This talk is about blockchain and corporate social responsibility. Just kidding. It’s about aesthetics and ethics, but really it’s about trust.
Roll it over on your tongue. "Trust." Trust. Think about what that means. "Trust" is derived from Old English triewe, which is itself derived from proto-Germanic treuwaz—in good faith, which finally is theorized to derive from Proto-Indo-European root *deru-, to be "firm, solid, steadfast." PIE is a linguistic reconstruction of the hypothesized common ancestor of the Indo-European language group, thought to have been spoken between 4500 and 2500 BCE. It is also this root *deru- from which the word Tree and its derivatives originated. Trust something solid, which can simply be believed. There is another PIE root, *wērə-o-, meaning true or trustworthy, which evolved in a slightly different direction: the Latin veritas. Most of the words we know from this branch are not about believing the truth, but confirming and validating it. Verification, veracity, and verdict are all about PROOFS.
These two things—trust and verification—are closely related. They are both social in nature. They both have to do with knowledge—what we know is true and what is false. Trust has to do with epistemology.
This talk is about trust: what we can trust, what we can know, and what we should believe. In this talk I'm going show you that aesthetics are a zero-day vulnerability in human trust and knowledge production. Here we go.
Historically, humans have relied on their eyes to make judgments. Even before we had written knowledge, humans passed down folk knowledge in a way that probably sounded something like: "hey, if you eat that red berry you're gonna die." Visual signals are very important for humans. Now we know a lot about Medieval knowledge and epistemology because there are a lot of surviving texts. And one thing we know is that before the 16th century, when modern logic was invented, human knowledge was based on resemblance.
A walnut resembles the brain, so clearly it's good for your head. The letter "s" resembles a snake, so there must be an connection between these things. Not a representation but a literal connection. You would interpret these resemblances by deciphering and interpreting their visual signs and characteristics and basically try to read analogies into them. This is where stuff like astrology and palm reading comes from—it's the basis of magical thinking. What's important here is that the epistemology of the 16th century is based on visual similarities. Humans have this extraordinary bias toward visual information and visual forms of knowledge production.
However, the more complex societies get, the more difficult it becomes to rely on visual epistemology.
Take a look at medieval fashion for example. At one point, aesthetic was a decent proof-of-work solution for trust. Expensive tailoring, acquiring rare materials like sparkling gems, etc required a concentration of wealth only upper classes and royals had access to.
For instance, the color known as Tyrian Purple was originally extracted by boiling sea snails (bolinus brandaris). 12,000 boiled snails would produce only 1.4 grams of dye, which is only enough to do the trim of a coat. Clearly this labor-intensive outcome was only available to people who could pay for it. That visual signal could be trusted easily // wealth can be aesthetically verified
In feudal Europe, the reliability of these aesthetic distinctions was crucial because a functioning society depended on the maintenance of the stratified social order. There's an intrinsic power dynamic here: the wealthy had the ability to act more anonymously by adopting down the visual signals of lower classes, whereas peasants or clergy could not do the same thing. This is well reflected in surviving texts from the time. I’ll read to you from Peter Idley’s Instructions to His Son, a 15th century didactic poem
In feudal Europe, the reliability of these aesthetcis distinctions was crucial because a functioning society depended on the maintenance of the social order. There's an intrinsic power dynamic here: the wealthy had the ability to act more anonymously by adopting down the visual signals of lower classes, whereas peasants or clergy could not do the same thing. This is well reflected in surviving texts from the time. I’ll read to you from Peter Idley’s Instructions to His Son, a 15th century didactic poem
What is at stake here is visibility and legibility of social rank distinctions.
This wasn't just the case in Europe; historical views into court life all around the world, such in as Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji in Japan contain rich accounts of stylistic details and fashion games played by nobles because the details were in fact critical for the courtiers. this might have worked at one point. It's probably safe to assume that at least where wealth was scarce there was an overall correlation between purchasing power and diversity of style. But in practice, when there is a thriving merchant class and there is a system of monetary circulation, people tend to buy things. In Europe this led to the widespread criticism of fashion but also the fear of the destruction of the social order. Here's Peter Idley again expressing this fear:
If we can't tell a court lady and a cookesse from one another how do we know how who to treat in what way? Who should we respect and who can we condescend to? The entire ethical model was held up by this aesthetic proof of work!
