a critical component in a major revolution that also includes rapid prototyping, lean manufacturing, 3D printing, & now blockchain-facilitated manufacturing & supply contracts.” (2018).

This and several of the examples above certainly do not refer to a ‘political revolution’ or ‘scientific revolution,’ but rather to an incoming ‘technological revolution’ that is supposedly happening all around us with ’emergent’ or ‘nascent’ new technologies, including, but not exclusive to blockchain. The hype surrounding blockchain with expectations in the near future, however, often seems to far exceed evidence of what has changed so far because of it.

Don Tapcott responded in an interview with McKinsey that, “the blockchain, the underlying technology, is the biggest innovation in computer science—the idea of a distributed database where trust is established through mass collaboration and clever code rather than through a powerful institution that does the authentication and the settlement[12].”

We have, of course, heard this kind of suggestive language before, so it’s not like predictions about ‘revolutionary technology’ are entirely new. One example of this harkens back to what Fred Brooks asked in 1975, if “technical developments that are most often advanced as potential silver bullets … offer revolutionary advances, or incremental ones?” (1975: 188) While not a few people have expressed inflated expectations for distributed ledger systems, we are still nevertheless waiting for a clear example of widespread usage of blockchain to be able to assess the variable speeds at which adoption can and likely will eventually take place.

With that basic background, we will now look at largely colloquial uses of the term ‘evolution’ as it relates to blockchain technology development.

Colloquial Usage of ‘Evolution’ for Blockchain Technology Development

A remarkable pattern among technology writers is to apply the term ‘evolution’ in what appears to be a basic colloquial way, suggesting no theoretical underpinning or technical meaning, and with no ideological implications. Instead, for these cases, the notion of ‘evolution’ is basically just used as a synonym for either ‘change’ (i.e. over time), ‘development,’ ‘creation’ or some kind of a general ‘process of history.’

Brigid McDermott, vice president of IBM blockchain business development, states:

“We’re asking companies to join to help evolve the solution and guide and steer its direction.”

“We’ll do PoCs [proofs-of-concept] later down the line.[1]” In this case, the verb ‘to evolve’ is meant in the same way as ‘to create,’ ‘to build’ or ‘to develop,’ without the notion of a natural genetic population, implication of a ‘struggle for life’ or ‘survival of the fittest,’ rates of mutation, variation, or other notions usually connected with ‘biological evolutionary theory.”

The Commonwealth of Learning suggests that, “When it comes to educational innovation, blockchains and ledgers are likely to lead to evolutionary gains[2].” While it is not entirely clear what they mean in this short report, we are likely supposed to gather a sense of ‘progress’ or ‘advancement’ in what they imply and suggest blockchain will lead to in the field of education.

Margaret Leigh Sinrod writes about blockchain for the World Economic Forum (2018). “The fact that banks are investing in this [blockchain] technology may sound fairly paradoxical,” she says, “given the context in which it evolved and gained traction.” In this case, the term ‘evolved’ seems to simply signify ‘history,’ i.e. that ‘something has happened’ and that blockchain now continues to persist as a phenomenon.

Dennis Sahlstrom similarly tells us that, “the evolution of blockchain arrived with Ethereum, created by Vitalik Buterin, which was an improvement of Bitcoin. This evolution added a further element which is the ability to build decentralized applications (dApps) and smart contracts to ensure that deals, transactions, and many other tasks can be performed without intermediaries.” (2018)

Here we see ‘evolution’ used as a way to symbolise a historical fact, again that ‘something has happened,’ thus indicating a new ‘stage’ of blockchain that also was ‘created. This approach might be confusing to people who accept a more technical meaning of ‘evolution’ as distinct from ‘creation’ or ‘intentional planning,’ almost sounding as if blockchain has taken on a life of its own.

John Dean Markunas from Power of Chain Consultancy continues this anthropomorphic language, suggesting that, “The [blockchain] technology itself will continue to evolve along with a wide variety of creative applications developed on top of it, similar to the development of the internet and world-wide-web[3].” This usage, while it signifies persistence and continuity, appears particularly confusing since the term ‘development’ is also used referring to the Internet, which other people claim has led to a ‘revolution’ in human society, as seen above.

Tadas Deksnys CEO and Founder of Unboxed writes that, “Though the future of ICOs is vague, the blockchain industry is still evolving and presenting new opportunities[4].” Again, we see here the notion of both history and continuity and that there is some kind of on-going process of unspecified speed, type or significance.

These are all common examples of people involved in or writing about the blockchain industry who suggest that blockchain demonstrates an ‘evolutionary’ rather than a ‘revolutionary,’ ‘developmental’ or otherwise ‘non-evolutionary’ process of change-over-time.

Frederik De Breuck (2019) says that, “its capabilities and platforms (both public and private) are rapidly evolving and blockchain and distributed ledgers remain for me (and many others) two of the most promising technology evolutions of recent decades for their potential to transform both society and enterprises.”

He uses other change-based concepts as well, such as emergence and extension, in the latter case saying, “[w]e think next year will see the ongoing evolution of these complex trust architectures and their extension beyond their organizational boundaries, into both ecosystems and society.” (Ibid) This language basically indicates something supposedly important is happening with blockchain, a description that it is growing and reaching more people in a community, network and/or ecosystem.

Reflections of What May Be Historical Precedents

Jesus Leal Trujilo et al. in their Deloitte paper (2017) base their logic in the ‘evolution’ of digital ecosystems, writing, “Our study appears to be the first empirical attempt to understand the evolution of blockchain using metadata available on GitHub … Our findings could help firms improve their ability to identify successful projects and opportunities based on how the blockchain ecosystem is evolving.” (2017: 2)

They also address the time period in terms of stages of development, saying, “At the current evolutionary stage of blockchain technology, it is likely to be in a developer’s best interest to develop, or watch the development of, blockchain solutions on open source. Blockchain appears to have a better chance to more quickly achieve rigorous protocols and standardization through open-source collaboration, which could make developing permissioned blockchains easier and better.” (Ibid: 5)

They continue, “The data scientists of Deloitte developed and honed a methodology to analyze and organize GitHub data in order to better understand the evolution of a young, possibly transformative technology and its ecosystem.” (Ibid: 15) They conclude saying, “It is our hope that these findings can arm the financial services industry with the data it may need to not only better identify successful projects and opportunities based on how the blockchain ecosystem is evolving, but to become influential participants, themselves, in how blockchain evolves.” (Ibid: 15) Thus, the promote both the development and so-called ‘evolution’ of blockchain technology based on the language of ‘ecosystem’ that loosely mimics biology.

The Systems Academy suggests about blockchain technology that, “over the past years it has been evolving fast, from the original Bitcoin protocol to the second generation Ethereum platform, to today where we are in the process of building what some call blockchain 3.0. In this evolution we can see how the technology is evolving from its initial form as essentially just a database, to becoming a fully-fledged globally distributed cloud computer.”

They add to others in this paper who suggest that, “The development and adoption of the Ethereum platform was a major step forward in the evolution of blockchain technology[5],” suggesting a kind of ‘progress’ narrative that switches between ‘development’ and ‘evolution’ and indicates improvement rather than replacement or destruction of the old system.

Stapels et al. flip back and forth between ‘development’ and ‘evolution,’ stating that, “blockchains are still a rapidly evolving technology, with ongoing developments, especially to improve scalability and confidentiality. Globally, governments, enterprises, and startups are exploring the technology/market fit in a wide variety of use cases and for a wide variety of requirements and regulatory demands.” They also suggest a present lack of knowledge towards building and maintaining trust among blockchain users, saying “There is still much that is unknown about the development of trustworthy blockchain-based systems.” (2018: 1)

Bryan Zhang writes in the Foreword to Rauchs et al. 2018, that, “the landscape of DLT itself continues its swift evolution.” Again, we see the suggestion of a continuity of some kind, as if we are in a historical period of flux and change with the rise of DLTs. In conclusion, the authors state that, “Nearly 10 years after Bitcoin entered the world, the DLT ecosystem is still in early stages: it is constantly evolving and characterised by relentless experimentation and R&D.” (2018: 92)

This usage doesn’t necessarily imply that Bitcoin arrived on its own without a creative inventor or network of users, but rather that it’s simply in a process that has yet to reach its conclusion and thus should be thought of as impermanent or temporary.

ElBarhrawy et al. (2017) “Here, we present a first complete analysis of the cryptocurrency market, considering its evolution between April 2013 and May 2017.” (Ibid: 2) They then suggest there is a theoretical underpinning one can use to study this historical period involving cryptocurrencies. “By adopting an ecological perspective, we have pointed out that the neutral model of evolution captures several of the observed properties of the market.” (Ibid: 7)

In this approach we again see usage of the term ‘evolution’ to mean ‘history,’ yet in a broader way that combines economics with ecology and push the idea of ‘ecosystem’ thinking that is also front and centre in much of the ideological blockchain evolutionism below.

Contact details: gregory.sandstrom@gmailcom

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Videos

“Alex Tapscott: Blockchain Revolution | Talks at Google” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PdO7zVqOwc

“Are Blockchains Alive? Co-evolving with Technology” – Amanda Gutterman (ConsenSys) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7GkkGTnVwA

“Block Chain Revolution | Giovanna Fessenden | TEDxBerkshires” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMhZTEQZJPI

“Bitcoin and the history of money” – “Let’s take a look at the evolution of money.” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IP0jCjyrew8

“Blockchain – evolution or revolution?” –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LojzPukAtmM

“Blockchain Evolution & Empowerment” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSUC9NFccNk

“Blockchain Evolution 2” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCPqXHt-z0k

“Blockchain Evolution or Revolution in the Luxembourg Financial Place? – Nicolas Carey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wp9FB_JQlgI

“Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CULUqgfVteg

“Blockchain Evolution” – Complexity Labs – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rO2LSBDekvE

“Blockchains’ Evolution by natural selection like biology’s genetics” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JEFGtsu0s4

“Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGcuJoFZLOY

“Chandler Guo on The Bitcoin & Blockchain Revolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7g2JFn68LU

“Cryptos Are The EVOLUTION of Money and Blockchain is the REVOLUTION of Trust! Vlog#18” – Siam Kidd – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nu2F6_K0S0

“DigiByte Blockchain – The evolution of the Internet & the revolution in the financial systems” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8h10ckU0sE “The revolution has already begun.”

“Don Tapscott – The Blockchain Revolution – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZEmaSbqfYQ

“Evolution of Bitcoin” – Documentary Film – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUpGHOLkoXs

“Evolution of Blockchain And Its Future Moving Forward In 2018!” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWlMoxMTbDQ

“Evolution of Blockchain in India:The value of Ownership.” – Mr.Akash Gaurav – TEDxKIITUniversity – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtTJmb0jYzE

“Evolution of the Blockchain Economy” – Jeremy Gardner – Startup Grind – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7cPy6ITUm4

“Future Evolution of Blockchain” – Silicon Valley TV – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_6m7LYIEo4

“Future Thinkers Podcast – a podcast about evolving technology, society and consciousness. https://futurethinkers.org/

“Genetics of Blockchain Evolution” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fFsmuvyXeE

“Keynote: Blockchain’s Evolution: Digital Assets are getting Physical” – FinTech Worldwide” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1p5PUn4z_Gs

“How the Blockchain revolution will change our lives? | Eddy Travia | TEDxIEMadrid” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErxKm0b0DIU

“How the Blockchain Revolution Will Decentralize Power and End Corruption | Brian Behlendorf” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tv-XR6gXfLI

“Interview for Bitcoin And Blockchain Evolution Podcast – Sarah Herring – “Evolution – There is a Revolution coming!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIZJsFotDdg

“John McAfee on Infowars: Nothing Can Stop The Blockchain Revolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CssU9WBHx6k

“Make the blockchain business case: Evolution, not revolution” (only title, not in video) – PWC – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjr_Wqwk1SI

“The blockchain evolution, from services…to smartphones.” – Mingis on Tech – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvn5zZj5IR8

“The Blockchain Evolution” – Hewlett Packard – https://www.hpe.com/us/en/insights/videos/the-evolution-of-blockchain-1712.html

“The Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeyeKXmqQn8

“The Blockchain Evolution” – Cambridge House International” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nELBTdqeKuQ

“The Evolution of Bitcoin – Bill Barhydt – Global Summit 2018 | Singularity” Universityhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZjK1i9CE6U

“The Evolution of Blockchain and Global Vision (Shanghai)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56rOLarCttA

“The Evolution Of Blockchain Over The Decades” – With David Birch” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yC8oBJSQ6vc

“The Evolution of Blockchain technology” – Amir Assif. Microsoft Israel” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_eKp1z5hj0

“The Evolution of Blockchain: How EOS is reinventing blockchain” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8aDGf8WpKs

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – Nicola Morris – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSy-UJn1G1I

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – The State of Digital Money 18′ conference” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWfNVTgbqjc

“The Blockchain Revolution – Graham Richter, Accenture” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYTmjZmsUm4

“The Blockchain Revolution | Rajesh Dhuddu | TEDxHyderabad” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrnvX92vlu8

“The Blockchain Revolution by Talal Tabaa – ECOH 2018” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvRJ1kEQ2so

“The Blockchain Revolution Changing the Rules https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTgG8XzcVC0

“The Blockchain Revolution in Business and Finance” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SUfz6p0a7Y

“The blockchain revolution, the ultimate industry disruptor” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hEiHR-K_KY

“The Blockchain Revolution: From Organisations to Organism | Matan Field | TEDxBreda” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OSbseTJWfY

[1] Nov. 14, 2008. https://satoshi.nakamotoinstitute.org/emails/cryptography/12/

[2] Your author of this paper received his degree in ‘Sociological Sciences’ from St. Petersburg State University in Russia, after a dissertation defense at the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Science in 2010.

[3] “The gap between biological evolution and artificial systems evolution is just too enormous to expect to link the two.” – Meir Lehman (In Williams, 2002)

[4] It is most likely that none of the authors cited in this study was thinking about ‘young earth creationism’ as a position that they aimed to oppose by using the term ‘evolution.’ Similarly, no theory of ‘Intelligent Design’ as an alternative to ‘neo-Darwinism’ is at the heart of this paper’s rejection of ‘technological evolutionary’ theories.

