Who are the cypherpunks, the spiritual godfathers of Bitcoin?

Born in the rebellious and post-hippie California of the 1990s, it was this libertarian movement influenced by cryptography and anarchism that laid the groundwork for Bitcoin technology. We tell you.

In the early 1990s, mathematician and programmer Eric Hughes taught at the University of Berkeley, one of the hotbeds of the Californian counterculture. With his look of a geek with long hair and bifocal glasses, he forms with Timothy C. May and John Gilmore, themselves genius programmers, a small group which projects itself into a great destiny. The three from Berkeley recognize themselves in the anarchist philosophy and intend to fly a black flag over cyberspace. Their project? Form a libertarian militant group in charge of defending online anonymity, free software and digital freedoms. The cypherpunk movement (a contraction of the verb “cipher” and “cyberpunk”) was born very quickly, in the anonymity of a small room at Solutions Cygnus, Gilmore’s company. In their early days, the trio shared their thoughts via a broadcast list sent to a few hundred people, including a certain Julian Assange. The founder of Wikileaks will claim his intellectual affiliation with this mythical and yet little known movement. The current craze for cryptocurrencies comes to resuscitate this heritage which is embodied in particular in BitcoinSatoshi Nakamoto’s iconic token.

Rebels with a cause: your privacy

In 1993, Eric Hughes and Timothy C. May write their bible, The manifesto of a cypherpunk. Its tone is clearly anti-State. They write: “We cypherpunks are dedicated to building anonymous systems. We defend our right to privacy with cryptography, anonymous messaging systems, digital signatures and electronic money. Their ideal of freedom pegged to the body, the cypherpunks denounce the central and overhanging position occupied by the State in their daily lives. For them, the State is the vector of mass surveillance which encroaches a little more on individual freedoms every day. They fear that the digital will further accentuate this harmful influence and become a space of servitude. They then embark on a crusade to defend online anonymity using cryptography.

It was Timothy C. May who first mentioned the term “crypto-anarchism” in a famous manifesto made public at the 1992 Cypherpunk Meeting, a founding event for a whole generation of programmers, computer scientists and crypto enthusiasts. In his speech that day, Timothy C. May points to the state as the enemy of cryptographic technologies, and of freedom in general. “The state will of course try to slow or stop the spread of this technology, citing national security necessities, use of the technology for drug trafficking and tax evasion, and fears of disintegration. societal. Many of these concerns will be valid; crypto-anarchy will allow national secrets to flow freely and illicit or stolen materials to be sold. An anonymous computer market will even make loathsome markets of assassination and extortion possible. Various foreign and criminal elements will be active users of the CryptoNet. But that won’t stop the spread of crypto-anarchy. This anti-state discourse still resonates today with cyberspace dissidents, many of whom identify with anarchist philosophy.

Bitcoin, the crypto-anarchist extension of cypherpunk thought

Cypherpunks very quickly realized that financial exchanges are very powerful surveillance instruments. But it is precisely the state that has a monopoly on money. They therefore imagine a parallel and decentralized digital currency system that would preserve anonymity in exchanges. The instrument that will allow them to bring about this monetary utopia is cryptography. “Just as printing technology altered—and reduced their power—medieval corporations and the social structure of power, so cryptographic methods fundamentally alter the nature of government and corporate interference in economic transactions.” , declared Timothy C. May in 1992. But, unlike Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym used by the person or persons who developed the Bitcoin cryptocurrency, the cypherpunks will never succeed in proposing a robust and reliable implementation of their idea of crypto-anarchist digital currency.

Anticipating the resistance that their project might encounter, however, is a form of prescience. These resistances are found today in the bitter debates aroused by bitcoin, this anonymous and decentralized digital currency which does not bear the color of any State. “Bitcoin is the most important politico-monetary event of recent centuries, a truly revolutionary project that could allow us to radically change civilization”, enthuses Yorick de Mombynes, senior civil servant and avid bitcoiner. What is at stake with this decentralized digital currency is nothing less than circumventing the traditional financial system, a development that could ultimately lead to the limitation of the power of centralizing institutions, from central banks to states. As the senior official reminds us, “attacking the currency is attacking the state”. This explains for him the ideological battle raging around Bitcoin and the regulation of cryptocurrencies in general, financial institutions today seeking to bring these currencies into their fold of the traditional financial system, in particular via the Central Bank Digital Currency (MNBC) system.

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From libertarian utopia to capitalist normalization?

However, the current enthusiasm for cryptocurrencies seems to indicate that a growing part of the population no longer recognizes itself in the traditional financial system. A KPMG study for the Association for the Development of Digital Assets (ADAN) pointed out that 8% of French people had a portfolio of digital assets in January 2022 and 30% wanted to acquire one. And this despite the warnings of crypto-skeptics who warn of the dangerousness of these financial products. More than thirty years after its beginnings, the crypto-anarchist project of the cypherpunks therefore seems to be materializing, to the delight of those who have traded barricades for lines of code. “We know that code is indestructible and that a largely decentralized system cannot be stopped,” wrote Eric Hughes in 1992. But, from libertarian utopia to the greatest excesses of capitalism, there is often only a step. The internet has proven it. Will the crypto-anarchist project meet the same fate? We can already see that a small minority captures the majority of the value exchanged thanks to digital currencies. Opposite, the State, which is supposed to ensure regulation for all, appears to be weakened for the moment.

This article appeared in the Clash File “Who Wants to Kill the State?” ” of the review 30 DNA

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Who are the cypherpunks, the spiritual godfathers of Bitcoin?


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