Here’s a c. 1340 english painting where a devil’s minion is tempting the a bishop with clothing choices So to prevent society from descending into relativistic chaos, countries across Europe enacted sumptuary laws to restrict the wearing and purchasing of clothes by rank and income.
For instance, if you were a knight in 13th-century France who made less than 3,000 pounds / year, you were entitled to have no more than two new full clothing ensembles per year by purchase, gift, or any other manner. By the 15th century, these laws dictated what precise subclasses and professions could wear specific articles of clothing and jewelry and how much of it, even extending to cut of the clothing and how it was worn.
What we see here is a model of society in which the ethics of the social order, based on accepted class inequalities, were theorized in terms of and grounded by aesthetic elements. When I say "grounded by" I mean that aesthetics were supposed to both reflect and reinforce the reality. And that reinforcement is where sumptuary laws came in. Sumptuary laws attempted to reify these social inequalities. These sumptuary essentially operated by a sort of distributed consensus system. The laws were enforced by police and officials who sat around highly trafficked locations in order to catch well-dressed lawbreakers. The punishment was usually a fine, and these penalties came to become an important source of tax revenue, often dedicated to the poor. Accusers, who were granted anonymity, acted as "verifier nodes" who were rewarded with a portion of the fine when they alerted officials about transgressors, thereby incentivizing a network of informants, and generally creating a skin-in-the-game virtuous cycle of social control and wealth redistribution. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Note that these fines were themselves were clearly premised on people regularly breaking the law. Sumptuary laws did not work, at least in terms of their original goal of preventing bleed between social strata. They were dismantled in most places by 1600. Falling cost of goods made it impossible to codify and enforce visual trust signals. This is crucial to understand because the same thing is happening to us right now. With me so far? Let’s fast forward…..
From the renaissance and enlightenment onward, we see increased urbanization and the spread of colonialism. Overseas commerce accelerated the global exchange of textiles, color resources and so on. Early automation in manufacturing also greatly increased the supply of finished goods and drove down costs drastically. Advancements in chemistry, color science, and industrial production essentially democratized clothing of any style and color. A dye made of quinine that replaced Tyrian Purple was invented relatively recently, in 1850. (So you can see how long color continued to function effectively for a really long time) Despite these changes, fashion continued to prosper, in fact it accelerated as well. As we've seen fashion is based on a stratosphere of visual signifiers, so how did it survive this new commodifying world? Well we already know the answer: it got stylistically ridiculous to increase the prices.
The invention of haute couture high fashion mirrors what has happened in architecture: where materials are widely available so it is high-cost production processes such as polished terrazzo that make for a luxury treatment. The first couture house appeared in Paris in 1858. In fact the term "haute couture" is regulated in France, you're only allowed to call yourself that if you employ a certain number of people, present 50 pieces per season and a whole host of other requirements. From what I can tell this is basically a new form of sumptuary laws, a new proof of work, but shifting the burden of proof from the consumer to the producer, but that's beside the point.
So let’s look at one more example. With the rise of cheap commodities came the rise of brands and marketing. We typically think of these sorts of images as prototypical early American marketing and reflecting a monolithic American culture. but that as we know ended up looking like...
A massive variety of subcultures, each with their own different aesthetics and ethics. How do we know that speed metal is better than black metal is better than death metal? And in the 90s, we also had a the commercialization of these aesthetics. Big music corps figured out how to make mainstream versions of the music, marketers figured out how to target these consumer subsets. And in this mass marketing environment where everything is a cheap commodity produced by a corporation, how do we know what we to trust? In my most recent essay I discussed the solution to this problem that emerged: “authenticity.”
Basically, authenticity constructs are premised on items being unique, singularized, and by definition not commodities. So people desired things that mimicked pre-commodity, pre-20th century, pre-industrial modes of production. And as you know, that looked something like this:
You also know there is a language associated with this. “Artistan” “local” “heritage” and so on. Just like sumptuary laws Authenticity is reactionary. Instead of being imposed by royals though in this case it’s a sincere, ground-up effort by consumers aesthetically realign consumption with what people see as morally responsible. So whereas under major scarce medieval settings, supply chain allowed royal aesthetic to function as a proof of work, now it was about the “right aesthetic”—as proof of work. Of course, you already know where this is going. As an aesthetic, authenticity could be indiscriminately applied to any consumer product, and that’s what happened for a variety of reasons, not least of them was that brand strategists got a hold of authenticity, turning it into what Venkat called "premium mediocre." The ethical aspect was completely unenforceable because nobody was there to stop Popeyes from calling their chicken strips "premium quality handcrafted tenders."
