Between 2008 and 2012, I kept a close eye on all the efforts that the US State Department was pouring to promote its so-called "Internet Freedom" agenda. It was remarkable to see American diplomats, with Hillary Clinton at the helm, preach the virtues of free Internet while also waging a war against outlets like WikiLeaks.
Their hypocrisy aside, I was quite impressed with the invisible but highly efficient machinery of the US government: there were always funds, grants, tenders, conferences, workshops, pilot projects. The "Internet Freedom" agenda was not just a rhetorical project; it was a massive bureaucratic undertaking. There were, of course, some charlatan types involved; I've written, quite extensively, about both Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, who led some of these efforts.
My own research interests moved in a different direction but the "Internet Freedom" agenda has lived on. It seems to have followed the path from Web 2.0 to web3, much like everything else these days: for a few years now, the State Department has been busy singing praises to the gods of the blockchain.
Olivier Jutel, based in New Zealand, has been studying what Washington's fascination with the blockchain has meant for some of the Pacific Island countries. He's penned a very interesting article on "blockchain imperialism," which reveals some very interesting – and also bizarre – alliances between American diplomats and crypto-libertarians.
There's a lot of hype about the Pacific being the new "testing ground" for crypto; unlike El Salvador's Bitcoin experiment, where it's easy for foreign media to criticize its 40-year-old brash president, the humanitarian tone of many of these projects in the Pacific has created a mostly favorable media climate. So it's refreshing to hear Olivier offer a more nuanced and critical take on what is happening.
~ Evgeny Morozov
It's easy to dismiss political aspirations behind many crypto projects as ultra-libertarian fantasies. Yet, in your own work, which looks at international NGOs as well as aid and development agencies and also the US State Department, the ideological picture that emerges is far more complex. What do all these actors believe about blockchains and their transformative potential?
In my recent work, I’ve looked at how blockchain projects have been pushed as solutions to various problems related to economic and political development in Pacific Islands nations (Fiji, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea). The idea that technology can play a big role here is, of course, not new; we have a whole field of ICT4D, which is full of many unfilled promises related to Big Data, mobile phones, smart cities, and whatnot.
Yet there’s something peculiar about blockchain projects, as, in addition to promising the unthinkable in terms of economic and political development, they also open up new terrains for data accumulation and platform control. They also promote governance solutions which typically bypass the state, viewing it as a corrupt and corrupting intermediary. Blockchain developers, many of whom have had no prior experience in this sector – many are also new to the region itself – have found the development and aid sectors a fecund space for experimentation, which, alas, doesn’t often go beyond mere exploitation of regulatory gaps.
Ironically, for all the rhetoric of blockchain being a stateless technology, we have one government – that of the United States – actively pouring money into TechCamps and other initiatives, all in order to turn the blockchain into the arch-solution to developmental problems. This might end up weakening the sovereignty of governments who are supposed to be disciplined and reformed via the blockchain; it also opens up new forms of control – of what I call “blockchain imperialism” – especially when one looks at the United States, whose own sovereignty is not at all under threat by crypto.
Throughout the region, we see big-name international players like Oxfam leveraging the excitement about crypto and blockchains to enhance their own reputation, with no – or even detrimental – consequences for the local populations.
Could you give us an example of “blockchain imperialism”?
One of the more outrageous regional projects that I've studied has been a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) signed with Ledger Atlas, a Delaware-registered company, which was led by the Draper University alum Shane Ninai (he hails from PNG). The MOU, signed in 2018, was to establish a blockchain special economic zone – a “crypto zone” as Draper put it in a tweet – which would give Ledger Atlas the power to control migration, enact laws, issue passports, and conduct many other activities that one would typically expect governments to undertake. Thankfully, as with many blockchain projects, this all seems to have fallen apart and faded into the ether (pun intended).
In this PNG-Draper project, the most utopian pronouncements stood side by side with the most exploitative aspirations. In other Pacific nations, we see tax avoidance standing side by side with blockchain humanitarianism. Throughout the region, we see big-name international players like Oxfam leveraging the excitement about crypto and blockchains to enhance their own reputation, with no – or even detrimental – consequences for the local populations.
