Issue 3/2021 - Net section

Trust Must be Beautiful, or My Fair Mining? Reflections on the Crypto Movement

Taguhi Torosyan und Stefanie Wuschitz

We broadly interpreted the term “cryptocurrency”
to mean a decentralised network
of exchanges incorporating an agreed set of values or ethics.
(from Crypto-Knitting-Circles by Ailie Rutherford and designer Bettina Nissen, 2019)

The debate around all things “crypto-” is mostly dominated by the anticipated future impact of cryptocurrency, with Bitcoin and Ethereum being its most successful examples. Just like every other new and evolving technology, “crypto” is raising its tides of hope and fiction. Blockchain, the actual “distributed ledger” technology (DLT) behind the hype, can seemingly enable much more than decentralized and secure banking. Appearing to be a promising and not yet fully explored technology, it has motivated its early proselytes to imagine and model systemic changes, which suddenly seem to be all-systems-go. Artists like Ai Weiwei and collectives like Pussy Riot have turned to blockchain as a new medium to address themes like refugee crises and political repressions, or to support artivism and victims of domestic violence. But the Big Blockchain Bang has also created its own universe of crypto art outside the established art world, with leading figures like Beeple, Josie Bellini, and also Itzel Yard (aka ixshells), whose work in support of the Tor Project earned her the highest sales price for a woman* in the unsurprisingly male-dominated cyberspace of blockchain (Catlow, 2017).1

So what is crypto?

A buzzword that initially might conjure up images of a secret party or organization, hidden ethnic minority groups, or a method of concealing sensitive information, the prefix crypto- is increasingly used as a synonym for blockchain, the distributed ledger technologies and their incentive: digital currencies.
Cryptocurrencies have both parallels and contrasts with previous alternative currencies. Some of them, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, also have a number of revolutionary new qualities, such as a decentralized structure, fast cross-border transactions, worldwide awareness, and backing from strong organizations.
Cryptocurrency is intrinsically a digital form of money that may be kept or given to anybody, regardless of whether or not the receiver is known to the sender. Bitcoin is based on a transaction record similar to that of a bank but with copies of that ledger scattered throughout the globe, automatically updating with each transaction. It takes a lot of computation and labor to keep this distributed ledger running, but it is no longer the responsibility of middle men to do it. Instead, the system rewards individuals who volunteer to help with cryptocurrency, vernacularly known as crypto-mining, on their private computer or phone. This enables the blockchain, the decentralized ledger, to be maintained—a ledger that exists by virtue of a network of individuals rather than a single entity.

The same technology enables the recording and transmission of digital products. It does so via the internet, while ensuring that these items cannot be duplicated or reproduced. For instance, blockchain may be used as a digital registry to record, transfer, and verify asset ownership of artworks, as well as to maintain the integrity, authenticity, and verification of sensitive data such as legal records. Importantly, it can be used to record, transfer, and verify any other kind of item. This is the significant quality that the artists we will mention in this article keep playing with.


Cypherpunk, denominated by one of the first female hackers, Jude Milhon, is a movement dedicated to digital security activism. Milhon, nicknamed “the patron saint of hackers,” stood at the roots of convergence between the Civil Rights Movement, activism, and computer science in the 1960s.

Jude Milhon, co-founder of Cypherpunk. Photo credits: Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto was distributed as early as 1988 at a cypherpunk gathering by member Timothy May and “like-minded techno-anarchists.” Proclaiming the dwellings of crypto anarchy’s “specter” and the advent of “CryptoNet” in the modern world, it promised freedom from intellectual property rights through “encryption, zero-knowledge interactive proof systems, and various software protocols for interaction, authentication, and verification.” As it became clear later with the advent of the blockchain-based NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and the blockchain’s reinvention of digital and intangible ownership three decades later, this exercise of techno-optimism was radically miscalculated. A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto, published by another cypherpunk, Eric Hughes, in 1993 again highlighted the necessity of anonymous transaction systems.