So authenticity as proof of work was doomed to fail from the start. That brings us to today.
This brings us to today. What I've argued so far is that humans have always relied strongly on visual forms of trust. We have relied on aesthetics to produce knowledge and therefore to serve as a validating mechanism to make sure our ethical system are working. Yet as society advances, these proof of work inevitably break down. And today, in a post-industrial, post-authenticity society, this can no longer work. Web 2.0, the low cost of computing, and high quality API standards have made it possible for anyone to go about linking up Shopify websites to Alibaba suppliers that print on demand and dropship right to your customer's house. Photoshop makes it possible to achieve any look you want. Put 2 and 2 together and you can create 5 brands for the same commodity. Anyone can create a brand with agency-level polish in a few weeks or less. Anyone can ship a physical product.
This is a magazine shop by my house, among the well known ones it sells a large variety of indie magazine. From the design you’d never be able to tell the quality apart; it’s only once you’ve opened them up to the text that you can tell they’re basically worthless. We can see the trust problems this creates when we consider what the authenticity movement tried to achieve. Besides making WeWorks look the way they do and manifesting this whole swath of commodity “authenticity” products, another aspect was to evolve into some cultural mandates around corporate "transparency," around companies doing things for social good, around ethical factories, and so on. But when the marginal cost of creating an aesthetic is so low, how do we trust these brands are doing it for real?
For instance, a while back I was at a design conference, watching the VP of Sustainability and Operations at Reformation speak on a panel. Reformation is a womenswear line known for dresses, its tagline is "Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. Reformation is #2." Her talk was all about how central sustainability is to them, but in the last 10 minutes she more or less admitted that most of the responsibility for eliminating waste falls on the consumer at the end of the product lifecycle, and that only 10% of their customers care enough to participate in their clothes recycling program. What the fuck? I swear to god, not 3 minutes after this she dropped the words "intentional community" and I almost choked. In another instance, some investigative journalism by Julie Zerbo from The Fashion Law discovered that Zara and H&M are actually more transparent than Everlane, whose entire brand proposition was built on transparency! Brands today only have one way of taking socially progressive action: faking it.
Importantly, Blockchain is not immune to this effect, and we are allllll guilty. No doubt at least one of you has uttered the phrase “brand is a differentiator for us” Raise your hand if you hired someone to work on a brand with no product. Raise your hand if you were hired. Just take this Ethresear.ch blog post by Vitalik Buterin for example. It's called "Signaling Theory Model of Cryptocurrency Issuance and Value." In this post he asks: what gives some tokens the special property of being stores of value, and others not? Clearly not everyone can just fork Bitcoin, give it a new name, and have it be worth as much—so what gives it value? After going through a paragraph of bullshit math and talking about "signaling," Vitalik, hilariously, arrives at the conclusion that what makes a cryptocurrency a stable store of value is marketing. No joke he even suggests that developers build "impressive-looking sand pyramids in Egypt" to hype up their ICO. this endorsement of marketing comes from someone who nominally should be supporting the idea that cryptocurrencies are in fact not built on hype and speculation. But here it is:
But that is exactly the problem—how do we know how to trust Unchained Capital, Spankchain, or Bitconnect? They are, respectively, a legit business organization that has sponsored this conference, pornographic vaporware, and a ponzi scheme, and of the 3 of them it's the vaporware which has the most polished and distinctive brand. From the perspective of a brand designer, this is the hard problem of branding today.
Multiple irreconcilable stylistic trends happening at once make it pointless to judge any visual design aesthetic from the perspective of any other. Creators these days are very culturally literate and are adept at recycling and remixing from the history of visual culture. Peter Saville pioneered this in fashion but the idea has trickled down to every fuccboi starting a skate brand. This is the "atomization" of postmodernism but on steroids. And to top it all off, programmatic image-making is opening a whole new set of realities.
