Steve Holmes, George Mason University
(Published: August 19, 2014)
In The Interface Effect, media studies theorist Alexander R. Galloway explores the allegory of “gold farming” in which players from (mostly) Asian countries operate multiple computers in near sweatshop conditions to produce virtual objects (like gold in The World of Warcraft) to sell for actual currency (135). While accurate, this particular image of the gold farmer as a distant and foreign Other performs another vital ideological function. It enables the West to avoid examining its own gold farming practices that occur outside of virtual worlds. Galloway questions, “What does this mean, that we are [all] the gold farmers? It means that in the age of postfordist capitalism . . . [i]t is impossible to differentiate cleanly between nonproductive leisure activity existing within the sphere of play and productive activity existing in the sphere of the workplace” (135, emphasis original).
As French theorist Michel Foucault discusses in his lectures on biopolitics, one major characteristic of neoliberalism has been the increasing implementation of economic rationality across disparate non-economic practices. Neoliberalism includes obvious work-extending practices such as answering e-mails on a mobile device while commuting, but many of the ways in which our leisure time produces virtual gold are invisible. Galloway laments, “No longer simply a consumer, browsing through links on an e-commerce site, someone is offloading his or her tastes and proclivities into a data-mining database with each click and scroll . . . Each and every day, anyone plugged into a network is performing hour after hour of unpaid micro labor” (136). Companies extract labor value—pure information—from the traces of our networked practices such as browsing for books on Amazon.com, posting on a social media interface, or using a search engine for research.
I want to reframe Galloway’s question about gold farming for rhetorical studies by considering how this allegory might better enable critical rhetoricians to comprehend the complex dynamics between networked communication and power in capitalism. While a great deal of writing has explored the relationship between neoliberalism and rhetoric (Greene; Chaput; Vivian; Pruchnic), scholars have yet to fully engage this new era of algorithmic regulation and rhetorical micro labor.1 This lack of engagement leaves us with a pressing question as to how we might analyze and respond to contemporary examples of gold farming such as Bitcoin. Bitcoin is the world’s first and most popular decentralized digital currency. A (still unidentified) person or persons under the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto” created Bitcoin in October 2009 as an unregulated non-fiat crypto-currency. Underpinned by a peer-to-peer computer network not unlike BitTorrent or Skype, anyone with a computer can “mine” for Bitcoins by using a computer’s background processing power to de-crypt and verify individual (and anonymous) Bitcoin exchanges (“ore”) on Bitcoin’s collectively maintained “blockchain” (an anonymous ledger of transactions). A bounty of Bitcoins (currently twenty-five) is awarded (roughly every ten minutes) to any miner whose updates to the blockchain are accepted. Mined coins function as currency (or commodities) that can be exchanged for products, services, or traditional currency at Mt. Gox and, recently, Netflix and Amazon.com.
Many cyberlibertarians and financial pundits have lauded Bitcoin as a Langdon Winner-esque realization of individual economic liberty through computers and democratic peer-to-peer networks (See Metz; Hern). I counter that Bitcoin is only the latest and most transparent allegory for gold farming in Galloway’s sense. In particular, Bitcoin’s particular relationship to communication and neoliberalism takes the form of an “algorithmic allegory” or “allegorithm”—a neologism for videogames’ figural interactivity coined by Galloway in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture and developed fully by McKenzie Wark in Gamer Theory. With the exception of Scott Reed’s excellent review essay of Gamer Theory, rhetorical scholarship has failed to engage the concept of allegorithm. Allegorithms are persuasive allegories that occur through the player’s intuition and mastery of a videogame’s simulated algorithms of control and subsequent comparison of these simulated algorithms to the actual, uneven, and imperfect algorithms of control in daily life. Studying allegorithms in Bitcoin’s game-like environment enables rhetoricians to illuminate unique neoliberal gold farming practices outside of Bitcoin, such as algorithmic surveillance and complex inscriptions of play and computational micro-labor to economic rationalities.
In defining Bitcoin as a crucial allegorithm for gold farming, I also suggest that Bitcoin effectively illustrates the need to expand on some of Galloway and Wark’s central ideas. Bitcoin signals the onset of an era in which videogames’ networked and economic entanglement increasingly complicates any automatic or simple reliance on videogames as utopian (or dystopian) allegories that merely simulate rather than participate in structures of knowledge/power.2 An obvious example lies in the actions by ESEA, an Xbox360 online gaming hub, that made headlines for secretly using the computing power of its customers’ networked gaming consoles to mine for Bitcoins (Tach 1). Bitcoin at once offers one of the most crucial allegorithms to diagram and comprehend gold farming in daily life, but we can only realize these allegorithms by becoming actual gold farmers in Bitcoin’s economic simulation of neoliberalism.3 Simply stated, complex game-like hybrids such as Bitcoin defy any simple allegorical recourse to videogames. After all, what simulation game might we examine in order to allegorize Bitcoin’s mechanisms of control that would outweigh the insights gained by actually playing Bitcoin?
While Galloway and Wark justify the turn to videogames by registering the inability of older allegorical media (film, novels) to adequately reveal computational mechanisms of control, my aim with the body of this article is not to suggest that videogames have lost an analogous importance as allegorical media. Rather, I argue that our conceptions of allegorithm have to include complex negotiations with hybrid game-like environments like Bitcoin that function both as allegories of algorithmic control and as actual means of producing new forms of algorithmic control. It is also important to respond to Ronald Walter Greene’s call for rhetoricians to explore the “immaterial value of communication” as a way to develop new tactics to map and challenge “the command logics of bio-political capitalism” (203). I thus conclude this essay by offering a brief but hopefully suggestive illustration of strategies for critical negotiation of Bitcoin through the example of a Bitcoin augmented reality game currently in development: 1 Up Fever by Silvia Dal Dosso. My interpretation of Dal Dosso’s game suggests that allegorithmic responses to Bitcoin and gold farming actually require an even greater and more transparent superimposition of game-like elements on daily life so that individuals can realize their complex production as gold farmers through the Bitcoin-like structures of contemporary neoliberalism.
