Of Bugs and Men

Edgar Allan Poe After Nakamoto

For a good part of the last century, literary critics found close to impossible to ignore Darwin, Freud, and Marx. It’s a truism by now that the works of these three thinkers incubated new ways of reading fiction and poetry. Satoshi Nakamoto is now beginning to have a similar impact.

I am not trying to be hyperbolic here. A few years ago, Nakamoto provided us with the virtual proof that collective consensus may be achieved via mathematical competition instead of trust acquisition. It’s hard to tell whether this momentous finding was a mere by-product in the creation of the first non-implosive digital currency, Bitcoin; it’s hard to tell, in other words, whether posterity will judge consensus as a mere cog wheel in the technology of Bitcoin, or on the contrary, it will celebrate that technology as the ingenious apparatus for the consolidation of new and more robust forms of democracy.

It may be a mere coincidence that Nakamoto went public with his personal take on the attainment of collective consensus in 2008, but it is indisputable that his famous “white paper” started circulating, among a narrow and somewhat, at the time, disreputable readership, at a time when our communal trust in the dominant principles of political and financial governance was being gravely shaken. In spite or perhaps because of their quasi-clandestine divulgation, Nakamoto’s alternative ideas about collective consensus resonated among more and more people; it did no harm to these ideas the fact that they were presented as a means of emancipation from the top-down fashion whereby Wall Street and Washington had managed to impose on the whole nation, on the whole planet, the deceptive trust that had led to the nascent financial catastrophe.

The basic principle divulged by Nakamoto consists in that, vis-à-vis the achievement of collective consensus, the rewards from a competitive application of the fundamental theorem of arithmetics trump the deployment of trust among individual agents. A compressed and anonymous history of collective consensus is encrypted in the so-called blockchain, the technology whose immediately manifest effect is the currency named Bitcoin. In turn, the blockchain implements the probabilistic law that no hostile minority could ever get away with forking off the democratically-achieved consensus with the intention to impose an apocryphal version of it. The blockchain is a ledger of mutually attractive deals among participants. The rule of consensus is implemented in it via cryptographic proof, i.e., via the evidence that computational labor has gone into the verification of the legitimacy of each new set or “block” of deals.

The opposite, old-fashioned principle of consensus is embodied in the trusted third party, also known as the middleman: the expression, mostly, of a public or private agency, a political party, a labor union, a church, a coalition of exchange-traded markets, an privately-owned company, etc. The trusted third party has been indispensable thus far as the guarantor for legal deeds, financial or commercial transactions, wedding ceremonies, political mandates, quantitative easings, etc. Who hasn’t questioned at some crucial moment in life the truthfulness of that predicate, “trusted,” and the personal or impersonal agents that claimed it to themselves? The blockchain sustains a mathematically-mandated and anonymously striven-for form of democracy, free from the often-authoritarian constraints of human trust. That all of this is achieved thanks to the fundamental theorem according to which every integer greater than one is either a prime number or the product of prime numbers, is a testament to Nakamoto’s formidable originality.

This momentous change of perspective is bound to affect innumerable sides of human experience, not excluding the way we read our classics. Why wouldn’t one jump at the opportunity, for instance, of picturing to oneself a different Emma Bovary from her conventionally negative image? Who is responsible for pushing Emma to commit suicide, after all, if not a middleman, namely, the merchant-usurer who holds her by the throat? Once, in Amherst, I heard a young Italian feminist define Emma an irrelevant and despicable human being. Emma is certainly an irrelevant creature in the Flaubertian world of middlemen she lives in, where everybody milks the cow that belongs to someone else. But in my eyes, she was always endowed with all the tragic virtues of the rebel who puts Eros before Profit and Conformism. Emma Bovary’s simple flaw is that, like most ordinary women of her time and many unbanked women of ours, she is overeducated in romance and undereducated in lucrative trade. It is the lucrative talent of the middleman that kills her. In the blockchain community, nobody is unbanked, and therefore nobody is irrelevant, not even Emma.

