Latour’s Metaphors and Misconceptions: Bitcoin and the Digital Skills Gender Divide

Latour’s Metaphors and Misconceptions: Bitcoin and the Digital Skills Gender Divide

9th February 2021 0 By Lorraine J. Hayman

Bruno Latour’s ‘Down to Earth’ was published in 2017, and explores “politics, climate, and migration” (Delbourgo, 2018, paragraph 1).  Latour directs readers towards a series of engaging metaphors, contradictions and misconceptions within the context of globalisation, considering ideas on the global movement towards modernity, such as the reaction to Trump’s election in America and Brexit in the United Kingdom (Latour, 2017). In this paper, I will explore some of Latour’s metaphors and misconceptions his essay draws on, specifically the idea of being ‘up in the air’ and unable to land due to the unintended consequences of modernisation. Furthermore, I will discuss some parallels to Latour’s ideas in my current research on the digital skills gender divide, and how “elites” (Latour, 2017, p.I) were instrumental in its development.

Latour’s ‘Down to Earth’ is titled for the metaphor that we are flying a plane towards modernity, but after unpredicted consequences of modernisation we realise we want to return to ‘the Local’, but discover it is impossible to land our plane (Latour, 2017).  We are now in the position of needing to “…learn how to get our bearings, how to orient ourselves” (Latour, 2017, p.2). For Latour, it is impossible to understand the politics of the past generation, such as “the explosion of inequalities” and “the critique of globalisation”, without placing the issues of climate crisis denial “front and centre” (Latour, 2017, p.2). When exploring this flying metaphor of moving towards something which leads to unintended consequences, and in placing the climate crisis at the ‘front and centre’ of my mind, the Bitcoin movement provides an example of how the urgency to modernise led to unintended consequences for the world and its natural resources. Bitcoin is still in circulation, but arguably reserved for an ‘elite’ who can afford it, and it no longer knows where it is going, its compass is “deranged” (Delbourgo, 2018, paragraph 6):

“The compass needle begins by wobbling crazily, turning in all directions…” (Latour, 2017, p.52).

Bitcoin, the first household name of the cryptocurrency, was launched by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008, and was originally developed as an anarchic tool to deliver electronic cash and stand up to the centralisation of the international banking system (Joyce, 2019). Once technology advanced and internet banking became more commonplace, this provided the opportunity for monetary transactions to be tracked and therefore manipulated by the state’s central banks. Bitcoin was supposed to be a solution to this, using a blockchain, and developed by the so-called “cypherpunks”, to prevent a central authority from controlling spending patterns (Joyce, 2019).

However, Bitcoin has been described by Agustín Carstens (2018) as “an environmental disaster” (as cited in Zuluaga), “…limited by its astronomical electricity consumption and outsized carbon footprint” (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, 2019, paragraph 1). Would the self-proclaimed ‘punks’ have continued with Bitcoin development knowing the potential environmental impact? In 2016 Bitcoin, with its approximately 5 million users, used 71.36 TWh of electricity compared with Columbia’s, a state with a population of 49 million, 68.25 TWh (CCAfFA, 2020). Bitcoin was moving towards a world where coins and notes were no longer needed to make transactions, and payments could be completed through their global currency. Yet, now we are back in Latour’s plane, travelling towards a modern world which has rejected central authorities controlling our spending patterns, but on the route, we accidentally consumed more electricity than Austria and Columbia each year, leading to an overwhelming environmental impact. Bitcoin finds itself with investors but a broken compass, preventing their next direction decision:

“It is as though the compass were stuck” (Latour, 2017, p.58).

Latour also explores contractions and misconceptions in ‘Down to Earth’. For example, he discusses politics, considering it is not the attitudes which count in politics, “but the form and weight of the world to which these attitudes have the function of reacting” (Latour, 2017, p.52). This quotation encouraged my exploration of the election of the Conservative Party in Britain in December 2019. Boris Johnson is arguably a more fitting character for the current state of “politics of denial” (Delbourgo, 2019, paragraph 2), which enabled Brexit and the election of a “Tweeter-In-Chief” (Latour, 2017, p.18). Nevertheless, despite this reflection, the landslide victory of the Conservative Party remains something of a shock to myself and my leftie friends. Unfortunately for us and Latour, it seems more time will be lost:

“There is no point hiding the difficulties from ourselves: the fight is going to be a hard one. The time lost in continuing to pace up and down along the old Right/ Left vector has delayed the necessary mobilizations and negotiations” (Latour, 2017, p.55).