Rhetoric and Biopolitics Revisited
Since both Galloway and Wark define the importance of allegorithm through the lens of Foucaultian biopolitics (and Deluezian control), a brief review of the relationship between communications and neoliberalism is useful for situating Bitcoin as an allegorithm with respect to rhetorical studies. To offer an impossibly brief summary, Foucault defines biopolitics in his 1978-79 lectures as the ensemble of governing techniques grounded in neoliberal values that are applied to human populations across heterogeneous practices (see Chaput 4-7). Neoliberalism fully endorses the economic rationality of competition in order to counter, by definition, “irrational” social and state practices.4 In contrast to disciplinary power’s non-continuous surveillance on individual bodies in discrete institutions (prisons, hospitals), security and governmentality (“the conduct of conduct”) focus on continuous distributed and ubiquitous surveillance through statistical averages (credit scores, financial data) measured against normative numbers to govern the collective security of entire populations (Foucault, Security 20).5 Gilles Deleuze offers a useful elaboration of this shift in governing techniques: “A control is not a discipline. In making freeways, for example, you don’t enclose people but instead multiply the means of control . . . people can drive infinitely and ‘freely’ without being at all confined yet while still being perfectly controlled” (qtd. in Galloway, Essays 87-88). As a consequence of such shift, daily life outside of institutional spaces is increasingly transformed into controls that correspond to calculable risks measured against economic rationality’s rates of return and collective security.
While war, global treaties, and the dismantling of the welfare state to further the interests of transnational corporations are all symptoms of neoliberalism, Foucault’s insight for rhetorical theory was to argue that neoliberalism goes far deeper than economic results or legislation. Neoliberalism gives a semblance of organic cohesion to the myriad practices in which we think and communicate. Our sense of ourselves—the “entrepreneurship of the self”—is governed by discrete but interpenetrating sets of technologies of control that promote economic competition and collective safety (Birth of Biopolitics 118-21). These affective energies—like all techniques of governance—precede our rational deliberation or self-interested choices, prompting us into habituated movements through repetition that are distinct from our “slower linguistic consciousness, which,” as Teresa Brennan notes, “formulates the reasons for our actions, [and] claims intentionality after the fact” (qtd. in Chaput 14). The embodied processes and technologies of living, communicating, thinking, and golf farming produce political and economic formations, and these productions in turn regulate the structures that we inhabit, confirming Foucault’s well-known claim that individuals do not possess power but are produced by it.
As Chatherine Chaput has ably diagnosed, a great deal of contemporary rhetorical theory still employs a liberal democratic political-communicative model wherein a discrete rhetorical agent instrumentally responds to an immediate and known public exigency for purposes of furthering deliberative concerns and urging authorities to better distribute rights and goods relevant to these situations. Biopolitics calls into question the vision of agency presupposed by liberal democratic traditions because it is difficult to sustain the vision of a rhetorical agent who makes an appropriate discursive choice that is predicated upon classical demarcations of leisure/work, politics/economics, and agent/subject. A liberal mindset, Greene reminds us, commits rhetoricians to an endless argument over the correct form of rhetorical response to discrete exigencies while losing sight of our own participation in the unfolding of the world (188-89). Tracing, diagramming, and Frederic Jameson’s “cognitive mapping” thereby become the preferred metaphors for rhetorical analysis and engagement to reflect the provisional and produced nature of knowledge.
Rhetorical Goldfarming in the Era of Algorithmic Regulation
The new biopolitical épistème of gold farming that Bitcoin participates in is best described by the online publishing guru Tim O’Reilly has dubbed “algorithmic regulation.” Algorithmic regulation uses real-time measurement to determine whether certain outcomes are being achieved and, in turn, relies on algorithms (rules) to make adjustments based upon the received data. Such algorithmic regulation is indicative of the neoliberal biopolitics that Foucault was so concerned with. A recent book by a group of UK sociologists entitled Changing Behaviors: The Rise of the Psychological State discusses many governments’ efforts at the procedural nudging of citizens to correct their behavior through humans’ “irrational” default bias: an emotional desire to take the path of least resistance (e.g., to accept pre-set algorithmic choices). If salt shakers are taken off of the restaurants table and customers in Buenos Aires have to go through the extra step of requesting one, then the government hopes to make diners realize that “adding salt to a meal is not a normal, or default, practice,” thereby “[m]aking people more conscious of their automatic behavioral responses to situations and resetting social norms” (x). If the government collects enough data about a given phenomenon, it can employ a real-time feedback loop to offer a highly personalized, persuasive, and perfect “nudge” in the right direction (See Thaler and Sunstein).
While removing saltshakers from tables may seem relatively benign, other aspects of algorithmic regulation are more troubling. Echoing Foucault’s comments about security in neoliberalism, Jeremy Parker emphasizes why algorithmic regulation should be a major concern as it links financial surveillance to homeland security. The Automated Targeted Screening program examines our financial data and credit scores to determine the probabilities of whether we are likely to be terrorists. Parker writes, “This subject is that unity created by the combination of one’s data-past and its relative difference and similarity to others’ data-past. In this way, each accrues their own homeland subjectivity” (213). Computational algorithms produce a “terrorist subject” that can be subjected in turn to specific actions—searching, questioning—by police forces. In algorithmic regulation, Evegney Moszgrov argues, “Citizens take on the role of information machines that feed the techno-bureaucratic complex with our data,” making us gold farmers for the state as well as for Amazon.com and Google (13). These algorithmic relations and real-time feedback loops in turn increasingly form many of the transsituational spaces through which rhetorical value, subjectivity, and labor emerge and circulates.
