Blockchain imaginaries and their metaphors: Organising principles in decentralised digital technologies

Pedro Jacobetty*, Kate Orton-Johnson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Heralded as revolutionary in their potential to improve efficiency, transparency, and sustainability, blockchain technologies promise new forms of large-scale coordination between actors that do not necessarily trust each other. This paper examines blockchain imaginaries and associated metaphors. Our analysis focuses on bitcoin and ethereum, today’s most prominent blockchains that use the proof-of-work consensus mechanism. We identify three principles that organise blockchain imaginaries: substantial, morphological, and structural. These principles position blockchain as an enabler of economic, political and epistemological practices, respectively. Blockchain infrastructure and protocols rely on substantial metaphors (e.g. gold, gas) to govern resource allocation, morphological metaphors (e.g. work, trust) to generate consensus and structural metaphors (e.g. chain, transaction) to establish shared knowledge. Those imaginaries rely on metaphorical displacements of meaning that make blockchain technology relevant and intelligible while simultaneously shaping the direction of technological development and positing these technologies as new forms of economic, political and epistemological organisation. They are not merely descriptive but performative. We conclude by showing how these principles partially overlap with three symbolically generalized media: money, power and truth. Money organises scarcity within the economic system, power organises consensus within the political system, and truth organises knowledge within the science system.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSocial Epistemology
Early online date26 Jun 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 26 Jun 2022


  • blockchain
  • sociotechnical imaginaries
  • metaphors
  • digital sociology


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