As the Dark Inquiry collective, Maya Binyam, Sam Lavigne, Francis Tseng, JB Rubinovitz, Dhruv Mehrotra, Rachel Rosenfelt, Maddy Varner, and myself (Grayson Earle), we set out to create software that operated on the principles of leftist automation: minimum effort, maximum reward. Bail-Bloc originated as a response to the hollow gestures of clicktivism like the early Facebook initiatives that promised to send rice to starving people in exchange for likes. Trump had just been elected by out-manuvering the left online (see Cambridge Analytica), meaning the internet turned out not to be the utopian, world-uniting, conciousness-expanding tool that was once promised, but a silo-defining breeding ground for xenophobia.
Cryptocurrency was one such idealist bid launched on the values of the early internet, but quickly falling from grace due to the realities of our embedded socio-economic system. Bitcoin was introduced in 2009 as an alternative to the centralized banking system. In order to fill the gap left by a central authority, many individuals must participate in the maintenance of the network. In the case of Bitcoin, the technical goal of the network is to produce a reliable blockchain, or a ledger of all transactions that have ever occurred. It’s much simpler than it might sound: it’s like a giant spreadsheet which lists the amount of Bitcoin held by each participant’s wallet. The spreadsheet happens to be cryptographically secure, immutable, and at present is approximately 15 gigabytes (May 2023).
There are a few ways of participating in the Bitcoin blockchain, but of particular importance to this project is the concept of “mining.” Mining involves contributing computing power to verify the validity of new transactions on the network, or producing new “blocks” of verified transactions on its blockchain. For example, if Person A attempts to send 10 Bitcoins to Person B, miners verify that the former possess the requisite currency to do so. Sending Bitcoin over a network requires a small fee that is awarded to miners for their work in verifying transactions. As an incentive, this fee is distributed to miners, along with a random “Block Reward” which operates somewhat like a lottery. Block Rewards are given out with each new block (once every 10 minutes) in order to maintain a predictable currency supply. This prevents inflation, and is touted as a prime tenet of non-state currencies. Rather than a centralized authority printing money at will, new Bitcoin are introduced into the network at a mathematically steady rate.
In sum, miners are rewarded the transaction fee paid by those who are sending coins, and have a random chance to earn a Block Reward for participating in network maintenance. The Block Reward started at 50 Bitcoin and halves approximately every four years. At the time of publishing this article, the reward is 6.25 Bitcoins. Since many people are mining simultaneously, one person (or Bitcoin wallet address) is selected at random to provide their results, which are then verified by other miners. If the results are verified by at least 51% of the other miners, the reward is issued to that randomly selected person. This is an oversimplified explanation riddled with gotchas, but is accurate enough for such a brief explanation.
Since being randomly selected for a block reward is rare, many people opt to join “mining pools” which collectivize the mining process and distribute the rewards across the pool of participants. For example, if one person in a pool of 100 miners is selected and rewarded for verifying a block of transactions, everyone else who worked to solve transactions during that period is collectively rewarded based on the amount of compute power they contributed, or their “hashrate”. In this example of 100 miners, if each miner contributed the same amount of computing power, and the reward was 50 Bitcoin, each miner would receive 0.5 Bitcoin, minus a fee (typically 1%) from the pool operator. This is akin to a group of people buying a set amount of lottery tickets and agreeing to split the pool if one ticket is a winner.
Since Bitcoin’s inception in 2009, its value has risen dramatically. Bitcoin is seen as an asset with significant growth potential. For most of 2012, Bitcoin’s value hovered around $5 USD, and as of Bail Bloc’s inception in November 2017, one Bitcoin was valued at $6,589 USD. As of May 24, 2023, one Bitcoin is valued at $25,271 USD. Because of this increasingly high valuation, mining efforts have likewise increased dramatically. Consumer-level computers are no longer able to compete with machines designed specifically to mine Bitcoin, known as ASICs, Application-Specific Integrated Circuit miners. Large-scale mining operations involve warehouses full of such machines, to the extent that a paranoia persists around the possibility that a mining conglomerate could overpower the consensus algorithm by achieving more than 50% of the total network hashrate, thus granting control over the ledger; whichever set of transaction history is backed by the majority of miners is considered truth, with dissenting accounts dismissed.
