The Mask as Political Technology, or, Todos Somos Satoshi Nakamoto

"We shouldn't be looking for heroes, we should be looking for good ideas."
-Noam  Chomsky

 written on a  phone during a bagel delivery shift, forgive any inchoate ideas or messy writing

Yesterday, Wired and Gizmodo published articles alledgedly unmasking the psuedononymous creator of Bitcoin [1], Satoshi Nakamoto, as Craig Steven Wright. The ensuing uproar on  the internet has  led to a  set of  debates about whether PGP  keys  alledgedly linking the two were  forged (seems like they  were)  and accusations that the entire story is a carefully planned hoax.  The calls for "mathematical proof" of this identity and proliferating conspiracy theories about the Satoshi Nakamoto reminds  me of another search for the true identity of a masked psuedonynomous  figure:  Subcommandante Marcos [2]. The connection between the cases  of Subcommandante Marcos and Satoshi Nakamoto are illuminating, helping throw into relief the politics of the mask and the compulsive desire we have to ascribe causation to things.  My goal with this post is not to enter the debate over the real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto but to focus on the  politics of psuedonymity and the mask.

In a 2013 article,  the philosopher Thomas Nail wrote a Huffpo article on the politics of the mask exploring the role  of the mask in  zapatista struggles. I turn to this article because while a large amount has  been  writtten about the politics of anonymity and psuedonymity[3], I find his three points capture effectively the politics of masking and want  to use them in my reflection on the   role of Satoshi Nakamoto:

1. The mask rejects the political representation of the party and state.

The  Zapatistas said that after five-hundred years of invisiblity they "donned their masks to become visible". While this seems like a paradox,  this  insight highlights how the mask simutaneously funcions as  both something  that conceals, refusing any attempt by the state to recognize the subject of action and as something that reveals,  dictating the terms by which you are recognized. Here, refusing representation or recognition  by the state means refusing the ""binds" or "cunning" of recognition, where recogntion is predicated on conforming to a specific category[4].  In  the case of Satoshi Nakamoto, we see this anarchist refusal of recognition serves both to  protect  the  actual figure of Satoshi from state violence while giving Satoshi the ability to  present only the details about themself that they  choose.

2. The mask creates a political universalism

When the state unmasked Subcommandante Marcos,  he responded by unmasking himself  and showing that  behind the mask he  was.....a mirror. The mask is a political technologly which, in  refusing recognition,  transforms the  wearer of the mask  into a universal  subject. Considering that the crypto-anarchit nature of bitcoin itself is a technology that undermines national boundaries and particularity, it seems fitting that Satoshi would  don a mask. The search to  reveal who Satoshi is further shows  the universalizing  potential: Satoshi has been revealed, at different times, to be someone in  a wheelchair with ALS, a rather dull austrailian businessman and  a young japanese hacker.  Everytime attempts are made to particularize the universal  bearer of the mask, people are forced to contend with the fact that  anyone, a hacker sitting next to  them at a conference , a man in a wheelchair, could be Satoshi.

3. The mask supports direct democracy and egalitarianism.

The habit of always assigning an author,  always seeking to recognize the individual creator, is a habit which  affirms hierarchy. This is the same for the  media that always searches for a "leader" of  a political movement as it is for the search forthe genius   coder behind a technology. It is a habit creates a world where there are experts and the rest,  a world where the vast unrecognized  labor that goes into  creating any technology is  effaced. By donning a mask, Satoshi let the code speak for itself and did not attempt to secure some  sort of status from the creation  [5].

What then does the poltiiics of  the mask reveal about drive to dox Satoshi? It is my  hope that a reflection on the mask as a political technology reveals that the attempt to secure some  sort of true identity  and ascribe causation to the technologies we use is a recactionary  one. We should not let ourselves be distracted search for heroes but  insteaad work together to develop the ideas,  technologies and forms  of social organization of another world.

[1] In case my dear readers  take my interest in bitcoin as some form of  anarcho-capitalism, my  interest in bitcoin is entirely in the ability of the public ledger to  provide a decentralized,  cryptographically secure means of verification.  The uses of this technology for anti-authoritarian communist ends are manifold and probably  one  of the most exciting recent crypto-anarchist inventions.  I ,of course,  believe that communism  requires the abolition of the value form and don't envision a decentralized currency as part of any emancipatory  social or political horizon.

[2] For thosewho donot know the tale of SubcommandanteMarcos, let me briefly recount it. Subcomandante Marcos was the masked figure who was part of the leadership of the EZLN,  thearmed wing of the Zapatista movementthat lead the 1994 uprising in Chiapas. He also has written prolifically,  from political philosophy to novels, childrenbooks and even erotica. Figured as a "leader",  the Mexican state put agreat deal of effort in unmasking himand thereby discounting the Zapatista movementnot as anindigenous uprising but as leftist manipulation  of naive indigenous peoples. Marcos'  engagement with psuedonymity has been perhaps one of the most interesting engagements with the politics of the mask. In 1996, after the Mexican State revealed him to be a  radicalized student from UNAM, Marcos responded by revealing that behind the mask wasa mirror,  that his identity was nothing other than a universal identity of all  those resisting oppression. More recently, the EZLN  declared that Marcos  never existed and was a collective hallucination that was a necessary  tactic  in their revolutionary communication strategy.

[3] Particularly relevant  for me is the work of  Anthropologists Michael Taussig and Gabriella Coleman and the writings of TIqqun,  Giles Delueze and Felix Guatarri. I am also inspired  by the use of the mask & psuedonym in  insurrectionary social movements, from the Luddites to  the Black Block and (evidently) the zapatistas.   

[4]  I am particularly influenced by Patchen Markell's Bound by Recognition and Elizabeth  Povenelli's  Cunning of Recognition.

[5]  Satoshi did however make an immense profit from bitcoin. We see in this profit  precisely  how bitcoin, as a form of digital  currency, is not an emancipatory technology - that it merely reproduces the same forms of alienated value that exist with other  bearers of capitalist value.  Hence, the blockchain as the  only  really anarchist or revolutionary piece of technology, bitcoin  is just  the same old wolf in newer, higher tech, clothing.