[5] “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” – Lewis Carroll (Through the Looking-Glass, 1872)

[6] Private conversation 07-02-2019.

[7] “In software engineering there is no theory. It’s all arm flapping and intuition. I believe that a theory of software evolution could eventually translate into a theory of software engineering. Either that or it will come very close. It will lay the foundation for a wider theory of software evolution.” – Lehman (In Williams 2002)

[8] “This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous – indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.” … “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” – Richard Dawkins (River Out of Eden. Basic Books, New York, 1995: 95)

[9] https://money.cnn.com/2018/02/21/technology/canada-india-blockchain-partnership-bri-nasscom/index.html

[10] Private email, 24-02-2019.

[11] https://www.alibabacloud.com/blog/The-Evolution-of-Blockchain-Development_p73812

[12] http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/high-tech/our-insights/how-blockchains-could-change-the-world

[1] http://fortune.com/2017/08/22/walmart-blockchain-ibm-food-nestle-unilever-tyson-dole/

[2] https://www.col.org/news/news/col-promotes-blockchain-education

[3] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/emancipation-from-ball-chain-blockchain-john-dean-markunas

[4] https://medium.com/unboxed-network/our-journey-so-far-unboxed-airdrop-update-72b63ab52631

[5] http://complexitylabs.io/evolution-of-blockchain/

Author Information: Brian Martin, University of Wollongong, bmartin@uow.edu.au.

Martin, Brian. “Bad Social Science.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 6-16.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47a

Image by Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

People untrained in social science frameworks and methods often make assumptions, observations or conclusions about the social world.[1] For example, they might say, “President Trump is a psychopath,” thereby making a judgement about Trump’s mental state. The point here is not whether this judgement is right or wrong, but whether it is based on a careful study of Trump’s thoughts and behaviour drawing on relevant expertise.

In most cases, the claim “President Trump is a psychopath” is bad psychology, in the sense that it is a conclusion reached without the application of skills in psychological diagnosis expected among professional psychologists and psychiatrists.[2] Even a non-psychologist can recognise cruder forms of bad psychology: they lack the application of standard tools in the field, such as comparison of criteria for psychopathy with Trump’s thought and behaviour.

“Bad social science” here refers to claims about society and social relationships that fall very far short of what social scientists consider good scholarship. This might be due to using false or misleading evidence, making faulty arguments, drawing unsupported conclusions or various other severe methodological, empirical or theoretical deficiencies.

In all sorts of public commentary and private conversations, examples of bad social science are legion. Instances are so common that it may seem pointless to take note of problems with ill-informed claims. However, there is value in a more systematic examination of different sorts of everyday bad social science. Such an examination can point to what is important in doing good social science and to weaknesses in assumptions, evidence and argumentation. It can also provide insights into how to defend and promote high-quality social analysis.

Here, I illustrate several facets of bad social science found in a specific public scientific controversy: the Australian vaccination debate. It is a public debate in which many partisans make claims about social dynamics, so there is ample material for analysis. In addition, because the debate is highly polarised, involves strong emotions and is extremely rancorous, it is to be expected that many deviations from calm, rational, polite discourse would be on display.

Another reason for selecting this topic is that I have been studying the debate for quite a number of years, and indeed have been drawn into the debate as a “captive of controversy.”[3] Several of the types of bad social science are found on both sides of the debate. Here, I focus mainly on pro-vaccination campaigners for reasons that will become clear.

In the following sections, I address several facets of bad social science: ad hominem attacks, not defining terms, use of limited and dubious evidence, misrepresentation, lack of reference to alternative viewpoints, lack of quality control, and drawing of unjustified conclusions. In each case, I provide examples from the Australian public vaccination debate, drawing on my experience. In a sense, selecting these topics represents an informal application of grounded theory: each of the shortcomings became evident to me through encountering numerous instances. After this, I note that there is a greater risk of deficient argumentation when defending orthodoxy.

With this background, I outline how studying bad social science can be of benefit in three ways: as a pointer to particular areas in which it is important to maintain high standards, as a toolkit for responding to attacks on social science, and as a reminder of the need to improve public understanding of social science approaches.

Ad Hominem

In the Australian vaccination debate, many partisans make adverse comments about opponents as a means of discrediting them. Social scientists recognise that ad hominem argumentation, namely attacking the person rather than dealing with what they say, is illegitimate for the purposes of making a case.

In the mid 1990s, Meryl Dorey founded the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), which became the leading citizens’ group critical of government vaccination policy.[4] In 2009, a pro-vaccination citizens’ group called Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN) was set up with the stated aim of discrediting and shutting down the AVN.[5] SAVNers referred to Dorey with a wide range of epithets, for example “cunt.”[6]

What is interesting here is that some ad hominem attacks contain an implicit social analysis. One of them is “liar.” SAVNer Ken McLeod accused Dorey of being a liar, giving various examples.[7] However, some of these examples show only that Dorey persisted in making claims that SAVNers believed had been refuted.[8] This does not necessarily constitute lying, if lying is defined, as it often is by researchers in the area, as consciously intending to deceive.[9] To the extent that McLeod failed to relate his claims to research in the field, his application of the label “liar” constitutes bad social science.

Another term applied to vaccine critics is “babykiller.” In the Australian context, this word contains an implied social analysis, based on these premises: public questioning of vaccination policy causes some parents not to have their children vaccinated, leading to reduced vaccination rates and thence to more children dying of infectious diseases.

“Babykiller” also contains a moral judgement, namely that public critics of vaccination are culpable for the deaths of children from vaccination-preventable diseases. Few of those applying the term “babykiller” provide evidence to back up the implicit social analysis and judgement, so the label in these instances represents bad social science.

There are numerous other examples of ad hominem in the vaccination debate, on both sides. Some of them might be said to be primarily abuse, such as “cunt.” Others, though, contain an associated or implied social analysis, so to judge its quality it is necessary to assess whether the analysis conforms to conventions within social science.

Undefined terms

In social science, it is normal to define key concepts, either by explicit definitions or descriptive accounts. The point is to provide clarity when the concept is used.

One of the terms used by vaccination supporters in the Australian debate is “anti-vaxxer.” Despite the ubiquity of this term in social and mass media, I have never seen it defined. This is significant because of the considerable ambiguity involved. “Anti-vaxxer” might refer to parents who refuse all vaccines for their children and themselves, parents who have their children receive some but not all recommended vaccines, parents who express reservations about vaccination, and/or campaigners who criticise vaccination policy.

The way “anti-vaxxer” is applied in practice tends to conflate these different meanings, with the implication that any criticism of vaccination puts you in the camp of those who refuse all vaccines. The label “anti-vaxxer” has been applied to me even though I do not have a strong view about vaccination.[10]

Because of the lack of a definition or clear meaning, the term “anti-vaxxer” is a form of ad hominem and also represents bad social science. Tellingly, few social scientists studying the vaccination issue use the term descriptively.

In their publications, social scientists may not define all the terms they use because their meanings are commonly accepted in the field. Nearly always, though, some researchers pay close attention to any widely used concept.[11] When such a concept remains ill-defined, this may be a sign of bad social science — especially when it is used as a pejorative label.

Limited and Dubious Evidence

Social scientists normally seek to provide strong evidence for their claims and restrict their claims to what the evidence can support. In public debates, this caution is often disregarded.

After SAVN was formed in 2009, one of its initial claims was that the AVN believed in a global conspiracy to implant mind-control chips via vaccinations. The key piece of evidence SAVNers provided to support this claim was that Meryl Dorey had given a link to the website of David Icke, who was known to have some weird beliefs, such as that the world is ruled by shape-shifting reptilian humanoids.

The weakness of this evidence should be apparent. Just because Icke has some weird beliefs does not mean every document on his website involves adherence to weird beliefs, and just because Dorey provided a link to a document does not prove she believes in everything in the document, much less subscribes to the beliefs of the owner of the website. Furthermore, Dorey denied believing in a mind-control global conspiracy.

Finally, even if Dorey had believed in this conspiracy, this does not mean other members of the AVN, or the AVN as an organisation, believed in the conspiracy. Although the evidence was exceedingly weak, several SAVNers, after I confronted them on the matter, initially refused to back down from their claims.[12]

Misrepresentation

When studying an issue, scholars assume that evidence, sources and other material should be represented fairly. For example, a quotation from an author should fairly present the author’s views, and not be used out of context to show something different than what the author intended.

Quite a few campaigners in the Australian vaccination debate use a different approach, which might be called “gotcha”. Quotes are used to expose writers as incompetent, misguided or deluded. Views of authors are misrepresented as a means of discrediting and dismissing them.

Judy Wilyman did her PhD under my supervision and was the subject of attack for years before she graduated. On 13 January 2016, just two days after her thesis was posted online, it was the subject of a front-page story in the daily newspaper The Australian. The journalist, despite having been informed of a convenient summary of the thesis, did not mention any of its key ideas, instead claiming that it involved a conspiracy theory. Quotes from the thesis, taken out of context, were paraded as evidence of inadequacy.

This journalistic misrepresentation of Judy’s thesis was remarkably influential. It led to a cascade of hostile commentary, with hundreds of online comments on the numerous stories in The Australian, an online petition signed by thousands of people, and calls by scientists for Judy’s PhD to be revoked. In all the furore, not a single critic of her thesis posted a fair-minded summary of its contents.[13]

Alternative Viewpoints?

In high-quality social science, it is common to defend a viewpoint, but considered appropriate to examine other perspectives. Indeed, when presenting a critique, it is usual to begin with a summary of the work to be criticised.

In the Australian vaccination debate, partisans do not even attempt to present the opposing side’s viewpoint. I have never seen any campaigner provide a summary of the evidence and arguments supporting the opposition’s viewpoint. Vaccination critics present evidence and arguments that cast doubt on the government’s vaccination policy, and never try to summarise the evidence and arguments supporting it. Likewise, backers of the government’s policy never try to summarise the case against it.

There are also some intermediate viewpoints, divergent from the entrenched positions in the public debate. For example, there are some commentators who support some vaccines but not all the government-recommended ones, or who support single vaccines rather than multiple vaccines. These non-standard positions are hardly ever discussed in public by pro-vaccination campaigners.[14] More commonly, they are implicitly subsumed by the label “anti-vaxxer.”

To find summaries of arguments and evidence on both sides, it is necessary to turn to work by social scientists, and then only the few of them studying the debate without arguing for one side or the other.[15]

Quality Control

When making a claim, it makes sense to check it. Social scientists commonly do this by checking sources and/or by relying on peer review. For contemporary issues, it’s often possible to check with the person who made the claim.

In the Australian vaccination debate, there seems to be little attempt to check claims, especially when they are derogatory claims about opponents. I can speak from personal experience. Quite a number of SAVNers have made comments about my work, for example in blogs. On not a single occasion has any one of them checked with me in advance of publication.

After SAVN was formed and I started writing about free speech in the Australian vaccination debate, I sent drafts of some of my papers to SAVNers for comment. Rather than using this opportunity to send me corrections and comments, the response was to attack me, including by making complaints to my university.[16] Interestingly, the only SAVNer to have been helpful in commenting on drafts is another academic.

Another example concerns Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist who was lead author of a paper in The Lancet suggesting that the possibility that the MMR triple vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) might be linked to autism should be investigated. The paper led to a storm of media attention.

Australian pro-vaccination campaigns, and quite a few media reports, refer to Wakefield’s alleged wrongdoings, treating them as discrediting any criticism of vaccination. Incorrect statements about Wakefield are commonplace, for example that he lost his medical licence due to scientific fraud. It is a simple matter to check the facts, but apparently few do this. Even fewer take the trouble to look into the claims and counterclaims about Wakefield and qualify their statements accordingly.[17]

Drawing Conclusions

Social scientists are trained to be cautious in drawing conclusions, ensuring that they do not go beyond what can be justified from data and arguments. In addition, it is standard to include a discussion of limitations. This sort of caution is often absent in public debates.

SAVNers have claimed great success in their campaign against the AVN, giving evidence that, for example, their efforts have prevented AVN talks from being held and reduced media coverage of vaccine critics. However, although AVN operations have undoubtedly been hampered, this does not necessarily show that vaccination rates have increased or, more importantly, that public health has benefited.[18]

Defending Orthodoxy

Many social scientists undertake research in controversial areas. Some support the dominant views, some support an unorthodox position and quite a few try not to take a stand. There is no inherent problem in supporting the orthodox position, but doing so brings greater risks to the quality of research.

Many SAVNers assume that vaccination is a scientific issue and that only people with scientific credentials, for example degrees or publications in virology or epidemiology, have any credibility. This was apparent in an article by philosopher Patrick Stokes entitled “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion” that received high praise from SAVNers.[19] It was also apparent in the attack on Judy Wilyman, whose PhD was criticised because it was not in a scientific field, and because she analysed scientific claims without being a scientist. The claim that only scientists can validly criticise vaccination is easily countered.[20] The problem for SAVNers is that they are less likely to question assumptions precisely because they support the dominant viewpoint.

There is a fascinating aspect to campaigners supporting orthodoxy: they themselves frequently make claims about vaccination although they are not scientists with relevant qualifications. They do not apply their own strictures about necessary expertise to themselves. This can be explained as deriving from “honour by association,” a process parallel to guilt by association but less noticed because it is so common. In honour by association, a person gains or assumes greater credibility by being associated with a prestigious person, group or view.

Someone without special expertise who asserts a claim that supports orthodoxy implicitly takes on the mantle of the experts on the side of orthodoxy. It is only those who challenge orthodoxy who are expected to have relevant credentials. There is nothing inherently wrong with supporting the orthodox view, but it does mean there is less pressure to examine assumptions.

My initial example of bad social science was calling Donald Trump a psychopath. Suppose you said Trump has narcissistic personality disorder. This might not seem to be bad social science because it accords with the views of many psychologists. However, agreeing with orthodoxy, without accompanying deployment of expertise, does not constitute good social science any more than disagreeing with orthodoxy.

Lessons

It is all too easy to identify examples of bad social science in popular commentary. They are commonplace in political campaigning and in everyday conversations.

