Anthropology and Sociology
Image of Anna Weichselbraun

Technologies of trust: the semiotics of blockchain

Anna Weischelbraun, University of Vienna
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This is part of the Anthropology and Sociology Department's Seminar Series.


From AirBnB to the distributed-ledger technology Blockchain, Facebook’s cryptocurrency Libra to the non-profit organization Ethereum, and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, the web seems abuzz in talk about “trust.” Across the anonymous Internet, companies claim to have either digitized and commodified trust or made it obsolete altogether as in “trustless” technologies, wherein the rules of engagement do not depend on participants’ (good) intentions. Trust here operates as a fuzzy concept variously indexing accountability, reputation, confidence, or transparency among others. Trust is widely considered to be a normative good, a moral quality worth cultivating. Drawing on the work of cultural anthropologists, historians, and political scientists, this paper provincializes interpersonal trust as a historically situated, Christian Modern concept. It does so in order to show that trust is just one of the ways that human beings respond to the uncertainty inherent in intersubjectivity. Technologies of trustlessness seek to minimize that uncertainty by producing bits of information, and indeed, are therefore appropriate objects of inquiry for an anthropology of knowledge. I posit that technologies that purport to either build or supplant the necessity to develop trust among individuals or entities function to stabilize knowledge that actors can have about each other. This paper will begin to examine how "trustless" technologies (as used in supply chains or to verify the precise materiality of industrial products) produce information in a way that appears to minimize the mediating gap between the physical world and its digital representation.





About the Speaker

Anna Weischelbraun is  a university assistant (postdoc) at the Institute for European Ethnology at the University of Vienna. Currently she is developing a project on concepts of trust in the application area of block chain technologies. Anna Weischelbraun received her PhD in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology from the University of Chicago on the knowledge practices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and was a 2016-2018 Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University. Her research interests include normative dimensions of bureaucracy, technology and governance, semiotic and linguistic approaches, political and knowledge anthropology, boredom and the Anthropocene.