Blockchains. Media of Sovereignty

The research project undertakes empirical research, theoretical reflections and conceptualizations about blockchains with a focus on an analytic of powers in the field of media and technology studies.

A first hypothesis (to be critically scrutinized) claims that open, decentralized blockchains signify a novel mediatechnological configuration, whose most innovative aspect concerns the consensus-protocological agency of such blockchain assemblages to automatically validate events in a network  and to reliably govern it in a hostile (open) environment.

The possibility to validate transactional data, such as identities, events, tokens etc., on a consensual mechanism moderated by technology is commonly portrayed by the blockchain industry as a use case for any aspect of modern life that relies on (cryptographically) secured, validated data.

It follows that such a design offers the production of digital unique items on a massive scale, which, for the first time, may serve as digital anchors of physical objects, and integrates them into a regime of computational administration, control and access. Thus, blockchains are systems of control.

In this sense, blockchains may be understood as an abstract media serving a range of specific media operations, as they provide couplings of heterogeneous registers. These couplings of heterogeneous registers (be they symbolic, syntactic, or physical) are recognized and investigated as the core operational powers of blockchains.

The ubiquity of hashing-operations in its manifold ways are hereby seen as the outstanding mathematical-technical elements organizing the powers of these systems. Such hashing-operations are regarded as building blocks of digital cultures per se, since they provide forensically secured digital identities and validations of objects and for users.

Further, blockchains may be also understood as mediatechnologies for the production of artificial digital scarcity because they may designate unique digital objects and thus governing their use.

To sum up, the variety of properties and operations provided by open blockchains add up to a system of autonomous administration of transactional digital objects – a digital regime of sovereignty held together by a machinic networked consensus.

The overall ambition of this project is to problematize the common blockchain discourse and to develop critical concepts for such distributed regimes of self-sovereign control beyond the technical vocabulary. This includes the determination of its limits, such as the question about where the governing intervention, and more generally the control, has moved, as it functions based on algorithms. First hints about its historical appearance point at blockchains as a technical substitute for a fading societal trust in administrative, commercial and political entities in current societies.

In practice, the projects develops and undertakes a multi perspective case study about the Cardano project. We will analyze software(-commits), networking and governance protocols, smart contracts, amongst other elements, in order to gain insights into structural sedimentations of governance, game-theoretical assumptions, and implementations of mechanisms to resolve conflicts. In addition, interviews with different participants and discourse analysis of community channels will help to develop elements of such an analytics of powers. New methods to research digital cultures will be tested, too, e.g. a digital participant observation by running staking-pools in the Cardano network.

Ultimately, the phenomena of blockchains will be situated within a larger power analytical thesis and tested: by developing the concept of technological objectivation/objectification as correlate of governmental subjectivation, a new element of technological environmentality shall be conceived.

The research project “blockchains. media of sovereignty” is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and is located at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media (ICAM) at Leuphana University Lüneburg.


Principal Investigator

Dr. Oliver Leistert
Universitätsallee 1, C5.329
21335 Lüneburg
Fon +49.4131.677-1618

Cooperation partners

Prof. Dr. Gerd Beuster, lecturer for IT-security at FH Wedel.

Dr. Balazs Bodó, senior research scientist with the Blockchain & Society Policy Research Lab at the Institute for Information Law at the University of Amsterdam.

Dr. Lina Dencik, co-director Data Justice Lab and reader at Cardiff University.

Prof. Dr. Erich Hörl professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media, Leuhana University Lüneburg.

Prof. Dr. Geert Lovink, founder of the Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam.

Dr. Theo Röhle, senior lecturer at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication, University Gothenburg.