Many of the crypto projects that I studied are not even feasible; they require major infrastructural improvements that are not a given. Yet, even as they fail, they do achieve a certain rhetorical success in terms of opening up these countries to markets, control of supply chain, and forms of digital identity which make up what I call "blockchain cartographies of control." These cartographies rest on the immense inequities between the Global North and the Global South; the blockchain doesn't magically eradicate them and, in some cases, it merely reinforces them.
How did you end up writing about "blockchain imperialism"?
I was in the Pacific for three years at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. There, I got to see the US soft power in action; that’s how I understood just how much of an ideological tool the Internet is. I was working in the journalism department, and the US State Department was very active in trying to engage us in teaching digital journalism and giving workshops about fake news. There was all this rhetoric about the online civil society, which, at least in the case of Fiji, was not imaginary: they did have a robust blogosphere during a coup in 2006.
Much of it was standard Web 2.0 narrative; there was a lot of talk about hackathons and all sorts of other solutionist tricks, e.g. hashtags to save fishing stocks and hack our way out of these big environmental and political problems of the Pacific. Then, in 2018, I noticed that the US Embassy was advertising a TechCamp dedicated to how the blockchain could be used in governance and problem-solving in various domains, from finance to judicial reform.
Wow, I thought, this field got a little bit overheated. I mean, I know about the blockchain. I know about crypto. I know about cyber libertarians. But the idea that the blockchain offered some realistic solutions for the Pacific was a bridge too far for me. It also seemed obvious to me that all the blockchain-related discourse was a way to normalize the traditional crypto discourse, which always had this radical libertarian streak.
So I started looking at this field a bit more widely. I studied technical reports of organizations like Oxfam that were experimenting with blockchain in the region. I looked at a lot of media coverage and conference papers. I talked to several blockchain developers in the region; mostly, it’s outsiders who fly in to build this stuff, get their little dose of PR, and move on, so there aren’t so many locals to talk to. My conclusions weren’t particularly optimistic. A lot of these projects, had they worked, they would be potentially devastating to sovereignty of the Pacific nations. Thankfully, a lot of them were just PR exercises with no firm commitment to the region. There are, however, some longer-term projects that are happening in the region and those do worry me a lot.
As far as institutions such as the US State Department go, their real priorities are less about promoting particular applications and more about inculcating Silicon Valley solutionist logic into the development space.
Who are all these people pushing for blockchain technologies in the development sector in the Pacific?
I’ve started describing them as the solutionist class. These are people who hop between the tech sector, the NGO sector, and the advocacy sector quite seamlessly. So there's a real blurring of boundaries here. As far as institutions such as the US State Department go, their real priorities are less about promoting particular applications and more about inculcating Silicon Valley solutionist logic into the development space. This is something Lilly Irani has written about a lot in the context of hackathons; it’s that very logic but transposed into the space of economic development.
What's a typical hackathon in this space like? The organizers would typically say: OK, let's get community leaders. Let's get developers. Let's get venture capitalists. Let’s put the best and the brightest in the same room and jam it out. This is a rather idealistic and rather limited view of the world. Just where's power here, in this quest for solutions? In the context of Pacific Nations, there are rich and very complex indigenous cultures and indigenous legacies and histories. All of that gets flattened into this bubbly, optimistic Silicon Valley stuff, with external developments parachuted from abroad, mostly for photo ops and other PR gigs.
We see this, for example, in Oxfam, with their OxLabs, or the World Food Program, with their hashtags like #disrupthunger. Everybody is taking on the language and the performative style of Silicon Valley, to the point where NGOs are doing VC-style pitch decks. So there's a sort of cultural imperialism that's happening here.
What was so remarkable about that 2018 TechCamp in Fiji that attracted your attention?
That TechCamp was a direct outgrowth of the Internet Freedom agenda announced when Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State, more specifically of its “freedom to connect” rhetoric. So these TechCamps were conceived as a way to promote this “civil society 2.0” – they were mostly hackathons.
The real showpiece at the 2018 TechCamp was the tuna supply chain blockchain project. It was a collaboration between the local development company TraSeables, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and a start-up called Viant. The latter is notable because it is one of the many start-ups under the umbrella of ConsenSys, a blockchain startup incubator launched by Joseph Lubin, one of the core five developers of Ethereum. Lubin has become a great evangelist for the blockchain, touting it as the locus for “creativity and novel problem solving” that might lead to a new economic regime of “collective capitalism.” As far as the aid and development sectors are concerned, Lubin has been busy pitching various solutions for self-sovereign identity. He also runs the ConsenSys Academy, which is something that is pitched explicitly to governments, NGOs, and tech developers.