Whether one is concerned with access to salt, credit reports, or smart parking spaces in San Francisco that adjust the meter price based upon spot availability, algorithmic regulation offers critical rhetoricians a clear exigency to explore the ways which lived experience resembles a rule-bound game with the activities of unknowing players producing real-time responses to fixed algorithmic pre-sets. Wark’s diagnosis of in Gamer Theory still remains one of the most compelling attempts to think through this gold farming épistème. Wark unsurprisingly calls the current manifestation of globalized algorithmic surveillance and governing techniques “gamespace.” Gamespace refers not only to the space within videogames, but to the cultural spaces in which games (agon) are played and produced.6 Games used to be played in discrete spaces such as tennis courts or monopoly boards, but global communications networks have converted all of space and time to gamespace. Marshall McLuhan claimed decades ago, “the result of living inside of a proscenium arch of satellites is that the young now accept the public spaces of the earth as role-playing areas” (From Cliché 10). Governmental policies and practices take advantage of such role-playing. As Wark maintains, “War is a video game—for the military entertainment complex,” a phenomenon evident not only in the production and operation of drones but also the manufacturing and distribution of recruitment games like America’s Army (10; see also Mead). The power of gamespace is that it makes the world seem like “a matrix of endlessly varying games . . . all reducible to the same principles [of neoliberalism]” (15).
If canonical play theorists like Roger Callois and Johan Huizinga are right in noting that play is a core part of human social development, then algorithmic regulation indicates that play and leisure are no longer a simple reaction of liberation opposed to work and economy. “The game,” Wark suggests, “has colonized its rivals within the cultural realm from the spectacle of cinema to the simulations of television” (7; see also Golumbia). In the example of reality TV, “by signing their release forms, contestants agree to end up as statistics, each player’s feelings and actions manipulated . . . leading to infidelity, tears, perhaps heartbreak.” Reality and game have become a “seamless space in which gamers test their abilities within contrived scenarios” (7). Algorithmic monitoring and regulation accelerate this conversion of citizens to gold farmers in gamespace. Disparate cultural practices increasingly resemble the same neoliberal generalized game.
From Allegory to Allegorithm
Given how algorithmic regulation, gold farming, and gamespace are intimately entangled with the ways in which we communicate and interact with one another, it is clear that rhetorical responses to gold farming have to find new analytical tools for comprehending these neoliberal dynamics. To comprehend and resist gamespace as a manifestation of postmodernity, I suggest that critical rhetoricians learn from Wark’s and Galloway’s turn to allegory. According to Frederic Jameson, “The return and revival, if not the reinvention in some unexpected form, of allegory as such” designates this difficulty in postmodernity to mimetically model how our authentic experience relates to truth (Cultural Logic 167). He declares, “not even Eisteinian relativity, or the multiple subjective worlds of the older modernists, is capable of giving any kind of adequate figuration to this process” (73), a process in which “our insertion as individual subjects into a multidimensional set of radically discontinuous realities” is total (72). While Jameson readily concludes that technology “seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp” (36), his discussion of allegory only considers cinema and literature. Rhetorical treatments of allegory also overwhelmingly limit discussions of allegory either to classical allegory as trope (monosemia) from Aristotle and Quintilian or to a focus on discourse, narrative, and postmodern polysemia, and tend to avoid addressing digital media.7
In Gamer Theory, Wark maintains that allegories from older media are simply “exhausted” by computational and networked media. For a Sim (an avatar in the virtual world The Sims), a fragmentary existence has become the authentic mode of being-in-world and “no other world seems possible” (29). As native gold farmers of neoliberalism, we are too aware of Jamesonian allegory in the fact that 0’s and 1’s stand in for our essential identities. In the decades since Foucault’s definition of neoliberalism and Jameson’s articulation of allegory, computers, networked connectivity, and handheld mobile devices have shifted multifaceted discursive structures of control toward multifaceted algorithmic forms of harnessing affect and producing rhetorical agency. It is not cinema and literature but algorithmically expressive media such as videogames that now offer the purest allegorical form of algorithmic regulation and control.
Galloway initially theorized the idea of allegorithm to begin to discover how videogames could diagram computational control systems. In an analysis of Sid Meier’s Civilization III, most critics are drawn to the “cultural rhetoric” (Salen and Zimmerman; Sutton-Smith) or ideological critique of games (classical allegory). Civilization III teaches us that non-white peoples are “athletic” and women are “emotional,” thus implicating players in the normative stereotyping within the game (Essays 96). Yet, Civilization III also presents what Galloway calls “protocol” or the “logics of informatics control [or computers protocols] itself” (96). He claims that allegories in other media all too often fail to present the of mechanisms of control. Films such as John Woo’s The Killer or Bad Boys 2 focus on how cops and criminals are above the law and how justice, friendship, and honor are what motivate their actions. The audience seldom has to encounter the “cuffings, the bookings, the indictments, the court appearances, and all the other details of modern criminality and confinement” (89). To offer another example, the television show South Park’s “Let Go, Let Gov” episode makes an allegory regarding individuals who complain about NSA surveillance while being entirely comfortable announcing all of their activities through posting on social media forums or by talking loudly on a mobile phone in public spaces. Yet, South Park insufficiently allegorizes its own gold farming’s control techniques. In contradiction to this episode’s narrative message, Ghostery, the privacy-related browser extension, indicates that www.southparkstudios.com, the site where one can view this episode for free, has over thirteen adtracking programs, affirming that the deployment of even classical allegory in networked rhetorical situations is intimately interconnected with the production of immaterial labor value.