But it is not of Emma Bovary that I want to talk here. I just want to set the stage for the rest of this article. Most of us have been conditioned to believe that the trusted third party, the middleman, is a fact of life, no less sure than death and taxes. I just want to argue that once we give up on that notion, we earn a brand-new history of literature in return — informed by an original apparatus of well-wrought plots, historically cogent characterizations, and cathartic closures.

In the next few pages I’ll talk of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” in this vein.

Bugs and Men

Poe was fanatically obsessed with money-related matters because he rarely had the wherewithal to make a living. His greatest remuneration ever consisted of $100 he earned in 1843 from the literary prize awarded to the short story “The Gold-Bug,” a tale cold-mindedly conceived to exploit the anxiety caused in his readers by the liquidity panic of 1837 and the subsequent, seven-year-long depression. Average standards of living indicate that in 1843 the sum of $100 would cover Poe’s meager domestic budget for, at best, twenty or so weeks.

Since the beginning of 1800, the American publishing industry had grown at an astounding pace and kept growing for the rest of the century. But this development was turning commercial authors such as Poe, “poor-devil authors” as he called them, into powerless cogs in an industrial machine whose costs were mostly absorbed by machinery, warehouses, printing paper, and printers’ labor. The profits went to middlemen: publishers and booksellers. A suggestive rendering of this state of affairs may be seen in an 1811 painting by Washington Allston, “The Poor Author and the Rich Bookseller.”

The Poor Author and the Rich Bookseller

In penning “The Gold-Bug,” Poe deliberately undertook to exploit his contemporaries’ currency-related anxieties, verging occasionally on mass hysteria and bank runs. In the America of Poe’s time, Dollar bills and banknotes, being for the most part inconvertible against gold, were perceived by the so-called “gold bugs,” i.e., the Jacksonian Democrats as well as some exponents of the Whig party, as chartaceous symbols without any substance behind them — currency that wasn’t money. The gold bugs’ rivals were the so-called “paper money men,” such as the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who were advocates of paper bills and banknotes.

As if generalized inconvertibility were not enough of a source of anxiety for ordinary Americans, there was virtually no boundary to the amount of circulating Dollar bills and banknotes; about half of them were either forged or backed by phony banks.

The “gold bugs” believed in two things: the benevolence of nature and the convertibility of paper money. Buried in the belly of the earth, costly and difficult to mine, gold had intrinsic value to them; it was their nature-given candidate to serve as medium of exchange, unit of account, and store of value. Convertibility required that the quantity of paper money in circulation be proportional to available gold supplies. The “gold bugs” were so right on the first count, namely, gold’s intrinsic value, that the “paper money men” deservedly derided the second one, convertibility, as a humbug. Gold was so valuable in antebellum America, in fact, that people kept exporting gold coins abroad to melt them, making gold too scarce to warrant convertibility. On top of it, it wasn’t just forgers and phony banks that would not convert their own bills and notes into gold. Even legitimate banks had recourse to exchange brokers to make sure their notes would circulate in cities so far away from their home base that they would never come home to roost.

Poe debunks the notion that the medium for money is nature-given with the invention of the golden bug, the conceit central to his tale. The tale’s protagonist, Legrand, finds accidentally a mysteriously golden bug and shows a drawing of it to a friend of his, the tale’s narrator. That the golden bug is a natural specimen and not a man-made artifact is proven by the fact that it bites Legrand no sooner than he picks it up. By the middle of the story, the narrator believes, and leads his readers to think, that the bug guided Legrand to Captain Kidd’s buried gold treasure. But there are no bugs known to entomologists that are naturally attracted to large amounts of buried gold, of course, just as gold is not a nature-given base for money any more than silver or tin or rock or mud.

