A Reddit post started a discussion on the nature of Bitcoin. Is it “just” a digital currency and payment system, or is it more than that? Poster “StarFscker” argues that Bitcoin is the revolutionary offspring of crypto-anarchists posting to mailing lists about how cryptography will set us free.
“We will be free if we don’t accept rulers over our lives. We can have our privacy if we’d just go out and make it happen. We could have our security if we just used the tools we have to secure us.”
“The next logical step is we shed our obsolete and ridiculous “governments” that use us as a farmer uses a pig. Bitcoin may just be another piece in a puzzle, but it’s a biggie.”
The poster recalls that the Cypherpunks mailing list played host to hundreds of genuinely bright and politically principled individuals who, before YouTube and Facebook, knew that the Internet would set us free. They laid the groundwork and hashed out the philosophy. The list founder, Timothy C. May, wrote the Cyphernomicon, which incorporated his earlier work, The Crypto-Anarchists’ Manifesto.
Many writings of Tim May and other pioneers of crypto-anarchy are republished in “Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias ,” a collection of seminal cypherpunks essays edited by Peter Ludlow. Published in 2001, the book shows the emergence of governance structures within online communities and the visions of political sovereignty shaping some of those communities. Ludlow views virtual communities as laboratories for conducting experiments in the construction of new societies and governance structures. While many online experiments will fail, Ludlow argues that given the synergy of the online world, new and superior governance structures may emerge. A free PDF version of the book is available here .
The Reddit discussion is interesting for the tension between the original poster’s visionary dream of Crypto Anarchy and the more down to earth attitude of other posters who just want easy, cheap, and fast ways to send money on the internet, or to make money by mining or trading Bitcoin. The two approaches are, however, complementary rather than incompatible. In fact, I think one of the main lessons from the history of Bitcoin is that visionary, world-changing projects can harness the drive and energy of “the masses” with built-in monetary incentives.
A new crypto-anarchist collective, the Institute of Crypto Anarchy, recently opened the world’s first Bitcoin-only coffee bar in Prague. If you go there, please have a drink and give a toast to Tim May and the Cypherpunks.
Images from MIT Press and Shutterstock.