The tuna blockchain project promised the usual things: sustainability, traceability, the elimination of unethically sourced products. The idea was that the end consumer – most likely abroad – would just be able to check a QR code that would reveal the product’s origin. This wasn’t easy as the data related to fish had to be recorded off-chain using NFC and RFID technologies. There was no suitable infrastructure in Fiji to undertake a project of such complexity; the costs related to Viant’s solutions were simply too high to make this into a working proposition for its local partners. But even if this “solution” worked, one should ask just what kind of a “solution” was it, given that it was likely to accelerate the neoliberal model of export-driven growth without ever addressing imbalances in the global tuna trade, which price out local consumers from their natural resources.
This to me was a typical operation where a foreign company – Viant – stood to benefit through transaction fees and commissions; the local NGO sector and some tech developers could celebrate their inventiveness and innovative spirit; but the underlying political and economic conditions would either stay the same or actually get worse. This seemed like a typical “solutionist” endeavor.
There also seems to be a lot of activity related to putting various land registries on the blockchain – and not just in the Pacific. Traditionally, in the pre-blockchain era, the push towards land titling was often seen as a neoliberal Trojan horse of some kind. Is it still the case in the blockchain era?
It certainly is. Around the glob, a major push for it comes from the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC), which is this grotesque lobbying group which was conceived at Richard Branson’s private island and launched, to much fanfare, in Davos. Hernando de Soto, a veteran neoliberal proponent of strong property rights in land, sits on its board and played a role in its founding. What’s interesting is how these ideas then get picked up and propagated locally. This is where one really has to study the exemplary members of this transnational solutionist class. For people like Hernando de Soto, the blockchain is a perfect opportunity to reboot the Washington Consensus – but, this time, with less political slogans. His 2018 Wall Street Journal editorial – titled "How Blockchain Can End Poverty" – said almost as much.
For example, I’ve looked at Sandra Uwantege Hart, who is GBBC’s ambassador in the Pacific Nations. In her career, she’s moved very smoothly across various institutions, preaching the blockchain gospel wherever she went, from the World Food Program to Oxfam (where she led the much-celebrated Unblocked Cash Project, which I critically discuss in my article) to now private consulting practice.
Then, specifically on land registries, there’s the Asian Development Bank blockchain project, which is now underway in Fiji. Something like 90% of Fiji’s land is held in indigenous communal trust, which is a legacy of sabotaging the British land commission of the 19th century. At the time, land surveyors were regularly attacked, because the locals understood that technological abstraction was an imperial tool. So, this land has been in the communal trust for all this time – and for good reasons. This has been a great legacy of Fijian sovereignty and independence.
Now, the Asian Development Bank, with its neoliberal mentality, comes around, looks at all this land, and says – ah, here is an untapped resource that we need to rationalize in order to generate wealth. And we’ll do that via the blockchain. The lack of transparency with regards to land ownership in Fiji has not necessarily been a problem that needs solving; it’s what allowed for keeping those lands outside of extractive property rights relations.
I spoke to one prominent Fijian blockchain developer and he did concede that the plan didn’t make much sense. Interestingly, this has mostly flown below the radar of public discourse. Normally, whenever the government tries to rationalize land with some market principle in mind, there's massive resistance, with people insisting that the authorities ought not mess with his historical legacy. We have seen no such resistance so far, which might be the consequence of wrapping it all up in the solutionist and innovation-friendly rhetoric of blockchains.
There’s this fetishization of indigenous nomadic people and their essential connection to nature. Technology, including the blockchain, is often invoked as some kind of a mediating force.
Is there something to be said about the role that the Pacific occupies in the Anglo-American imagination? We know of the fascination that many tech billionaires have with New Zealand but it is probably more complex than that...
Teresia Teaiwa, the great late Pacific scholar, wrote, very eloquently, about the American encounter with the Pacific and the imaginary that it generated. For many Americans, the Pacific represents this dreamy oceanic sort of emptiness and passivity – it’s an open space to engage in Robinson Crusoe fantasies. There’s this fetishization of indigenous nomadic people and their essential connection to nature. Technology, including the blockchain, is often invoked as some kind of a mediating force.
