Are Cryptocurrency Investments Just About Money? What Happened to the Socio-Political Ideals that Originated the Movement?
I first heard of the Cypherpunks while watching Banking on Bitcoin[i] and reading Paul Vigna and Michael Casey’s The Age of Crypto-Currency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money are Challenging the Global Economic Order.[ii] The idealistic and romantic vision of the originators of cryptocurrency intrigued me. I set out on a journey to discover its roots.
The rise of social media, 24-hour news channels, and websites has turned the news into a labyrinth where we find biased, skewed and fragmented information that reflects the worldview of the journalist, the medium, and the projected sweet spots of the target audience. The burgeoning world of cryptocurrencies is no exception. Unless you are a cypherpunk or have researched into the origins of cryptocurrencies, you may be under the impression that the crypto world is nothing more than a get-rich quick scheme with a big shadow and a growth line more like the Himalayan skyline than a viable financial and ideological investment.
With the arrival of electronic payments and credit cards, cash has always been a means of making our consumer choices a private affair. One of the core ideas behind the ideology behind cryptocurrencies is privacy that extends into the electronic consumer world. My quest to grasp the core ideology led me to Satoshi Nakamoto’s original article:Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.[iii]The ideology of bitcoin, creating abundance by development of a global peer-to-peer exchange system without requiring trusted (or dreaded) third party banks and government agencies, fuelled my anticipation.
With high expectations, I dive into The Cypherpunk Manifesto.[iv] The Manifesto does not live up to its lofty name. Sans ice-breaker, it begins by emphasizing the need for anonymity and privacy — as opposed to secrecy — in the electronic world, then launches into technical-speak. My romanticized dreams of a vision to inspire a future of win-win economics and government teeter on unmet expectations. There is no mention of the crypto-anarchy and libertarianism that sparked and has fed my interest in cryptocurrencies for the past year.
To rekindle my fantasies of a new world, I direct my search toward the mysterious and illusive cypherpunks. Inspired and unsettled, I descend into the alternate universe of crypto nerds revealing innovative, socially idealistic visions laced with sometimes far-fetched or even paranoid conspiracy theories. When I re-emerge, I experience fleeting impressions of ordinary life being surreal. What is real and what isn’t anymore? Although some of the early documents are simply undecipherable to a layperson such as myself, it doesn’t take much to note that the manifestos and declarations while making bold claims, lack in bedside manner. The crypto world appears to be a tell-it-like-it-is crowd without much social veneer. To some, this would be refreshing. To others, it might be a bit jarring especially considering the unconventional and disruptive ideas being expressed.
I dive into the Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto[v] with fervour. While emphasising the emergence of privacy as our world moves online, it adds reputation to the equation. Online business not only relies on reputation because of the relative anonymity of the interested parties, but it enables visible reputation by inviting online reviews on site and on independent consumer review sites. How often do we read the reviews before buying a product or service? Whether we are reviewing a book or product on Amazon.com or a great driver experience with Uber, many consumer sites invite customer reviews. I do my due diligence and read them. Currency and exchange warrants particular discernment; giving high importance to online reputation. The Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto satisfies my thirst for ideological substance stemming from my early reflections on their countercultural predecessors, the hippies:
“The State will of course try to slow or halt the spread of this technology, citing national security concerns, use of the technology by drug dealers and tax evaders, and fears of societal disintegration. Many of these concerns will be valid; crypto anarchy will allow national secrets to be trade freely and will allow illicit and stolen materials to be traded. An anonymous computerized market will even make possible abhorrent markets for assassinations and extortion. Various criminal and foreign elements will be active users of CryptoNet. But this will not halt the spread of crypto anarchy.”
“Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure, so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions. Combined with emerging information markets, crypto anarchy will create a liquid market for any and all material which can be put into words and pictures. And just as a seemingly minor invention like barbed wire made possible the fencing-off of vast ranches and farms, thus altering forever the concepts of land and property rights in the frontier West, so too will the seemingly minor discovery out of an arcane branch of mathematics come to be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property.”
Crypto-anarchy’s territory of preference is cyberspace. Being established outside of a physical location and with the decentralised power of countless computers dealing with the data, it would be very hard, if not impossible to infringe on the freedom of cryptocurrencies established in cyberspace.
Some cyber-anarchists identify with extropian or transhumanist ideologies.[vi] An “evolving framework of values and standards for continuously improving the human condition…. Extropians believe that advances in science and technology will some day let people live indefinitely.” The number one enemy of Extropians is The State, which inhibits individuals’ freedom of creativity and growth.