Crisis of distribution

The post-2008 climate, with its uncertainty and indeterminacy of financial stability mechanisms, especially prominent in the environments dominated by far-right economic policies, has brought about a crisis of trust in governments and the banking system. While the Occupy Movement temporarily engendered the redistribution of the sensible, a pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto suggested redistributing the trust in the neoliberal establishment toward algorithms and encryption systems through their seminal white paper Bitcoin: A peer-to-peer (P2P) electronic cash system (2008).2 In 2013, Vitalik Buterin, a twenty-year-old Russian–Canadian programmer, grew discontented with the “limited functionality” of Bitcoin and proposed a new open-source blockchain with smart contract functionality, not least intended to “screw the big guy” and benefit “the little guy.” It was crowdfunded and went live in 2015 as the Ethereum network. The network allows developers to create permanent and immutable decentralized finance (DeFi) apps that users can interact with. These apps allow cryptocurrency users to borrow against their holdings or lend them out for interest without the need for traditional financial intermediaries such as brokerages, exchanges, or banks. It also allows for the creation of NFTs, non-interchangeable tokens linked to digital works of art or other real-world things and sold as unique digital property, which may also be created and exchanged on Ethereum.

Co-opting the alternative

Fast-forward six years, and around two thousand cryptocurrencies are competing (some running on the Ethereum blockchain as ERC-20 tokens) for the computer resources of crypto-miners and mining farms. Together with private computers and phones, these mining farms provide thousands of computers that, in essence, do the math and processing to sustain the system.3 Maintaining a colonialist spirit, these mining farms are primarily located in the so-called Global South, benefiting the fiat (government-issued) currency of the “Bitcoin whales''––the big investors. The current discourse on the climate impact and the excessive use of electricity resources by crypto-mining farms is thriving.4 Concurrently, the electricity systems that miners rely on alter over time, and their fuel sources may shift between seasons––from renewables to fossil fuels. Meanwhile, around 73% of Bitcoin miners employ at least some renewable energy as part of their power source.5 The craze of invite-only NFT galleries (pronounced “nifty”) and the success of their artists seemed to have stolen the show—until recently, when market prices plunged by around 70%, steadily moving toward the so-called “plateau of productivity” in the Gartner Hype Cycle of new technology development.6

What some call the transition from the first to the second phases of the internet is characterized by the shift from the transfer of information via simple networks to the transfer of value (assets, contractual agreements, money) via smart networks, conducted by the network itself. Notably, it also entails the transition to smart social contracts as introduced by Nick Szabo (Szabo, 1994), the computerized transaction protocols that execute the contract terms.7 While Szabo first described contracts as “essential for trust in functioning societies,” he later redefined them as “the basic building block of a free market economy” (Szabo, 1996).8

Techno-feminist debugging

In 1972, feminist theorist Silvia Federici clearly showed that unpaid care work and reproductive labor are the basis of all capitalist production and market economies, and fundamental to patriarchal exploitation (Federici, 2020).9 In consequence, she demanded wages for housework. Value only becomes an exchange value when it is involved in an exchange relationship. Trade enables the purchase, and thereby the exploitation, of labor. Hence, it allows capital to accumulate, which, according to a Marxist perspective, can be avoided by refusing to exchange.

As Wendy Lynne Lee (Lee, 2006) demonstrates, the feminist theory of value aims to unite the ecological and the aesthetic in justice-driven emancipatory action.10 For a feminist theory of value, blockchain technologies represent both a promise in terms of enabling consensus-based techno-ecofeminist infrastructures and a challenge of delivery in terms of their exploitation of labor, time, space, and resources of the marginalized humans and non-humans alike—the political and material ecologies they collectively constitute.

