We are on the verge of revolution. A revolution that will make the industrial revolution seem trivial. We stand at the focus, the cumulation, the precipice, of a fundamental re-thinking of our shared social fabric. Actions today will reverberate for centuries. Technologies like bitcoin evince prophecy.
We understand the past, to understand the present. We understand the present, to understand the future. This information and cultural revolution has roots in the free culture and computing movements of the last decades. A few dedicated men had foresight to understand the capabilities of the machines they were building. Thanks to their legacy of an ethical framework for computing, we find ourselves in this empowering position.
Origins of computing
Modern computing began life in an academic environment. Up until the 80s, computing was built by academics for a love of their work and betterment of society. Proud artists creating brilliant works led computing, and commercial interests were meek.
To create a computer program, programmers write in a special language called a programming language. This programming language is a halfway point between the ambiguous world of human language and the highly mathematical world of machine language. This code they write is termed sourcecode. If I wish to understand how a program works or make modifications to it, then I must have access to this code.
This source code was shared freely between developers. Source code has the unique property of being free to redistribute, free to manufacture into software and of being highly reusable across many projects. By mixing and matching pieces of software across projects, developers created a new world in cyber space. Tools to write, edit music, solve math, discover science and create art.
During the 80s, vendors started to understand the power of computers and moved in to commercialise software. Software became a product not to be shared but to be hoarded. Licenses turned sourcecode from being a creative work or scientific excursion into a piece of intellectual property to be hoarded. Information was closed off and jealously guarded.
There was a kick-back from developers. Developers angry that software, a tool of liberation, was now being used to control and entice computer users. Software had been turned from a user as developer community relationship into a vendor-client relationship. It was here that the beginnings of the free software movement started.
We should clarify here that the free does not mean free in the usual sense of no cost, but free as in liberty. The issue is not price, but freedom. These are people that believe that we live in a science based, technological based society, and it is a dangerous situation when these technologies that occupy our lives are secret. That their functioning is kept hidden from the general public that depend on them.
Free culture like Creative Commons has its origin in free software. Free culture has forced a rethink in how we view our economic interactions and squashed old dogmas. New markets have opened with a different logic to the old commercial ones. Markets based not on purchasing as an automaton, but collaboration. Such as Wikipedia.
Around the same time during the early 80s, DARPA developed TCP/IP. TCP/IP is the fundamental underlying protocol for how computers today communicate on the internet. TCP/IP was developed for the military, which is evident from how TCP/IP functions. But the very nature of how TCP/IP functions had some very interesting ramifications and unintended side effects.
During the cold war, the military worried about a nuclear attack sought to invent an intelligence network which could not be destroyed. This network had to be robust and resilient to attack.
The military developed TCP/IP as a decentralised system. Networks without any central point survive attack by drawing on the resources of participants, rather than authority.
If at any one time, one of these nodes is attacked, the network can rely on the strength of the other nodes. It is only when a sufficient number of these nodes that make up the network are attacked, that the network will start to break-down.
This is called graceful degradation.
Everything about the design of TCP/IP routes around damage, control and censorship. TCP/IP is anti-authority by nature. And it is the underlying protocol for the internet today. TCP/IP, as a protocol looks for ways around damaged parts of the internet, and ways to evade censorship and control. This has made the internet into the method of empowerment and education today.
By designing a system that could not be attacked, the authorities inadvertently designed a system they could not control or shut down. A system that evades censorship and punitive attempts to dictate its behaviour.
Another overlapping group, were the early hackers. People who sought to use the power of the internet and software to effect social change.
In 1989, US government machines world wide were penetrated by the anti-nuclear WANK worm. WANK penetrated machines had their login screens altered in the first example of hacktivism.
W O R M S A G A I N S T N U C L E A R K I L L E R S _______________________________________________________________ \__ ____________ _____ ________ ____ ____ __ _____/ \ \ \ /\ / / / /\ \ | \ \ | | | | / / / \ \ \ / \ / / / /__\ \ | |\ \ | | | |/ / / \ \ \/ /\ \/ / / ______ \ | | \ \| | | |\ \ / \_\ /__\ /____/ /______\ \____| |__\ | |____| |_\ \_/ \___________________________________________________/ \ / \ Your System Has Been Officially WANKed / \_____________________________________________/
You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war.