By contrast, simulation videogames make the player aware that a control algorithm uniquely adjusts to her individualized player input. Thus, allegories of protocol exist in “relatively unmediated form . . . by making [protocol] coterminous with the entire game, and in this way video games achieve a unique type of political transparency” (Essays 92, emphasis original). Allegorithms are allegories that follow how a given videogame algorithm models information control in daily life. Allegorithmic awareness occurs at the level of the player’s relationship to the objects and actors that a videogame algorithm will permit a player to control or influence. Within the videogame space, the player intuitively learns to start comparing this topological process of unfolding control within the game to imperfect algorithms of gamespace. Galloway maintains, “Instead of offering better clues, the ideological critique (traditional allegory) is undermined by its own revelation of the protological critique (control allegory)” (90). In Civilization III, an avatar’s skin tones are “not [only] an index for older, offline constructions of race and identity” but also “an index for the very dominance of informative organization and how it has entirely overhauled, revolutionized, and recolonized the function of identity” (Galloway 102). While Galloway is primarily interested here in how videogames model strictly computational forms of protocol, Wark extends algorithmic regulation across the heterogeneous cultural forms of gamespace. Wark affirms, “Allegorithm is the awareness of the gap between passing and unfair semblance of an algorithm of games, making computer games the ideal manifestation of thinking . . . The gamer discovers a relationship between appearances and algorithm in the game which is a double of the relation between appearances and a putative algorithm in gamespace” (31). By establishing this allegorical potential between videogame and daily life, Wark enables critical rhetoricians who are interested in the relationship between allegory and algorithmic regulation to better comprehend how videogame play relates to critical awareness of neoliberalism.
While neither Galloway nor Wark mentions the term rhetoric, it is no stretch to claim that allegorithm, when understood as awareness, is a fundamentally rhetorical mode of analysis. From the perspective of Ian Bogosts’s “procedural rhetoric,” videogames mount persuasive claims through algorithmic expression. Civilization, for example, mounts procedural arguments that make democracy a better choice (in many cases) to sustain a long-term empire than civilizations established through monarchy or anarchy. While Bogost himself reserves “persuasion” to specifically persuasive games, it is not much of a stretch to argue for a broader concept of procedural persuasion aimed at the degrees to which a given simulation game makes players’ self-consciously aware of allegories of control. Echoing Kenneth Burke’s mantra, “Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning’ there is persuasion,” Christopher Paul writes, “all games are persuasive, whether the persuasion is to buy the game, level in a certain way, follow a given narrative, buy extra goods in a ‘free-to-play’ game, absorb the capitalist lessons of Animal Crossing or the political messages in Tax Invaders” (8). Paul’s invocation of “epistemic rhetoric” indicates that any symbolic or meaningful aspect of videogames—from visual layout to software code—can be read rhetorically.8 Allegorithms, then, function either as procedural claims or “symbolic action” (Burke’s term) that enable the player to “identify”—Burke’s term—with simulations of actual neoliberal control strategies from daily life.9
Allegorithms of Bitcoin
The emergence of game-like economic simulations such as Bitcoin does pose certain challenges for using allegorithm to comprehend Bitcoin’s rhetorical dimensions though. On the one hand, it is possible for critical rhetoricians to treat Bitcoin similar to a videogame allegorithm. Bitcoin mirrors (allegorizes) gold farming and algorithmic regulation in two distinct (and by no means comprehensive) ways: Bitcoin allegorizes economic scarcity and the co-optation of the immaterial labor of game play to economic rationality (gold farming), and it models algorithmic control through surveillance. On the other hand, Bitcoin does not merely allegorize these elements, but actually functions as an unprecedented and unique part of the new gold farming épistème.
Herein lies the potential endless regress of employing allegorithm as a necessary but challenging form of analysis and response to Bitcoin: there is no videogame that would simulate Bitcoin’s control mechanisms for allegory and reveal its mechanisms more transparently than Bitcoin itself already reveals them. Where Galloway and Wark turn to videogames such as Civilization for an allegorithm of gamespace (daily life), critical rhetoricians can and should turn to Bitcoin in an analogous sense. We can treat Bitcoin as allegorithm in order to comprehend emerging forms of algorithmic regulation and goldfarming (algorithmic critique) outside of Bitcoin. However, allegorithmic critique runs into a clear problem in Bitcoin. Bitcoin also constitutes a new form of goldfarming and algorithmic regulation in itself. Given this problem, Bitcoin would necessarily require a different videogame outside of itself that would be capable of allegorizing its new control mechanisms. Yet, what videogame might we play in order to allegorize Bitcoin’s control techniques? My simple thesis is that the existence of Bitcoin deeply calls into question the separation between videogames and daily life to the extent that there is no videogame that serves as a productive basis of allegorical comparison for Bitcoin. An allegorithm of Bitcoin could only be a videogame identical to Bitcoin because Bitcoin represents a seamless integration of a neoliberal simulation game and gamespace. To play the economic simulation of Bitcoin is to realize (critique) goldfarming in gamespace and to play Bitcoin is also to become gold farmer.
This possibility of succumbing to neoliberal control within videogame play is precisely the element of allegorithm that needs to be squarely addressed in the present moment, which is why I believe that Bitcoin is such an important cultural phenomena for rhetorical studies to examine. Bitcoin signals a need for rhetorical studies to explore allegorithm and yet serves as an impossible means of ultimately realizing allegorithmic critique within its space of play. Any form of self-awareness or critique via allegorithm that a player would learn from playing Bitcoin is simultaneously inseparable from the production of new forms of algorithmic subjectivity. In other words, the ways in which Wark and Galloway initially theorized allegorithm to model or map neoliberalism in daily life both can and cannot be directly applied to Bitcoin. This realization does not actually eliminate the need to consider allegorithm because there is still a great deal of rewarding analysis that allegorithm in Bitcoin can help to reveal about gamespace. At the same time, Bitcoin signals the need to broaden the scope of allegorithm to call into question videogame play in itself as a semi-utopian or privileged form of allegorithmic critique.
