Humans of NEAR: Frank Braun
Frank Braun currently works part-time on the NEAR EVM Team. As a Computer Scientist, Crypto-Anarchist, Privacy Advocate and Podcast Host, Frank leads an active life at the intersection of programming, privacy advocacy, and many personal interests. While this short excerpt is an overview of Frank’s journey into NEAR, it is by no means exhaustive. To learn more about Frank you can follow him on Twitter or listen to his Podcast with his close friend, Smuggler.
A Step Up On The Future
Frank’s first experience with a computer anticipated his future success in the world of technology. He was five years old when he was first enchanted by the strange new device that his cousin had somehow obtained. Soon after that, with his grandfather’s prodding, he convinced his mother to buy him his own computer. At that time, Frank connected to the intricate and emerging world of computing when it was only in its infancy — It was 1984.
Frank grew up in West Germany, in the Ruhr area, towards the end of the Cold War. In spite of the constant fear of nuclear war, his youth in West Germany was not directly affected by the conflict. He recalls being eleven or twelve when the Berlin Wall fell and visiting East Germany with his father before it even got rebuilt. For Frank, these early years were characterized by an enduring interest in gaming and mathematics. While Frank loved learning, and excelled in math, physics, and natural science, he loathed the structured and overarching control of the education system. School was an everyday chore that he had to grit his teeth to get through.
One event in particular during his secondary school years stands out to Frank — a two week school internship he spent laboring in a factory. It was here that he was exposed to the harsh reality of low quality, labor-intensive toil: Where employees were afraid of being fired, endured miserable working conditions, and lacking any passion or enjoyment for their livelihood. Their only hope was to make it to retirement. Frank was horrified by the prospect of a life like that, and he used the experience as motivation moving forward. His studies were now about making sure he never stumbled onto that soul-numbing pathway.
University Life: New Ideas From New Contexts
University life was a refreshing change of scenery for Frank. Moving off to University on his own, he approached the years of learning in front of him with a completely different mindset than his previous schooling:
“School was this thing that I was forced to go to, to get this diploma in order to do what I wanted. In university the logic switched: I was going there voluntarily and I was going to learn as much as I could from this. It was a pretty big privilege in the sense that I could spend 5 years studying something I was interested in without having to earn money.”
Enlivened by the ability to study computer science and math on his own schedule, and motivated by the job opportunities accompanying the degree, Frank embraced his classes with passion and focus. It was also during this time that Frank went to Ireland for a six month exchange. While improving his English he also reflected on how this trip was an important cultural awakening for him:
“I realized how much of what I considered to be just normal — — is actually a cultural thing. Thinking ‘this is how everybody does it’, I realized that in fact Ireland was significantly different than I realized. A ton of things are just cultural norms that I learned through my childhood — What Ireland taught me is that I could actually choose to do things differently. I am not forced to adopt all of these norms because I grew up in a certain environment.”
During the five years at University he excelled as an exceptional student, and was asked to continue his studies in a PhD program in Computer Science. As a part of this new role, Frank also became a teaching assistant and researcher who often travelled to the United States for collaborative research projects.
A specific sequence of events during one of his research circuits between Germany and America stood out in Frank’s memory: He had arrived in the United States on campus, and was settling into his room when he decided to walk to a nearby book shop. He saw a book by Ayn Rand called The Fountainhead — and decided to read it. He had heard about Ayn Rand and ‘Objectivism’ before in Germany, but at that time those things were completely fringe. Upon returning to his rooms on campus he read the entire book. He didn’t really get much from it, and put it away without much thought.
One year later, Frank returned to the same American university for his research circuit. He decided to stop by the book shop again. This time, he stumbled across another Ayn Rand book called Atlas Shrugged. As Frank described it, “My mind was blown.” What followed was an intellectual awakening that started Frank down the pathway of Austrian School Economics, Libertarianism, Ludwig von Mises, and the role of money in economics. There was only one problem — there was no other person he knew who he could talk to about it.
A Time of Change, Uncertainty and Discovery
Upon returning to Germany after his research circuits in America, Frank spent months trying to convince his family to buy Gold. As he had come to see it, paper money was based on nothing at all and everyone was putting faith in a system that had no solid foundation. Everyone thought he had lost it. But Frank decided to test his own assumptions by finding other people who understood:
“I realized that either I was completely nuts, or I had to find people to talk to about this.”
In spite of limited resources in Germany, Frank managed to find a magazine with a meetup listing in the genre of his interests. In his mind, the meetup was an opportunity to test his own sanity:
“I decided that I would go to this meetup and see if the people there were completely insane. If they were I would assess my own insanity by proxy. If they appeared somewhat sane then maybe it is actually alright. That is how it all started”
It did not take long for Frank to find himself among a crowd of interesting, curious, and friendly people who were in fact in their right mind. He remembers being shocked when one of the members told him that he did not vote. It was as if the world from Frank’s childhood was being cracked open, leaving space for an entirely new worldview.