Julian Assange wrote down the early rules of the subculture: “Don’t damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don’t change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information”.
Software hackers, the internet and security hackers are not separate groups. They share a common origin and an overlapping history and culture. Many people mix within many circles, and even within this subculture there is a diversity of separate groups and sub-subcultures.
This rich and deep culture even has its own code of ethics. First, individuals should be allowed strong personal privacy. Second, that all authority should not be trusted and decentralisation should be promoted. Third, that all information should be free. There are no set rules, but these 3 themes are common throughout the various online movements.
Truth is the greatest good. Truth is the ultimate master and judge. Truth does not need gods to function. Its potential to transform and shape the world holds its own power. Only with the free access to information can we come to reveal the truth to ourselves and live as free individuals.
In 1992, Stella Liebeck bought coffee at McDonalds. She spilled the hot drink on herself and later claiming injury against McDonalds because the coffee was too hot, initiated a lawsuit for $1 million. She is the poster child for frivolous litigation in the US.
What I failed to mention is that the coffee was served at over 90 degrees celsius and having suffered 3rd degree burns over 16% of her body, she spent 8 days in hospital for skin grafting and required 2 years of medical treatment. When she asked McDonalds to pay $20k to cover the remaining medical expenses which her insurance wouldn’t cover, they rebuked her with an offer of $800. During the case she offered to settle out of court with them for $20k and later $300k which they refused both times. During the case it was found there were 700 other similar court cases where McDonalds had settled out of court.
The difference between having and not having information, is the difference between ignorance and truth. Living in a participatory democracy means the participants need open information in order to make well informed decisions. We cannot vote for representatives or discuss important issues without understanding the relevant history.
The modern web and technologies that underlie our internet, were built with these principles in mind. Open technology and standards were and are the drivers that developed the infrastructure of the web. It is through open shared protocols that software from many different vendors and origins are able to inter-operate with each other to co-operate as the internet ecosystem.
New mathematical algorithms in the 70s led to the development of public-key cryptography. This type of cryptography allows messages to be encrypted or digitally signed without the sender or receiver have to reveal their keys to each other.
What makes this scheme significant is that people can encrypt messages for others that only the recipients can read (not even the person who encrypted it can). People can also digitally sign a message and everyone else will know it came from them alone.
Cryptography was highly restricted at the time. Only weak cryptography that could be easily broken was available for consumer use. Strong cryptography was subject to US-export restrictions and classified as a munition. For exporting cryptography, you had to get the same license required as an arms dealer selling guns and missiles internationally. Thus it remained out of general usage.
In the 90s, an anti-nuclear hacktivist Phillip Zimmermann developed a piece of public-key strong cryptography software termed PGP. He distributed this software on the internet free of charge for people to download.
The US government quickly took notice and Zimmermann was taken to court for exporting US munitions- a serious charge. The reasoning for keeping strong cryptography restricted was that terrorists and other criminals would be able to hide their communications from the authorities.
Zimmermann challenged these charges in a curious way. He printed the sourcecode for PGP in a book which he sold internationally. Selling books is protected in the US constitution under the first-amendment. In this way he nullified the effect of the legislation. His case was quietly dropped.
Cryptography then came into wider use and today underpins much of the running of the web. It is used for making secure payments on the web and for securing sensitive information like user’s passwords.
Peer to peer
The internet has always been about sharing knowledge, and it was a natural progression that developed into a formalised set of processes for file sharing.
The early days of file sharing consisted of an informal network of websites and servers through word of mouth. Special dedicated chatrooms allowed people to find movies or music from large indexed lists which directed them where to go. It was an informal network of providers, aggregators and distributors.
The next evolution came with the development of dedicated filesharing services, the most prominent being Napster in 1999. The service was centralised but allowed a platform for people to upload and download files off of each other. Litigation against Napster by media companies eventually led to their shutdown.
This was a boom time for the development of file-sharing technologies with a huge variety of competing filesharing softwares. Eventually the free (as in liberty) and decentralised softwares rose to the top of the froth over the unfree and centralised services.
The most notable of these is BitTorrent, which today is hugely popular and has rendered copyright irrelevant. Instant access to all the world’s media available in minutes. No commercial offering could ever dream of anything close.
