Asking for consent is not just about sex. It’s about touching, about hugs, nicknames, about personal space, about ownership over your body, and all decisions made regarding it. This is not a joke, not a flippant analogy: Internet surveillance, from both companies and governments, is abusive. It removes our self-ownership of our bodies.– Ruth Coustick-Deal, “Online/Offline: Consent is everything.”
As a voluntaryist, consent is a foundational concept that I am constantly re-evaluating when examining the ethics of interpersonal and political systems. There would be no notion of “voluntary” without it, as our understanding of consent is the metric by which we determine whether any given interaction occurred on a non-coerced basis.
While it can be assumed that voluntaryists believe in some form of individual free will — or at least that building societal structures on that basis, with a thorough examination of the self, is the most ethical and advantageous course for humanity — every day we also learn more about how our choices may be influenced and / or constrained by a complex interplay of genetic, physiological, psychological, environmental, and social factors. In order to “give” consent, we must be able to exercise consent in the first place. In order to understand the language of consent, we must know the difference between implication and explication. There are not always (if ever) black-and-white answers to questions of consent, but in the midst of controversy people tend to react as if that is the case, according to related personal experiences, religious practices / doctrines, social expectations or state laws that affect their lives. Those influences should not necessarily be negated or ignored, but rather engaged with in an interdisciplinary, scientific, and philosophical manner.
Consideration for consent is no less important in designing and scaling technological systems than it is in the “soft” human ones, especially when the latter is increasingly reliant on the former for even the smallest tasks and decisions. I have previously written about smartphones being extensions, or “exoskeletons,” of the self; in a recent podcast, Elon Musk (who I am not necessarily a fan of) expressed a similar notion: that technology is successful if it achieves “limbic resonance.”
“We mentioned all of those things, the primal drives. There’s all of the things that we like, and hate, and fear. They’re all there on the internet, they’re a projection of our limbic system…
The success of these online systems is sort of a function of how much limbic resonance they’re able to achieve with people; the more limbic resonance, the more engagement.”— Elon Musk, “Joe Rogan Experience #1169“
I have heard some claim that Bitcoin’s security stems from a “resistance” or “immunity” to human nature. While I would agree with this regarding the use of cryptographic algorithms (“no amount of violence will ever solve the math problem“), I would say that rather it is the implicit acknowledgement and acceptance of the human nature, within the incentive structure of the network, which has made it secure. It assumes a baseline of human drives: the majority of nodes (run by humans) are self-interested and would rather be rewarded, in exchange for being “honest,” than attack the network.
But how does the “reward,” in the form of bitcoin, even achieve a status of having this inter-subjective value, that would make it worth the expenditure of energy to compete for and then protect? A long-term bet, you could call it, on what choices at least “two willing parties” would make. A bet, coinciding with the financial crisis of 2008, that people would soon recognise the inherent instability of centralised & surveilled monetary systems, systems which trapped you in the particular monetary policies of a given bordered geography, and that these ‘primal drives’ would resonant with a new one.
Though no one said the reward would come without risk.
Award of Excellence for Due-Diligence Negligence
By now, many of you have probably seen the cascade of reactions to Sarah Jeong being hired on to the editorial board of the New York Times. My interest is not in debating about any of the racially-charged tweets which became the central focus of praise or ridicule. Instead, I think it is more worthwhile to analyse the indiscretionary language about decisions which clearly resulted in harm to actual victims, and should have foreshadowed the kind of hypocrisy and lack of consideration for source protection we saw this year in the controversy between Vice Magazine and Naomi Wu.
I’ve mentioned in two previous posts that speculation about Satoshi Nakamoto’s identity has been a plague on Bitcoin and tech journalism for several years now, but the incident from 2014 was particularly egregious.
On March 6th 2014, Newsweek writer Leah McGrath Goodman doxxed Dorian Nakamoto under the impression that he was “the mystery man” behind Bitcoin. Goodman not only included personal information about his employment and immigration history, but photographs of him, his house, and his car (with license plate in full view). She included this sensitive information in the piece despite knowing very well, based on Dorian’s own statements and those of family members, that he was in a financially challenged position and had recently been dealing with serious health issues. This would make it very difficult for him to either properly secure his home or relocate in the event that he was maliciously targeted.