Being attuned to common violations of good practice has three potential benefits: as a useful reminder to maintain high standards; as a toolkit for responding to attacks on social science; and as a guide to encouraging greater public awareness of social scientific thinking and methods.

Bad Social Science as a Reminder to Maintain High Standards

Most of the kinds of bad social science prevalent in the Australian vaccination debate seldom receive extended attention in the social science literature. For example, the widely used and cited textbook Social Research Methods does not even mention ad hominem, presumably because avoiding it is so basic that it need not be discussed.

It describes five common errors in everyday thinking that social scientists should avoid: overgeneralisation, selective observation, premature closure, the halo effect and false consensus.[21] Some of these overlap with the shortcomings I’ve observed in the Australian vaccination debate. For example, the halo effect, in which prestigious sources are given more credibility, has affinities with honour by association.

The textbook The Craft of Research likewise does not mention ad hominem. In a final brief section on the ethics of research, there are a couple of points that can be applied to the vaccination debate. For example, ethical researchers “do not caricature or distort opposing views.” Another recommendation is that “When you acknowledge your readers’ alternative views, including their strongest objections and reservations,” you move towards more reliable knowledge and honour readers’ dignity.[22] Compared with the careful exposition of research methods in this and other texts, the shortcomings in public debates are seemingly so basic and obvious as to not warrant extended discussion.

No doubt many social scientists could point to the work of others in the field — or even their own — as failing to meet the highest standards. Looking at examples of bad social science can provide a reminder of what to avoid. For example, being aware of ad hominem argumentation can help in avoiding subtle denigration of authors and instead focusing entirely on their evidence and arguments. Being reminded of confirmation bias can encourage exploration of a greater diversity of viewpoints.

Malcolm Wright and Scott Armstrong examined 50 articles that cited a method in survey-based research that Armstrong had developed years earlier. They discovered that only one of the 50 studies had reported the method correctly. They recommend that researchers send drafts of their work to authors of cited studies — especially those on which the research depends most heavily — to ensure accuracy.[23] This is not a common practice in any field of scholarship but is worth considering in the interests of improving quality.

Bad Social Science as a Toolkit for Responding to Attacks

Alan Sokal wrote an intentionally incoherent article that was published in 1996 in the cultural studies journal Social Text. Numerous commentators lauded Sokal for carrying out an audacious prank that revealed the truth about cultural studies, namely that it was bunk. These commentators had not carried out relevant studies themselves, nor were most of them familiar with the field of cultural studies, including its frameworks, objects of study, methods of analysis, conclusions and exemplary pieces of scholarship.

To the extent that these commentators were uninformed about cultural studies yet willing to praise Sokal for his hoax, they were involved in a sort of bad social science. Perhaps they supported Sokal’s hoax because it agreed with their preconceived ideas, though investigation would be needed to assess this hypothesis.

Most responses to the hoax took a defensive line, for example arguing that Sokal’s conclusions were not justified. Only a few argued that interpreting the hoax as showing the vacuity of cultural studies was itself poor social science.[24] Sokal himself said it was inappropriate to draw general conclusions about cultural studies from the hoax,[25] so ironically it would have been possible to respond to attackers by quoting Sokal.

When social scientists come under attack, it can be useful to examine the evidence and methods used or cited by the attackers, and to point out, as is often the case, that they fail to measure up to standards in the field.

Encouraging Greater Public Awareness of Social Science Thinking and Methods

It is easy to communicate with like-minded scholars and commiserate about the ignorance of those who misunderstand or wilfully misrepresent social science. More challenging is to pay close attention to the characteristic ways in which people make assumptions and reason about the social world and how these ways often fall far short of the standards expected in scholarly circles.

By identifying common forms of bad social science, it may be possible to better design interventions into public discourse to encourage more rigorous thinking about evidence and argument, especially to counter spurious and ill-founded claims by partisans in public debates.

Conclusion

Social scientists, in looking at research contributions, usually focus on what is high quality: the deepest insights, the tightest arguments, the most comprehensive data, the most sophisticated analysis and the most elegant writing. This makes sense: top quality contributions offer worthwhile models to learn from and emulate.

Nevertheless, there is also a role for learning from poor quality contributions. It is instructive to look at public debates involving social issues in which people make judgements about the same sorts of matters that are investigated by social scientists, everything from criminal justice to social mores. Contributions to public debates can starkly show flaws in reasoning and the use of evidence. These flaws provide a useful reminder of things to avoid.

Observation of the Australian vaccination debate reveals several types of bad social science, including ad hominem attacks, failing to define terms, relying on dubious sources, failing to provide context, and not checking claims. The risk of succumbing to these shortcomings seems to be magnified when the orthodox viewpoint is being supported, because it is assumed to be correct and there is less likelihood of being held accountable by opponents.

There is something additional that social scientists can learn by studying contributions to public debates that have serious empirical and theoretical shortcomings. There are likely to be characteristic failures that occur repeatedly. These offer supplementary guidance for what to avoid. They also provide insight into what sort of training, for aspiring social scientists, is useful for moving from unreflective arguments to careful research.

There is also a challenge that few scholars have tackled. Given the prevalence of bad social science in many public debates, is it possible to intervene in these debates in a way that fosters greater appreciation for what is involved in good quality scholarship, and encourages campaigners to aspire to make sounder contributions?

Contact details: bmartin@uow.edu.au

References

Blume, Stuart. Immunization: How Vaccines Became Controversial. London: Reaktion Books, 2017.

Booth, Wayne C.; Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup and William T. FitzGerald, The Craft of Research, fourth edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Collier, David; Fernando Daniel Hidalgo and Andra Olivia Maciuceanu, “Essentially contested concepts: debates and applications,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 11(3), October 2006, pp. 211–246.

Ekman, Paul. Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. New York: Norton, 1985.

Hilgartner, Stephen, “The Sokal affair in context,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, 22(4), Autumn 1997, pp. 506–522.

Lee, Bandy X. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

Martin, Brian; and Florencia Peña Saint Martin. El mobbing en la esfera pública: el fenómeno y sus características [Public mobbing: a phenomenon and its features]. In Norma González González (Coordinadora), Organización social del trabajo en la posmodernidad: salud mental, ambientes laborales y vida cotidiana (Guadalajara, Jalisco, México: Prometeo Editores, 2014), pp. 91-114.

Martin, Brian. “Debating vaccination: understanding the attack on the Australian Vaccination Network.” Living Wisdom, no. 8, 2011, pp. 14–40.

Martin, Brian. “On the suppression of vaccination dissent.” Science & Engineering Ethics. Vol. 21, No. 1, 2015, pp. 143–157.

Martin, Brian. Evidence-based campaigning. Archives of Public Health, 76, no. 54. (2018), https://doi.org/10.1186/s13690-018-0302-4.

Martin, Brian. Vaccination Panic in Australia. Sparsnäs, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2018.

Ken McLeod, “Meryl Dorey’s trouble with the truth, part 1: how Meryl Dorey lies, obfuscates, prevaricates, exaggerates, confabulates and confuses in promoting her anti-vaccination agenda,” 2010, http://www.scribd.com/doc/47704677/Meryl-Doreys-Trouble-With-the-Truth-Part-1.

Neuman, W. Lawrence. Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, seventh edition. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2011.

Scott, Pam; Evelleen Richards and Brian Martin, “Captives of controversy: the myth of the neutral social researcher in contemporary scientific controversies,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall 1990, pp. 474–494.

Sokal, Alan D. “What the Social Text affair does and does not prove,” in Noretta Koertge (ed.), A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 9–22

Stokes, Patrick. “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion,” The Conversation, 5 October 2012, https://theconversation.com/no-youre-not-entitled-to-your-opinion-9978.

Wright, Malcolm, and J. Scott Armstrong, “The ombudsman: verification of citations: fawlty towers of knowledge?” Interfaces, 38 (2), March-April 2008.

[1] Thanks to Meryl Dorey, Stephen Hilgartner, Larry Neuman, Alan Sokal and Malcolm Wright for valuable feedback on drafts.

[2] For informed commentary on these issues, see Bandy X. Lee, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

[3] Pam Scott, Evelleen Richards and Brian Martin, “Captives of controversy: the myth of the neutral social researcher in contemporary scientific controversies,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall 1990, pp. 474–494.

[4] The AVN, forced to change its name in 2014, became the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network. In 2018 it voluntarily changed its name to the Australian Vaccination-risks Network.

[5] In 2014, SAVN changed its name to Stop the Australian (Anti-)Vaccination Network.

[6] Brian Martin and Florencia Peña Saint Martin. El mobbing en la esfera pública: el fenómeno y sus características [Public mobbing: a phenomenon and its features]. In Norma González González (Coordinadora), Organización social del trabajo en la posmodernidad: salud mental, ambientes laborales y vida cotidiana (Guadalajara, Jalisco, México: Prometeo Editores, 2014), pp. 91-114.

[7] Ken McLeod, “Meryl Dorey’s trouble with the truth, part 1: how Meryl Dorey lies, obfuscates, prevaricates, exaggerates, confabulates and confuses in promoting her anti-vaccination agenda,” 2010, http://www.scribd.com/doc/47704677/Meryl-Doreys-Trouble-With-the-Truth-Part-1.

[8] Brian Martin, “Debating vaccination: understanding the attack on the Australian Vaccination Network,” Living Wisdom, no. 8, 2011, pp. 14–40, at pp. 28–30.

[9] E.g., Paul Ekman, Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage (New York: Norton, 1985).

[10] On Wikipedia I am categorised as an “anti-vaccination activist,” a term that is not defined on the entry listing those in the category. See Brian Martin, “Persistent bias on Wikipedia: methods and responses,” Social Science Computer Review, Vol. 36, No. 3, June 2018, pp. 379–388.

[11] See for example David Collier, Fernando Daniel Hidalgo and Andra Olivia Maciuceanu, “Essentially contested concepts: debates and applications,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 11(3), October 2006, pp. 211–246.

[12] Brian Martin. “Caught in the vaccination wars (part 3)”, 23 October 2012, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/12hpi-comments.html.

[13] The only possible exception to this statement is Michael Brull, “Anti-vaccination cranks versus academic freedom,” New Matilda, 7 February 2016, who reproduced my own summary of the key points in the thesis relevant to Australian government vaccination policy. For my responses to the attack, see http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/controversy.html – Wilyman, for example “Defending university integrity,” International Journal for Educational Integrity, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2017, pp. 1–14.

[14] Brian Martin, Vaccination Panic in Australia (Sparsnäs, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2018), pp. 15–24.

[15] E.g., Stuart Blume, Immunization: How Vaccines Became Controversial (London: Reaktion Books, 2017).

[16] Brian Martin. “Caught in the vaccination wars”, 28 April 2011, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/11savn/.

[17] For own commentary on Wakefield, see “On the suppression of vaccination dissent,” Science & Engineering Ethics, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2015, pp. 143–157.

[18] Brian Martin. Evidence-based campaigning. Archives of Public Health, Vol. 76, article 54, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1186/s13690-018-0302-4.

[19] Patrick Stokes, “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion,” The Conversation, 5 October 2012, https://theconversation.com/no-youre-not-entitled-to-your-opinion-9978.

[20] Martin, Vaccination Panic in Australia, 292–304.

[21] W. Lawrence Neuman, Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, seventh edition (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2011), 3–5.

[22] Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup and William T. FitzGerald, The Craft of Research, fourth edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 272–273.

[23] Malcolm Wright and J. Scott Armstrong, “The ombudsman: verification of citations: fawlty towers of knowledge?” Interfaces, 38 (2), March-April 2008, 125–132.

[24] For a detailed articulation of this approach, see Stephen Hilgartner, “The Sokal affair in context,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, 22(4), Autumn 1997, pp. 506–522. Hilgartner gives numerous citations to expansive interpretations of the significance of the hoax.

[25] See for example Alan D. Sokal, “What the Social Text affair does and does not prove,” in Noretta Koertge (ed.), A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 9–22, at p. 11: “From the mere fact of publication of my parody, I think that not much can be deduced. It doesn’t prove that the whole field of cultural studies, or the cultural studies of science — much less the sociology of science — is nonsense.”

Author Information: Manuel Padilla-Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla, mpadillacruz@us.es.

Padilla-Cruz, Manuel. “On the Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Venting: A Reply to Thorson and Baker.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 21-30.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46B

Image by Rolf Dietrich Brecher via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Juli Thorson and Christine Baker have recently set the spotlight on a verbal activity which, in their view, may yield rather positive outcomes in oppressive or discriminating environments: venting. This is claimed to play a significant role in fighting epistemic damage.

Although their discussion is restricted to cases in which women vent to other women who are acquainted with unfair epistemic practices in the asymmetrical and hierarchical social groups to which they belong, in “Venting as epistemic work” the authors contend that successful venting can make people aware of oppressive social structures, their place in them and possible solutions for the epistemic damage that those structures cause.

As a result, venting enables individuals to regain trust in their epistemic practices, author knowledge, and accept their own epistemic personhood (Thorson and Baker 2019: 8).

Damage, Personhood, and Venting

Thorson and Baker’s (2019) argumentation relies on two crucial elements. On the one hand, the notion of epistemic damage, which, in an analogous way to Tessman’s (2001) concept of moral damage, is defined as a harm curtailing an individual’s epistemic personhood. This is in turn described as the individual’s “[…] ontological standing as a knower”, “[…] the ability to author knowledge for [oneself]” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 2), or, in Borgwald’s words, “[…] the ability to think autonomously, reflect on and evaluate one’s emotion, beliefs, desires, and to trust those judgments rather than deferring to others” (2012: 73).

Epistemic damage hampers the development of a person’s knowledge-generating practices and her self-trust in her ability to implement them (Thorson and Baker 2019: 2).[1] It is inflicted when someone cannot assert her epistemic personhood because she fears that what she says will not be taken seriously. Consequently, the victim suffers testimonial smothering (Dotson 2011) and gets her self-trust diminished and her epistemic personhood undermined.

On the other hand, the authors’ argumentation is based on a differentiation of venting from both complaining and ranting. These three verbal actions are depicted as contingent on the presence of an audience, expressing “strong feelings” and conveying “agitation about some state of affairs or person” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 3), but neither complaining nor ranting are believed to involve expectations for a change in the state of affairs that gave rise to them.