Unless, that is, entomology be not a science of nature but rather an instrument of magic… In fact, Legrand had felt insulted by his friend’s and his own servant Jupiter’s lack of trust in him, owing to his apparently erratic behavior after he found the golden bug. In retaliation, during the treasure hunt, he plays a cruel confidence trick on both of them, acting as though he was being led forward by the golden bug’s powers. As a matter of fact, the golden bug has no role to play whatsoever in the treasure hunt.

The theme of magic sheds light also on the opposite side of the controversy, the “paper money men.” They believed that money ought to be based on trust rather than on the chimera of convertibility against gold. Indeed, trust is often scarcer and even more valuable than gold; yet, in a favorable situation (such as our recent Great Recession), a conman or a banker can conjure up huge amounts of it. What is trust if half of the bills and notes that pass through your hands are tantamount to forgery? When earned by means of a confidence game, out of nothing, trust is sort of a magic trick — a trick not disdained, on occasion, by the priest, the banker, the quack doctor, the businessman, and the politician.

After the 1837 crisis, any American who wanted to sell goods had no choice but to trust anybody with cash on hand, even potential counterfeiters: traders and shopkeepers would accept almost any sort of bill and banknote in payment for their goods, and just put them back into circulation as fast as they could. It’s only in 1862, during the civil war, that President Lincoln gave Americans the inconvertible paper bill which we still call Greenback. With the Greenback, the magic-based or confidence-based trust which sustained the circulation of antebellum paper currencies came to be gradually displaced by a divinely sanctioned sort of trust: its motto — In God We Trust — is written on every Dollar bill since 1957 (it appeared first on the two-cent coin under Lincoln, in 1864). A Greenback is a debt claim vis-à-vis the American Government. As Greenbacks carriers, we trust that our God-trusting government, or more precisely, its Treasury department, will accept them in payment of taxes, fees, and fines — which is the usual condition under which fiat money becomes collectively trusted currency. The U. S. Government is our trusted third party whenever money changes hands.

Poe debunks the trust-based notion of inconvertible paper money with his tale’s second conceit: the “scrap of paper” on which Legrand sketches the image of the golden bug for his friend. Eventually, it turns out that it is not the golden bug that leads Legrand to the treasure but this “scrap of paper” (or of paper-thin “parchment,” more precisely), which he accidentally found next to the golden bug. Written on it in invisible ink, this piece of parchment carries all the identifying symbols of a banknote: the “stamp” of a skull, which classifies the note’s issuer as belonging to the world of pirates, and the “signature” of a “kid” or young goat, which, by punning on image and word, identifies the issuer as the legendary Captain Kidd. It’s a bill of credit, more precisely, in that, as the tale’s conclusion shows, it entitles its carrier to immense wealth. With one caveat: not any casual carrier can redeem it.

Between signature and stamp, the parchment includes a ciphertext, obtained from a substitution cipher, whose solution reveals a puzzle, whose solution, in turn, reveals the secret location of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure. This twofold enigma scripted in invisible ink was designed to make sure that only Captain Kidd or a trusted mate privy to the secret code — with the exception, as we’ll discuss, of the two unfortunate mates who helped Kidd bury his gold chest — could ever retrieve the treasure. So, convertibility on demand is out of the question. And so is trust. This exclusive bill of credit is based on deception rather than trust, on mystification rather than transparency — in other words, it was issued from a world whose moral code is analogous with that of phony banks and money forgeries. In anybody else’s hands but Captain Kidd’s, this scrap of paper is no worthier than a phony banknote.

Unless, that is, a person like Legrand, endowed with superior brainpower, comes around and takes a very close look at it. Here Poe, who had superior brainpower in great supply, but was endlessly forced “to coin [his] brain into silver at the nod of a master,” takes his little revenge on his stingy exploiters, the publishers and booksellers. For once, in this tale, a valuable brain manages “to coin” itself into real gold, and loads of it.

“The Gold-Bug” was published in two installments. The first part serves Poe’s readers a dish full of marvelous and fantastic adumbrations: from Legrand’s apparent madness to the golden bug’s apparently magic powers, from the servant Jupiter’s dialect, redolent of ghostly and devilish overtones (Jupiter is a manumitted slave), to the narrator’s tone, fraught with creepy forebodings. The second part brings home the false alternative between gold-minted or gold-convertible money on the one hand and trust-based money on the other, by switching, surprisingly, to ratiocination.

