The blockchain underlying Bitcoin is moving beyond money and into record keeping and law. This essay explores recent efforts to harness the ledger-like qualities of blockchains to create contracts. Along the way, it considers the forms and functions of other historical examples of ledgers, the dynamics of visibility and publicity, and shifts in the incentive structure of blockchain systems. Distributed, autonomously-executing contracts sound like science fiction. Their non-contractual basis in social relations, cultural assumptions, and human-computer labor, together with their particular system of incentives, may make of contract a kind of game with real-world consequences.
Quinn DuPont and Bill Maurer
Quinn DuPont is a PhD student at the University of Toronto. He studies the intersections of code, new media, philosophy, and history, with particular attention to the role of cryptography in contemporary life. He may be contacted at iqdupont.com and @quinndupont. Bill Maurer is Professor of Anthropology and Law, and Dean of Social Sciences, at the University of California, Irvine. He studies money and payment technology, and is the author or editor of 8 books, including, most recently, Data, Now Bigger and Better! (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm). He may be contacted at email@example.com.