Sunday, November 29, 2015

Magic Blockchains, but for Time? Blocktime Arbitrage

There is no doubt that blockchains are a reality-making technology, a mode and means of implementing as many flavors of our own crypto-enlightenments as we can imagine! This includes newer, flatter, more autonomous economic, political, ethical, scientific, and community systems. But not just in the familiar human social constructs like economics and politics, possibly in physical realities too like time. Blocktime’s temporal multiplicity and malleability suggest a reality feature we have never had access to before – making more time.

Blocktime: A General Temporality of Blockchains
Blocktime as blockchains’ own temporality allows the tantalizing possibility of rejiggering time and making it a malleable property of blockchains. The in-built time clock in blockchains is blocktime, the chain of time by which a certain number of blocks will have been confirmed. Time is specified in units of transaction block confirmation times, not minutes or hours like in a human time system. Block confirmation times are convertible to minutes, but these conversion metrics might change over time.

Blocktime Arbitrage
One key point is that the notion of blocktime, as an extension of computing clocktime more generally, creates a differential. Blocktime and human time already exist as different time schemas. A differential suggests that the two different systems might be used to reinforce each other, or that the differential could be exploited, arbitraging the two time frameworks. Through the differential too is the way to ‘make more time,’ by accessing events in another time trajectory. The conceptualization of time in computer science is already different than human time. Computing clocktime has more dimensions (discrete time, no time, asynchronous time, etc.) than human physical and biological time, which is continuous. Clocktime has always been different than human time. What is different with blocktime is that it builds in even more variability, and the future assignability of time through dapps and smart contracts. For example, MTL (machine trust language) time primitives might be assigned to a micropayment channel dapp as a time arbiter.
Time has not been future-specifiable before, in the way that it can be assigned in blocktime smart contracts.
Temporality as a Smart Contract Feature
Time speed-ups, slow-downs, event-waiting, and event-positing (a true futures-class technology) could become de rigueur blocktime specifications. Even the blocktime regime itself could be a contract-specifiable parameter per drop-down menu, just like legal regime. Temporality becomes a feature as smart contracts are launched and await events or changes in conditions to update contract states. Time malleability could itself be a feature, arbitraging blocktime with real time. An example of a time schema differential arising could be for example, a decentralized peer-to-peer loan that is coming due in blocktime, but where there have not been enough physical-world time cycles available for generating the ‘fiat resources’ to repay the loan. 

Blocktime Standards
In blocktime, the time interval at which things are done is by block. This is the time that it takes blocks to confirm, so blockchain system processes like those involving smart contracts are ordered around the conception of blocktime quanta or units. This is a different temporal paradigm than human lived time (whether Bergsonian doubled duration (the internal sense of time passing) or external measurable clocktime). The human time paradigm is one that is more variable and contingent. Human time is divided and unitized by the vagaries of human experience, by parameters such as day and night; week, weekend, and holiday; seasons; and more contingently, crises, eras, and historical events.

Since blocktime is an inherent blockchain feature, one of the easiest ways to programmatically specify future time intervals for event conditions and state changes in blockchain-based events is via blocktime. Arguably, it is easier, and more congruent and efficient, to call a time measure from within a system rather than from outside. It could be prohibitively costly for example, to specify an external programmatic call to NIST or another time oracle. Possibly the emerging convention could be to call NIST, including as a backup, confirmation, or comparison for blocktime. Currently, blockchain systems do not necessarily synchronize their internal clocktime with NIST, but the possibility of a vast web of worldwide smart contracts suggests the value and necessity of external time oracles, and raises new issues about global time measurement more generally. Especially since each different blockchain might have its own blocktime, there could be some standard means of coordinating blocktime synchronizations for interoperability, maybe via a time sidechain for example.

Novel Temporalities of Computing (Discontinuous) and Big Data (Predictive)
First computing clocktime made time malleable through its different discontinuous forms. Then machine learning and big data facilitated a new temporality, one oriented to the present and future, instead of responding to just the past. There was a shift from only being able to react to events retrospectively after they had passed, to now being able to model, simulate, plan, and act in real-time as events occur, and proactively structure future events. The current change is that blockchains and particularly smart contracts add exponential power to this; they are in some sense a future reality-making technology on steroids. Whole classes of industries (like mortgage servicing) might be outsourced to the seamless orchestration of blockchain dapps and DACs in the next phases of the automation economy. While Bitcoin is the spot market for transactions in the present moment, smart contracts are a robust futures market for locking in the automated orchestration of vast areas of digital activity.

Blockchain Historicity: Computer Memory of Human Events
Blockchain logs are a human event memory server. Blockchains are already event history keepers, and now with blocktime have even more responsibility as the memory computer of human events. It is now possible to think in terms of blockchain time sequences, in the anticipation and scoping of future events and activities, as blockchain reality unfolds, as opposed to human time scales and events. For example, there are normal human time sequences, like a one-year lease agreement. Other sequentiality is based on human-experienced conditions like ‘the park is open until dark,’ which makes little sense in a blocktime schema. There are time guidelines that vary per lived experience in human realities. Likewise, there could be analogs in lived experience in blockchain realities. Different events could mark the historicity of blockchains, for example, the time elapsed since the genesis block, and other metrics regarding number, amount, and the speed of transactions. In cryptophilosophy, Hegel, Benjamin, Holderlin, and Heidegger’s conceptions of historicity and temporality might be instantiated in the blocktime paradigm, where, in ecstatic temporality, historicity is the event from the future reaching back to present now (Heidegger, Being and Time, 474).

Related Crypto-philosophy Talk: Swan, M. “Bergson’s Qualitative, Kant’s Time and Imagination, and Blocktime Smart Contracts.” Spatiality & Temporality Conference. 11-13 December 2015. Warsaw, Poland. 

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