This admittedly complex claim will make better sense by setting aside the problem of using Bitcoin as an allegorithm for a moment and simply reading Bitcoin analogously to how Wark and Galloway read Civilization: as an allegory that reveals nuanced dimensions of gold farming in gamespace. Such examination would be especially productive because, while not all scholarly accounts echo Nakamoto’s utopian discourse of cyberlibertarism, most scholarship regarding Bitcoin has avoided considering the ways in which Bitcoin has any relationship at all to new forms of control. Indeed, Bitcoin’s current appeal to researchers and cyberlibertarians alike lies in the fact that its unregulated economy actually enables certain forms of resistance to corporate and government dominance. Current enthusiasts such as the Bitcoin Foundation invariably claim that Bitcoin offers a “freer exchange of money and ideas” by allowing peer-to-peer economic exchanges freed from government inflation or debt (Jensen). In many cases, Bitcoin seems to embody the Deleuzian rhizome. Julian Assange, the exiled founder of Wikileaks, has also been able to accept anonymous Bitcoin payments to circumvent the United States’ freeze on his bank accounts (Reid and Harrigan 2). Wired documents how three homeless individuals in Pensacola, Florida now earn Bitcoins as a safer alternative to panhandling by watching YouTube videos and employing derivative programs such as Gyft to convert Bitcoins into Papa John’s gift cards (Hernadez para. 3). Scholars from computer science, economics, engineering, and cryptography have almost obsessively mapped Bitcoin’s mathematical equations, commodity markets, impact on consumer practices, and implications for non-digital economic behaviors.10
The lack of researchers’ attention to Bitcoin’s gold farming dynamics exists in part because researchers have failed to consider the rhetorical forms of allegorithmic subjectivity that are engendered by the ways in which the player encounters Bitcoin’s algorithms. Bitcoin clearly models many ways in which the algorithmic control techniques of gamespace co-opt the immaterial labor of play. Players knowingly sacrifice the micro-labor of their computers in the service of de-crypting the blockchain with no automatic reward for their computational labor (and electrical costs) unless one finally gets a bounty—a process over which a player has no control and that depends entirely upon the number of miners, total number of mined coins, and exchanges of other players. Even when one earns a coin, the price of coins is not guaranteed or regulated with prices shifting from $20 in February 2013 to $1000 in December 2013.
Some would readily observe that Bitcoin is not an authentic “videogame” that one plays in the sense that the computer performs all of the labor in producing ore. The player’s input (“play”) is minimal until trying to exchange and profit from Bitcoin coins in an atypical but actual commodity market.11 The distinction over whether Bitcoin is or is not a videogame is ultimately unimportant though. Bitcoin is an economic simulation, and as Foucault comments, “both for the state and for individuals, the economy must be a game: a set of regulated activities is which the rules are not decisions which someone takes for others. It is a set of rules which determine the way in which each must play a game whose outcome is not known by anyone” (175). As a simulated economic game, Bitcoin’s algorithmic rules mount clear procedural arguments in favor of speculation and scarcity—core elements of late capitalism that demand attention by critical rhetoricians. According to the Bitcoin Wiki,
Mining is intentionally designed to be resource-intensive and difficult so that the number of blocks found each day by miners remains steady . . . Bitcoin mining is so called because it resembles the mining of other commodities: it requires exertion and it slowly makes new currency available at a rate that resembles the rate at which commodities like gold are mined from the ground. (“Mining” n.pag)
Nakamoto could have designed this economic simulation in any number of contingent ways to reflect a great variety of economic worldviews. His or her choice to re-mediate economic scarcity reflects a deliberate ideological choice to establish the rules and parameters of the economic game that would follow. Bitcoin mounts persuasive allegorithmic arguments for how neoliberalism’s economic rationality and micro-labor—not social welfare, public good, or any other measure—should subsume play into profit. In fact, by limiting player input, Bitcoin actually offers one of the best persuasive allegorithms for the neoliberal co-optation of leisure: a docile body sitting front of a computer, voluntarily using leisure time to wait for a randomly assigned opportunity to profit from microlabor under continual algorithmic surveillance.
Even Bitcoin’s least controlled element—its post-mining commodity market—is precisely enabled by this core game-like structure of scarcity. In a sense, all time spent playing any computer game is an illusion because all of the game’s possibilities—its finite number of Bitcoins—are given in advance by algorithms that control it. The rate of production (mining) of new Bitcoins is linked to the exchange of Bitcoins. New coins only emerge by the process of verifying each transaction. Simply put, one has to keep converting immaterial labor (play/mining) into work and work (exchange) back into play or else no coins can be exchanged. Given that bounties are scheduled to drop to 12.5 coins in 2017, and will dry up entirely once the 21st-millionth coin has been mined (by the year 2140), one wonders what the motivation will be for causal players to continue to spend actual money or Bitcoins on electricity to de-crypt exchanges—an allegorithmic reminder of the perpetual result of neoliberal practices wherein algorithmic regulation and computationalism ultimately benefit the economic elite. Each new Bitcoin means a proportionate increase in the difficulty of extraction, requiring greater amounts of raw computational power and outsourcing causal miners. Hong Kong’s ASICMINER operation currently boasts a dedicated Bitcoin mining facility with enough computers to occupy a large shipping container (McCormick 1). As Bitcoins grow in value, current economic elites like the Winklevoss twins who (allegedly) inspired Facebook have started to hoard Bitcoins and are in the process of establishing more regulated exchange sites in an attempt to better profit from the digital commodities.
While such control mechanisms often go unexamined, if we retain the goal of employing Bitcoin to hold up a mirror to gamespace, we can clearly see how its procedural arguments generate amazingly transparent and clear allegorithmic realizations about our lives as goldfarmers in gamespace. For example, Bitcoin’s allegorithms can help us call into question the motivations behind actual cultural phenomena of gold farming such as Amazon.com’s Film Production studio that offers to produce amateur user-generated films. This activity simultaneously re-directs creative potential and energy to an economic calculus (without a guaranteed reward) while potentially extending Amazon.com’s field of potential producers to everyone with a smart phone camera. Collapsing consumers and producers into miners (and film-makers) enables new forms of productivity (e.g., the chance to earn Bitcoins), while the means of distribution are entirely controlled by a company (or a software program). In this regard, Bitcoin allegorizes the neoliberal conversion of leisure time to the “standing reserve” (bestand), as the philosopher Martin Heidegger might put it. Bitcoin’s procedural message is that we should not be using our computational power for play in itself but for play entirely in the “means-ends” service of verifying Bitcoin transactions and hoping to earn actual bounties. Every minute we are not mining for Bitcoins, we are losing the chance to earn virtual value. As the ESEA Xbox360 scandal demonstrated, we can even set up our computers and smart phones to auto-mine for Bitcoins while we sleep.
