Volume #55

Gilgamesh in a Blockchain Age

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“Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.”
Jacques Derrida, ‘Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression’ 1

How do we live forever? Cultural memory is something which binds individuals together across time and space, creating the sense that although mortal, there is a greater continuity persisting both in the pre-life and after-life. We are born into an existing culture, which orients and defines us as human beings, and likewise the death of an individual is a trauma which can be mitigated by the fact that there is a greater body which will outlast them. Yet, the trauma of larger civilizational catastrophes can overwhelm this process and entire traditions can be lost to history in sudden events. (Pre)History is full of such moments, when the trauma of lost culture is retrospectively felt with a yearning for the knowledge of what is now missing. Large environmental catastrophes provide this type of break, whilst producing a lasting cultural echo of the event. They are the memory of the loss of memory, the acknowledgement of ‘known unknowns’. We find this commonality across many cultures in flood stories, dating to prehistory. The persistence of these flood tales serves as an example to illustrate how the organization of cultural transmission can be reconsidered in contemporary contexts, and how we might take things even further to survive the Anthropocene flood itself. As this issue takes on the theme of Intangible Cultural Heritage, this discussion moves towards suggesting how blockchain might offer new chances to redesign our systems of cultural (re)production, helping to defend and propagate the multiplicity of media, forms and practices of culture, to bolster them against political, social and environmental threats. Blockchain is a versatile means of cryptographically distributing data and functionality across a network and is extremely robust because its security is wedded to the fact that it requires 51% of users to be compromised to allow for manipulation. More established and well-known uses of blockchain are in cryptocurrency, but these are really the beginning of a larger transformation. Rather than necessarily opposing different forms, this view suggests that blockchain systems have the potential to represent a synthesis between advantages present in the network architecture of oral cultures, and the technical capabilities of the written archive.

Perhaps inexplicable at the time within the confines of known phenomena, flood stories are interwoven with mythology and religion to explain an event which would have utterly destroyed past societies, as only a vengeful deity might have the power and inclination to inflict such suffering. Contemporary views suggest that these stories might corroborate a sea level rise associated with Holocene warming lasting until around 7000 years ago, when low lying areas such as Doggerland in the North Sea, the Sahul shelf linking Australia and Papua New Guinea 2, and the basin of the Persian Gulf3 were inundated. Such devastating events bear huge significance in the collective memory, as perhaps unprecedented moments of destruction would precipitate an existential crisis: asking which immoralities prompted such a vengeful act. Soon woven into the cultural fabric, survivors’ first-hand accounts would pass down through generations, manifest in tales like Noah’s Ark, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Australian Aboriginal folklore. As one of the oldest surviving works of literature, Gilgamesh’s story saddles a context of transformation when, in parts of the urbanizing Middle East, writing began its millennia-long march to supplant oral traditions.

“With the first light of dawn a black cloud came from the horizon; it thundered within where Adad, lord of the storm was riding. In front over hill and plain Shullat and Hanish, heralds of the storm, led on. Then the gods of the abyss rose up; Nergal pulled out the dams of the nether waters, Ninurta the war-lord threw down the dykes, and the seven judges of hell, the Annunaki, raised their torches, lighting the land with their livid flame.”4

Gilgamesh’s tale is one of frustration and reckoning. The eponymous King of Uruk contends trials and adventures on a quest for immortality, forming an archetype of adventure that would not be out of place in a Hollywood film. With his compatriot Enkidu, they journey across the Levant to fight adversaries and steal women’s hearts, chasing a hopeless mission for eternal life. The tragic realization that this is doomed slowly dawns on Gilgamesh, after meeting Utnapishtim, an immortal survivor of the great flood, who presents Gilgamesh with an impossible challenge to stay awake. Gilgamesh continues to seek out esoteric methods of achieving this, going as far as diving to the bottom of the sea to retrieve a life-giving plant, only to have it stolen by a serpent. In despair, Gilgamesh returns to the burgeoning Mesopotamian metropolis of Uruk, where he is awed by the advancement of technological progress. Gilgamesh’s epiphany is that although his quest for immortality is in vain, he can achieve eternal fame through transubstantiation into the hero of a mythic tale. By being passed down through generations in cultural memory, the hero lives on. In some senses, history has vindicated this lesson. The fact this discussion mentions him is testament, but even so, somewhat reliant on forms of historical contingency.