In Latour’s essay, I can see some parallels with the digital skills gender divide, which reflects inequalities developed globally concerning digital skills between men and women (Ei Chew, et al., 2019). It is a current ‘hot topic’ in education, literacy, and development arenas, just as Brexit and Donald Trump are ‘hot topics’ of globalisation. An ongoing discussion about the digital skills gender divide is how to overcome it, as it represents a significant inequality that is affecting the global “ongoing digitisation of our economies and societies” (OECD, 2017, paragraph 1). For example, UNESCO research illustrates the diversity in a company’s technical workforce can lead to significantly higher profits; up to 40% in the European Union, than those without a diverse team (Ei Chew, et al., 2019). Latour discusses in his essay that an immediate concern in providing solutions to the current crisis’ is “…to figure out how to address those who rightly feel abandoned by the historical betrayal of the ruling classes…” (Latour, 2017, p.53). I argue this also applies to the digital skills gender divide, as women were alienated by the past actions of ‘the ruling classes’ in Silicon Valley and the British Government. To overcome the divide effectively, this alienation of women who were unceremoniously thrown out of the technological industry in the 1970s, needs to be better addressed.

As the world moves towards greater digitising, the ‘ruling classes’ who previously ‘abandoned’ female computer programmers, need to understand how they can bring women back into a discourse where they feel valued. The British Government are giving this a good go, as in 2019, they gave ‘Gender Balance in Computing’ £2.4 million to research how to engage women in technology (Bowis, 2019). However, Latour’s discussion on the actions of ‘the elites’ has led me to consider whether this is enough. In the 1970s, women were the ones leading technology programming initiatives; they were at the forefront of the technological transformation (Ei Chew, et al., 2019, p.21). Then, as the influence of the Silicon Valley ‘ruling classes’ grew, with Apple, Atari, and Oracle launching their companies, women were gradually removed from programming teams:

“As computers became integrated into all aspects of life, it became clear that programmers wielded tremendous influence; women were pushed out and the field became more and more male-dominated” (Ei Chew, et al., 2019, p. 21).

The growth of Silicon Valley coincided with the British Government’s digitisation process, which explicitly sought to establish ‘structural discrimination’ against women working in the technology sector by displacing them with men (Hicks, 2017). There are parallels here to what Latour says of the climate crisis:

“(“the elites”) had concluded that the earth no longer had room enough for them and for everyone else” (Latour, 2017, p.I).

In my example of the digital skills gender divide, ‘the elites’ of Silicon Valley and the British Government had systematically decided there was no longer enough room for women at the forefront of technological innovation. Therefore, as this was a choice of those ‘elites’ is it now enough to proclaim the digital skills gender divide exists and we must close it? If ‘the elites’ in Latour’s (2017) essay who have been working against the “common horizon” (p. I) did a U-turn and asked us all to work together again, I am not convinced Latour and others would readily agree without greater recognition by ‘the elites’ of their mistakes.

In conclusion, Latour’s ‘Down to Earth’ offers the reader the chance to explore metaphors, contradictions and misconceptions of globalisation, which connect nicely to some current issues in the digital technology field, like Bitcoin and the digital skills gender divide. The vision of travelling towards a modern state, which has moved on from paper money and coins, with finance existing only in the cryptocurrency format, is very distant. The ‘punk’ creators of Bitcoin failed to see the unintended consequences of their potentially transformative creation. Moreover, like UNESCO, OECD, corporations in Silicon Valley and states around the world start to investigate how we can work together to overcome the digital skills gender divide, the irony that they have been instrumental in its development is not lost. I argue greater attempts to ‘address’ the women who were ‘abandoned’ and ‘betrayed’ by the technological ‘elite’ of the 1970s is required if solutions to the digital skills gender divide are going to be effective. Admittedly, this is not as radical as Latour’s ideas of approaching the problem from a whole new perspective as he would have us do about the climate crisis, but it is nevertheless a step in that direction.

Bibliography

Bowis, G. (2019, July). Another one bites the dust: How schools can improve the digital skills gender gap. Microsoft. https://cloudblogs.microsoft.com/industry-blog/en-gb/education/2019/07/22/schoolsdigital-skills-gender-gap/

Cambridge Centre for Alternate Finance. (2020). Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index. University of Cambridge. https://www.cbeci.org/comparisons/

Delbourgo, J. (2018, September 6). No more EasyJet: on Bruno Latour’s “ou atterrir?”. Los Angeles Review of Books. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/no-more-easyjet-on-bruno-latours-ou-atterrir/

Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. (2019, September 30). Researchers invent low-cost alternative to Bitcoin. Science Daily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/09/190930101303.htm

Ei Chew, H. Krau, R. West, M. (2019). I’d blush if I could: closing gender divides in digital skills through education. UNESCO for the EQUALS Skills Coalition. Retrieved September 30, 2019, from https://en.unesco.org/Id-blush-if-I-could

Hicks, Marie. (2017). Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing. The MIT Press.

Joyce, H. (2019, November 19). Futurewatch: The crypto craze [Podcast]. The Economist Podcast. https://www.economist.com/podcasts/2019/11/18/futurewatch-the-crypto-craze

Latour, B. (2017). Down to Earth. Polity Press.

OECD. (2017). Key policy recommendations for the G20. OECD. https://www.oecd.org/g20/policy-recommendations-for-digital-transformation-in-the-G20.pdf

Zuluaga, D. (2018, September 4). Why Bitcoin is not an environmental disaster. CATO Institute. https://www.cato.org/blog/why-bitcoin-not-environmental-catastrophe