Combining the worlds of the blockchain, commons, and P2P, open and platform cooperativism, and feminist economics, the DisCo (Distributed Cooperative Organization) project offers an alternative to the goals and outcomes of DAOs11 (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations). Conceived by a group of feminist DIY makers and researchers, it is an organizational prototype for new and radical forms of ownership, governance, entrepreneurship, and value accounting, designed to overcome widespread economic inequity. The proposed DisCO models are based on seven modified but non-prescriptive cooperative principles, including a dedication to caregiving, social and environmental goals, the multi-constituency and transnationality of nature, active commons creators, the prototyping for new value flows, and federality as an end goal.

Proposals like DisCo open space and provide infrastructure for exercising radical imagination, resonating with the old questions that the emergent critical art and social entrepreneurship practices also explore: Can we stop harmful environmental destruction if we just “make/mine/generate” enough money to buy a rainforest?12 Will the critique of the ecological cost of cryptoart, compiling a guide to ecofriendly CryptoArt, or initiatives like Crypto Climate Accord, Bitcoin Clean Energy, and the proposed carbon-negative Algoraland blockchain fulfill the promise of a greener future for blockchain?13 Or is hoarding/accumulation not at the root of the problem? Will a digital representation of responsibly sourced, “conflict-free” gold or provenance-tracking of foods reform supply chains and maintain the world’s ecosystem?[14| Will the distributed insurance of crops help farmers to deal with the loss of yield in the climate emergency?15 Could we pay fair wages for care work if we reach a consensus on its ethical importance and high value?16 Is “our'' culture and attitude, “our education,” at the root of the problem? Can we equip BIPOC artists with the resources they need to dedicate themselves to artistic labor?17 Or are such experiments and initiatives creating new, even deeper disparities, both material and digital? Can we decolonize crypto- and the world by de-growing the economies and by digitally distributing the accumulated surplus (Howson, 2020)?18


Artists provide the necessary critical contextualization of blockchain technology, enabling us to have deeper conversations on key issues such as the redefinition of “labor” through crypto-mining, “trust” through post-human algorithmic trust, and “shared values” through competition between miner agents. To delegate the production of trust to algorithms is a delicate move that has largely been criticized by scholars and human rights activists. As they point out, technology is never neutral, and algorithms are biased by design (D’Ignazio 2020; Eubanks 2018; Buolamwini 2016; O’Neil 2016).19 If we want to provide social justice through crypto, the development and choice of technology and its in-built degree of transparency need to be publicly debated among tech-literate or at least informed citizens. How can citizens gain literacy on these new technologies? The role of the artists is not to provide this knowledge but to complicate it. The following list offers a selection of art projects that look into the critical and radically imaginative applications of blockchain.



[1] Vgl. R. Catlow et al. (Hg.), Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain. Newcastle 2017, S. 21–38.
[2] S. Nakamoto, Bitcoin: A peer-to-peer electronic cash system, in: Decentralized Business Review, 2008;
[6] The hype cycle represents the phases from over-expectation, disappointment to stability that accompany new technology after its introduction. The term hype cycle was coined by Jackie Fenn of the market research firm Gartner and is used today to evaluate new technologies.
[7] N. Szabo, Smart Contracts, 1994;
[8] N. Szabo, Smart Contracts: Building Blocks for Digital Markets, 1996;
[9] S. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Brooklyn 2020.
[10] W. L. Lee, On ecology and aesthetic experience: A feminist theory of value and praxis, in: Ethics and the Environment, 2006, S. 21–41.
[18] P. Howson, Distributed degrowth technology: Challenges for blockchain beyond the green economy, in: Ecological Economics, 184, Juni 2021.
[19] C. D’Ignazio/L. F. Klein, Data Feminism. A new way of thinking about data science and data ethics that is informed by the ideas of intersectional feminism, Cambridge, Mass. 2020; V. Eubanks, Automating Inequality. How High Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. New York 2018; J. Buolamwini, How I’m fighting Bias in Algorithms, 2016;; C. O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction. New York 2016.