The tablets were rediscovered in 1853, prior to which the tale had been forgotten. We can credit the fact that the story still lives to their recording in this format. Although there was an intervening period of perhaps a millennium between the estimated reign of Gilgamesh and the creation of the earliest tablets, the oral transmission system had failed to persist into the modern era. There are many reasons for this, not least due to geographic contingencies of the Middle East, at the crossroads of empire, invasion and displacement, creating many civilizational upheavals in the time since. With the eradication of the very cultures to propagate stories, their saving grace lay in this written form of memory. Bernard Stiegler discusses mnemotechnics or tertiary memory, in his work Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Stiegler, drawing from phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, splits memory into three paradigms: primary retention (the contemporaneous experience of the event), secondary memory (the neurological recollection) and tertiary memory (exteriorized memory).5 Oral cultures and media forms like writing count as tertiary memory, as they both exist in a separate body to the individual subject, and serve a prosthetic function. These can range between cuneiform jottings on clay tablets to cloud-based databases, and are qualitatively distinct from psychic memory types, in part because they are physically discrete from the human. This discussion concentrates on the ways in which tertiary memory functions, and as such, we can draw three main groupings: oral cultures – rhizomatic, verbal tertiary memory; written archives (like the Gilgamesh tablets) – arborescent, technical tertiary memory; and blockchain archives – rhizomatic, technical tertiary memory. Before going into these however, we will take a step back and compare this flood tale’s persistence with some that have survived through other means. 

Under the right conditions, the design of oral transmission systems can prove extremely durable. Aboriginal folklore originally recorded in 1788 by colonists had been more recently cross-examined to reveal an important consistency thousands of miles around the circumference of Australia. They all specifically reference a flood story, which although embellished with mythology, pointed to the same event. Paleoclimatic evidence suggests that the sea level rose to form present coastlines until around 7000 years ago, where formerly lay Sahul, a supercontinent comprising Australia and Papua New Guinea.6 This means the stories have persisted for many generations, integrally unchanged. The importance of oral traditions in these societies cannot be understated, as they help disseminate knowledge about the land, among nomadic peoples who must map their extant territory in cultural memory. Therefore, the architecture of their oral pedagogy shows a tri-generational verification process as stories are passed down and checked between grandparents, parents and children, as well as cousins and more distant relatives, ensuring a scrupulous process of replication fidelity.7 This has meant they have persisted exceptionally well prior to the colonial era. However, now that the Aboriginal peoples and their life-patterns are undergoing a significant disruption, this persistence cannot be taken for granted any longer. 

Oral storytelling networks are organized in a way which could be considered rhizomatic. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari establish their distinction between networks of an arborescent ‘tree-like’ structure, and those of the rhizome, a tangled, vectoral mesh of connections. As no point on this network enjoys a privileged position, relations are comparatively egalitarian and as the information is distributed throughout, it is harder to forcibly destroy. The points of vulnerability are therefore distributed, and the cultural information can only be exogenously destroyed by attacking the underlying cultural system itself. 

Oral traditions like Aboriginal folklore as rhizomatic, verbal tertiary memory

The arborescent structure which Deleuze and Guattari discuss could likewise be compared to the transmission of cultural information from written sources. As clay tablets, books, and databases become a repository for information, these sources are privileged nodes in the arborescent network hierarchy. Like the trunk of their namesake tree, the severing of a single main connection would consequently cause the whole network to perish. And so, we find events of cultural destruction become more feasible, following increasing commitment to centralized tertiary memory. This is not a novel risk, as Socrates perhaps somewhat neurotically warned that writing will lead to the downfall of wisdom, as he thought Athenians would increasingly “trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”8 But there are recent examples showing there is some truth to this. The 2018 fire which gutted the Indigenous Brazilian ethnography collection of the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro9 is testament to how irreplaceable artefacts and archives can literally go up in flames. Among these were audio recordings of indigenous languages with no surviving speakers10 – meaning these oral cultures have been lost forever after being committed to a concentrated physical archive. In this particular case, both the oral rhizomatic tertiary memory and physical archive arborescent tertiary memory forms proved inadequate to survive threats. Equally speaking, there is no reason why online storage of information is necessarily immune to the same fate, as even cloud-based archives built on the rhizomatic architecture of internet servers might suffer a choke point where a single user has password access. This is why the simple act of cloud backup is insufficient: provided a person, institution or state has the only key, this choke point persists. The recent loss of 50 million songs, tantamount to an entire generational archive of subculture, was recently snuffed out with the Myspace server migration.11 This highlights the danger that today’s thriving business could be tomorrow’s failure and lose the economic incentive to carefully maintain the archive.