Gavin Andresen, who was also interviewed, specifically said that though he himself had asked Satoshi for identifying information over the course of their correspondence, most Bitcoin contributors “really don’t care” who Satoshi is. When the article was published, he was “disappointed Newsweek decided to dox the Nakamoto family, and regret talking to Leah,” and shared a book review about how humans are “pattern-seeking, storytelling animals.” A few days later, he was also “disappointed (but not surprised) discussion is ‘is the story right [about his identity]’ and not ‘what is reasonable expectation of privacy’.” As Bob Sullivan and many others pointed out in the aftermath, Goodman seems to have exploited the reduced privacy protections granted to naturalised U.S. citizens regarding their immigration and residency documentation in her quest to locate him.
More than four years later, she is still expressing the opposite of remorse, with no consideration for the ethics of how she conducted the investigation, and (as an American journalist) no reflection on the fact that historical precedent of such privacy violations against Japanese Americans should — at the very least — have compelled any decent human being to be more sensitive about exposing his private life, real Satoshi or not. And need I point out that being car-chased out of your own neighborhood by a bunch of nosey journalists is not good for a senior citizen’s health? Being a “female journalist” in Bitcoin myself, seeing other journalists condone and applaud Goodman’s work, supposedly as an example of women’s accomplishments in journalism, makes me even more sick to my stomach. One of them even had the gall to call herself a “privacy pragmatist” in the footer.
From the start, Jeong was among the female journalists praising Goodman’s actions. At one point, she ridiculed the idea that this was even being considered doxxing and implied he deserved it by nature of having a similar name. In general, she justified the de-anonymisation of any potential Satoshi Nakamoto because she sees them as a “public figure,” even though Satoshi deliberately used a pseudonym and tried to avoid being shoehorned as an oracle for Bitcoin. Dorian’s privacy, even as a private citizen who clearly wanted to be left alone, was less important to her than the fulfillment of some weird wish for a “trolly Asian grandpa” figure.
It certainly would have been “nice” if Goodman had done some more fact-checking. What was the supposedly undeniable evidence put forth by forensic genealogist Sharon Sergeant that this was the real Satoshi? References to “disk space” and “Moore’s Law” in the whitepaper. What a bunch of shitty Sherlocks.
But Goodman and Jeong are not alone in embracing their inner paparazzi, who see nothing wrong with invading someone’s private space and posting their pictures for all the world to see. Many of my friends were deeply disturbed by the frenzy that arose from the so-called “PlaneBae saga.”
This is the side of sousveillance which quickly becomes frightening: instead of arming ourselves with increasingly powerful camera phones in order to hold power to account, we turn complete strangers into our own personal entertainment click farms. And while those who are targeted try their best to deal with the storm of attention unexpectedly unleashed on their lives (assuming they survive it), some will continue to milk those violations and try to make up for the fact that by inserting themselves into the lives of others, they became the villain of their own story.
Nissenbaum, who I have previously quoted about consent and privacy, says that our current consent mechanisms on the internet are not enough. When we click ‘Accept’ on a terms-of-service agreement, for example, it is not possible for us to forsee, let alone understand the consequences of, all of the possible dataflows which may open up; “the future costs, the external costs, all those things that affect not just the two parties in question.” What does it mean to reach a ‘digital age of consent‘? For those who became 13 years old when the internet existed, could we say today that we were truly ready for all of its implications then? Or did that early exposure better prepare us?
The manner in which we share information with each other is still being done on the basis of social norms formed within a soft, mutable infrastructure; we haven’t yet adapted to the potential of a society where every utterance could become heard ’round the world.
Note: The title of this section was inspired by a “corruption award” certificate near the bottom of this extremely dense analysis of the Russia-Trump collusion allegations (I make no claim on its veracity; just thought the label was funny).
Sugar and Spice
The “sugar daddy” / “sugar baby” relationship dynamic has surely existed longer than human history can remember. But according to World Wide Words, an index of Michael Quinion’s research on the history of the English language, the most credible origin tale for the term “sugar daddy” surrounded a cause célèbre murder mystery in the early 1920s:
The first known use of sugar daddy is in an episode of a surreal tale with the title Fat Anna’s Future that appeared in the Syracuse Herald on 27 March 1923. Coincidentally, its notorious introduction to the wider American public would come in the following day’s newspapers. The story had actually begun two weeks before, when the body of Dorothy Keenan King was found in her New York apartment. “Dot” King was a former model and unsuccessful actress who had become what people then called a vamp, a woman who used her undoubted attractiveness to target men. She had been set up in the apartment and given lavish presents by a 50-year-old tycoon named John Kearsley Mitchell III. He used the pseudonym of Mr Marshall but was publicly unmasked in press reports on 28 March below a formal posed photograph…
Dot King’s story became a cause celebre and was widely publicised, often mentioning her pet name for Mitchell, heavy sugar daddy. It gained instant public recognition and it has been in the language since, though heavy was soon lost.