BitTorrent is a decentralised network where users download media from each other. However to find the files one wishes to download, third party websites are needed that provide an easy to use interface to search the network. There are several sites, such as The Pirate Bay.
In 2006, police raided the physical locations of several filesharing websites under the DMCA- a US law. Among those was The Pirate Bay in Sweden. Anger among Swedes over this violation of sovereignty led to the establishment of the Pirate Party. (Their founder, Rick Falkvinge is an outspoken proponent for bitcoin)
The party strives to reform laws regarding copyright and patents. The agenda also includes support for a strengthening of the right to privacy, both on the Internet and in everyday life, and the transparency of state administration. The Party has intentionally chosen to be bloc independent on the traditional left-right scale to pursue their political agenda with all mainstream parties.
They are the third largest Swedish party by membership and occupy 2 EU seats. Outside Sweden, independent Pirate Parties have been started in over 40 countries. The German Pirate Party gained 9% of the Berlin’s vote in recent elections.
We stated before, the 3 principles underlying the hacker movement online; privacy, anti-authority and transparency. One particular sub-group within this movement are crypto-anarchists. Using cryptography, the idea is to enforce privacy by encrypting communications protecting personal privacy and making them impossible to eavesdrop on by authority.
Unlike other forms of anarchy, government isn’t temporarily destroyed but is permanently forbidden and unnecessary. The threat of violence is impotent because although the government may have a monopoly violence, violence cannot solve math problems.
Hackers started to consider fundamental issues, and seek to resolve them through software.
Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. … We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy … We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. … Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and … we’re going to write it. …
~ A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto
One issue was how to solve the money problem. Beginning in the 90s there were several proposals for using crypto based tokens.
I wish to transfer $50 to Susie. She gives me her public key, while keeping her private key hidden. I create a contract declaring that $50 belongs to the public key that Susie gave me. The contract is cryptographically signed by me.
If Susie wants to transfer this $50 to Alice, she can now take that contract and add a section to the end. She declares tha $50 belongs to Alice’s public key and signs it using her private key. Anybody can now see that the $50 has transferred from me, to Susie’s public key and now to Alice’s public key. If you can validate that Susie’s public key actually belongs to her, and so does Alice’s, then you know that Susie had $50 and Alice has the $50.
The problem with this scheme is that digital data is easily copied. After Susie sends Alice $50, she can create a competing contracting declaring the $50 belongs to John. This is called the double spending problem.
Classical solutions at solving this problem always relied upon having a central party sit in the middle of every transaction to ensure that they could not be double spent. None of them were successful since they required an authority in a movement that is anti-authority.
Wei Dai, the author of Crypto++, wrote a paper on a theoretical decentralised digital monetary system. Building off the earlier concept of crypto based transactions, he proposed using proof of work (we’ll get back to this point) as the underlying mechanism for money creation. His proposal additionally described a system whereby notaries would negotiate algorithmically the growth in the monetary supply. These two concepts lay at the heart of bitcoin.
Proof of work was a proposal designed to stop email spammers. By requiring email to have a small negligible cost, it becomes infeasible to send out millions of emails. The proof of work concept is that to get an email accepted, the sender’s computer has to solve a mathematical riddle before the recipient accepts the email. The mathematical riddle needs CPU cycles, your processor needs electricity, and electricity costs money. Ultimately this scheme was not realised as a tool to stop spammers, but has been revived in bitcoin.
Wei Dai’s scheme has the problem however that all notaries in the network must always be online and synchronising with each other. Due to the volume of transactions, this would be a heavy amount of traffic that would be easily susceptible to denial of service attacks.
Bitcoin solved this last problem through a small ingenious modification to Wei Dai’s proposal. The flaw in Wei Dai’s proposal was keeping synchronised with transactions in the network. Bitcoin improved on this by leveraging proof of work to make the transaction database to not be easily reversible.
Thus the concept of a cryptographic decentralised free-software peer-to-peer currency became a reality. A currency based on strong cryptography and mathematics, not laws and legislation. This is where the laws of mathematics rule. There are no human laws here.
We feel the wonder of bitcoin calling us, and we have to have courage to answer that call. We should look inside ourselves and ahead to the future. Bitcoin is one of many technologies leading us out of the simulacrum.