Shortly after attending his first meetings, Frank went to Berlin keen on developing connections and meeting friends from this circle of people who identified as ‘Crypto-Anarchists’ or ‘Cypherpunks’. In Berlin a new world opened up to him. Frank met a long time friend named Smuggler along with dozens of new people (one of them being a young Arto Bendiken).
It would however be a mistake to think that this new phase of discovery was an easy time in Frank’s life. On the contrary, it was dark and difficult. His relationship had fallen apart, his mother had died, and he was still working on his PhD. On a deeper level, Frank was assailed with doubts about his career path in academia. For most PhDs a tenure track position at a university is ultra-competitive, and the risk of spending years looking for one without any certainty to find a position was not worth it in Frank’s mind.
At the same time, there was a serious disconnect between computer science in the classroom and computer science on the frontiers of innovation. As Frank described it:
“In the PhD phase I really liked developing software — writing software that was of high quality. But what I realized in the academic setting, is that that is considered non-scientific. If you want to succeed in the academic setting you have to come up with an idea that no one else has with a shitty prototype that somehow works when testing it out. And then you write a paper about that, and then throw it in the trash and start over with a new idea. Good software is not valued in academia.”
In parallel to this realization, Frank also was discouraged by the trendiness of academia, internal politics, and how they both affected research interests:
“I realized a few years in, that academia is about who do you know, how can you get the next grant, how can you get publications in high impact journals. I also saw a lot of stuff where people changed their research focus because it was more in line with the current hype. It showed me that there is a lot of phoniness going on in the system and that really turned me off to it as a long-term career.”
Learning on the Job: Living Intentionally and Authentically
Frank lived in Berlin from 2010 to 2020. What started as one of the darkest periods of his life slowly gave way to a new beginning — and one that found Frank more motivated, curious, and comfortable with his world and the beliefs he held about it. After finishing his PhD, Frank left academia to pursue his own interests in the commercial world. Notably, these interests were strongly aligned with his libertarian beliefs specifically surrounding freedom and privacy. For Frank there were fundamentally two huge areas of focus:
- Secure Communication
- Crypto/Digital Currencies and Payment Networks
As Frank explained:
“These are the two big fundamental building blocks that we need to create a freer future where people can transact and interact without being surveilled and taxed and controlled so much.”
While staying closely involved in the Berlin Crypto-Anarchist movement, Frank tried as much as he could to work between the two areas. Sometimes he failed and ran out of money, other times he was able to find a job opportunity that aligned nicely with his interests. In general, Frank’s approach to work outside of academia was to focus on projects or jobs that would allow him to learn something new — a new skill, or exposure to a new technology.
This keen interest in learning was not only evident in his career choices, but also on an intellectual and personal level. He read Paul Rosenberg’s seminal novel A Lodging of Wayfaring Men that described an online society free from the domination and coercion of the state. His close friend Smuggler wrote The Second Realm: Book on Strategy detailing the idea of technical autonomous zones and a future for libertarians. And of course, The Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto by Timothy May. As Frank described it:
“These are really influential. Generally, A Lodging of Wayfaring Men is a good book because it put the idea of a parallel economy in a novel format. Fiction is often better at transporting a vision than non-fiction is. Just talking about a vision makes it easier to inspire imagination.”
It was also during this time that Frank started to experiment with digital currencies. While many original crypto-natives would consider Bitcoin as an entirely new epoch of their life, Frank saw Bitcoin as one part of a much larger picture. The idea of Bitcoin nevertheless fascinated him, even though he admits that he still liked the idea of digital gold currencies. It was in 2011 when Frank started reading the Bitcoin Whitepaper and critically evaluating the core technology. He was intrigued but not yet ready to completely embrace the idea:
“I always look at technology, and I am very critical in a sense. I was focusing a lot on the design flaws of Bitcoin, how it can go wrong, and how it’s not anonymous.”
This critical mindset is what makes Frank’s approach to the crypto space especially unique. On the one hand, he has a clear grasp and understanding of the value proposition behind cryptocurrencies, but on the other, he is extremely critical and meticulous in scrutinizing their designs and situating them in a larger framework. As such, crypto for Frank is part and parcel with anonymous communication networks, digital bearer certificates, and alternative forms of anonymous transactions. It is one tool — and a highly diversified flexible and diverse one at that — among many others, that holds the promise of making society more free, private, and open to different ways of thinking and living.
In this vein of interest, Frank was brought onto the NEAR EVM Team through his long time friend and fellow Crypto-Anarchist, Arto Bendiken (who runs the NEAR EVM Team). Frank’s belief in NEAR stems from his original interest in Decentralized Finance and the scaling problems that the Ethereum blockchain has run into. As he explains:
“I totally see it now, in that DeFi has huge potential for certain applications that you can run on a smart contracting platform. In the whole DeFi space, the fact that you can do things permissionless and decentralized is going to change our understanding of financial services — the whole Gamestop Saga is a great example of the need for this. Ethereum is the dominating chain, with most of the action happening on ETH. They have all of the network effects even though it is way too expensive. Now it is this huge race between second layer solutions on top of ETH trying to scale, ETH itself trying to scale, and others like NEAR, or Solana, or Matic, trying to get in there as well.”