Complaints, the authors say, may be left unaddressed or the solution proposed for their cause may turn out unsatisfactory and leave it unfixed, while ranting is “a kind of performance for someone” (Thorson and Baker 2019: pp.) where the ranter, far from engaging in conversation, simply exposes her views and expresses anger through a verbal outburst without concern for an ensuing reaction. Venting, in contrast, is portrayed as a testifying dialogical action that is typically performed, Thorson and Baker (2019: 4-5) think, in face-to-face interaction and where the venter does have firm expectations for subsequent remedial action against a state of affairs: denied uptake, sexist comments, silencing or undermining of cognitive authority, to name but some.

By expressing anger at (an)other individual(s) who wronged her or frustrated confusion at their actions, the venter seeks to make her audience aware of an epistemic injustice –either testimonial or hermeneutical– which negatively affects her epistemic personhood and to assert her own credibility.

Thorson and Baker (2019: 7) also distinguish two types of venting, even if these are not clear-cut and range along a continuum:

  1. Heavy-load venting, which is a lengthy, time-consuming and dramatic activity following a serious threat to epistemic personhood increasing self-distrust. It aims for recognition of credibility and reaffirmation of epistemic personhood.
  2. Maintenance venting, which is a “honing practice” requiring less epistemic work and following situations where there are “lack of uptake, dismissal, or micro-aggressions” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 7). Its goal is reinforcement or maintenance of epistemic personhood.

Despite their valuable insights, a series of issues connected with the features defining venting and characterising its two types deserve more detailed consideration in order to gain a fuller understanding of the reasons why venting can actually have the positive effects that the authors attribute to it.

Firstly, its ontology as a verbal action or speech act (Austin 1962; Searle 1969) needs ascertaining in depth with a view to properly delimiting it and adequately differentiating it from other related actions. Secondly, in addition to length and goal, a further criterion should be provided so as to more accurately characterise heavy-load and maintenance venting. Addressing the first issue will help unravel what venting really is and how it is accomplished, while dealing with the second one is fundamental for capturing the subtleties individuating the two types of venting.

What follows addresses these issues from two disciplines of linguistics: pragmatics to a great extent and conversation analysis to a lesser extent. The former, which is greatly indebted to the philosophy of language, looks into, among others, how individuals express meaning and perform a variety of actions verbally, as well as how they interpret utterances and understand meaning.

More precisely, the issues in question will be accounted for on the grounds of some postulates of Speech Act Theory (Austin 1962; Searle 1969) and contributions on complaints made from this framework. Conversation analysis, in turn, examines how individuals structure their verbal contributions with a view to transmitting meaning and how conversational structure determines interpretation. Although Thorson and Baker (2019) admit that an analysis of venting from a linguistic perspective would be fruitful, unfortunately, they did not undertake it.

1) Venting as a Speech Act

Thorson and Baker (2019) take venting, complaining and ranting to be three distinct speech acts that have in common the expression of anger. To some extent, this is right, as there is much confusion in the literature and researchers consider venting and ranting the same speech act “[…] and use the terms synonymously” (Signorelli 2017: 16). However, venting and ranting could rather be regarded as sub-types or variations of a broader, more general or overarching category of speech act: complaining.

Venting and ranting satisfy in the same way as complaining four of the twelve criteria proposed by Searle (1975) in order to distinguish specific verbal actions: namely, those pertaining to the illocutionary point of the act, the direction of fit between the speaker’s words and the external world, the expressed psychological state and the propositional content of the utterance(s) whereby a verbal action is attempted. In other words, complaining, venting and ranting share similar features stemming from the speaker’s intentionality, the relationship between what she says and the external world, her psychological state while speaking and the core meaning or import of what she says. Complaining would then be an umbrella category subsuming both venting and ranting, which would differ from it along other dimensions.

1.1) Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Complaints

Pragmatists working within the fruitful speech act-theoretic tradition (Austin 1962; Searle 1969, 1975) have made illuminating contributions on complaints, which they have classified as expressive acts wherewith the speaker, or complainer or complainant, expresses a variety of negative feelings or emotions. This is a relevant aspect unveiling illocutionary point or intentionality. Such feelings or emotions include anger, irritation, wrath, frustration, disappointment, dissatisfaction, discontent, discomfort, anxiety, despair, etc.

This is another key point, but it shows this time the expressed psychological state (Edmondson and House 1981; Laforest 2002; Edwards 2005). In fact, the expression of such feelings and emotions –a further important issue linked now to the communicated propositional content (“I am angry at/disappointed by p”)– differentiates complaints from other expressive acts like complimenting, where the expressed psychological states are positive: admiration, approval, appraisal, etc. (Wolfson and Manes 1980; Manes and Wolfson 1981).

The feelings and emotions voiced by the complainer concern some state of affairs –another person’s behaviour, appearance, traits, mood, etc., an event and, evidently, some injustice, too– which is regarded not to meet (personal) expectations or standards, or to violate sociocultural norms. The state of affairs originating the complaint is referred to as the complainable and is assessed or appraised from the complainer’s point of view, so complaints often involve a high degree of subjectivity (Edmondson and House 1981; Boxer 1993a, 1993b; Trosborg 1995). As expressive acts, complaints lack direction of fit: neither do they reflect the outer world, nor is this affected by or adapted to what the complainer says.

However, complaints could also be considered to some extent informative or representative acts, inasmuch as the complainer may make the hearer –or complainee– aware of the unsatisfactory state of affairs, which might have gone completely unnoticed or be utterly unknown to him. If so, complaints would be hybrid acts combining the expression of psychological states and the dispensing of information. Accordingly, they could have a words-to-world direction of fit because what the complainer says matches the world, at least from her perspective.

Complaints can be subdivided in various manners. A first twofold division can be made depending on whether the complainable pertains to the complainee or not. Thus, direct complaints concern a state of affairs for which the complainee is held responsible, while indirect complaints deal with one whose responsibility lies in a third party, who may be present at the conversational exchange or absent (Edmondson and House 1981; Boxer 1993a, 1993b; Trosborg 1995).

Another twofold distinction may be made depending on whether the complainer simply voices her feelings or has further intentions. Hence, complaints are retrospective acts when she just expresses her psychological states about some recent or past state of affairs without further intentions, or prospective when she also seeks to influence the complainee and bias his (future) course of action (Márquez Reiter 2005).

In discoursive, conversational terms, complaints can be made through just a single sentence that is produced as an utterance counting as the core act, or through more than one sentence and utterance, either in the same conversational turn or in different ones. Additional utterances make up pre-sequences or post-sequences, depending on their position relative to the core act, or moves, a label frequently used in the literature on conversation analysis.

Since they often lend support to the complaint by offering further details about the complainable, giving reasons for the complainer’s feelings and/or informing about her expections, those moves work as supportive moves. A core complaint and the possible supportive moves accompanying it are often arranged in adjacency pairs along with the utterances reacting to them, whereby the complainee agrees, shows his own psychological states, elaborates on the complaint or responds to it (Cutting 2002; Sidnell 2010; Padilla Cruz 2015; Clift 2016).

1.2) Characterising Venting

Following this characterisation, venting can be said to be a type of complaining on the basis of the following features: its topic or aboutness, its target, the participation of (an)other individual(s), dialogicality, length, the newness or known nature of its subject matter, and the predominance of the expressive and representative functions or the fulfilment of an additional influential or conative function. Of these, the first three features are fundamental, while the fourth and the fifth ones may be regarded as consequences of the third feature. Whereas the sixth one facilitates differentiation between types of venting, the seventh enables recognition of intentions other than simply voicing feelings about recent or past states of affairs.

Although solely produced by one individual –the complainer or venter– venting would be an indirect form of complaining that “[…] reveals underlying perspectives [on] a given topic, situation, or individual(s)” (Signorelli 2017: 2) and engages (an)other individual(s) who must share the assessment of, perspective on and feelings about the complainable, as well as be in a position to react in a particular manner or intend to do so in the (immediate) future.

Their sharing such viewpoints and feelings may prompt participation in the discoursive or conversational episode through tokens of agreement or commiseration, enquiries aimed at getting additional information about the complainable, further verbalisation of negative feelings through additional censuring, critique or irritated comments, and expression of commitment to future remedial action (Boxer 1993a).

Therefore, venting could be depicted as a dialogic phenomenon that is achieved discoursively and requires conversation, to which (an)other participant(s) contribute(s). As Signorelli puts it, “[…] venting is deliberately and necessarily communal” (2017: 17) and can therefore be described as a type of “participatory genre” (2017: 16) with a specific purpose, recognisable moves and characteristic rhetorical strategies (2017: 1).

Its dependency on the contribution of some other epistemic agent(s) makes venting be a cooperative action that is co-constructed by means of the joint endeavours of the venter and her audience. Its dialogic nature causes conversation to unfold through more than just one turn or adjacency pair, so venting episodes may be (considerably) longer variations of complaints, which may be performed by means of just one utterance or a brief sequence of utterances that is normally followed by reactions or responses.

Hence, venting would require more effort, time and verbal material enabling the venter to elaborate on her viewpoints, clearly express her feelings, refine, revise or deepen into the subject matter, and/or announce or hint her expectations. Through it the venter seeks to secure her audience’s future collaboration, which renders venting a long form of prospective complaining. In turn, the audience may show understanding, indicate their positioning as regards what is talked about and/or reveal their future intentions.

1.3) Venting and Related Actions

Venting cannot be judged to differ from complaining on the grounds of the likelihood for a solution to a problem to exist or to be plausible, as Thorson and Baker (2019) conjecture. If a solution to a problem actually exists, that is something external, extralinguistic. Whether the solution is worked out or sought for, and ends up being administered or not, are perlocutionary effects (Austin 1962) that escape the venter’s control. Indeed, although perlocutionary effects may be intended or expected, and, hence, insinuated and pursued through what is said and how it is said, whether a particular solution to a problem is actually given or not is something that totally falls under the audience’s control. Venting nevertheless displays pragmatic and conversational properties that single it out as a special manifestation of complaining.

On the other hand, venting is also distinct from ranting in that, regardless of whether ranting is a direct or indirect form of complaint, it initially excludes the participation of the audience. Ranting, therefore, is chiefly a monologic speech action characterised by its length and detail, too, but deprived of joint cooperation. It mainly is an “[…] individualistic production of identity” (Vrooman 2002: 63, quoted in Signorelli 2017) that is “[…] rooted in self-styling” (Signorelli 2017: 12) and whose mission is “[…] to establish and defend a position of social distance” (Signorelli 2017: 13).

If something distinguishes ranting, that may be the intensity, vividness and high level of irritation or agitation wherewith the complainable is presented, which results in a verbal outburst, as Thorson and Baker (2019) rightly put it. Relying on Searle’s (1975) parametres to classify speech acts, the strength with which ranting is performed certainly differentiates it from venting and also sorts it out as a peculiar manifestation of complaining. Ranting, then, differs from venting on the grounds of its narrative nature and emotional intensity (Manning 2008: 103-105; Lange 2014: 59, quoted in Signorelli 2017).

2) The Two Types of Venting

As pointed out, Thorson and Baker (2019) differentiate between heavy-load and maintenance venting. In their view, the former arises when nothing or very little is known about a disappointing, frustrating, irritating or unfair issue. The venter’s action, then, seems to be mainly aimed at informing her audience and giving details about the issue in question, as well as at making them aware of her feelings.

In turn, maintenance venting appears to correspond to the sort of trouble talk (Jefferson 1984, 1988) in which people engage every now and then when they are already acquainted with some negative issue. This distinction, therefore, may be refined by taking into account the informational load of each action, or, to put it differently, its informativeness, i.e. the newness or known nature of the complainable (Padilla Cruz 2006).

In informational terms, heavy-load venting may be more informative because either what is talked about is utterly unknown to the audience or both the venter and her audience are familiarised with it, but have not dealt with it beforehand. Both the informative –or representational– and the expressive function play a major role in this sort of venting: along with conveying her feelings the venter also dispenses information, the possession of which by the audience she considers is in her interest.

The informativeness of maintenance venting, in contrast, would be lesser, as the venter and her audience are already acquainted with a troublesome or disrupting state of affairs because they have previously discussed it in previous encounters. Although this type of venting still fulfils an informative or representational function, this is subservient to the expressive function and to an additional one: affirming or strengthening common viewpoints and feelings (Padilla Cruz 2004a, 2004b, 2005). This is essential for aligning the audience with herself or positioning them along with her as regards the complainable.

The low level of informativeness of maintenance venting and the affirmation or reinforcement of common viewpoints that it achieves render this sort of venting a phatic action in the sense of anthropologist Bronisław K. Malinowski (1923). It is of little informational relevance, if this is understood to amount to the newness or unknown nature of information, and, therefore, of scarce importance to the audience’s worldview. Even if maintenance venting does not significantly improve or alter their knowledge about the vented issue, like phatic discourse, it does nevertheless fulfil a crucial function: creating or stressing social affinity, rapport, bonds of union, solidarity and camaraderie between the venter and her audience (Padilla Cruz 2004a, 2004b, 2005).

These effects stem from venting’s implication that the interlocutors brought together have similar viewpoints and feelings about a problematic or unfair state of affairs. Maintenance venting, so to say, insinuates or highlights that the interlocutors may be equally affected by what is talked about, expect a similar reaction or react to it in a similar manner. It fosters a feeling of in-group membership through a topic with which the interlocutors are equally acquainted, which similarly impacts them and towards which they also hold akin attitudes (Padilla Cruz 2006).

Conclusion

Venting satisfies criteria that enable its classification as a manifestation of complaining behaviour. Owing to its target –a third party– topic –some recent or past state of affairs– and fulfilment of expressive, representative and conative functions, it amounts to an indirect prospective form of complaint. Its conversational features make it exceed average complaints made through just one conversational turn or adjacency pair, so venting requires more time and effort. However, if there are characteristics significantly distinguishing venting, these are dialogicality and engagement of the audience.

Venting certainly depends on the presence and participation of the audience. It must be jointly or cooperatively accomplished through dialogue, so it must be seen and portrayed as a communal action that is discoursively achieved. The audience’s participation is crucial for both the acknowledgement of a troublesome state of affairs and the achievement of the ultimate goal(s) sought for by the venter: fighting or eradicating the state of affairs in question. While dialogicality and participation of the audience facilitate differentiation between venting and another type of complaint, namely, ranting, the level of informativeness of what is vented helps more accurately distinguish between heavy-load and maintenance venting.

