Spectology, n.
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Spectology, n.

Bitcoin’s Structure Problem

“The Tyranny of Structurelessness” and why decentralization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

This is somewhat of a long post, something I’ve had kicking around for a while. It’s pretty critical of bitcoin as it currently exists, particularly the social structures surrounding bitcoin. The point is to analyze how those structures actually work.

I’m going to offer both analysis and quotes from the essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” as published in the first link below (which is the version I’m most familiar with). I’m going to be making some edits and highlights to the quotes in order to clean up the text and make it easier to digest, so I would recommend that you read that essay in full if they want to reply directly to it instead of to my points.

What is Structurelessness and What are Elites?

The Tyranny of Structurelessness (alt link) is an essay by Jo Freeman written in the 70s and distributed on pamphlets throughout the then-decentralized feminist movement. It is a critique of said decentralization and so-called structurelessness in the feminist movement, but also works as a general-purpose critique of any action-oriented, “structureless” groups.

The general argument is that groups that are perceived and self-identify as structureless are anything but. While they may not have explicit structures, they have implicit ones. Freeman calls these structures elites, and point out that they usually are informal groups of friends that manage to control the “consensus” of the group. These implicit power hierarchies are actually harder to work against than explicit ones, because (1) they are unacknowledged, and the very acknowledging of them makes one a “bad” or “anti-social” member of the group, and (2) membership in the elite is regulated by the elite itself, and outsiders often have no recourse but trying to become one of the elite, or forming their own elite to work against the other one.

Correctly, an elite refers to a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part,usually without direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent.

Elites are nothing more, and nothing less, than groups of friends who also happen to participate in the same political activities. They would probably maintain their friendship whether or not they were involved in political activities; they would probably be involved in political activities whether or not they maintained their friendships. It is the coincidence of these two phenomena which creates elites in any group and makes them so difficult to break.

These friendship groups function as networks of communication outside any regular channels for such communication that may have been set up by a group. If no channels are set up, they function as the only networks of communication. Because these people are friends, because they usually share the same values and orientations, because they talk to each other socially and consult with each other when common decisions have to be made, the people involved in these networks have more power in the group than those who don’t.

Freeman points out two very major reasons that these elites are bad for action-oriented groups.

This has two potentially negative consequences of which we should be aware. The first is that the informal structure of decision-making will be […] one in which people listen to others because they like them and not because they say significant things. As long as the movement does not do significant things this does not much matter. But if its development is not to be arrested at this preliminary stage, it will have to alter this trend. The second is that informal structures have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large. Their power was not given to them; it cannot be taken away. Their influence is not based on what they do for the group; therefore they cannot be directly influenced by the group. This does not necessarily make informal structures irresponsible. Those who are concerned with maintaining their influence will usually try to be responsible. The group simply cannot compel such responsibility; it is dependent on the interests of the elite.

So, how does this relate to bitcoin and other altcoins without a strong, structured leadership? To me it’s pretty clear—those who gain strength in the bitcoin community often are able to do so because they’re friends with others who have, and have no incentives to work for the greater good of bitcoin as opposed to their own self-interest.

This is why you see a Bitcoin Foundation that is full of scammers, liars, cheaters, and unsavory businessmen. This is why they protect their own, even when their own are clearly only out for themselves—see for instance, the foundation members who came out in support of Gox even as it was failing.

This is why Ghash, for instance, wouldn’t come to the table when others were organizing talks, but instead organized their own. They understand the nature of elites, and are working to build their own elite that works for them. Or why the CEO of Circle spoke out against the Bitcoin Foundation—he is not a member of an elite, and is beginning to understand that decisions being made with no clear framework for feedback means that only those who know the real, hidden power structures can influence those decisions, and then will do so based on personal clout, not a meritocracy of ideas.

Who Speaks for Bitcoin?

There is another bitcoin phenomenon that Freeman’s essay addresses—the rise of “stars” in the bitcoin world. Here I mean people like Bitcoin Jesus, the CEO of Bitcoin, Charlie Shrem, Andreas Antonopoulos. Some are a member of the elites of bitcoin, some are not, but all hold power by being the go-to people for press and conference organizers.

The idea of “structurelessness” has created the “star” system. We live in a society which expects political groups to make decisions and to select people to articulate those decisions to the public at large. The press and the public do not know how to listen seriously to individual women as women; they want to know how the group feels. Only three techniques have ever been developed for establishing mass group opinion: the vote or referendum, the public opinion survey questionnaire, and the selection of group spokespeople at an appropriate meeting. The women’s liberation movement has used none of these to communicate with the public. Neither the movement as a whole nor most of the multitudinous groups within it have established a means of explaining their position on various issues. But the public is conditioned to look for spokespeople.