Here Legrand embarks on a rather wearying explication of the procedure by which he decrypted Captain Kidd’s ciphertext. The narrator’s reports it verbatim, detail after technical detail. Coming from Poe, the master of the dark tale, this switch to the unexciting logic of code breaking — which, believe me, does not make for a thrilling read — sounds like a letdown. But it’s not. Proven wrong twice, first in his questioning of Legrand’s mental sanity and then in his subsequent wonder at the golden bug’s seemingly magic powers, the narrator listens to Legrand’s words with baited breath. (And so did Poe’s readers. By 1843, “The Gold-Bug” was his most successful story.)

Poe had prepared his audience to such a turn-around, from the irrational to the cryptographic, with a little confidence game of his own. In the two years preceding the publication of “The Gold-Bug,” he had entertained the readers of two journals he collaborated with, the Alexander’s Weekly Journal and the Graham’s Magazine, with a barrage of articles devoted to the solution of encrypted texts. Slowly but steadily, he had earned for himself the reputation of an unbeatable code breaker: “the most […] skillful cryptographer who ever lived,” Reverend Cudworth wrote in the Lowell Weekly Journal shortly after Poe’s death. By 1843, Poe’s fans were waiting eagerly for the often promised and always postponed revelation of the secret of his cryptographic powers. The truth is that Poe, endowed with a feverishly intuitive mind, was as much of a brilliant code breaker as he was a lousy cryptographer: his finally revealed secret, namely, the list of letter frequencies used by Legrand to break Captain Kidd’s substitution cipher, is incorrect, derived from Poe’s inaccurate reading of William Blair’s article “Cipher” in Abraham Rees’ Cyclopaedia. (However, Legrand’s substitution technique is impeccable in the 1843 version of the tale — a bit less so in the 1845 revised version, to be included in Poe’s Tales, owing to a minor change in the plaintext.)

For a man in constant need of those untrustworthy bills and banknotes that would feed his wife Virginia and him for another few weeks, Poe knew how far a bit of undeserved trust could go. And proved it by the way he enhanced his tale’s suspense by padding it with a few pages full of symbols and alphabetic equivalences, which probably most of his readers skipped altogether, taking the soundness of their cryptographic contents on faith.

Captain Kidd’s treasure was the result of a chain of criminal transactions, consisting of theft, murder, kidnapping, ransom, etc. Every new act of piracy added an additional block of wealth to the previous balance. Now that, in Legrand’s time, Captain Kidd had long been dead, the balance of this chain of transactions was inert, meaningless — lost underground. By breaking Captain Kidd’s code and decrypting the ciphertext, Legrand created a fork in the chain of criminal transactions and took to himself the whole booty. Even if Captain Kidd’s had still been alive, superior brainpower would have entitled Legrand to run away with the treasure. Once the treasure was moved away from its original hiding place, Captain Kidd’s encryption became meaningless: a worthless, inconvertible note scripted on paper-thin parchment. Legrand’s fork ended up being the only legitimate one.

This Nakamotian terminology (fork, block, encryption) is not just a fancy way of phrasing a truism, namely, that the same balance of credit, or more precisely here, the same amount of physical wealth, can’t be in two different places at once. In fact, this very terminology gives me the opportunity to broach the opposite view, namely, the principle that nowadays a credit balance can be turned into ubiquitous code. Since the introduction of credit cards and digital transactions, banks have been masking the location of credit balances behind cryptographic puzzles that are much harder to solve than the enigma of Captain Kidd’s parchment. From time to time, rogue attackers break the code and claim an unearned credit balance to themselves, making wealth, for a time, ubiquitous.