It is along these pragmatic and conversational features that venting may be more precisely described from a linguistic perspective. Although this description may certainly enrich our understanding of why it may have the effects that Thorson and Baker (2019) ascribe to it, other issues still need considering. They are left aside for future work.

Contact details: mpadillacruz@us.es

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[1] The feminine third person singular personal pronoun will be used throughout this paper in order to refer to an individual adopting the role of speaker in conversational exchanges, while the masculine counterpart will be used to allude to the individual adopting that of hearer.

Author Information: Brian Martin, University of Wollongong, bmartin@uow.edu.au.

Martin, Brian. “Technology and Evil.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 1-14.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-466

A Russian Mil Mi-28 attack helicopter.
Image by Dmitri Terekhov via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Humans cause immense damage to each other and to the environment. Steven James Bartlett argues that humans have an inbuilt pathology that leads to violence and ecosystem destruction that can be called evil, in a clinical rather than a religious sense. Given that technologies are human constructions, it follows that technologies can embody the same pathologies as humans. An important implication of Bartlett’s ideas is that studies of technology should be normative in opposing destructive technologies.

Introduction

Humans, individually and collectively, do a lot of terrible things to each other and to the environment. Some obvious examples are murder, torture, war, genocide and massive environmental destruction. From the perspective of an ecologist from another solar system, humans are the world’s major pestilence, spreading everywhere, enslaving and experimenting on a few species for their own ends, causing extinctions of numerous other species and destroying the environment that supports them all.

These thoughts suggest that humans, as a species, have been causing some serious problems. Of course there are many individuals and groups trying to make the world a better place, for example campaigning against war and environmental degradation, and fostering harmony and sustainability. But is it possible that by focusing on what needs to be done and on the positives in human nature, the seriousness of the dark side of human behaviour is being neglected?

Here, I address these issues by looking at studies of human evil, with a focus on a book by Steven Bartlett. With this foundation, it is possible to look at technology with a new awareness of its deep problems. This will not provide easy solutions but may give a better appreciation of the task ahead.

Background

For decades, I have been studying war, ways to challenge war, and alternatives to military systems (e.g. Martin, 1984). My special interest has been in nonviolent action as a means for addressing social problems. Along the way, this led me to read about genocide and other forms of violence. Some writing in the area refers to evil, addressed from a secular, scientific and non-moralistic perspective.

Roy Baumeister (1997), a prominent psychologist, wrote a book titled Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, that I found highly insightful. Studying the psychology of perpetrators, ranging from murderers and terrorists to killers in genocide, Baumeister concluded that most commonly they feel justified in their actions and see themselves as victims. Often they think what they’ve done is not that important. Baumeister’s sophisticated analysis aims to counter the popular perception of evil-doers as malevolent or uncaring.

Baumeister is one of a number of psychologists willing to talk about good and evil. If the word evil feels uncomfortable, then substitute “violence and cruelty,” as in the subtitle of Baumeister’s book, and the meaning is much the same. It’s also possible to approach evil from the viewpoint of brain function, as in Simon Baron-Cohen’s (2011) The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. There are also studies that combine psychiatric and religious perspectives, such as M. Scott Peck’s (1988) People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil.

Another part of my background is technology studies, including being involved in the nuclear power debate, studying technological vulnerability, communication technology, and technology and euthanasia, among other topics. I married my interests in nonviolence and in technology by studying how technology could be designed and used for nonviolent struggle (Martin, 2001).

It was with this background that I encountered Steven James Bartlett’s (2005) massive book The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil. Many of the issues it addresses, for example genocide and war, were familiar to me, but his perspective offered new and disturbing insights. The Pathology of Man is more in-depth and far-reaching than other studies I had encountered, and is worth bringing to wider attention.

Here, I offer an abbreviated account of Bartlett’s analysis of human evil. Then I spell out ways of applying his ideas to technology and conclude with some possible implications.

Bartlett on Evil

Steven James Bartlett is a philosopher and psychologist who for decades studied problems in human thinking. The Pathology of Man was published in 2005 but received little attention. This may partly be due to the challenge of reading an erudite 200,000-word treatise but also partly due to people being resistant to Bartlett’s message, for the very reasons expounded in his book.

In reviewing the history of disease theories, Bartlett points out that in previous eras a wide range of conditions were considered to be diseases, ranging from “Negro consumption” to anti-Semitism. This observation is part of his assessment of various conceptions of disease, relying on standard views about what counts as disease, while emphasising that judgements made are always relative to a framework that is value-laden.

This is a sample portion of Bartlett’s carefully laid out chain of logic and evidence for making a case that the human species is pathological, namely characteristic of a disease. In making this case, he is not speaking metaphorically but clinically. The fact that the human species has seldom been seen as pathological is due to humans adopting a framework that exempts themselves from this diagnosis, which would be embarrassing to accept, at least for those inclined to think of humans as the apotheosis of evolution.

Next stop: the concept of evil. Bartlett examines a wide range of perspectives, noting that most of them are religious in origin. In contrast, he prefers a more scientific view: “Human evil, in the restricted and specific sense in which I will use it, refers to apparently voluntary destructive behavior and attitudes that result in the general negation of health, happiness, and ultimately of life.” (p. 65) In referring to “general negation,” Bartlett is not thinking of a poor diet or personal nastiness but of bigger matters such as war, genocide and overpopulation.

Bartlett is especially interested in the psychology of evil, and canvasses the ideas of classic thinkers who have addressed this issue, including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Karl Menninger, Erich Fromm and Scott Peck. This detailed survey has only a limited return: these leading thinkers have little to say about the origins of evil and what psychological needs it may serve.

So Bartlett turns to other angles, including Lewis Fry Richardson’s classic work quantifying evidence of human violence, and research on aggression by ethologists, notably Konrad Lorenz. Some insights come from this examination, including Richardson’s goal of examining human destructiveness without emotionality and Lorenz’s point that humans, unlike most other animals, have no inbuilt barriers to killing members of their own species.

Bartlett on the Psychology of Genocide

To stare the potential for human evil in the face, Bartlett undertakes a thorough assessment of evidence about genocide, seeking to find the psychological underpinning of systematic mass killings of other humans. He notes one important factor, a factor not widely discussed or even admitted: many humans gain pleasure from killing others. Two other relevant psychological processes are projection and splitting. Projection involves denying negative elements of oneself and attributing them to others, for example seeing others as dangerous, thereby providing a reason for attacking them: one’s own aggression is attributed to others.

Splitting involves dividing one’s own grandiose self-conception from the way others are thought of. “By belonging to the herd, the individual gains an inflated sense of power, emotional support, and connection. With the feeling of group-exaggerated power and puffed up personal importance comes a new awareness of one’s own identity, which is projected into the individual’s conception” of the individual’s favoured group (p. 157). As a member of a group, there are several factors that enable genocide: stereotyping, dehumanisation, euphemistic language and psychic numbing.

To provide a more vivid picture of the capacity for human evil, Bartlett examines the Holocaust, noting that it was not the only or most deadly genocide but one, partly due to extensive documentation, that provides plenty of evidence of the psychology of mass killing.

Anti-Semitism was not the preserve of the Nazis, but existed for centuries in numerous parts of the world, and indeed continues today. The long history of persistent anti-Semitism is, according to Bartlett, evidence that humans need to feel prejudice and to persecute others. But at this point there is an uncomfortable finding: most people who are anti-Semitic are psychologically normal, suggesting the possibility that what is normal can be pathological. This key point recurs in Bartlett’s forensic examination.

Prejudice and persecution do not usually bring sadness and remorse to the victimizers, but rather a sense of strengthened identity, pleasure, self-satisfaction, superiority, and power. Prejudice and persecution are Siamese twins: Together they generate a heightened and invigorated belief in the victimizers’ supremacy. The fact that prejudice and persecution benefit bigots and persecutors is often overlooked or denied. (p. 167)

Bartlett examines evidence about the psychology of several groups involved in the Holocaust: Nazi leaders, Nazi doctors, bystanders, refusers and resisters. Nazi leaders and doctors were, for the most part, normal and well-adjusted men (nearly all were men). Most of the leaders were above average intelligence, and some had very high IQs, and many of them were well educated and culturally sophisticated. Cognitively they were superior, but their moral intelligence was low.

Bystanders tend to do nothing due to conformity, lack of empathy and low moral sensibility. Most Germans were bystanders to Nazi atrocities, not participating but doing nothing to oppose them.

Next are refusers, those who declined to be involved in atrocities. Contrary to usual assumptions, in Nazi Germany there were few penalties for refusing to join killings; it was just a matter of asking for a different assignment. Despite this, of those men called up to join killing brigades, very few took advantage of this option. Refusers had to take some initiative, to think for themselves and resist the need to conform.

Finally, there were resisters, those who actively opposed the genocide, but even here Bartlett raises a concern, saying that in many cases resisters were driven more by anger at offenders than empathy with victims. In any case, in terms of psychology, resisters were the odd ones out, being disengaged with the dominant ideas and values in their society and being able to be emotionally alone, without peer group support. Bartlett’s concern here meshes with research on why people join contemporary social movements: most first become involved via personal connections with current members, not because of moral outrage about the issue (Jasper, 1997).

The implication of Bartlett’s analysis of the Holocaust is that there is something wrong with humans who are psychologically normal (see also Bartlett, 2011, 2013). When those who actively resist genocide are unusual psychologically, this points to problems with the way most humans think and feel.

Another one of Bartlett’s conclusions is that most solutions that have been proposed to the problem of genocide — such as moral education, cultivating acceptance and respect, and reducing psychological projection — are vague, simplistic and impractical. They do not measure up to the challenge posed by the observed psychology of genocide.

Bartlett’s assessment of the Holocaust did not surprise me because, for one of my studies of tactics against injustice (Martin, 2007), I read a dozen books and many articles about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which between half a million and a million people were killed in the space of a few months. The physical differences between the Tutsi and Hutu are slight; the Hutu killers targeted both Tutsi and “moderate” Hutu. It is not widely known that Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa, yet many of the killings occurred in churches where Tutsi had gone for protection. In many cases, people killed neighbours they had lived next to for years, or even family members. The Rwandan genocide had always sounded horrific; reading detailed accounts to obtain examples for my article, I discovered it was far worse than I had imagined (Martin, 2009).

After investigating evidence about genocide and its implications about human psychology, Bartlett turns to terrorism. Many of his assessments accord with critical terrorism studies, for example that there is no standard definition of terrorism, the fear of terrorism is disproportionate to the threat, and terrorism is “framework-relative” in the sense that calling someone a terrorist puts you in opposition to them.

Bartlett’s interest is in the psychology of terrorists. He is sceptical of the widespread assumption that there must be something wrong with them psychologically, and cites evidence that terrorists are psychologically normal. Interestingly, he notes that there are no studies comparing the psychologies of terrorists and soldiers, two groups that each use violence to serve a cause. He also notes a striking absence: in counterterrorism writing, no one has studied the sorts of people who refuse to be involved in cruelty and violence and who are resistant to appeals to in-group prejudice, which is usually called loyalty or patriotism. By assuming there is something wrong with terrorists, counterterrorism specialists are missing the possibility of learning how to deal with the problem.

Bartlett on War Psychology

Relatively few people are involved in genocide or terrorism except by learning about them via media stories. It is another matter when it comes to war, because many people have lived through a time when their country has been at war. In this century, just think of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where numerous governments have sent troops or provided military assistance.

Bartlett says there is plenty of evidence that war evokes powerful emotions among both soldiers and civilians. For some, it is the time of life when they feel most alive, whereas peacetime can seem boring and meaningless. Although killing other humans is proscribed by most moral systems, war is treated as an exception. There are psychological preconditions for organised killing, including manufacturing differences, dehumanising the enemy, nationalism, group identity and various forms of projection. Bartlett says it is also important to look at psychological factors that prevent people from trying to end wars.

Even though relatively few people are involved in war as combat troops or even as part of the systems that support war-fighting, an even smaller number devote serious effort to trying to end wars. Governments collectively spend hundreds of billions of dollars on their militaries but only a minuscule amount on furthering the causes of peace. This applies as well to research: there is a vastly more military-sponsored or military-inspired research than peace-related research. Bartlett concludes that, “war is a pathology which the great majority of human beings do not want to cure” (p. 211).

Thinking back over the major wars in the past century, in most countries it has been far easier to support war than to oppose it. Enlisting in the military is seen as patriotic whereas refusing military service, or deserting the army, is seen as treasonous. For civilians, defeating the enemy is seen as a cause for rejoicing, whereas advocating an end to war — except via victory — is a minority position.

There have been thousands of war movies: people flock to see killing on the screen, and the bad guys nearly always lose, especially in Hollywood. In contrast, the number of major films about nonviolent struggles is tiny — what else besides the 1982 film Gandhi? — and seldom do they attract a wide audience. Bartlett sums up the implications of war for human psychology:

By legitimating the moral atrocity of mass murder, war, clothed as it is in the psychologically attractive trappings of patriotism, heroism, and the ultimately good cause, is one of the main components of human evil. War, because it causes incalculable harm, because it gives men and women justification to kill and injure one another without remorse, because it suspends conscience and neutralizes compassion, because it takes the form of psychological epidemics in which dehumanization, cruelty, and hatred are given unrestrained freedom, and because it is a source of profound human gratification and meaning—because of these things, war is not only a pathology, but is one of the most evident expressions of human evil. (p. 225)

The Obedient Parasite

Bartlett next turns to obedience studies, discussing the famous research by Stanley Milgram (1974). However, he notes that such studies shouldn’t even be needed: the evidence of human behaviour during war and genocide should be enough to show that most human are obedient to authority, even when the authority is instructing them to harm others.

Another relevant emotion is hatred. Although hating is a widespread phenomenon — most recently evident in the phenomenon of online harassment (Citron, 2014) — Bartlett notes that psychologists and psychiatrists have given this emotion little attention. Hatred serves several functions, including providing a cause, overcoming the fear of death, and, in groups, helping build a sense of community.