The term seems to have been a New York creation of the louche and criminal worlds linked to Broadway in Prohibition days. Sugar was a long-established slang term for money and heavy sugar was a lot of it. Sugar was also an endearment, which originated around this time in African-American slang and which reached a wider white audience via blues lyrics. Daddy was an obvious reference to an older man, but it may similarly have had a link to African-American slang of the time, in which a daddy was a lover with no implications of age. Heavy sugar daddy was literally an older man with lots of cash but in the theatrical world it specifically meant a rich man who pursued actresses for immoral purposes.
As if the Oedipal undertones weren’t already bad enough, about two years after that story was published, the candy known today as ‘Sugar Daddy’ (initially dubbed ‘Papa Sucker’) was invented. The website of Tootsie Roll Industries, which acquired the inventor’s company many decades after the fact, says the name was supposed to suggest “a wealth of sweetness.” While the related bite-sized ‘Sugar Babies’ followed three years after the ‘Sugar Daddy,’ the ‘Sugar Mama’ — which was actually just a ‘Sugar Daddy’ covered in chocolate — didn’t appear until 1965 and was discontinued within twenty years. Go figure.
You may be wondering why I’ve just gone from talking about consent, technology as a projection of human nature, the financial crisis, and doxxing, to the origins of a socio-erotic fantasy term and how it ruined the innocence of several popular candies. As I have said before, I try hard to avoid the “epiphany addiction” that can often come with spending significant amounts of time online. I enjoy channeling that hyper-focus into research that preserves a web of seemingly random curiosities I encounter, by connecting them to significant current events.
On September 19th, a few hours before it was announced that (now former) Defense Distributed founder and director Cody Wilson was being charged with statutory rape, I came across a then two-week old tweet from the ETHBerlin conference account. There is a short video attached featuring two dragqueens, “Fanny” and “Viagra Falls,” who decide that they will get a “crypto daddy.” Regardless of the intent behind this kind of marketing, I did not appreciate such sexually suggestive messaging (and would have appreciated it even less had I actually been there), that female or female-presenting attendees of a tech conference might be intending to hook up with wealthy men in exchange for sex. Whether that may have been the intent of some attendees is beside the point, as marketing sets the tone for all. (The videos were later shared in the conference media collection as ‘Housewives promo videos.’) In my initial search, I also found other ‘jokes’ about Viagra being slapped over a tabs versus spaces debate, Fanny being “superpumped” after taking “too many diet pills before her morning powerwalk,” and a post-event tweet from the organiser, María Paula, saying “me and my NSA friends put trackers on every mate bottle.”
I then found a tweet from ‘WhalePanda,’ dated on the first day of the ETHBerlin event, where he said that there had been a mainstage performance featuring a very sexually explicit remix of the YMCA song. Strangely, despite him making no negative comments about the gender or sexuality of the performers in the tweet, a few days later Paula accused him of “homophobia” and being “a threat to minorities,” while sharing a picture of one of their performers holding a black fan with “PENIS!” written on it. Isabella Rebel, who attended the event, pointed out that it made sense to “separat[e] sexual content from open spaces because sex is a tricky, uncomfortable, sometimes traumatic subject for many.” I think the assumption that any criticism of the presence of sexualised content is synonymous with hatred for a particular sexual expression or orientation will have far more negative consequences for those minority groups than some degree of prudishness (which could itself be stemming from trauma).
On the final day of the event, Steven D. McKie tweeted that there would be adult entertainment provided by SpankChain. While I think that highlighting how censorship-resistant cryptocurrencies could help politically and economically sensitive industries is a legitimate topic (which, as I understand it, was the purpose of their presence), I should point out that McKie was the same guy who told me to “shut the fuck up” when I discovered that they had been taking pictures of many attendees at the ZCon0 conference without asking for consent. I suspect the same policy (or rather lack thereof) was in place at the ETHBerlin event regarding photography.
The ETHBerlin account also tweeted to thank the “sponsors who are getting us drunk tonight!!” As someone who doesn’t drink alcohol or do drugs, going to any conference after-parties or social gatherings that involve either are much more stressful if the organisers — who should be responsible for overseeing the conduct of participants — are promoting drinking and even becoming intoxicated themselves.