“Crypto-anarchists are mostly computer-hacking, anti-state libertarians who have been kicking around the political fringes for two decades, trying to warn a mostly uninterested public about the dangers of a world where everything is connected and online. They also believe that digital technology, provided citizens are able to use encryption themselves, is the route to a stateless paradise, since it undermines government’s ability to monitor, control and tax its people. Crypto-anarchists build software — think of it as political computer code — that can protect us online.”[vii]
Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are renowned for their use of cryptography to challenge the world’s power structure and democratize information. Assange was one of the early crypto-anarchists and a bitcoin advocate. Snowden, however, is a bitcoin naysayer.
A cross-country road trip in the US, left me near Boston, where I had the opportunity to attend the MIT Bitcoin Expo in April 2018. The dry nerd-speak I expected did not correspond to the warm, passionate people and sense of community experienced during the two-day event. Innovators, researchers and entrepreneurs of the crypto world shared and cross-pollinated both technical and theoretical savvy. The sense of community, even among rival crypto startups left a feeling of loose knit, convivial complicity and collaboration, “We’re all in this together.” The on-site lunches created time a space for networking and the Women in Blockchain event generously hosted by Coinbase facilitated sharing ideas, knowledge and entrepreneurial endeavours. I had the encouraging sense that I had stumbled into a counter-culture built on idealistic visions and even higher technical abilities. Among other ideals, the blockchain community shares a common belief in the idea that human behaviour is driven by rational self-interest. If this is the case, blockchain and cryptocurrencies will thrive in the positive space of mutual self-interest of involved parties to engage in win-win interactions.
Where is this whole thing leading? Between cryptocurrency-generated wealth and the imminent takeover of whole industries by AI and robotics, what will humans do with their time? Will wealth really be distributed enabling us to live carefree lives? “Techno-optimist[s]…. say we’ll create new jobs, free people from the drudgery of dull work and all arc toward progress and freedom.” Crypto-evangelists explore implementation of a basic universal income to keep the masses sustained. It is, however, also possible that we could end up with a “dystopia in which millions of economically valueless citizens scratch out an existence as a client class while a small number of tech mega-monopolies and crypto-anarchist geniuses rack up unprecedented wealth and influence.”[viii] This scenario is unlikely, however because the win-win incentive design of a true crypto economy works best when everyone wins.
While blockchain, the technology upon which cryptocurrencies is built provides clear use cases, cryptocurrency raises eyebrows of either passionate belief or fear, certainty-of-uncertainty and, doubt. The media would have us believe that most tokens, when stripped of their tech-trendy names, would be nothing more than Ponzi schemes. In an effort to substantiate their exponential creation of wealth, startups are scrambling to create utility from the sale of their tokens. The potential for empowering individuals, fostering creativity and creating wealth is exciting for some and yet, threatening to the powers that be. The endeavour that excites me is Blockchain Contracts a humanised version of their predecessor, smart contracts. Blockchain Contracts allow a trusted overseer to, firstly keep an eye on the agreements being made to ensure that no illegal or harmful activities are engaged in and second, to intervene when required by circumstances such as change of parameters for the agreement. BC’s blockchain of choice is Flo, the most user-friendly blockchain insofar as it provides parties the ability to record their agreements in plain English.
Given that the mainstream media focuses mainly on the financial investment side of cryptocurrencies, it would seem that the investor pool is becoming estranged from the originating cypherpunk/crypto-anarchist/transhumanist philosophy. It looks like an idealist will invest through idealism and other investors invest to make profit.
The crypto world is a mix of the founding idealists and their offshoots, startup enthusiasts with tech skills and simply investors whose only care is to partake in investments that, in spite of recent ups and downs, are growing faster than any other investment around.
Whether current investors know about and endorse the socio-political ideals behind cryptocurrencies any investment in cryptocurrencies increases the trading volume and market cap. Theoretically, then, we can compare these statistics with fiat money activity and stock market caps and see to what extent the movement is taking its place on the world economic stage.
As a psychotherapist and spiritual seeker, my draw into the crypto world is the core ideals of creating a win-win economic system that facilitates self-actualisation through collaborative autonomy and freedom of creative expression. I moved my psychotherapy practice online a few years ago to pursue a mobile lifestyle. Last year, I began accepting bitcoin for my services. When a client pays me in bitcoin, it feels like a step toward bringing in of a new social and economic order in which society and planet can thrive in a mutually co-created system reflecting the highest common denominator of our collective possibilities.
[i] Banking on Bitcoin, A film by Christopher Cannucciari, 2016
[ii] Vigna, P., Casey, M. (2015), The Age of Crypto-Currency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money are Challenging the Global Economic Order,USA: Picador/MacMillan.
[iii] Nakamoto, Satoshi (pseudo), https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf(2009)
[iv] Hughes, Eric, https://www.activism.net/cypherpunk/manifesto.html(1993)
[vi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extropianism(entry as of 7 July 2018)
May, T.C. https://www.activism.net/cypherpunk/libertaria.html(1992)