Many people recognise that humans are destroying the ecological web that supports their own lives and those of numerous other species. Bartlett goes one step further, exploring the field of parasitology. Examining definitions and features of parasites, he concludes that, according to a broad definition, humans are parasites on the environment and other species, and are destroying the host at a record rate. He sees human parasitism as being reflected in social belief systems including the “cult of motherhood,” infatuation with children, and the belief that other species exist to serve humans, a longstanding attitude enshrined in some religions.

Reading The Pathology of Man, I was tempted to counter Bartlett’s arguments by pointing to the good things that so many humans have done and are doing, such as everyday politeness, altruism, caring for the disadvantaged, and the animal liberation movement. Bartlett could counter by noting it would be unwise to pay no attention to disease symptoms just because your body has many healthy parts. If there is a pathology inherent in the human species, it should not be ignored, but instead addressed face to face.

Remington 1858 Model Navy .36 Cap and Ball Revolver.
Image by Chuck Coker via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Technologies of Political Control

Bartlett’s analysis of human evil, including that violence and cruelty are perpetrated mostly by people who are psychologically normal and that many humans obtain pleasure out of violence against other humans, can be applied to technology. The aim in doing this is not to demonise particular types or uses of technology but to explore technological systems from a different angle in the hope of providing insights that are less salient from other perspectives.

Consider “technologies of political control,” most commonly used by governments against their own people (Ackroyd et al., 1974; Wright, 1998). These technologies include tools of torture and execution including electroshock batons, thumb cuffs, restraint chairs, leg shackles, stun grenades and gallows. They include technologies used against crowds such as convulsants and infrasound weapons (Omega Foundation, 2000). They include specially designed surveillance equipment.

In this discussion, “technology” refers not just to artefacts but also to the social arrangements surrounding these artefacts, including design, manufacture, and contexts of use. To refer to “technologies of political control” is to invoke this wider context: an artefact on its own may seem innocuous but still be implicated in systems of repression. Repression here refers to force used against humans for the purposes of harm, punishment or social control.

Torture has a long history. It must be considered a prime example of human evil. Few species intentionally inflict pain and suffering on other members of their own species. Among humans, torture is now officially renounced by every government in the world, but it still takes place in many countries, for example in China, Egypt and Afghanistan, as documented by Amnesty International. Torture also takes place in many conventional prisons, for example via solitary confinement.

To support torture and repression, there is an associated industry. Scientists design new ways to inflict pain and suffering, using drugs, loud noises, disorienting lights, sensory deprivation and other means. The tools for delivering these methods are constructed in factories and the products marketed around the world, especially to buyers seeking means to control and harm others. Periodically, “security fairs” are held in which companies selling repression technologies tout their products to potential buyers.

The technology of repression does not have a high profile, but it is a significant industry, involving tens of billions of dollars in annual sales. It is a prime cause of human suffering. So what are people doing about it?

Those directly involved seem to have few moral objections. Scientists use their skills to design more sophisticated ways of interrogating, incarcerating and torturing people. Engineers design the manufacturing processes and numerous workers maintain production. Sales agents tout the technologies to purchasers. Governments facilitate this operation, making extraordinary efforts to get around attempts to control the repression trade. So here is an entire industry built around technologies that serve to control and harm defenceless humans, and it seems to be no problem to find people who are willing to participate and indeed to tenaciously defend the continuation of the industry.

In this, most of the world’s population are bystanders. Mass media pay little attention. Indeed, there are fictional dramas that legitimise torture and, more generally, the use of violence against the bad guys. Most people remain ignorant of the trade in repression technologies. For those who learn about it, few make any attempt to do something about it, for example by joining a campaign.

Finally there are a few resisters. There are groups like the Omega Research Foundation that collect information about the repression trade and organisations like Amnesty International and Campaign Against Arms Trade that campaign against it. Journalists have played an important role in exposing the trade (Gregory, 1995).

The production, trade and use of technologies of repression, especially torture technologies, provide a prime example of how technologies can be implicated in human evil. They illustrate quite a few of the features noted by Bartlett. There is no evidence that the scientists, engineers, production workers, sales agents and politician allies of the industry are anything other than psychologically normal. Indeed, it is an industry organised much like any other, except devoted to producing objects used to harm humans.

Nearly all of those involved in the industry are simply operating as cogs in a large enterprise. They have abdicated responsibility for causing harm, a reflection of humans’ tendency to obey authorities. As for members of the public, the psychological process of projection provides a reassuring message: torture is only used as a last result against enemies such as terrorists. “We” are good and “they” are bad, so what is done to them is justified.

Weapons and Tobacco

Along with the technology of repression, weapons of war are prime candidates for being understood as implicated in evil. If war is an expression of the human potential for violence, then weapons are a part of that expression. Indeed, increasing the capacity of weapons to maim, kill and destroy has long been a prime aim of militaries. So-called conventional weapons include everything from bullets and bayonets to bombs and ballistic missiles, and then there are biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Studying weaponry is a way of learning about the willingness of humans to use their ingenuity to harm other humans. Dum-dum bullets were designed to tumble in flight so as to cause more horrendous injuries on exiting a body. Brightly coloured land mines can be attractive to young children. Some of these weapons have been banned, while others take their place. In any case, it is reasonable to ask, what was going through the minds of those who conceived, designed, manufactured, sold and deployed such weapons?

The answer is straightforward, yet disturbing. Along the chain, individuals may have thought they were serving their country’s cause, helping defeat an enemy, or just doing their job and following orders. Indeed, it can be argued that scientific training and enculturation serve to develop scientists willing to work on assigned tasks without questioning their rationale (Schmidt, 2000).

Nuclear weapons, due to their capacity for mass destruction, have long been seen as especially bad, and there have been significant mass movements against these weapons (Wittner, 1993–2003). However, the opposition has not been all that successful, because there continue to be thousands of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of eight or so militaries, and most people seldom think about it. Nuclear weapons exemplify Bartlett’s contention that most people do not do much to oppose war — even a war that would devastate the earth.

Consider something a bit different: cigarettes. Smoking brings pleasure, or at least relief from craving, to hundreds of millions of people daily, at the expense of a massive death toll (Proctor, 2011). By current projections, hundreds of millions of people will die this century from smoking-related diseases.

Today, tobacco companies are stigmatised and smoking is becoming unfashionable — but only in some countries. Globally, there are ever more smokers and ever more victims of smoking-related illnesses. Cigarettes are part of a technological system of design, production, distribution, sales and use. Though the cigarette itself is less complex than many military weapons, the same questions can be asked of everyone involved in the tobacco industry: how can they continue when the evidence of harm is so overwhelming? How could industry leaders spend decades covering up their own evidence of harm while seeking to discredit scientists and public health officials whose efforts threatened their profits?

The answers draw on the same psychological processes involved in the perpetuation of violence and cruelty in more obvious cases such as genocide, including projection and obedience. The ideology of the capitalist system plays a role too, with the legitimating myths of the beneficial effects of markets and the virtue of satisfying consumer demand.

For examining the role of technology in evil, weapons and cigarettes are easy targets for condemnation. A more challenging case is the wide variety of technologies that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and hence to climate change, with potentially catastrophic effects for future generations and for the biosphere. The technologies involved include motor vehicles (at least those with internal combustion engines), steel and aluminum production, home heating and cooling, and the consumption of consumer goods. The energy system is implicated, at least the part of it predicated on carbon-based fuels, and there are other contributors as well such as fertilisers and clearing of forests.

Most of these technologies were not designed to cause harm, and those involved as producers and consumers may not have thought of their culpability for contributing to future damage to the environment and human life. Nevertheless, some individuals have greater roles and responsibilities. For example, many executives in fossil fuel companies and politicians with the power to reset energy priorities have done everything possible to restrain shifting to a sustainable energy economy.

Conceptualising the Technology of Evil

If technologies are implicated in evil, what is the best way to understand the connection? It could be said that an object designed and used for torture embodies evil. Embodiment seems appropriate if the primary purpose is for harm and the main use is for harm, but seldom is this sort of connection exclusive of other uses. A nuclear weapon, for example, might be used as an artwork, a museum exhibit, or a tool to thwart a giant asteroid hurtling towards earth.

Another option is to say that some technologies are “selectively useful” for harming others: they can potentially be useful for a variety of purposes but, for example, easier to use for torture than for brain surgery or keeping babies warm. To talk of selective usefulness instead of embodiment seems less essentialist, more open to multiple interpretations and uses.

Other terms are “abuse” and “misuse.” Think of a cloth covering a person’s face over which water is poured to give a simulation of drowning, used as a method of torture called waterboarding. It seems peculiar to say that the wet cloth embodies evil given that it is only the particular use that makes it a tool to cause harm to humans. “Abuse” and “misuse” have an ignominious history in the study of technology because they are often based on the assumption that technologies are inherently neutral. Nevertheless, these terms might be resurrected in speaking of the connection between technology and evil when referring to technologies that were not designed to cause harm and are seldom used for that purpose.

Consider next the role of technologies in contributing to climate change. For this, it is useful to note that most technologies have multiple uses and consequences. Oil production, for example, has various immediate environmental and health impacts. Oil, as a product, has multitudinous uses, such as heating houses, manufacturing plastics and fuelling military aircraft. The focus here is on a more general impact via the waste product carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. In this role, it makes little sense to call oil evil in itself.

Instead, it is simply one player in a vast network of human activities that collectively are spoiling the environment and endangering future life on earth. The facilitators of evil in this case are the social and economic systems that maintain dependence on greenhouse gas sources and the psychological processes that enable groups and individuals to resist a shift to sustainable energy systems or to remain indifferent to the issue.

For climate change, and sustainability issues more generally, technologies are implicated as part of entrenched social institutions, practices and beliefs that have the potential to radically alter or destroy the conditions for human and non-human life. One way to speak of technologies in this circumstance is as partners. Another is to refer to them as actors or actants, along the lines of actor-network theory (Latour, 1987), though this gives insufficient salience to the psychological dimensions involved.

Another approach is to refer to technologies as extensions of humans. Marshall McLuhan (1964) famously described media as “extensions of man.” This description points to the way technologies expand human capabilities. Vehicles expand human capacities for movement, otherwise limited to walking and running. Information and communication technologies expand human senses of sight, hearing and speaking. Most relevantly here, weapons expand human capacities for violence, in particular killing and destruction. From this perspective, humans have developed technologies to extend a whole range of capacities, some of them immediately or indirectly harmful.

In social studies of technology, various frameworks have been used, including political economy, innovation, social shaping, cost-benefit analysis and actor-network theory. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but none of the commonly used frameworks emphasises moral evaluation or focuses on the way some technologies are designed or used for the purpose of harming humans and the environment.

Implications

The Pathology of Man is a deeply pessimistic and potentially disturbing book. Probing into the psychological foundations of violence and cruelty shows a side of human behaviour and thinking that is normally avoided. Most commentators prefer to look for signs of hope, and would finish a book such as this with suggestions for creating a better world. Bartlett, though, does not want to offer facile solutions.

Throughout the book, he notes that most people prefer not to examine the sources of human evil, and so he says that hope is actually part of the problem. By continually being hopeful and looking for happy endings, it becomes too easy to avoid looking at the diseased state of the human mind and the systems it has created.

Setting aside hope, nevertheless there are implications that can be derived from Bartlett’s analysis. Here I offer three possible messages regarding technology.

Firstly, if it makes sense to talk about human evil in a non-metaphorical sense, and to trace the origins of evil to features of human psychology, then technologies, as human creations, are necessarily implicated in evil. The implication is that a normative analysis is imperative. If evil is seen as something to be avoided or opposed, then likewise those technologies most closely embodying evil are likewise to be avoided or opposed. This implies making judgements about technologies. In technologies studies, this already occurs to some extent. However, common frameworks, such as political economy, innovation and actor-network theory, do not highlight moral evaluation.

Medical researchers do not hesitate to openly oppose disease, and in fact the overcoming of disease is an implicit foundation of research. Technology studies could more openly condemn certain technologies.

Secondly, if technology is implicated in evil, and if one of the psychological processes perpetuating evil is a lack of recognition of it and concern about it, there is a case for undertaking research that provides insights and tools for challenging the technology of evil. This has not been a theme in technology studies. Activists against torture technologies and military weaponry would be hard pressed to find useful studies or frameworks in the scholarship about technology.

One approach to the technology of evil is action research (McIntyre 2008; Touraine 1981), which involves combining learning with efforts towards social change. For example, research on the torture technology trade could involve trying various techniques to expose the trade, seeing which ones are most fruitful. This would provide insights about torture technologies not available via conventional research techniques.

Thirdly, education could usefully incorporate learning about the moral evaluation of technologies. Bartlett argues that one of the factors facilitating evil is the low moral development of most people, as revealed in the widespread complicity in or complacency about war preparation and wars, and about numerous other damaging activities.

One approach to challenging evil is to increase people’s moral capacities to recognise and act against evil. Technologies provide a convenient means to do this, because human-created objects abound in everyday life, so it can be an intriguing and informative exercise to figure out how a given object relates to killing, hatred, psychological projection and various other actions and ways of thinking involved in violence, cruelty and the destruction of the foundations of life.

No doubt there are many other ways to learn from the analysis of human evil. The most fundamental step is not to turn away but to face the possibility that there may be something deeply wrong with humans as a species, something that has made the species toxic to itself and other life forms. While it is valuable to focus on what is good about humans, to promote good it is also vital to fully grasp the size and depth of the dark side.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Steven Bartlett, Lyn Carson, Kurtis Hagen, Kelly Moore and Steve Wright for valuable comments on drafts.

Contact details: bmartin@uow.edu.au

References

Ackroyd, Carol, Margolis, Karen, Rosenhead, Jonathan, & Shallice, Tim (1977). The technology of political control. London: Penguin.

Baron-Cohen, Simon (2011). The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York: Basic Books.

Bartlett, Steven James (2005). The pathology of man: A study of human evil. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Bartlett, Steven James (2011). Normality does not equal mental health: the need to look elsewhere for standards of good psychological health. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Bartlett, Steven James (2013). The dilemma of abnormality. In Thomas G. Plante (Ed.), Abnormal psychology across the ages, volume 3 (pp. 1–20). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Baumeister, Roy F. (1997). Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty. New York: Freeman.