Blockchain provides some opportunities to mitigate the risks associated with destruction and removal of cultural information, by expanding the scale of the network to the planetary. In doing so, the synthesis between rhizomatic, distributed network architectures and a reproducible low-cost, storage-rich technological archive is formed. This effectively utilizes the strengths of both paradigms, opening the potential for engagement to anyone with an internet connection. We can therefore posit it as beneficial in the short-term, as a more egalitarian and engaging mode of transmission, and in the long-term as durable in the face of local and global threats. The emancipatory potential of counter-archiving is, according to Cassie Findlay, a “response to early twenty-first-century ‘post-truth politics’. The archival urge, it would seem, has never been stronger.” 12 In particular, an implementation of a blockchain-based archive, she proposes, could help politically precarious groups like refugees whose personal documents could be kept in virtual space.

Pointing to successful implementations of blockchain in the field of Intangible Cultural Heritage is difficult, with the speculative convergence of fields largely unrealized so far. With this caveat in mind, there are some examples of projects in peripheral fields which demonstrate aspects of the proposed system. KAPU, for instance, is a project which aims to create the first archaeological blockchain.13 Each time an artefact is found, it will be verified and notarized, creating a transparent, publicly accessible and decentralized record, helping to combat black market trading and malpractice. One particular facet of this is the use of OpenTimestamps – a method of data-creation proof which records on the blockchain when information was created. These timestamps reduce reliance on a third-party for verification, so would be useful in our context when political manipulation is anticipated. Making this blockchain system one in which data can only be written rather than deleted might be key to its long-term success. This ‘append-only’ function would allow the users to add to the cultural archive without the ability to permanently remove bits. This is similar to a Google Docs file, which can be edited but still retains each past version of the data. If a rogue user tries to vandalize or attack the archive, then restoration of past versions is simple.

Mostly unrealized but theoretically mapped, strategies such as Permacoin have been put forward as ways to turn the energy wastage of Bitcoin mining into a data-storage system.14 By altering its operation, the vast computational resources dedicated to producing this cryptocurrency (even utilizing more electricity than the whole of Ireland during a price spike in late 201715, and therefore flood-causing) can be functionally inflected to store data.16 Solutions which follow the grain of pre-existing economical and technical systems might ultimately be the most realistic within the current confines of capitalism. Considerations about Proof-of-Work, computationally intensive systems versus alternatives like Proof-of-Stake are not only algorithmic but become environmental considerations too. 

That’s not to say that our maligned arborescent network form is excluded from the plan – indeed the Merkle tree is a useful system of data verification where a random fraction of each file is stored in a file of a greater hierarchy. This could make the actual storage of data across a large network more feasible, as blockchain systems are sometimes resource-intensive and clunky. The top hierarchy, in this case a core blockchain, would only have to store a relatively small amount of data to realistically ensure integrity of the wider archive. The information itself could be globally distributed across the core network, but the ability to append limited to peripheral ecosystems. This might also allow for a localized blockchain, with editing rights bound to a geographically specific area, their boundaries based on cultural communities.17 This is the most obvious entry point for architecture and design, as an ecosystem of blockchain access could be integrated with a multitude of physicalities, catering to the needs and cultures of geographically diverse populations. For instance, the integration within a hypothetical ‘smart city’ could be enacted through infrastructure like smart lamp posts which act as these entry points in a peripheral network.

“Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time?”
Utnapishtim, Epic of Gilgamesh18

There are many unresolved questions in this discussion, which prompt the affirmation that despite the hype-cycle, blockchain will never be a panacea in any sense. Within a generation, belief for the emancipatory power of the Web has cooled as its more dystopian effects have become more apparent. Its maturation has brought a greater sense of these capabilities it possesses, from social media platforms’ toxic psychosocial effects, to large-scale state surveillance, to the erosion of a commons in favor of walled-garden corporate cyberspace. So, another paradigm of transformative technological advancement should be treated with a degree of wariness, and the right questions must be asked early on, to finesse its potential for human emancipation. As Yuk Hui argues, contra techno-determinists like Marshall McLuhan, the realization of technological futures as multivalent rather than unilinear fits into what he calls a system of cosmotechnics; a rejection of technology as a singular becoming, and instead as a contingent interplay between the moral, cosmological and technical.19 How do we design for the potentially infinite forms of intangible culture which we seek to archive? UNESCO already archives languages, culinary practices, dance, ritual in specific manners, but if the process of archiving is decentralized, then the means of archiving these and the conceptual boundaries of Intangible Cultural Heritage will be pushed to their limits. UNESCO’s aims could be accelerated if archiving runs autonomously in parallel to the existing, more deliberative attempts, and decoupled from the whim of territorialized power struggles where states like the US attempt to leverage their geopolitical power and affect these aims’ success.20 If we aim to build a network which democratizes cultural transmission and storage, an imperative is to find ways of designing engagement and access with those whose culture does not fit the mould of Western internet users. Design questions such as ‘how do we give meaningful access to nomadic cultures?’ become vitally important in the development process. Counter-archiving through the internet is not unprecedented in said communities: for instance, Amazonian tribespeople have taken to using Google Earth user photography to publically highlight instances of illegal logging.21