Many new cryptocurrencies have been created since the invention of Bitcoin, including several which are ASIC-resistant, intended as a means of making mining more accessible and therefore less prone to the centralization of mining efforts by those with significant access to capital. One such coin is Monero, created in 2014 as an alternative to Bitcoin with an emphasis on privacy; transactions are theoretically impossible to track, unlike Bitcoin. Because Monero is ASIC-resistant, it is possible and relatively viable to mine with consumer-level computers, such as a MacBook. As with Bitcoin, people can opt into donating computing power to maintain the Monero blockchain via mining and receive a small amount of the currency in exchange.
Regardless of the best efforts of some upstart coins like Monero to resist ASIC-enabled centralization, the most insidious problem still remains: Those with access to capital possess the means to further capital accumulation. For all its revolutionary language the Bitcoin whitepaper conspicuously omits this singular issue which has always plagued capitalist society. This is apparently one aspect of the entrenched financial establishment which the technology does not seek to undo. The demographic makeup of most cryptocurrency conferences renders evident the continuation of systems that benefit a familiar cast of characters. A class composed of predominantly white cis men at its core accumulate wealth, while those at the margins gamble for a slice of the future.
Accessing the computing power needed for mining crypto is a weird economy in and of itself. Without access to an ASIC I took a cue from SETI@Home, an ad hoc supercomputer created by a network of volunteers. This software was intended to make up for a budget shortfall for SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which had previously been funded by NASA and a handful of private donors. The goal of the organization is to take the massive amount of data received by the Arecibo satellite array and comb it for patterns which might indicate intelligent sources. Because the data is so massive, a supercomputer is required, but in the context of a budget shortfall the Berkeley SETI lab came up with a creative solution. The software they devised broke the data into small pieces and handed it out to a network of volunteers. The volunteers didn’t perform calculations manually, but ran SETI@Home client software, which automated the entire process.
Like SETI@Home, Bail Bloc is an application that participants download that utilizes a small amount of processing power to mine Monero in the background. While each participant’s contribution was approximately $2.50-3.50 per month at the time of launch, at a critical mass of over 5,000 participants, the project generated over $3,000 in three weeks. Because bail is “revolving”, meaning money posted to the courts is returned upon showing up for trial, and the fact that the average bail is $910 in NYC, this amount can serve many individuals. $910 can theoretically be used to bail out 95 people over a long period of time, since bail is returned roughly 95% of the time.
100% of the Monero generated by participants via Bail Bloc was exchanged for US Dollars and donated to the Bronx Freedom Fund, and later to the Connecticut Immigrant Bond Fund. Neither organization took a cut, so 100% of the donations went directly to posting bail. All told we raised about $10,000, an amount dwarfed by some private bail funds, but the power of the project was largely in its rhetoric. The pages of publications like the New York Times are scarce resources, but by dangling the crypto carrot in front of the press, we were able to wrench open a space to talk about bail and the prison industrial complex.
My collaborator Maya Binyam once said that bail itself is already a form of currency mining, one that operates on communities of color. The project has been offline for the past 3 years, due to the inefficiency in mining, as crypto became massively popular following the project’s release. Perhaps in the future, DAOs and staking collectives can operate similarly, using rewards and pooled resources to redistribute resources by leveraging the speculative fervor among crypto enthusiasts. I hope that the project stands as an example of automation as a tool for workers, rather than something that can only act against their interests. It is possible to imagine the potential of machine learning being put to a similar task, something to think about outside its usual applications of fraught image generation and robot screenwriters.