In this reading group, we will explore the implications of computers and cryptography in the context of liberty. Both trace their origins to the military: Alan Turing worked at Bletchley Park where he used computing machinery to crack the Nazi’s naval enigma code; computer networks, the forerunner of the internet, were pioneered by the U.S. military in order to achieve ‘second strike capability’ during the Cold War. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, computers were adopted and further developed within the civilian sector. The late 80s and early 90s saw the creation of the internet, and during these early years a group of programmers, cryptographers, hackers, and activists came together online to outline how this technology had the potential to realize a radically different political order. These were the cypherpunks, and their vision was ‘crypto-anarchy’: a world where nation-states were stripped of their power to coerce, as cryptography would prevent them from ever knowing who they should be coercing.
You might have noticed something: this has not happened.
The creation of the internet has already raised significant challenges both to libertarians (who are now, post-Snowden, aware of the extent of the surveillance state) and to the state itself (which is trying to understand how to regulate new technologies and structures such as cryptography, cryptocurrency, and distributed autonomous organizations). But so far we have only witnessed the early effects of the internet-of-information; since 2008, the world has seen the start of the internet-of-value and the internet-of-things, which also promise radical transformations. Our aim is to understand how these technologies will continue to change things, and what libertarians can learn from the cypherpunks.