However, this was by far not the most controversial incident regarding sexualised content, especially in the Ethereum community. Last year, there was the North American Bitcoin conference holding their official after-party in a Miama strip club… which was actually sponsored by the altcoin Dash, ICO-related funds, and a whole basket of other companies I’ve never heard of. I only recognised one of the speakers as being a Bitcoin proponent, and from what I could tell there were no developers present (hint: that’s usually a sign to not attend). There was also Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin’s “I don’t see legalizing possession of child porn as more radical than heroin” statement, which Blake Anderson aptly rebutted. Around the same time, a “fiction story” titled ‘Elizabeth‘ [content warning] by the other co-founder, Gavin Wood, re-surfaced. It had been published back in December 2013, the same month in which Wood first contacted Buterin about working on Ethereum.
While I have been aware of the existence of this story and its controversial nature for a while, I actually did not read it until after Wood tweeted his “acknowledging and explaining” post last month. Therefore, I read it with all of his hindsight justifications in mind; yet I must say that I was still rather unconvinced.
There is a disturbingly close similarity between the narrator and Wood’s real life, down to a bracelet he has worn. According to an investigation by two BuzzFeed reporters, there is “no evidence of the death of a child named Elizabeth in Lancashire County on or around Dec. 31, 1998.” Wood has denied that the story was about real persons or events, and asserted that it was “meant to provoke intellectual debate and discussion around generally taboo subjects like the nature of consent.” Unfortunately, as someone who has spent a reasonable amount of time creating and analyzing creative writing pieces, I see little to no trace of that intent reflected in the story. The only thing provocative about it, is what remains unwritten.
First of all, it was very risky of him to publish this story on a ‘taboo subject,’ i.e. sexual intercourse with a pre-teen girl, without some kind of disclaimer that it was a work of fiction. He did not do this (until, of course, almost five years later) but instead had it erased from the Internet Archive‘s database; he should not be surprised that a first-person narrative published under his real name, with so many corroborating details, would be “misconstrued” as autobiographical. Second, the unnamed narrator’s actions and perspective are devoid of internal conflict regarding anything he does. Do you get the impression that he feels an ethical weight, that there is complexity to any of his choices? His response to Elizabeth’s request for him to “take her virginity” (when she is barely even old enough to receive sex education in school), is to indulge it without reservation.
The “theory” of the girl’s HIV status appears to be promoting a medical myth (HIV is not a genetic disease that can be “inherited”) in order to avoid acknowledging — assuming she really was infected by her father — that she was likely raped as a baby, before her “single-mother” broke contact with him. At one point, the narrator remarks that Elizabeth’s “young body was maturing behind her mind.” This observation, while likely inserted as another subtle attempt at justifying the character’s future actions, entirely conforms to the decades of studies on the link between early physiological / sexual development and age of first intercourse, particularly with girls, who grow up in father-absent environments.
This girl lived a very short and traumatic life, yet all the narrator can really say is that it “added to her [physical] beauty.” There is no trace of anger at the father who likely abused and abandoned her; no anger at the mother who failed to protect her; no anger at the other children who cruelly bullied her; no fear of being charged with statutory rape if anyone were to find out; no anger or self-disgust for having unprotected sex with an immuno-compromised child and potentially exposing her to the very germs which caused her death only days after their “one night of passion” (in fact, this very real possibility does not even cross his mind)! There was not a single moment where I felt that consideration for issues of consent was even attempted; if anything, repeated violations of consent are suggested to be aesthetically enhancing somehow. If there was any “intellectual debate” stimulated, the narrator is certainly not a participant; such a debate only comes about after readers slug through fourteen frustrating paragraphs of his painful obliviousness.
In summary, the most generous conclusion I could possibly make about this story is this: Wood is an awful “fiction” writer. Perhaps, since I am not “unassociated” with his industry, he will entertain my critique.
His rebuttal, coincidentally, was also published on September 19th, the same day it was announced that Cody Wilson was being charged for statutory rape. In the days following the announcement, I spent a few hours investigating the details of the case, particularly the SugarDaddyMeet website that was allegedly used, and presented my findings on Episode #127 of Block Digest:
There may be further details made public through the discovery process which establish the extent of his culpability. Currently, there is no evidence that Wilson had intent to engage, or at any point was knowingly engaging, in sexual activity with a minor (assuming that such activity did occur at all). Of course, as I say, in many states his intent and / or knowledge regarding her age does not legally matter. A point that I neglected to mention is that in more than half of U.S. states, the age of consent is 16 years old; looking at consent laws in other countries around the world, there appears to be a gathering consensus coalescing around this limit. Out of the four states that share a direct border with Texas, only Louisiana shares the minimum of 17 years old (putting aside acceptable age difference exceptions). Meanwhile, in the same state, five-year-olds are being tricked into signing away their right to see a judge, so that they may be more easily disappeared within a draconian detention system. Government-sponsored human trafficking.
