During the internet’s nascent life, a lot of researchers, early adopters, and enthusiasts recognized that the technology would pose serious problems for acting anonymously online. The very nature of internet infrastructure is problematic for anonymity seekers. Our data always travels through public channels. In order to arrive at its destination, our data must be marked with that destination. Similarly, if we hope to receive a reply, we must make our own address public. As Eric Hughes wrote back in 1993 in A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto:
In most cases personal identity is not salient. When I purchase a magazine at a store and hand cash to the clerk, there is no need to know who I am. When I ask my electronic mail provider to send and receive messages, my provider need not know to whom I am speaking or what I am saying […] When my identity is revealed by the underlying mechanism of the transaction, I have no privacy. I cannot here selectively reveal myself; I must always reveal myself.
The cypherpunks were born out of love for what the internet promised to become and a deep concern for what the internet might mean for personal privacy.
Loosely defined, and loosely associated, the cypherpunks were (and are) a group of people dedicated to cryptography, encryption, and any other tools that enable personal privacy — hence “cypher.” The cypherpunks also stand in opposition to censorship, government overreach, and traditional power structures — hence “punk.”
The fears of the cypherpunks have been roundly and entirely vindicated. It’s all but impossible to browse the web without giving up a wealth of personal information. Edward Snowden’s revelations brought privacy and security explosively into the public’s view. Since then things have only gotten worse. It’s so bad that the phrase “the surveillance economy” has been coined and applied to the most powerful companies on the web — especially Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other advertising-funded giants.
Cypherpunks were (and are) a group of people dedicated to cryptography, encryption, and any other tools that enable personal privacy — hence “cypher.”
One of the most informative things we do online — from a surveillance standpoint — is spend money. In order to sell you more things, Google (and their advertising partners) want to know what you’ve already bought. From a more personal standpoint, such information might be used for a variety of nefarious ends, such as smear campaigns and blackmail. Law enforcement too has been “following the money” for ages. Credit card histories, bank statements, and other financial records are at the center of many criminal investigations. There are reasons that criminal organizations have been big early adopters of cryptocurrency.
For these reasons and more, the idea of digital money that could be spent as anonymously as cash was always a priority for the cypherpunks. As authoritarianism sees a rise globally, many people have legitimate fears about rising internet censorship. Authoritarian regimes clearly have a vested interest in controlling what citizens can purchase, often strictly limiting what can be bought and sold legally.
For many, cryptocurrency represents a way to bypass this kind of authoritarian economic control. Yet one of history’s unavoidable lessons is that powerful entities eventually find and co-opt powerful tools. Wannabe cypherpunks are now faced with the same problems that caused Hannah Arendt to comment that “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”
Technology’s Inevitable Domestication
In his essay Stupid Undergrounds, Paul Mann described a pattern he saw in the world of art and critical theory:
In the stupid underground any innovation can be, at one and the same time, utterly radical and worthless in advance. The trajectory past cliche is at stake here as well, a trajectory that takes us not into further innovation but into repetition itself: the repetition of a cultural adventure long after its domestication, but as if it were still an adventure.
Movements that start subversively cannot remain subversive forever. The hanging of a blank canvas can only challenge art for so long, but the same “subversive” act seems to reappear well after the sheen of insurgency has worn off. Furthermore, these once-subversive acts and products inevitably end up being co-opted by established powers.
Marcel Duchamp’s readymades ended up in art galleries. Punk rocker Marky Ramone became a millionaire. And the richest man in the world will sell you over 600 varieties of Che Guevara T-shirt, some made with indentured slave labor, others merely child labor — viva la revolución, no?
Similarly, the cypherpunk ideals that led to the creation of bitcoin are being bundled up into exchange-traded funds, endlessly pitched to the investor class of Wall Street and Silicon Valley and evaluated by organizations as mainstream as BlackRock.
Meanwhile, on Reddit, Twitter, and other corners of the internet, a new stupid underground declares that bitcoin is still a subversive tool standing against the mainstream power structures all while buying and selling it on websites built and funded by the big tech elites that have long since co-opted the cryptocurrency revolution.
Movements that start subversively cannot remain subversive forever.
Kevin Werbach hinted at the domestication of bitcoin in an article examining how regulatory statutes in different countries have had a profound impact on the bitcoin ecosystem. The cypherpunks’ ideal form of money existed outside of existing political structures — and for awhile bitcoin did just that. But the price of victory in a revolution is to become mainstream, and bitcoin has had some significant victories.
Like an artist hanging a blank canvas in 2018, the dark-webizens “hodling” bitcoin because “it’s cypherpunk” are fixated on the original center of a movement that has moved on. The stupid underground of the cryptocurrency world are patting themselves on the back for commodifying and capitalizing on a technology that has already been domesticated, yet they still imagine themselves as revolutionaries.
In the words of Billie Joe Armstrong:
A guy walks up to me and asks, “What’s punk?” So I kick over a garbage can and say, “That’s punk!” So he kicks over the garbage can and says, “That’s punk?” And I say, “No, that’s trendy!”
Is cryptocurrency the cure to oppressive regimes’ obsessive control over their citizens’ spending? Not if the government can successfully regulate bitcoin and jail people for using it, which is already happening in some regimes. Is cryptocurrency a subversive alternative to existing financial power structures? Not if mainstream asset managers like BlackRock want to bundle it up into ETFs. Mann also commented on this “stupid repetition”:
The fury of the punk or skinhead is the fury of this stupid repetition, and it is far more destructive than the most brilliant modernist invention. It ruins everything and leaves it all still in place, functioning as if it mattered, never relieving us of its apparition, never pretending to go beyond it, draining it of value without clearing it away.
Bitcoin enthusiasts are fighting the establishment, and draining “fiat” currency of its value, while directly feeding the coffers of Wall Street and the technology tycoons behind the crypto-exchanges through which they are fighting.
In one way, this is just how change happens. Mainstream organizations adopt new technologies, and that adoption is still a boon to someone who wishes to use cryptocurrency to send money anonymously. On the other hand, technologists shouldn’t keep lying to ourselves about the transformative power of our advancements as if technology exists in a vacuum. Powerful tools always find their way into powerful hands, and pretending to be subversive well after our technology has been co-opted is a bad look.
The stupid underground of the cryptocurrency world are commodifying and capitalizing on a technology that has already been domesticated, yet they still imagine themselves as revolutionaries.
We have to acknowledge that the internet, initially heralded as a subversive check against centralized power has become a central tool in establishment oppression. The stupid underground now looks to “The Distributed Web” as a tool that will surely free us from the stranglehold that has formed around the internet.
To quote Mann one last time, “in the stupid underground, as in so many other sites, the direction of the cure often leads back into the disease; or the cure itself turns out to be nothing more than a symptom.”
Subversive technological advances are not made in a vacuum; they are made in the grander context of Earth’s geopolitical, economic, and interpersonal reality. Such advances may cause shifts and fissures within the groups holding power, but when the dust settles, those who used technology to obtain power will, in turn, use it to maintain their power. And as our technologies become more powerful, the consequences of inventing them have become more significant. Technologists need to acknowledge that whatever we invent, it will not be a lasting panacea for the woes of today. In fact, it’s likely that if you create something powerful today, it will be the source of someone’s woes in the future.
Technologists must acknowledge that the law of unintended consequences applies to their work and therefore approach the work with more skepticism — maybe even a hint of cynicism. The work of technologists will never be exclusively applied to the idyllic goals they are personally pursuing.