When Frank first discovered NEAR he found a project with stellar technical design and a highly talented team of engineers. Upon Arto’s recommendation Frank joined NEAR as a part-time contractor focused on testing and benchmarking for the EVM Team. To date, Frank is excited about the future potential of NEAR both as a scaling solution for Ethereum’s problem as well as an opportunity for bringing privacy to the protocol:
“I did a lot of Go in the past and with Rust I am not as fluent yet, but learning quickly. I consider the EVM being crucial for the success of NEAR. In terms of people they have some really great engineers. Illia also seems to be really wanting to push private transactions and others have mentioned that as well. It is a pretty big organization but for the most part our values are aligned.”
Like Crypto, NEAR is only one part of the story for Frank. It’s a great learning and building opportunity, especially because he is able to work on the EVM with other Cypherpunks. But other parts of his life — including for his deep passion and commitment to Crypto-Anarchism, continues to consume a large share of his attention. And while Frank has evolved over time in his approach to crypto-anarchism, the decision to act in line with his beliefs has remained centered upon a finite number of options;
“When I got into Crypto-Anarchism more philosophically, at some point I was like — I don’t believe in the state anymore, I don’t believe in taxes — I was then wondering how do we get to this world? How can we get more freedom? A true crypto-anarchy vision is about building an alternative in parallel with the help of cryptography. The alternatives are either you start a revolution, which usually ends up being worse afterwards, or the other one is to convince the majority, and that is very unlikely and not a good use of your time. I came to a point where I realized that we have to build better alternatives.”
The challenge and opportunity of crypto-anarchism today, is evident in the lives of most people. On the one hand, a lot of the original fears that crypto-anarchists had about surveillance and censorship by the state, are not only confirmed, but actively getting worse. Frank sees this as not only a question of deplatforming, nudging, and smearing people, but also in terms of data collection for an increasingly high number of sources: “Smart phones were bad, and now there are smart homes. That is really crazy.”
On the other hand, and more optimistically, Frank still believes that there is a way out. With the rise of crypto, a host of new opportunities have presented themselves that most crypto-anarchists would not have expected to see in their lifetime. Little acts of resistance like downloading Signal and moving off of WhatsApp is starting to become more popular as the masses become more aware of the problem of surveillance:
“Deplatforming and Censoring makes people more aware of the dangers. People have been on earth for a while, but when they see the problems they can quickly change. With the crypto boom on the one hand and crazy money printing on the other there is a lot of potential to push things in the right direction. I think it will be a hard fight because what crypto is doing is threatening the sovereignty of the state in terms of its money supply — which is one of the biggest factors of power. They are not going to give that up easily.”
To work towards a future with more privacy and freedom, and less censorship, Frank has become an active Podcaster and participant in other forms of media. In line with his friend Smuggler, Frank came to believe that “If you want to have better ideas out there you kind of have to put them out there.” This began with attending conferences and speaking, and then slowly expanded to other forms of multimedia such as the creation of a podcast and participating in a documentary.
“That is why we both started giving conference talks, and going to conferences. We were both completely naive in a way — we thought that if you go somewhere with a mask on nothing will happen — and of course the media immediately jumps on this and tries to put it into a story. We just had some negative experiences — people interviewing me — and they would say they will send it to them for review and then never send it. They would interview you, as if they already had the story in their head. They wanted to quote you in a way that was not correct. Basically use you to push their agenda. Then I became more cautious.”
The Challenge of Our Times
In 2021, Frank moved to Switzerland. Amidst work, crypto-anarchist activism, and staying in touch with his network, he also has a couple of more philosophical interests and general thoughts about the world we live in today.
When it comes to understanding the world we are living in, and finding a pathway amidst the complexities of life, Frank has two pieces of advice. First, for those working in tech, he cautions against believing that the best technology will naturally rise to the top:
“I would advise that it is very important to look at the human angle — in the sense that — what technologies win — is much less dependent on the merits of the technology and much more dependent on network effects, path dependencies, luck, all of these things. I think that is very important to keep in mind.”
Especially in the context of NEAR protocol, it is clear that while world-class technology is necessary, it is by no means sufficient.
Second, is the need to avoid tribalism, and to be intentional about participating in larger systems:
“Generally it is important to try to be authentic and not to be sucked into tribal thinking and certain camps too much. With social media and all of that the work became totally polarized. To stay sane and to make good decisions one should try to not get sucked in too much into these things.”
The last thing to mention revolves around the place of technology in our lives today. For Frank, we are in uncharted territory — and that is the big problem and the fundamental question that needs to be discussed and given more attention. Granted that humans are shaped by evolution and their environment, how can they cope with a world of such encompassing and life-influencing technology?
“The dopamine hits social media gives us — we have not been built for that. We have not been built for porn. We have not been built for tons of cheap food in unlimited quantities. We have not been built for dirty air. How we navigate that is the big question — we have a lot of problems that have been created by technology but we also cannot go back to the stone age. How we navigate that conflict is basically an ongoing quest.”