I argued above that if we give up on the idea of the middleman as a fact of life, we earn a brand-new history of literature in return. It’s only since 2008, the year of publication of Nakamoto’s whitepaper “Bitcoin,” that we know for certain (or precisely, with high probability) that a system of transactions “based on cryptographic proof instead of trust” is practicable. (“Cryptographic proof” is Nakamoto’s name for the logic described in my opening paragraphs.) By doing away with trust, this system of transactions does away with the traditional role of the trusted third party or middleman too. As Nakamoto has pointed out, the absence of the trusted third party exposes this system to malicious attackers who, either by means of superior computer power or by taking advantage of a bug in the code of the accounting protocol, bifurcate the chain of transactions and engage in double spending. Contrary to Captain Kidd’s treasure, a digital-currency-denominated balance may actually be spent twice, at least for a while — once per chain’s fork, if the chains are two (i.e., the legitimate and the illegitimate one), with obvious damage to the system of transactions itself.

Let me get back to the “chain-forking” image and validate its usage in my interpretation of “The Gold-Bug.”

More than thirty years ago, Marc Shell pointed out that, as a detective story, “The Gold-Bug” seems to be told backwards, ending with the discovery of a crime instead of the crime’s solution. While unearthing Captain Kidd’s treasure with the help of his servant Jupiter and his friend the narrator, Legrand exhumes “a mass of human bones […] forming two complete skeletons.” “What are we to make of [them],” wonders the narrator. It is likely, he ponders, that Captain Kidd murdered the two mates who helped him bury the treasure. Legrand answers his friend’s question with another question: “Who shall tell?” The subsequent, abrupt end of the tale indicates that neither Legrand nor his friend cares to find out more about the captain’s betrayal of his men. Shell is correct in that those fatalistic words, “Who shall tell?” would sound bizarre indeed if they came from the lips of Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, another of Poe’s famous characters, while taking a stroll on the Rue Morgue in Paris. In any respectable crime story, the crime must be solved.

Yet, since 2009, our answer to Legrand’s closing question, “Who shall tell?”, has the option to reflect the new politics of anonymous consensus inaugurated by Nakamoto’s white paper. Even if we do not know how and why and through what deceptions and subterfuges Captain Kidd’s mates met their fate any better than Legrand or his friend the narrator do, we have at least the option to dismiss the middleman who used to solve the puzzle for us.

In the history of literature, from the opening lines of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Bible onward, any tale pertaining to betrayal or breach of contract entailed the existence of a trusted third party; on his (much more often than “her”) god-like authority rested the legitimacy of the legal deed or financial transaction or political deal or wedding ceremony or ransom payment or sacred alliance which had been stipulated by that broken contract. But increasingly, we have come to perceive the authority of this middleman, be he a blind vates or an omniscient god, as unwarranted. It’s not just that the tale (the canonical one especially) is unreliable, as James Joyce, the supreme tall-tale teller, went to great pains to establish once and for all. It’s that the narrator himself is a humbug.

Was the willful or perhaps compulsory conscription of Captain Kidd’s two murdered mates ruled by the norms of some criminal contract? That’s possible, but, if this were the case, it is also likely that the trusted third party warranting it would have been the impersonal “death’s-head” that figures as “stamp” on Legrand’s parchment. Here, one might feel a small step away from a Nietzschean sort of cri de guerre: “The middleman is dead!”, if only that sort of triumphal shout wasn’t grounded, somehow, on the same individualized trust which these pages have been contesting. The arithmetics of cryptographic proof is impervious to bombastic euphoria.

Whether or not Captain Kidd’s trusted third party was a bony and lips-sealed skull, it remains that, by definition, no middleman is delegated to verify or authorize or authenticate or report on misappropriation regarding a credit balance based on cryptographic proof, such as Captain Kidd’s twofold enigma or any digital-currency-denominated transaction. So, what about Marc Shell’s unsolved crime?