Other important questions center around the mitigation of gatekeepers’ influence as inevitably, someone owns the cables, data centers, and physical infrastructure that we sometimes forget digital systems depend on. Crafting the role of governance in such systems is no easy task, and encouraging participation whilst reducing the toxicity of discord is appropriately referred to as a symptom of the ‘Byzantine Generalization Problem’.22 Furthermore, preventing spam and irrelevant data entry is a question which would need to be carefully considered, with localized gatekeepers perhaps delegated some limited moderation privileges. And finally, we must ask how we future-proof the archive. In a time of rapid technological advancement, it is easy to imagine a system which will function and look dated in a matter of years – designing with changing file formats and computational abilities in mind is extremely speculative work but needs to be considered.

Central to this discussion has been the idea that historical oppression and conquest have destroyed cultures in the past, so an inference could be made that discretization of people and their culture would help to soften the injustice of these acts. If cultural transmission becomes independent of its creators, then the intention is not to imply this is a favorable outcome. Indeed, the first priority should still be to resist destruction of cultures by opposing systems of neocolonialism, environmental destruction, and dispossession. It is far more valuable to preserve the people and their lifestyles than just a digital record of these, but in the Anthropocene we should not take any chances. We should actively distinguish between the living and dead archive: the living archive is one where culture continues to flourish and be produced, whilst the dead archive exists much like the Gilgamesh story, now cemented in content as a product of a bygone era. Among the ICH traditions UNESCO recognizes, the traditions of Kayas in the sacred forests of the Mijikenda in Kenya are a good example of this nuanced understanding necessary in preservation. Their culture is one which is heavily linked to locality, and includes folk-knowledge of the forests, like medicinal botany as well as dance, burial rites and prayer. For these people, whose culture faces erosion due to “pressure on land resources, urbanization and social transformations (…) posing great danger to [their] social fabric and cohesiveness”23, it is clear that social, political and environmental strategies are inextricable, and highlights the social, political and ultimately material questions still underlying the cultural production that necessitates an archive in the first place. 

Blockchain ecosystem as rhizomatic, technical tertiary memory.

Answering these daunting questions is worth the challenge. As the slow realization sets in that we are not simply living in a post-diluvian, but rather an inter-diluvian phase, the need to safeguard our culture against the coming environmental catastrophe becomes all the more pertinent – as the Anthropocene might produce the kind of break that has mercilessly destroyed cultures in the (pre)historic record. Later in Technics and Time 1, Stiegler cites Wittfogel in highlighting the coincidental emergence of writing systems in places where organized bureaucracies needed to enact flood-control projects. Wittfogel’s work produces some problematics, but if this idea is taken at face value, our technologies of recording act in a dynamic co-creation with our societal structure, and these could prove their potential in the future, in this moment necessitating planetary flood-prevention. How we transmit knowledge is of the utmost importance, as Negarestani puts it: Education and pedagogy is one of the most “fundamental and necessary infrastructures for any meaningful or sustained sociopolitical change.”24 As writing radically changed the composition of society, so can each new media form, as blockchain indeed might. Its fate now bound to the resilience of the internet as a substrate, it might soon be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of blockchain. Even with civilizational disaster, we might reasonably expect survivors to continue their thirst for content, social media, and surfing whatever still exists of the web. Perhaps, by maintaining a global blockchain archive, we might achieve immortality in the same manner as Gilgamesh if our descendants can download, learn and recount our tales on the mountaintops of Svalbard.

“This too was the work of Gilgamesh, the king, who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went a long journey, was weary, worn out with labor, and returning engraved on a stone the whole story.” 25