The Problem of Allegorithm in Bitcoin
Allegorithm in Wark’s and Galloway’s sense undeniably offers us a vocabulary through which we can see Bitcoin not merely as a neutral computational tool, but also as a complex rhetorical tool of neoliberalism. Arguably, Bitcoin is perhaps the most transparent allegory of algorithmic regulation in existence. Similar to Civilization III, Bitcoin’s algorithms adjust to the individual behaviors of players (miners and those making transactions) within the game. Yet, unlike in Civilization III, Bitcoin joins gamespace seamlessly to daily life because we can only play the game by becoming actual goldfarmers in its perfectly transparent simulation of neoliberal control techniques. Galloway clearly views simulation games such Sid Meyer’s Civilization as “perfect” or utopian allegorical means of revealing neoliberalism’s control. Wark more so than Galloway blurs the boundaries between daily life and videogames, but videogames still tend to remain this utopian (or dystopian) Platonic ideal for allegorical comparison. I suspect that both would view Bitcoin not as a proper allegorithm, but as part of gamespace and encourage us to find allegories for Bitcoin videogame that would reveal Bitcoin’s unique neoliberal mechanisms of control.
I believe, however, that Bitcoin represents a moment where the simulation games that Wark and Galloway are reading cannot properly allegorize algorithmic regulation and goldfarming. Allegorithm in Civilization occurs through the players’ mastery of the algorithm and intuition of control at the level of what they are directly presented with in the game. Unlike Ben Frye’s Deconstructulator that visualizes the compiler’s perception of the code in real time, there is no “monitor” in Second Life that reveals or models Linden Labs’s big data collection techniques that converts all players to micro-laborers whose aggregate actions in the game offer rich sources of data to support the system. When play itself is entangled with invisible mechanisms of gold farming, the sorts of videogames that are used to theorize allegorithm do not automatically offer the appropriate allegorithmic modeling of gold farming. In the World of Warcraft, the most evident allegorithm of gold farming does not occur through playing the game, but by simply observing non-procedural “cultural rhetoric”: the literal presence of Asian goldfarmers in the virtual world. In light of such difficulties finding appropriate allegories, what current videogame might we point to that would model the onset of the standing reserve of Amazon.com’s computational micro-labor? The Platonic videogame model of this process that would reveal an intuitive relationship to this specific technique of algorithmic control is precisely Bitcoin itself. I am in no way claiming that videogames, simulation games, or virtual worlds are incapable of allegorizing gold farming. The point is more that the general feeling of “control” and intuitive mastery of the algorithm in simulation games fail to actually model their own complicity in gold farming in comparison to Bitcoin’s highly visible and conscious mechanisms that both simulate and produce rhetorical subjects as gold farmers.
This endless regress is a crucially unfortunate but necessary evil. If we do not play Bitcoin, then we would miss out on the simulation and reproduction of complex allegorithms such as the alignment of computationalism and surveillance. In no small degree of irony, Bitcoin was intended as procedural argument: a criticism of certain forms of regulatory power. Prior to Bitcoin, Nakamoto claimed that “no mechanism exists to make payments over a communications channel without a trusted party” (qtd. in Betancourt 6). Government entities and social relationships stabilized currency and guaranteed exchange practices between purchaser and seller. In this regard, Bitcoin, like Wikipedia, firmly coincides with what David Golumbia has called neoliberalism’s “computationalism” paradigm. Echoing the attitude, “Computerization will set you free,” Bitcoin enthusiasts fetishize the computer’s ability to realize “the power of the individual and individual freedom, even when that individual is understood to be embedded in a variety of networks” (1). Still affirming the computationalism paradigm, Nakamoto has mistaken the structure of the distribution system (peer-to-peer) that eliminates the “trusted third party” for its ethical improvement over regulated economies. In Bitcoin, the new third party becomes instead the immaterial power of computation, cryptography, and timestamp servers. By replacing human deliberation and social recourses to resolve problems like theft of cryptokeys and fraud, Bitcoin allegorizes and reproduces the neoliberal supremacy of technology backed by economic rationality (profit generated by mining) over human deliberation. Thus, Bitcoin does not do away with the role of the third party, but replaces the government with itself through a façade of peer-authored control. One can only mine for new Bitcoins (offering computational microlabor without guaranteed pay) by exchanging existing Bitcoins.
The clear allegorithmic message is that such accounts invariably fail to notice when computers benefit from existing power much more fully than they provide means to distribute or contest it (Chun 21). Players cannot avoid encountering this control mechanism, enabling an allegorical realization of surveillance on a level impossible to achieve in the various gold farming practices in gamespace. Economist Paul Krugman grossly errs in his comment, “Bitcoin transactions are designed to be anonymous and untraceable” (n.pag). Betancourt offers a rejoinder: “The full visibility of Bitcoin transactions enables the tracking of all informal association networks (all exchanges of value) involving any particular Bitcoin, thus providing sellers with demographic information about their customers, (and anyone else with the computational power to penetrate the cryptography with metadata about association networks), without offering any the possibility to ‘opt out’ from having their privacy violated by the seller (or government)” (8). Since there is no way to use Bitcoin without acceding to its control techniques, a Trojan horse run by a government or a skilled hacker could render all anonymous transactions perfectly visible given that each exchange is meticulously recorded and a verified digital identity is necessary for an anonymous Bitcoin account. Given these factors, I am in full agreement with Michael Betancourt, when he claims,
[Bitcoin] should be recognized as a tool whose alignment with authoritarian values has been masked by how the ideology of automation intersects with the aura of the digital: instead of being a ‘free’ or ‘independent’ form of money that transcends national boundaries, it is a technology of control aligned with globalized concerns over economic surveillance and monitoring the behaviors and associations of consumers’ behaviors in the physical world. (11)
Bitcoin holds an allegorical mirror to capitalism’s authoritarian dimensions—valorization of formerly non-commercial behaviors such as play and continuous surveillance—while inscribing these dimensions into the very system itself.