While it has consciously not chosen spokespeople, the movement has thrown up many women who have caught the public eye for varying reasons. These women represent no particular group or established opinion; they know this and usually say so. But because there are no official spokespeople nor any decision-making body that the press can query when it wants to know the movement’s position on a subject, these women are perceived as the spokespeople. Thus, whether they want to or not, whether the movement likes it or not, women of public note are put in the role of spokespeople by default.

In other words, the way the press works has lead to a situation in which a decentralized, unorganized group has spokespeople elected for them by the press, because the press needs individual representatives it can interview as “experts” or “spokespeople”, because this is what readers want. It’s a systematic issue caused by no single bad actor, but by simply adding up all the individual wants of the people in the system. Because there is no delegation of responsibilities within an unstructured group, it allows those responsibilities to fall on anyone, and even allows people outside the group entirely to chose who gets those responsibilities.

What Does Bitcoin Want?

The more unstructured a movement is, the less control it has over the directions in which it develops and the political actions in which it engages. This does not mean that its ideas do not spread. Given a certain amount of interest by the media and the appropriateness of social conditions, the ideas will still be diffused widely. But diffusion of ideas does not mean they are implemented; it only means they are talked about. Insofar as they can be applied individually they may be acted on; insofar as they require coordinated political power to be implemented, they will not be.

Does this remind you of anything? To me, it’s a great explanation of the inability of the bitcoin community to effectively deal with Ghash.io and the 51% problem.

At an even bigger level, it’s a description of why things often don’t get done within bitcoin. So frequently we hear of issues—confirmations take too long, 51% attacks, double-spending, user experience design headaches, widespread scamming—or innovations—colored coins, sidechains, smart contracts—that have proposed technical solutions, but no one seems to be able to implement any of these solutions in bitcoin itself, and so they are relegated to non-standard implementations or competing blockchain networks.

The informal groups’ vested interests will be sustained by the informal structures which exist, and the movement will have no way of determining who shall exercise power within it. If the movement continues deliberately to not select who shall exercise power, it does not thereby abolish power. All it does is abdicate the right to demand that those who do exercise power and influence be responsible for it. If the movement continues to keep power as diffuse as possible because it knows it cannot demand responsibility from those who have it, it does prevent any group or person from totally dominating. But it simultaneously ensures that the movement is as ineffective as possible. Some middle ground between domination and ineffectiveness can and must be found.

Implementing these solutions requires a degree of structure, requires responsible parties, and thus the very implementation is a threat to the vested interests of the current elites. Not only because the solutions often don’t help them or even harm the elites, but on a higher level because the implementations require a structure, and structure ultimately means that elites have less power.

Thus it is in the best interest of the elites to ensure that bitcoin stays decentralized. Ideas spread easily through decentralized groups, and so pro-decentralization political ideologies have found a very strong foothold in the bitcoin world. Which ironically leads to a situation in which the oppressed do not know that they are oppressed, and in fact think that their state of oppression is actually a state of empowerment. This is the biggest danger of elite power structures—that they are perpetuated easily because they are unseen, and thus give the illusion that everyone has the equal power within the system.

What to Do?

There are decentralized systems of organization that are systematic in their approach to decentralization and clearly outline responsibilities, authorities, and power structures. Freeman gives some principles by which groups can try to structure themselves in a way that is empowering to their members. Ray Dalio’s Principles (pdf) and the Holocracy system also come to mind. Freeman’s are a good, high-level overview of the major themes amongst many such organizing principles.

Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures.

Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them.

Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible.

Rotation of tasks among individuals.

Allocation of tasks along rational criteria.

Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible.

Equal access to resources needed by the group.

To this list, I would add from my own experience:

A decision-making framework based on evaluating the objective value of ideas at hand, not who came up with them.

How does one effectively implement these structures in an unorganized group, such as those interested in bitcoin? It’s not readily apparent to me that it’s possible to change the structure of such a project to make it more organized once it’s been running as long as bitcoin has. However, projects such as the new Dogecoin Foundation should be scrutinized by those interested in whether decentralized groups can effectively add more structure to their organizations.

Furthermore, projects such as Ethereum are interesting because while the technology is still decentralized, they have explicitly done away with the unstructured nature of the social situation surrounding that technology by forming a venture-funded for-profit company that is directly responsible for the health of the Ethereum network.

Experiments such as these are by no means guaranteed to succeed, but they will serve as useful data points for those who in the future wish to help decentralized projects and technologies succeed in the world.



(1) The study of that which is not. (2) Science fiction, cultural criticism, and philosophy of technology.

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Adrian M Ryan

Adrian M Ryan


I write about language, philosophy, literature, technology, and space.