“The Gold-Bug” deals with a pecuniary rather than a murder mystery. And Captain Kidd’s murder of the two mates is an intrinsic component of this pecuniary mystery on two counts. Like the golden bug itself, the two skeletons serve first of all “to seduce the reader [as well as Jupiter and the narrator] into the idea of supernatural machinery”; this is an effect which, by his own admission, Poe aims at insistently and deceptively in the first part of the tale. But once we discount the role played by the skeletons in deceiving both Poe’s and Legrand’s respective audiences, we are still left with the more relevant fact that the two mates were obviously in the know as to the treasure’s hiding place. In the world of pirates, their assassination is called forth by the very logic of treasure hiding. Captain Kidd’s ciphertext is an exclusive credit certificate based on mistrust. Only by killing these witnesses, Captain Kidd can make the value of his certificate both indisputable, because it is the only one in existence, and tamperproof, because only the person in possession of the certificate and able to decrypt its plaintext can move the treasure to a different location, thereby invalidating the certificate itself.

The two mates killed by the captain are the figural equivalent to the glitch or bug in the code that enables a rogue attacker to fork the chain of digital-currency-denominated transactions and engage in double spending. If there ever was a truly golden bug, it’s this one — in the eyes of the rogue attacker, I mean.

Since 2009, this golden bug has raised its ugly antennae on a few occasions. As glamorously proven by the vicissitudes of the infamous Mt. Gox in 2014, a bifurcation in the chain permits, for a time, a duplication of certain credit balances; the same amounts of a digital currency can be spent twice (once on each fork of the chain) before the bug in the machine is killed. The procedure adopted in the “killing” of the bug is of relevance here: a murder with no mystery attached to it.

Murder of the malicious attacker, à la Captain Kidd, would indeed be inelegant and unnecessary. It’d be a Machiavellian means-to-an-end, typical of the financial authoritarianism and top-down centralized governance that led to the 2008 recession, with all its moral and bodily victims. With his blockchain technology, Satoshi Nakamoto meant to contain precisely this aversiveness of means and results. A mere tweaking of accounting protocols, agreed upon by the decentralized consensus which is mathematically mandated by the blockchain, more than suffices, in principle, to kill the bug and dispose of the rogue attacker, cutting thereby at the bud stage the illegal fork in the chain of transaction. This is true, with high probability, as long as the rogue attacker doesn’t control superior computer power — which is precisely the advantage figuratively earned, in Poe’s tale, by Legrand’s flair for code breaking.

The attacker is taken care of without any bloodshed — in this time of bloody revolutions, counter-revolutions, lethal mass migrations, and serial killers, a singular achievement in its own right. And once the villain is kicked out of the door, its twin counterpart, the middleman, can’t get much of a chance of stepping back in through some unguarded window.

Forks and Men

To the benefit of future historians, may I close on a minor chord: a whisper to the wise, rather than the Nietzschean shout to the triumphalists I was on the verge of indulging in a while ago. Thus far, the most momentous bifurcation occurred in July 2016, not in the blockchain created by Satoshi Nakamoto but rather in the more recent one linked with Ethereum, a decentralized platform for smart contracts fashioned by Vitalik Buterin; it was the result of a bug rather than of superior computer power; but, weirdly enough, it was implemented by a majority, led by Buterin, as a form of defense against a rebellious minority led by a malicious hacker. This incident affected the basic technology of the blockchain in terms which cannot be discussed in detail here, except for pointing out that the mathematically-mandated expression of consensus described in these pages remains, for the time being, a work in progress. If the rigors of computer code must rule over the frailty of man-managed norms of fairness and equanimity — if, like a self-driving car, democracy may be automated — the adopted code must be unimpeachable. As long as it is not, it appears that the fate of collective fairness and equanimity will be arbitrated by an oligarchy of coders. Whether, as I do believe, this is a necessary transition to a more just world, managed by the integrity of exceptional men like Mr. Buterin, or just the emergence of an alternative expression of pseudo-trust, remains to be seen. In either case, the rise of this new technology of consensus is likely to have aesthetic and hermeneutics effects of the sort I have described in these pages.


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