Conclusion: Countergaming as Rhetorical Response
Bitcoin indicates that our conceptions of allegory must respond not merely to gamespace partially externalized from the “more perfect” intuition of allegory in videogames. Rather, allegory is infolded across the “transsituational” spaces (Edbauer-Rice) of algorithmic regulation that defy the partial separation of videogames from gamespace that Wark and Galloway hold as a central motive to explore videogames as allegorithms in the first place.12 Echoing Huizinga, McLuhan once indicated that play was a distinct and necessary opposition from work in order to recover the “integral man”: “If we take a tennis racket in hand, or thirteen playing cards, we consent to being a part of a dynamic mechanism in an artificially contrived situation. Is this not the reason we enjoy those games most that mimic other situations in our work and social lives? Do not our favorite games provide a release from the monopolistic tyranny of the social machine?” (Understanding Media 262). Bitcoin’s economic simulation and reproduction of the actual neoliberal order demonstrates that nothing could be further from the truth in the current épistème of gold farming and algorithmic regulation. One allegorithmically traces gold farming control techniques through Bitcoin only to learn that one cannot leave gamespace through the ideal algorithms of the simulation videogame. The already fragile allegorithmic line between videogame and gamespace has disappeared in Bitcoin, as gamespace norms become internalized within videogames themselves and the increasing difficulty of avoiding gamespace altogether—a fact that the recent revelations of NSA spying in WoW confirm once again (Mazzetti and Eliot). In The Rise of the Videogame Zinester, game designer Anna Anthropy recently lamented that even independent and DIY videogames are still subject to the distribution controls of major content distributors such as Apple or Verizon.
Observing both our need and our challenge in utilizing rhetorical allegorithms to respond to rhetorics of gold farming is only the first step. The more critical task that faces critical rhetoricians lies in developing strategies of critical response and negotiation through which to respond to structures such as Bitcoin. Fully detailing a response would require a separate article, so I want to close by simply sketching a few possibilities for how strategically deploying allegorithms of play might form a generative counter-game as a rhetorical response to Bitcoin. The point of my analysis is not to yearn nostalgically (like Heidegger) for a pre-gamespace worldview but to compose new algorithms as players and for players in gamespace that open us to the creative (non-negative) potential of the current world of Bitcoin gamespace. Wark claims that “only by going further and further into gamespace might one come out the other side of it, to realize a topology beyond the limiting forms of the game” (224). Identities in neoliberalism can and do become fixed, but this fixity in both neoliberalism and Bitcoin is only a historical product of accumulation and valuing negative affects (scarcity, surveillance) that strives to make individuals view the world narrowly. Chaput usefully suggests,
A rhetorical relationship to capitalism…requires not only multiple disciplinary knowledges but also an internal dynamic that matches the ongoing rhythms of capital. Such a relationship might begin by unhinging our fixed attachment to situations as we explore the circulation of positive affective energies—pathways that invite human connectivity and constitute knowledge as an ongoing, creative pursuit. (21-22)
The circulation of positive affects across neoliberalism’s transsituational spaces can help players in gamespace see reality from more than one orientation (economic-rational).
If recognizing allegorithm, Wark claims, is the first step toward “play[ing] within the game, but against gamespace. Be[ing] ludic, but also lucid” (19), then Bitcoin signals that playing the game in Bitcoin is always already to play in gamespace. Allegorithm as a rhetorical method of analysis cannot comfortably map or diagram control through videogame play alone, but also must seek to compose new allegorithms that can re-channel and re-distribute Bitcoin’s closed-loop of allegorithmic intensities. Galloway offers one method of creating such positive affectivities through allegorithms in what he calls “countergaming.” Countergaming is not a matter of “resistance through play” but a vital part of using these systems to “create new grammars of action . . . [and] alternative algorithms” of resistance (Essays 125).13 He offers examples of avant-garde artists like Jodi. In untitled game, Jodi “doesn’t attempt to perform gameplay within Quake but offers abstract modernism” (107), therefore “change[ing] how the gameplay unfolds—who wins and who loses” (108).
Thus, one obvious method of countergaming would be to hack Bitcoin in the style of the Critical Art Ensemble to create an alternative version of the game. In 1 Up Fever, Silvia Dal Dosso’s mockumentary offers the seeds of such a hack when players with smart phones take on the persona of Super Mario and search around Berlin in search of augmented reality Bitcoins superimposed on the physical environment that have “minimal Bitcoin values.” Coins correspond to 0.01 Bitcoins. Dal Dosso says in an interview, “I started to think of how it would be if all of Berlin were Mario land” (“1 Up Fever” n.pag). Given that Bitcoin’s collapse of the space between work and play allegorizes and produces us all as potential gold farmers, Dal Dosso’s (unintentional) countergame includes re-directing Bitcoin’s affective energy from Mt. Gox exchanges into the fictional space of an actual videogame. In 1 Up Fever, players have to confront the unmoving algorithms of physical reality and city space as they try to climb over walls and scale old amusement park rides in search of digital Bitcoins. Watching players attempt difficult physical tasks, such as climbing a Ferris wheel, to earn a paltry amount of Bitcoins effectively re-allegorizes the gold farming and microlabor mechanisms of Bitcoin mining. In the film, Berliners pretend to go crazy for the game, quitting their jobs to collect Bitcoins in the street.