We’ve all seen the video of an Obama video programmatically generated from a random speech sample. But soon, entirely new, realistic videos can be generated from static images. At zero marginal cost.
We are reaching a point where aesthetics and ethics are completely detached from one another. We can not trust their alignment at all—we have reached the point of total aesthetic relativity. Until we run out of resources on earth, and I mean that literally, there is no turning back from here. From now on, it is fundamentally impossible to trust visual information. Proof of work is a concept that captures the relationship between truth, knowledge, aesthetics, and ethics. We keep trying to come up with new proofs of work and they keep breaking down. And right now we are at the breaking point: aesthetic as an underlying mechanic of our epistemology is no longer viable. It’s the visual version of fake news. This is stuff that structures how we see the world.
So when we can't trust our eyes, we can't trust the news, and we can't trust what brands say, what can we do? We want businesses to act ethically, but we simply can't trust them to do that, especially when cultural factors and zero-marginal-cost aesthetic production incentivize them to fabricate everything. Right now, even when we do try to force companies to prove outcomes, they can fake it, as in the case of the Volkswagen emissions scandal. In general, we need proof systems that show businesses are delivering the outcomes they claim they are. So what do we need when other types of trust break down? Can anyone tell me?
A decentralized consensus system. Right now, the "proof of work" we're most familiar with is a proof of difficult computation being solved. But we're also seeing a small explosion of other types of proof: Proof of storage (Filecoin), proof of data (Oraclize), and so on. Future forms of proof of work will expand on these: Proof of manufacturing, proof of programmatic-generation, proof of profit distribution, proof of supply chain… And we desperately need some sort of interface with which to verify this information. Something also distributed which cannot be easily hacked. Blockchain might rescue us from this aesthetic relativity, but to do it we're going to need to deprecate visual epistemology. Notably, this doesn't mean getting rid of trust. We can't do that, because trust is just part of human nature. What it does mean is taking aesthetics less seriously and offloading trust onto a 3rd party proof-of-work technology. I know that’s abstract. It’s really hard to imagine what it’s like. But let’s try.
Can I ask you for a minute to close your eyes and think about what it feels like to read news for the last few years. Think about all the competing claims, in different news sources, on twitter, on facebook. Think about how your way of reading things has changed. Think about how belief no longer comes easy, how it has become an exhausting task. Find that feeling and hold onto it. Keep your eyes closed…. Now imagine a world where you can not even trust what you see. Where every time you see a video, a statistic, a photograph, whether on your news feed, or on your twitter timeline, or on CBS, or PBS, you know that you cannot know whether it is real or whether it is a complete fabrication. Feel what it feels like to not trust anything that comes through a screen. Put yourself somewhere there, maybe in an airport, maybe with your family at home, watching a video, and having this feeling that it may not be real. It must be incredibly alienating. Welcome to the new era of trust
A New Era of Trust - Toby Shorin, Refactor Camp 2018
Eche man to kenne [know] hymsilf and his better
A page, a grome, and a grome, a yoman by right,
As the A. B. C. is made in ordre by lettyr,
A yoman, a squyer, and a squyer, a knyght,
And so to the highest and grettest of might;
And as they be in ordre set of degree,
Right so shall her clothyng and arraie bee
AESTHETICS UNDERPIN ETHICS
A man shall not now kenne a knave from a knyght,
ffor al be like in clothyng and array,
In fresshe doublettes of silk strecchyng vp right’
It is now harde to discerne and knowe
A tapester, a Cookesse, or an hostellers wyffe
ffro a gentilwoman, if they stonde in a rowe.
Issuing new currencies is nearly free, but issuing new
currencies that people care about requires an increasing
amount of “marketing as proof of work.”
THE BLOCKCHAIN WORLD
...the signalling [sic] activity comes in two primary forms: (i)
technical development, and (ii) marketing, with marketing
taking up an increasing share (including social media
marketing, public billboards, as well as expenses such as
paying up to $1-15 million dollar listing fees to major
exchanges). In order to enter the club of cryptocurrencies
that benefit from the “store of value” position, an
entrepreneur need only do enough tech development and
do enough marketing to build up a community to be seen