Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Fallacy of Proximity

In the world of cryptocurrency, which has metastasized to encompass NFTs and DAOs, and which will undoubtedly produce more acronyms before the end, the underlying technology is blockchain. It doesn't matter what any of these things are, the key point here is that blockchain is a technology which literally cannot solve any problems. There is no problem yet identified for which it is anything more than an extremely bad semi-solution.

What happens is that someone builds some kind of system, for "money" or "art" or whatever, which they claim has some interesting, fun, useful properties. In general, it in fact has none of the claimed properties, but that's a separate conversation, so let us stipulate that the system actually has the relevant properties and is in fact interesting, fun, useful. The system has, somewhere in it, blockchain. The people building the system and, importantly, selling it, will loudly claim that it's the blockchain what done it!

It's the blockchain that enables all the desirable properties!

This is also false, and is the subject of today's post. Blockchain, whatever it is, doesn't solve any problems. It is not capable of solving problems. The system these people have built relies on blockchain not even in the slightest, they could have built functionally the same system on practically anything else, and it would have been better. But, for reasons that have to do with the massive grift that is crypto, they built it on blockchain.

Here we see the first instance of the fallacy of proximity. We can see blockchain right there in the system. We are told that it is this that makes the system interesting, fun, and useful. The fact that blockchain is nearby, however, does not imply a causal relationship.

The important distinction is this: in order for A to cause B, A needs to be positioned somewhere at a point of leverage. This is true. However, if C is positioned at a point of leverage, we cannot deduce that C caused B. C could just be sitting there, doing nothing. The fact that it is positioned near B does not mean that it caused B.

In order for the truck (A) to run over the cow (B), the truck has to be on the same road as the cow. The Honda Civic (C) that was also on the same road, however, did not run over the cow (B.)

This is apparently hard for people to grasp, and is absolutely a point of entry for grifters, other people with agendas, and indeed anyone who's looking for causes.

This is, I think, the root of some obsessions with process in Art. People are trying to cause some Good Art to happen, so they try out shit that feels nearby. If they manage to produce something not bad, they are likely to ascribe the cause to whatever process they were doing.

"See, I was eating vegan and meditating that week, so now that's My Process because that's how you make Good Art, sign up for my workshop on how eating vegan and meditating can help YOU make Good Art too!"

Now, the production of Good Art can be a bit mysterious, so I am loathe to condemn any particular artist and their process, but as a generality I consider it likely that a lot of process is simply wasted effort. We just don't know which parts.

This is also a favorite argument in the land of academic photography. Ariella Azoulay's writing (but they all do it) tends to boil down to "bad thing happened, and there was a photographer nearby, therefore photography is very violent and bad" which is, again, to suppose that the Honda Civic ran the cow over. Azoulay would likely allow as to how the truck also ran the cow over, but she's pretty sure that the Civic did as well.

Indeed, really, every car is complicit the the murder of the cow, when you think about it.

These arguments go over really really well, it turns out. People, whether they're buying NFTs or reading academic papers about how poisonous photographs are, find the Proximity argument very convincing.

As a reformed mathematician, I don't, but I'm pretty sure I'm the odd one out here.


  1. I don't understand "blockchain" at all, but I realise I'm getting old, and put it in the same box marked "Huh?" as the current obsession with trans identities.

    But I'm totally with you on "proximity", although having a distinctly non-mathematical mind (no maths co-processor installed) I prefer to talk about "cause vs. correlation", which seems to bedevil most discussions about everything.


  2. Some artists (or even many) feel that exposing their process will confer meaning and interest not manifested in the end result. E.g., 'research' comprised of sifting through heaps of stuff, pulling out and collating random bits into a somewhat smaller heap of stuff that appears to support some notion or whatever, dragged onto a gallery floor, or into a book. Ooh, so much work! Surely it must mean something. Yep, careers are made of this.

    Me, I think it's better to make shit up as you go along and hope for the best. I suppose it's a kind of process?

    1. I tend to just follow my nose as well. Perhaps somewhere along the way I developed some instincts. This "process" serves to produce things which delight me, though, so that's enough for me.

  3. If you want to follow up on the usefulness of blockchains in solving current real world problems I recommend Cam Harvey's "DeFi and the Future of Finance." I think you'll find it welll reasoned, enjoyable and thought provoking.

    1. With all due respect, you are either dumb, a shill, or both. You fucking guys always have a reading list, and reading it always turns up the same bullshit. The question of "so, if we replaced blockchain with, say, a NoSQL database, how would this be different?" is never addressed beyond some vague hand-wavey "distributed" garbage that, when examined closely, actually makes the so-called solution worse.

      DeFi is stupid. It is gaining traction for one reason and one reason only: And handful of wealthy sociopathic motherfuckers like Marc Andreessen see the opportunity to replace existing gatekeepers with themselves.

      They have no interest in helping the unbanked or artists or whatever your stupid rationalizations are this week, so they don't care that the "solution" does no such thing. What they *care* about is that all the money Citibank, or Zwirner, or whatever are making can now be made by Marc Andreessen.

      And because dumbfucks like you are heavily into it, either monetarily, or emotionally, but probably both, it's all gaining traction. This shit is almost certainly going to "succeed" at some level. Yes, they're going to replace "blockchain" with some shitty NoSQL database hosted in AWS (which they will insist, hilariously, is still blockchain,) which will at least improve the carbon footprint, but the end result will be, as usual, everyone except Marc Andreessen and BlackRock getting fucked in the ass, including you.

      Honestly, you people drive me insane. You don't understand anything about this shit, you don't see the forces in play, you just hear a bunch of "buzz" and you see that Wired Magazine did a piece, and, woo! It's the fucking future!

      Have you not noticed the last dozen or so futures? Holy shit. Yeah, a lot of 'em came true in.. uh some form or another. Not quite what we had in mind.

      You liking them a lot? Is anyone liking them much?

      JFC. Just.. just. No. God. Reply if you must but let us draw this sad chapter to a close fairly quickly, please.

  4. I wasn't paying 100% attention to the podcast about him, but I think Peter Thiel is another one of those guys who wants to start his own libertarian paradise indie country with no government (except maybe himself) and that it would all be managed via blockchain or crypto or whatever, I can't remember what magic was invoked. Always comes down to some rich guy who knows best telling everyone else what to do, and they all think it's the first time this has come up.

  5. "one of those guys who wants to start his own libertarian paradise indie country"

    Peter Thiel is a slimy opportunist, Trump worshipper, and certified sick fuck. He seems to have confused New Zealand with this notional paradise. Or maybe he has plans.