Citron, D.K. (2014). Hate crimes in cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gregory, Martyn (director and producer). (1995). The torture trail [television]. UK: TVF.

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Martin, Brian (1984). Uprooting war. London: Freedom Press.

Martin, Brian (2001). Technology for nonviolent struggle. London: War Resisters’ International.

Martin, Brian (2007). Justice ignited: The dynamics of backfire. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Martin, Brian (2009). Managing outrage over genocide: case study Rwanda. Global Change, Peace & Security, 21(3), 275–290.

McIntyre, Alice (2008). Participatory action research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: New American Library.

Milgram, Stanley (1974). Obedience to authority. New York: Harper & Row.

Omega Foundation (2000). Crowd control technologies. Luxembourg: European Parliament.

Peck, M. Scott (1988). People of the lie: The hope for healing human evil. London: Rider.

Proctor, Robert N. (2011). Golden holocaust: Origins of the cigarette catastrophe and the case for abolition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Schmidt, Jeff (2000). Disciplined minds: A critical look at salaried professionals and the soul-battering system that shapes their lives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Touraine, Alain (1981). The voice and the eye: An analysis of social movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittner, Lawrence S. (1993–2003). The struggle against the bomb, 3 volumes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wright, Steve (1998). An appraisal of technologies of political control. Luxembourg: European Parliament.

Author Information: Valerie Joly Chock & Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida, n01051115@ospreys.unf.edu & j.matheson@unf.edu.

Matheson, Jonathan, and Valerie Joly Chock. “Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 1-9.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44H

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Epistemic injustice occurs when someone is wronged in their capacity as a knower.[1] More and more attention is being paid to the epistemic injustices that exist in our scientific practices. In a recent paper, Fabien Medvecky argues that science communication is fundamentally epistemically unjust. In what follows we briefly explain his argument before raising several challenges to it.

Overview

In “Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice”, Fabien Medvecky argues that science communication is fundamentally epistemically unjust. First, let’s get clear on the target. According to Medvecky, science communication is in the business of distributing knowledge – scientific knowledge.

As Medvecky uses the term, ‘science communication’ is an “umbrella term for the research into and the practice of increasing public understanding of and public engagement with science.” (1394) Science communication is thus both a field and a practice, and consists of:

institutionalized science communication; institutionalized in government policies on the public understanding of and public engagement with the sciences; in the growing numbers of academic journals and departments committed to further the enterprise through research and teaching; in requirements set by funding bodies; and in the growing numbers of associations clustering under the umbrella of science communication across the globe. (1395)

Science communication involves the distribution of scientific knowledge from experts to non-experts, so science communication is in the distribution game. As such, Medvecky claims that issues of fair and just distribution arise. According to Medvecky, these issues concern both what knowledge is dispersed, as well as who it is dispersed to.

In examining the fairness of science communication, Medvecky connects his discussion to the literature on epistemic injustice (Anderson, Fricker, Medina). While exploring epistemic injustices in science is not novel, Medvecky’s focus on science communication is. To argue that science communication is epistemically unjust, Medvecky relies on Medina’s (2011) claim that credibility excesses can result in epistemic injustice. Here is José Medina,

[b]y assigning a level of credibility that is not proportionate to the epistemic credentials shown by the speaker, the excessive attribution does a disservice to everybody involved: to the speaker by letting him get away with things; and to everybody else by leaving out of the interaction a crucial aspect of the process of knowledge acquisition: namely, opposing critical resistance and not giving credibility or epistemic authority that has not been earned. (18-19)

Since credibility is comparative, credibility excesses given to members of some group can create epistemic injustice, testimonial injustice in particular, toward members of other groups. Medvecky makes the connection to science communication as follows:

While there are many well-argued reasons for communicating, popularizing, and engaging with science, these are not necessarily reasons for communicating, popularizing, and engaging only with science. Focusing and funding only the communication of science as reliable knowledge represents science as a unique and privileged field; as the only reliable field whose knowledge requires such specialized treatment.

This uniqueness creates a credibility excess for science as a field. And since science communication creates credibility excess by implying that concerted efforts to communicate non-science disciplines as fields of reliable knowledge is not needed, then science communication, as a practice and as a discipline, is epistemically unjust. (1400)

While the principle target here is the field of science communication, any credibility excesses enjoyed by the field will trickle down to the practitioners within it. If science is being given a credibility excess, then those engaged in scientific practice and communication are also receiving such a comparative advantage over non-scientists.

So, according to Medvecky, science communication is epistemically unjust to knowers – knowers in non-scientific fields. Since these non-scientific knowers are given a comparative credibility deficit (in contrast to scientific knowers), they are wronged in their capacity as knowers.

The Argument

Medvecky’s argument can be formally put as follows:

  1. Science is not a unique and privileged field.
  2. If (1), then science communication creates a credibility excess for science.
  3. Science communication creates a credibility excess for science.
  4. If (3), then science communication is epistemically unjust.
  5. Science communication is epistemically unjust.

Premise (1) is motivated by claiming that there are fields other than science that are equally important to communicate, popularize, and to have non-specialists engage. Medvecky claims that not only does non-scientific knowledge exists, such knowledge can be just as reliable as scientific knowledge, just as important to our lives, and just as in need of translation into layman’s terms. So, while scientific knowledge is surely important, it is not alone in this claim.

Premise (2) is motivated by claiming that science communication falsely represents science as a unique and privileged field since the concerns of science communication lie solely within the domain of science. By only communicating scientific knowledge, and failing to note that there are other worthy domains of knowledge, science communication falsely presents itself as a privileged field.

As Medvecky puts it, “Focusing and funding only the communication of science as reliable knowledge represents science as a unique and privileged field; as the only reliable field whose knowledge requires such specialised treatment.” (1400) So, science communication falsely represents science as special. Falsely representing a field as special in contrast to other fields creates a comparative credibility excess for that field and the members of it.

So, science communication implies that other fields are not as worthy of such engagement by falsely treating science as a unique and privileged field. This gives science and scientists a comparative credibility excess to these other disciplines and their practitioners.

(3) follows validly from (1) and (2). If (1) and (2) are true, science communication creates a credibility excess for science.

Premise (4) is motivated by Medina’s (2011) work on epistemic injustice. Epistemic injustice occurs when someone is harmed in their capacity as a knower. While Fricker limited epistemic injustice (and testimonial justice in particular) to cases where someone was given a credibility deficit, Medina has forcefully argued that credibility excesses are equally problematic since credibility assessments are often comparative.

Given the comparative nature of credibility assessments, parties can be epistemically harmed even if they are not given a credibility deficit. If other parties are given credibility excesses, a similar epistemic harm can be brought about due to comparative assessments of credibility. So, if science communication gives science a credibility excess, science communication will be epistemically unjust.

(5) follows validly from (3) and (4). If (3) and (4) are true, science communication is epistemically unjust.

The Problems

While Medvecky’s argument is provocative, we believe that it is also problematic. In what follows we motivate a series of objections to his argument. Our focus here will be on the premises that most directly relate to epistemic injustice. So, for our purposes, we are willing to grant premise (1). Even granting (1), there are significant problems with both (2) and (4). Highlighting these issues will be our focus.

We begin with our principle concerns regarding (2). These concerns are best seen by first granting that (1) is true – granting that science is not a unique and privileged field. Even granting that (1) is true, science communication would not create a credibility excess. First, it is important to try and locate the source of the alleged credibility excess. Science communicators do deserve a higher degree of credibility in distributing scientific knowledge than non-scientists. When it comes to scientific matters, we should trust the scientists more. So, the claim cannot be that non-scientists should be afforded the same amount of credibility on scientific matters as scientists.

The problem might be thought to be that scientists enjoy a credibility excess in virtue of their scientific credibility somehow carrying over to non-scientific fields where they are less credible. While Medvecky does briefly consider such an issue, this too is not his primary concern in this paper.[2] Medvecky’s fundamental concern is that science communication represents scientific questions and knowledge as more valuable than questions and knowledge in other domains. According to Medvecky, science communication does this by only distributing scientific knowledge when this is not unique and privileged (premise (1)).

But do you represent a domain as more important or valuable just because you don’t talk about other domains? Perhaps an individual who only discussed science in every context would imply that scientific information is the only information worth communicating, but such a situation is quite different than the one we are considering.

For one thing, science communication occurs within a given context, not across all contexts. Further, since that context is expressly about communicating science, it is hard to see how one could reasonably infer that knowledge in other domains is less valuable. Let’s consider an analogy.

Philosophy professors tend to only talk about philosophy during class (or at least let’s suppose). Should students in a philosophy class conclude that other domains of knowledge are less valuable since the philosophy professor hasn’t talked about developments in economics, history, biology, and so forth during class? Given that the professor is only talking about philosophy in one given context, and this context is expressly about communicating philosophy, such inferences would be unreasonable.

A Problem of Overreach

We can further see that there is an issue with (2) because it both overgeneralizes and is overly demanding. Let’s consider these in turn. If (2) is true, then the problem of creating credibility excesses is not unique to science communication. When it comes to knowledge distribution, science communication is far from the only practice/field to have a narrow and limited focus regarding which knowledge it distributes.

So, if there are multiple fields worthy of such engagement (granting (1)), any practice/field that is not concerned with distributing all such knowledge will be guilty of generating a similar credibility excess (or at least trying to). For instance, the American Philosophical Association (APA) is concerned with distributing philosophical knowledge and knowledge related to the discipline of philosophy. They exclusively fund endeavors related to philosophy and public initiatives with a philosophical focus. If doing so is sufficient for creating a credibility excess, given that other fields are equally worthy of such attention, then the APA is creating a credibility excess for the discipline of philosophy. This doesn’t seem right.

Alternatively, consider a local newspaper. This paper is focused on distributing knowledge about local issues. Suppose that it also is involved in the community, both sponsoring local events and initiatives that make the local news more engaging. Supposing that there is nothing unique or privileged about this town, Medvecky’s argument for (2) would have us believe that the paper is creating a credibility excess for the issues of this town. This too is the wrong result.

This overgeneralization problem can also be seen by considering a practical analogy. Suppose that a bakery only sells and distributes baked goods. If there is nothing unique and privileged about baked goods – if there are other equally important goods out there (the parallel of premise (1)) – then Medvecky’s reasoning would have it that the bakery is guilty of a kind of injustice by virtue of not being in the business of distributing those other (equally valuable) goods.

The problem is that omissions in distribution don’t have the implications that Medvecky supposes. The fact that an individual or group is not in the business of distributing some kind of good does not imply that those goods are less valuable.

There are numerous legitimate reasons why one may employ limitations regarding which goods one chooses to distribute, and these limitations do not imply that the other goods are somehow less valuable. Returning to the good of knowledge, focusing on distributing some knowledge (while not distributing other knowledge), does not imply that the other knowledge is less valuable.

This overgeneralization problem leads to an overdemanding problem with (2). The overdemanding problem concerns what all would be required of distributors (whether of knowledge or more tangible goods) in order to avoid committing injustice. If omissions in distribution had the implications that Medvecky supposes, then distributors, in order to avoid injustice, would have to refrain from limiting the goods they distribute.

If (2) is true, then science communication must fairly and equally distribute all knowledge in order to avoid injustice. And, as the problem of creating credibility excesses is not unique to science communication, this would apply to all other fields that involve knowledge distribution as well. The problem here is that avoiding injustice requires far too much of distributors.

An Analogy to Understand Avoiding Injustice

Let’s consider the practical analogy again to see how avoiding injustice is overdemanding. To avoid injustice, the bakery must sell and distribute much more than just baked goods. It must sell and distribute all the other goods that are as equally important as the baked ones it offers. The bakery would, then, have to become a supermarket or perhaps even a superstore in order to avoid injustice.

Requiring the bakery to offer a lot more than baked goods is not only overly demanding but also unfair. The bakery does not count with the other goods it is required to offer in order to avoid injustice. It may not even have the means needed to get these goods, which may itself be part of its reason for limiting the goods it offers.

As it is overdemanding and unfair to require the bakery to sell and distribute all goods in order to avoid injustice, it is overdemanding and unfair to require knowledge distributors to distribute all knowledge. Just as the bakery does not have non-baked goods to offer, those involved in science communication likely do not have the relevant knowledge in the other fields.

Thus, if they are required to distribute that knowledge also, they are required to do a lot of homework. They would have to learn about everything in order to justly distribute all knowledge. This is an unreasonable expectation. Even if they were able to do so, they would not be able to distribute all knowledge in a timely manner. Requiring this much of distributors would slow-down the distribution of knowledge.

Furthermore, just as the bakery may not have the means needed to distribute all the other goods, distributors may not have the time or other means to distribute all the knowledge that they are required to distribute in order to avoid injustice. It is reasonable to utilize an epistemic division of labor (including in knowledge distribution), much like there are divisions of labor more generally.

Credibility Excess

A final issue with Medvecky’s argument concerns premise (4). Premise (4) claims that the credibility excess in question results in epistemic injustice. While it is true that a credibility excess can result in epistemic injustice, it need not. So, we need reasons to believe that this particular kind of credibility excess results in epistemic injustice. One reason to think that it does not has to do with the meaning of the term ‘epistemic injustice’ itself.

As it was introduced to the literature by Fricker, and as it has been used since, ‘epistemic injustice’ does not simply refer to any harms to a knower but rather to a particular kind of harm that involves identity prejudice—i.e. prejudice related to one’s social identity. Fricker claims that, “the speaker sustains a testimonial injustice if and only if she receives a credibility deficit owing to identity prejudice in the hearer.” (28)

At the core of both Fricker’s and Medina’s account of epistemic injustice is the relation between unfair credibility assessments and prejudices that distort the hearer’s perception of the speaker’s credibility. Prejudices about particular groups is what unfairly affects (positively or negatively) the epistemic authority and credibility hearers grant to the members of such groups.

Mere epistemic errors in credibility assessments, however, do not create epistemic injustice. While a credibility excess may result in an epistemic harm, whether this is a case of epistemic injustice depends upon the reason why that credibility excess is given. Fricker and Medina both argue that in order for an epistemic harm to be an instance of epistemic injustice, it must be systematic. That is, the epistemic harm must be connected to an identity prejudice that renders the subject at the receiving end of the harm susceptible to other types of injustices besides testimonial.