Players in 1 Up Fever earn Bitcoins only by realizing they are participating in an actual AR videogame superimposed back onto the physical algorithms of daily life: an allegorithmic doubling of Bitcoin. Of countergaming, Katie Salen writes, “Spaces once designed for player interaction, in fact spaces that only gained meaning through interaction, are transformed into spaces to be seen and watched, rather than played” (qtd. in Galloway 119). Dal Dosso’s game shifts Bitcoin miners from docile bodies performing computational microlabor for Bitcoins to active bodies in search of Bitcoins within a fictional videogame that has become real life. Since Dal Dosso’s game is currently under development, my suggestion would be that a full-fledged countergame would actually invert Bitcoins within the AR game from a scarcity model to one of abundance through positive and playful affectivity. 1 Up Fever could be coupled with Google Will Eat Itself—an artistic project that uses Google advertising dollars to buy shares of Google in an attempt to end the company. Players could find and only spend Super Mario Bitcoins by reinvesting them back in the expansion of 1 Up Fever until play in videogames writ large is restored as a proper allegory of the non-economic aesthetic dimensions of gamespace.
Part of responding to Bitcoin’s challenge to allegorithmic analysis, in other words, is proposing new persuasive allegorithms that show players in gamespace non-negative and alternative ways of conceiving economic rationalities that seek to govern and produce the ways we communicate and practice rhetoric in the current era of neoliberalism. Thus, it is my hope that an analysis of Bitcoin and its countergaming response in 1 Up Fever will enable critical rhetoricians to explore allegorithm and other game studies’ concepts in order to comprehend the multiple forms of algorithmic rationalities that produce and govern individual and collective behavior in the present moment.
3 To make this point clear, Bitcoin is not a videogame in the sense of having formal features of videogames (leveling, narrative, avatars, play, a “start screen,” graphics). It is rather a hybrid economic simulation of neoliberalism with several game-like features that sustain an actual digital economy.
4 Neoliberalism comes from the German Frieburg School of economics, which positioned market rationality as a cure for the irrational excesses of state politics. This same school influenced the Chicago School through von Hayak and the Mont Perelin society. See David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism for a full explanation.
6 I do not have the space to explore this, but an intriguing connection exists between agon and gamespace in videogames and the sophist-athlete’s agon of the rhetorical contest in Debra Hawhee’s Bodily Arts (15-43)
7 While I do not have to space to make this argument in an article-length publication, Bitcoin firmly demands the extension of classical and postmodern notions of allegory across rhetorical studies. Allegory in rhetorical studies has been widely studied across representations as diverse as zombies (Gunn and Treat), deconstruction (Hariman), The Matrix (Milford), and countless others. Milford and Rowland usefully distill rhetorical treatments of allegory into two general categories: classical (monosemic) and postmodern (polysemic) (537-39). Classical allegory reflects the audience-centered approaches of Aristotle (275-277) and Quintilian (327) wherein allegory is a trope (“inversion/permutation”) that conveys a hidden message to an audience with established knowledge of the pre-text (Kerr-Koch 4; Fletcher 6-7). In George Owell’s Animal Farm, for example, the rhetor (Orwell) seeks to establish set of mythic or ideological values (anti-Soviet) through a narrative rearticulation in a different form (anthropomorphizing animals). By contrast, the postmodern view of allegory introduces the fact that any previous myth of ideology is always already boundless, and allegory is therefore proof that we can extract multiple meanings (polysemia) from a single text for different audiences. Postmodern allegory takes on a “generalizable, non-specific meaning” that requires the interpreter to create the meaning by refusing to limit itself to the pretext (Crisp qtd. in Milford and Rowland 538; see also Clifford 16; Joslett 4). Robert Hariman draws on such a framework to argue that the allegorical pastiche of images on (then) President Clinton’s desk is “a figural presentation that organizes multiple interpretations regarding collective experience [that] also contains and comments on other forms of itself” (267). Even Milford and Rowland’s “situated ideological allegory” fails to contend with algorithmic allegories. These limitations further indicate the need for rhetorical studies interested in neoliberalism to examine games studies and procedural rhetorics.
8 Referring to R.L. Scott’s “epistemic rhetoric” paradigm, Richard A. Cherwitz and Charles T. Darwin write, “one of the assumptions implicit in much of contemporary rhetorical theory is that there is no way to ground representations of reality (rhetoric) in a reality independent of discourse.”
9 Burke's understanding of rhetoric as "identification" includes non-effective or claim-based symbolic meanings such as ideologies, subjectivities, mythologies, discourses, or social relations (1969, p. 20-40). Our receptiveness to persuasive appeals depends in part on the various symbols that we already identify ourselves with as well as the ways in which we can be readily made to identify with the content of a specific persuasive act.
10 Scholars have written a great deal on Bitcoin from various disciplinary backgrounds outside of the humanities. These studies tend to deal with the description or improvement of Bitcoin’s economic or software mechanisms. A typical descriptive example is Bamert et al., who “present a concept that improves the tradeoff between transaction speed and confirmation reliability in the Bitcoin network” (see also Barber et al.; Gauthier-Dickey et al.; Obet et al.). Computer scientists have similarly examined Bitcoin’s security protocols (Hermann) and theorized its vulnerability to Trojan horses or attacks (Plohmann and Padilla, “Miner Botnet”).
11 If we were to do a bit of Heideggerian etymological “clearing,” then allegorithmic game-elements are evident within Bitcoin’s “primordial” origins. According to the WayBack Machine, the name for Mt. Gox (the central Bitcoin trading hub) is comprised by the initials of Magic: The Gathering Online Exchange (a card game).
12 James Ash’s essay, “Technologies of Captivation: Videogames and the Attunement of Affect” offers a compelling description for how commercial videogames now produce neoliberal forms of subjectivity within the design of game allegorithms themselves. Simply put, many videogames in the present moment do not allow for even a partial division to be maintained between videogame and gamespace.
13 Wark does toy with the metaphor of “hacking,” but primarily to refer to the development of critical consciousness through play within the game. However, as Scott Reed comments, “While Gamer Theory opens and closes with challenging references to the globalized scene of labor, Wark's rhetoric pays little sustained attention to the world outside The Cave – to the grit and grime of the real world that our digital topology often “folds” out of view (so to speak)” (“Game Space” n.pag).
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