Power struggles on the blockchain and the sociotechnical veil of ignorance: From de- to recentralization.

Research output: Contribution to conference without publisher/journalPaper without publisher/journalResearchpeer-review

Abstract

The emergence of blockchain technology, a distributed ledger technology based on peer-to-peer information networks, cryptography and game theory, came with a re-invigoration of decentralization visions of the internet. By disrupting existing intermediaries and replacing trust in a centralized middleman with the blockchain technology itself, distributed ledger technologies were envisaged to bring about a 'democratization' of the sharing economy in general and of the energy transition specifically, re-igniting visions of decentralized, democratized renewable energy systems.

My analysis builds on what I've termed 'retrospective insider research', characterized by field work that is self-ethnographic, serendipitous and undercover. The research took place in the emerging blockchain-in-energy community of practice centered around Berlin in the years 2016-2018, termed thought collective in this paper. Based on insights from moments of epiphany in the field, I show how the blockchain-in-energy thought collective came about as a radical subcultural notion of shifting power balances in the industry but ended up replicating what they originally set out to challenge. Furthermore, they are informed by a Foucauldian understanding of power and its recent reiterations, infopower and energopower, signifying the power inherent to information and energy infrastructure, respectively.

The power struggles inside the thought collectives reveal how different stakeholders perceive and shape, colonize and co-create the blockchain discourse. Dissimilar visions are promoted by different stakeholders, of which some support and some rather obstruct the energy transition, and at times, the technology is used as a veil rather than a change agent. Blockchain in energy emerged as a testing ground for challenge and resistance to the status quo; at the same time, it became a product of the incumbent power and governance structures while it also creates its own new centralized governance structures, two forces of power that are termed energopower and infopower in this paper. Techno-utopianism, as a form of technological determinism, contributes to a blindness towards power issues which helps this paradox to emerge. It thus becomes a technology of structure preservation and is not, as often perceived, an answer to surveillance capitalism and the current ‪#BreakUpBigTech platform regulation debate. With these paradox results regarding the 'technology of decentralization', I conclude that cooperative ownership and democratic control, not decentralization in itself, could function as a vision of ways forward in the current power struggles of transition in both data and energy systems.

Keywords: blockchain, power, governance, decentralization, recentralization, insider research, energy transition, information systems

Original languageEnglish
Publication date13 Apr 2020
Publication statusSubmitted - 13 Apr 2020
EventTransformative Technologies - Kerschensteiner Kolleg des Deutschen Museums, München, Germany
Duration: 30 Jan 20202 Feb 2020
https://www.hsozkult.de/event/id/termine-40444

Workshop

WorkshopTransformative Technologies
LocationKerschensteiner Kolleg des Deutschen Museums
CountryGermany
CityMünchen
Period30/01/202002/02/2020
Internet address

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Keywords

  • blockchain
  • decentralization
  • recentralization
  • democratization
  • energy transition
  • power struggles
  • infopower
  • energopower

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