Fricker argues that epistemic injustice is product of prejudices that “track” the subject through different dimensions of social activity (e.g. economic, professional, political, religious, etc.). She calls these, “tracker prejudices” (27). When tracker prejudices lead to epistemic injustice, this injustice is systematic because it is systematically connected to other kinds of injustice.

Thus, a prejudice is systematic when it persistently affects the subject’s credibility in various social directions. Medina accepts this and argues that credibility excess results in epistemic injustice when it is caused by a pattern of wrongful differential treatment that stems in part due to mismatches between reality and the social imaginary, which he defines as the collectively shared pool of information that provides the social perceptions against which people assess each other’s credibility (Medina 2011).

He claims that a prejudiced social imaginary is what establishes and sustains epistemic injustices. As such, prejudices are crucial in determining whether credibility excesses result in epistemic injustice. If the credibility excess stems from a systematically prejudiced social imaginary, then this is the case. If systematic prejudices are absent, then, even if there is credibility excess, there is no epistemic injustice.

Systemic Prejudice

For there to be epistemic injustice, then, the credibility excess must carry over across contexts and must be produced and sustained by systematic identity prejudices. This does not happen in Medvecky’s account given that the kind of credibility excess that he is concerned with is limited to the context in which science communication occurs.

Thus, even if there were credibility excess, and this credibility excess lead to epistemic harms, such harms would not amount to epistemic injustice given that the credibility excess does not extend across contexts. Further, the kind of credibility excess that Medvecky is concerned with is not linked to systematic identity prejudices.

In his argument, Medvecky does not consider prejudices. Rather than credibility excesses being granted due to a prejudiced social imaginary, Medvecky argues that the credibility excess attributed to science communicators stems from omission. According to him, science communication as a practice and as a discipline is epistemically unjust because it creates credibility excess by implying (through omission) that science is the only reliable field worthy of engagement.

On Medvecky’s account, the reason for the attribution of credibility excess is not prejudice but rather the limited focus of science communication. Thus, he argues that merely by not distributing knowledge from fields other than science, science communication creates a credibility excess for science that is worthy of the label of ‘epistemic injustice’. Medvecky acknowledges that Fricker would not agree that this credibility assessment results in injustice given that it is based on credibility excess rather than credibility deficits, which is itself why he bases his argument on Medina’s account of epistemic injustice.

However, given that Medvecky ignores the kind of systematic prejudice that is necessary for epistemic injustice under Medina’s account, it seems like Medina would not agree, either, that these cases are of the kind that result in epistemic injustice.[3] Even if omissions in the distribution of knowledge had the implications that Medvecky supposes, and it were the case that science communication indeed created a credibility excess for science in this way, this kind of credibility excesses would still not be sufficient for epistemic injustice as it is understood in the literature.

Thus, it is not the case that science communication is, as Medvecky argues, fundamentally epistemically unjust because the reasons why the credibility excess is attributed have nothing to do with prejudice and do not occur across contexts. While it is true that there may be epistemic harms that have nothing to do with prejudice, such harms would not amount to epistemic injustice, at least as it is traditionally understood.

Conclusion

In “Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice”, Fabien Medvecky argues that epistemic injustice lies at the very foundation of science communication. While we agree that there are numerous ways that scientific practices are epistemically unjust, the fact that science communication involves only communicating science does not have the consequences that Medvecky maintains.

We have seen several reasons to deny that failing to distribute other kinds of knowledge implies that they are less valuable than the knowledge one does distribute, as well as reasons to believe that the term ‘epistemic injustice’ wouldn’t apply to such harms even if they did occur. So, while thought provoking and bold, Medvecky’s argument should be resisted.

Contact details: j.matheson@unf.edu, n01051115@ospreys.unf.edu

References

Dotson, K. (2011) Tracking epistemic violence, tracking patterns of silencing. Hypatia 26(2): 236–257.

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Medina, J. (2011). The relevance of credibility excess in a proportional view of epistemic injustice: Differential epistemic authority and the social imaginary. Social Epistemology, 25(1), 15–35.

Medvecky, F. (2018). Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Justice. Sci Eng Ethics 24: 1393-1408.

[1] This is Fricker’s description, See Fricker (2007, p. 1).

[2] Medvecky considers Richard Dawkins being given more credibility than he deserves on matters of religion due to his credibility as a scientist.

[3] A potential response to this point could be to consider scientism as a kind of prejudice akin to sexism or racism. Perhaps an argument can be made where an individual has the identity of ‘science communicator’ and receives credibility excess in virtue of an identity prejudice that favors science communicators. Even still, to be epistemic injustice this excess must track the individual across contexts, as the identities related to sexism and racism do. For it to be, a successful argument must be given for there being a ‘pro science communicator’ prejudice that is similar in effect to ‘pro male’ and ‘pro white’ prejudices. If this is what Medvecky has in mind, then we need to hear much more about why we should buy the analogy here.

Author Information: Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore, erictkerr@gmail.com.

Kerr, Eric. “The Social Epistemology of Book Reviews.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 48-52.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45j

Image by Joel Gallagher via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Because 2019 marks the end of my first full year as Book Reviews editor at SERRC, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on what we’ve done in terms of promoting conversation and criticism around new books in social epistemology and to reflect on how we can apply insights from social epistemology to our book reviews at SERRC.

The Place of Reviews

Nominally, social epistemology has a close connection to the book review.  As many readers of this journal will know, the term “social epistemology” was initially coined in the 1960s by the librarian and information scientist, Jesse Shera, to mean “the study of knowledge in society.” (Shera 1970, p. 86) Shera developed his work with colleague Margaret Egan and in the steps of fellow librarian Douglas Waples, concerned with the ways in which society reads: broadly, how it accesses, interprets, categorizes, indexes, and disseminates the written word and the role that librarianship, bibliography, and new methods of documentation could play (Zandonade 2004).

A library is a very particular filter of knowledge production. The Web may be seen as another, or as a collection of many. An academic journal yet another. These filters organize knowledge in society in their own way and we can, and do, evaluate this and make judgments of when it works well and when it does not work so well. Today, our access to information occurs within a wider ecosystem of filters that have flourished in the contemporary period, in tandem with the technological infrastructure to radically multiply and variegate filters.

For educators, reviews (from our students or are colleagues) are sometimes the primary means by which our performance and success are judged. Customer reviews – typically performed by the “uncredentialled curator” – are available on almost any website with something to sell and new companies have formed whose purpose is to provide customer reviews alone. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and so on, use human and non-human filters to sift through vast trenches of information. I don’t need to belabour the point – it’s familiar to all of us.

Alongside the idea of the filter, has emerged a renewed prominence of curators, influenced by its powerful position in the art world. This curation comes with its own culture, its own beliefs, and its own language. This language functions to exclude alternatives and police boundaries. And while an art curator’s job may have once been to select what art was worth your attention, now, in an attention economy, a curator’s job may be just as much to provide the means to deal with information overload.

To complicate things still further, we now perform much more personal curation – keeping tabs, messages, snippets, and screenshots as well as cultivating all kinds of algorithms that learn from our past behaviour and deliver to us more of what we saw before.

Thomas Frank calls this expansion of curation, not just into reviewing almost anything we consume, but into the very language we use and the ways we think, curatolatry. He discusses how, responding to the newly-coined “fake news” (Faulkner 2018; Fuller 2016; Levy 2017), Barack Obama said:

We are going to have to rebuild within this wild-wild-west-of-information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to.

While Obama, in Frank’s view in common with other liberals, tends towards curation, Donald Trump is associated with the “refusal of curation. Trump does not reform or organize the chaos of the world…”

Frank warns at the end of his article:

“What they don’t agree upon, meanwhile, is simply ignored. It is outside the conversation. It is excluded. A world without fake news might really be awesome. So might a shop where every bottle of wine is excellent. So might an electoral system in which everyone heeds the urging of the professional consensus. But in any such system, reader, people like you and me can be assured with almost perfect confidence that our voices will be curated out.”

A Social Epistemological Interpretation of the Book Review

Would, should, SERRC perform a kind of curating function “that people agree to” to filter new books in social epistemology? I don’t think it does perform this function and I’m not sure that it should.

It is often alleged that book reviews tend towards mediocrity and nepotism, falling out of the publishing industry and, in academia, entrenched structures and metrics of hierarchy, prestige, and social status. To add to the miserable plight of the book review, they are not treated as prestigious publications or emphasized as lines on CVs (if listed at all).

They do not rank as highly as research articles or chapters in books or, indeed, books themselves. They do not generally rank at all on any metric that is used by academic institutions or funding bodies. Book reviews tend, therefore, to fall into the category of ‘service’ – gifts one is obliged to offer largely out of a sense of duty, responsibility, and morality.

This is lamentable. The first thing we are asked to do as students is review books. For many of us, the first thing we do when writing, or preparing to write, a paper, is to review books – to perform a literature review. Book reviews are not, primarily, a service to the author but to a wider audience. (If they were the former, one could easily email it to the author and avoid the hassle of formal publication.)

They do not simply repeat knowledge contained in the book but provide new knowledge as evidenced, I believe, by all of the book reviews we published in the last two years. Sometimes this is taken to be appraisal by an expert but I think that social epistemology can give us reason to take a second glance at this intuitive idea (Social Epistemology 32(6) – special issue on Expertise and Expert Knowledge; Watson 2018).

We should be critical of the encroachment of curation and the perceived need to curate. In wider culture, the most well-known critics were not themselves trained in the field they reviewed. This is often held against them by artists and writers but if we do not see their purpose as being about expert appraisal, that criticism loses some of its force.

One reason for this may be that reviews tell us as much about the reviewer as the reviewee. Reviews, as Oscar Wilde observed, are autobiographical. Ambrose Bierce echoed this sentiment in his Devil’s Dictionary. The entry for “review” reads simply:

To set your wisdom (holding not a doubt of it,
Although in truth there’s neither bone nor skin to it)
At work upon a book, and so read out of it
The qualities that you have first read into it.

This view seems to suit us at SERRC. We are, as in our name, a collective and much more than curate we read and write about what happens to take our interest at that time. We think, often, out loud. If that interest spreads throughout the community, it is likely to be picked up and turned into a symposium or extended dialogue. Or perhaps not. Others are welcome to join our community if they are interested in contributing to these conversations.

18 Months, more or less

Nevertheless, and undeniably, book review editors have a role to play in organizing knowledge in society. My approach to editing book reviews since I took over has not been to gatekeep. “Is this interesting?” – usual caveats aside about the word ‘interesting’ – has been the benchmark rather than “Is this proper social epistemology?”

I took over as Book Review Editor part-way through 2017. In this short period, we have published 64 reviews (and replies to reviews, and replies to reviews of reviews). Many of these have taken the form of book review “symposiums” where several authors take on one book, often featuring replies from the book’s author. Soliciting a range of views allows us to present a book from the perspective of scholars with different expertise and focus.

It encourages more in-depth and richer discussions of a book, and its surrounding intellectual milieu, and extends the conversation sometimes over a period of months. I believe that, in a small way, this facilitates a new ordering of knowledge around new books and, so, contributes to a new social epistemology.

It’s hard to focus on specific books given this long list but I can hint at some trends that we have been pushing, and will continue to push, in the new year. One concerns diversity and internationalization. When two of my National University of Singapore colleagues, Jay Garfield and Bryan van Norden, published an opinion piece in the New York Times’ Stone that argued for a greater role for “less commonly taught philosophies” (such as, but not limited to, Chinese or Indian philosophy) in the US curriculum, it caused a stir in the profession, and more widely.

A great deal has been written about the subsequent book Van Norden published on the theme, Taking Back Philosophy, but I would argue that our symposium, featuring seven scholars, including me, has added quite a bit to that conversation. A personal highlight for me was Steve Fuller’s visit to the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore to speak on the subject. The full lecture can be heard here. Another important intervention in internationalizing our catalogue has been the symposium on African philosophy and I intend to continue this global perspective in 2019.

One innovation of SERRC is that we encourage authors to respond. I often write to authors to give them what the media call a right of reply. I believe this is quite unusual in the academic reviewsphere. It’s a method that is fraught with pitfalls and potential catastrophe but, I think, valuable for the ideas that frequently come out of it. Traditionally, a review is left hanging. The last laugh. Allowing authors a chance to respond can correct perceived inaccuracies but, more importantly, lead to new shared understandings.

As we enter 2019 under the deluge of our own personal tsundoku let’s embrace a multitude of reviews and reviews of reviews.

Best wishes for the new year. As always, if you wish to review a book, or propose a symposium, for SERRC you may write to me at the address below.

Contact details: erictkerr@gmail.com

References

Briggle, Adam; and Robert Frodeman. “Thinking À La Carte.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 8-11.

Dusek, Val. “Antidotes to Provincialism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 5-11.

Fuller, Steve. “Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, Steve Fuller (December 25, 2016): http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx.

Fuller, Steve. “‘China’ As the West’s Other in World Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 1-11.

Graness, Anke. “African Philosophy and History.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 45-54.

Jain, Pankaj. “Taking Philosophy Back: A Call From the Great Wall of China.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 60-64.

Janz, Bruce. “The Problem of Method in African Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 1-7.

Kerr, Eric. “A Hermeneutic of Non-Western Philosophy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018): 1-6.

Lauer, Helen. “Scientific Consensus and the Discursive Dilemma.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 33-44.

Levy, Neil. “The Bad News About Fake News.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 20-36.

Faulkner, P. 2018. “Fake Barns, Fake News.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 16-21.

Martini, C. and M. Baghramian. 2018. Special issue on Expertise and Expert Knowledge, Social Epistemology 36(6).

Riggio, Adam. “Action in Harmony with a Global World.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 20-26.

Shera, J.H. Sociological Foundations of Librarianship. New York: Asia Publishing House, 1970.

Watson, J.C. 2018. “What Experts Could Not Be,” Social Epistemology, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1551437

Zandonade, T. 2004. “Social Epistemology from Jesse Shera to Steve Fuller, Library Trends 52(4): 810-832.