Note: When I mentioned that it is still often permissible for adults to physically assault children – yes, I was talking about that form of child abuse called “spanking.”
Some aspects of Wood’s arguments in ‘Lolital Justice,’ which he wrote prior to ‘Elizabeth,’ are similar to those I made at the end of my report: that there is some ambiguity about the age at which someone is capable of giving consent to sex; that the primary focus should be about protecting the vulnerable (including adults who may be considered legally capable, but may be physically or psychologically not) from predators; that maturity is not something which is magically gained overnight, and we should consider actually examining people to establish their maturity level(s), and whether it passes a sufficient threshold, before making assumptions with life-altering consequences based on the factor of age alone.
However, it is one thing to acknowledge that legal systems so far have done poorly at establishing what the threshold is, in a scientific and ethical manner, and another to act as if it does not exist. The “fiction story” he wrote contains so many moral extremities that I have yet to speak with anyone who even considers it to be a useful thought experiment on the subject. A socially isolated, sexually-abused, terminally-ill, eleven-year-old girl would scarcely be considered capable of informed consent to unprotected sex on almost any scale in the world today. That Elizabeth’s life was shortened first through an unacknowledged yet profound betrayal by her father, and potentially again by a babysitter whom she considered her only friend, is nothing more than a heart-wrenching tragedy — but not in a way I think the author intended, as it would certainly not be considered a “grey area” story supporting his arguments against age limits.
If anything, should the historical trend surrounding age limits for relationships between persons considered ‘minors’ versus ‘adults’ continue on its path, the age limit is more likely to increase than decrease (particularly when considering the later physiological and psychological development of males versus females). I predict that within the next few decades, there will perhaps be an expansion and softening of penalties for near-age exceptions, especially in instances of healthy exploration which children may engage in from the moment they become aware that humans are sexual beings. Hopefully, any changes will be based more on scientific and even individualised evaluations, rather than the often arbitrary religious and legal origins of the concept which often did not even consider consent as a relevant factor in the determination. (There is an ongoing problem with fake science in academic publication which needs to be accounted for, but that is a topic for another time.)
Those who mistake sex as a need in itself, and not as a strategy for fulfilling various psychological needs (or, if malignant, pathologies), will miss what someone of any age is actually communicating if / when they express that desire: a need to feel safe, self-esteem, and connected. In the case of children and young people (and sometimes adults too), they will rarely even know that this is what they’re really after. The question should always be: do they understand what they are asking for, and are they prepared to accept the consequences?
In August, I replied to a thread in which Buterin was attempting to argue that individuals’ ownership of their coins should be weakened somehow (for what purpose, we did not get to). It is a strange question in that the figure of ‘80%’ implies quantification, yet it is being applied to a subjective value or emotion. Does it mean 80% of one person’s property? Does it mean that in 20% of encounters where someone desires the property of another, theft is permissible, like a roll-of-the-dice Purge?
But because I, as many have before me, see a fundamental relationship between respect for property (products of labour or trade) and respect for human autonomy, I refracted his question a bit to get to the heart of the matter. Naturally, quantifying respect for consent like this looks odd to most people — as it should, since the effective behaviour still looks like a lack of respect. It is merely the humanised form of Buterin’s question. What separates the clothes on my back from those in my closet, the cash in my pocket from the numbers in my digital wallet? And what are you willing to do to get them?
Unfortunately, several people / accounts misinterpreted my question to be something more (or rather, less) than it was. It is a shame that the conversations currently being had about the nature of consent are so narrow in their focus, that even mentioning the word “consent” immediately draws assumptions that it must be about sex. As a voluntaryist, questions of consent envelope a much broader, interconnected evaluation of the world. It is a language we must learn from the moment we are capable of exercising will, yet not quite capable of understanding its power. We are not always going to speak it correctly, and those around us may say it doesn’t matter, but if your goal is to build a more free and peaceful world, that is not an excuse to stop trying to get it right.
To me, the instances I detailed in this post represent a deficiency in that understanding. While it seems there are specific categorical holes that have exhibited themselves more frequently in particular groups (which I may only have passing interactions with), an overarching one that affects not only cryptocurrency events but social gatherings in general is the lax attitude towards privacy in photography. In that regard, I have twice made public recommendations for conferences to adopt the Chaos Communication Congress‘ policy. Once that has been settled, perhaps we will have shown that we care enough about issues of consent to begin conversations about everything else.