One of the really pernicious things in Tim Draper's project in Papua New Guinea was that the blockchain metaphor was made analogous to the indigenous metaphor. So, on the one hand, we have all these indigenous people trading shell necklaces. And, on the other hand, we have this consensus algorithm based on trust. It’s really shameless, all this shoehorning of blockchains into indigenous self determination.
Looking at this more generally, the Pacific does serve a peculiar niche in the Silicon imagination. Many of these people, especially of the more libertarian variety, are no longer satisfied with California as the ultimate frontier. So, as soon as they hit the Pacific Ocean, the temptation is either to go to outer space or create free floating islands in the Pacific or settle in Vanuatu which is already like a tax haven. There is something extremely anti-social in all this cyber-libertarian imaginary, which holds that these island nations are pristine and untouched and you can come and conquer them as an Airbnb nomad.
When you study this space and also talk to people who are active in it, how do they reconcile the anti-statist rhetoric of some of the projects – often, it’s all about replacing ineffective state and public institutions with decentralised protocols – with the fact that so many of them are pushed by the American government?
All these blockchain developers understand that the legal imprimatur of the state to recognize a digital contract as a digital contract or to recognize a current cryptocurrency as a currency is exactly what is going to be the thing that gets you over the line. So people like Lubin can talk about deterritorialization and statelessness and then have the blog of ConsenSys tout the benefits of the “military blockchain” and insist that the US military need to be present in this space. These people can shift from statelessness to Skynet in no time.
Self-sovereign identity is a big watchword in this space. When Joe Lubin is selling this to the State Department, he's telling a story about these poor citizens of the Global South whose lives have been disrupted by political and environmental catastrophes. But now, despite all these misfortunes, you are no longer beholden to the state, you can carry your own identity with you; it'll be secured on the blockchain. And you can arrive to the shores of America free and liberated.
Obviously, the inverse is as likely to be true; blockchain-based self-sovereign identity might become a way for the militarized state to do social credit risk assessment. That in this brave new world we would have no connection to any mediating institutions – our freedom won’t depend on them in any way – also means there won’t be any universal rights. There’ll only be this negotiation about spaces of action by individuals. It’s hard to imagine the US power declining in this world.
And the discourse about crypto being anti-imperialist is even more ridiculous. All these arguments about Cubans using crypto to avoid US sanctions are meant to appeal to the blockchain-curious lefties. It’s hard to see this undermining the power of the dollar in any meaningful way.
Why do you think there’s so little resistance to “blockchain imperialism” locally?
The power of the State Department and the tech set in the Pacific rests on this long-standing legacy of bamboozling the locals through spectacle. Here I’m invoking what Frantz Fanon might have called the inferiority complex of the colonized – and technologized – subject. All this blockchain rhetoric invokes the hope that technology will allow these nations to “leapfrog” into the future and to achieve “inclusion” – financial, economic, technological – and who doesn’t want that?
It’s just very hard to imagine any of this happening given that the key institution of the state is actually missing in much of the developing world; it might have existed but then structural adjustments and all sorts of other external constraints made its emergence and consolidation unlikely. So what we are left is are the NGOs and the blockchain developers… And I don’t expect much from them.
We also have to understand that in a place like Fiji, there has been a lot of interest not only in the Chinese but also in the Singaporean model. So this more centralised society, which also relies on centralised infrastructures, which can be shut off with a kill switch, it’s appealing to quite a few political forces. It’s against this geopolitical context that all these US efforts to promote “civil society 2.0,” which chooses decentralised and stateless tech like Ethereum to become easier to decipher.
Olivier Jutel is a lecturer at the University of Otago where he teaches communication and digital media. Prior to this he worked as a broadcast journalism lecturer at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.
His work on blockchain has been shaped by this time in the Pacific where he followed the role of the US State dept in the emergence of Techno-Solutionism in the NGO space. His latest work on Blockchain includes "Blockchain Imperialism in the Pacific" for Big Data & Society and the forthcoming "Blockchain Humanitarianism and Crypto-Colonialism" for Cell Press' Patterns.