SWARM, The Hunt for Satoshi, and Cypherpunk Street Culture

I decided to revisit the piece “Cypherpunks, Bitcoin & the Myth of Satoshi Nakamoto” today which I originally published at www.cybersalon.org/cypherpunk in September 5, 2013 and which was later reprinted in the edition of Bitcoin Magazine entitled ‘Enter the Dragon’.

The original article generated a decent amount of interest (17,671 views to date) and helped inspire a few other writers in their search for Satoshi and the Cypherpunk culture. Alex Preukschat from Bitcoincomic.org tells me his team were inspired by it when writing ‘The Hunt for Satoshi’ comic book which is currently being launched on the ‘SWARM’ platform; Jamie Bartlett took some leads from it too for his chapter on Cypherpunks in his recently published ‘The Dark-Net; as did Dominic Frisby, in his soon to be published ‘The Future of Money’.

At the time, people were still very fresh to the idea of Bitcoin and were hungry for background information. They wanted to know who Satoshi was, where Bitcoin came from, and they were intrigued to discover how these elements fit into the broad jigsaw of history and the contemporary dialogue surrounding surveillance culture.

Leah Goodman’s Newsweek ‘Doxicle’ about Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto being ‘The Satoshi Nakamoto’, seemed however, to prove both how hateful, vicious and outspoken The Bitcoin Community could be towards outsiders; and how beneficent.

{{ For those who’s memories don’t go back that far, Newsweek was relaunching in print, and they wanted something wildly sensational to lead with their first ‘return to print’ front cover. They chose to run with Goodman’s story claiming she’d found Nakamoto. }}

However, whilst showing how vitriolic the community could be, it also showed how passionate they were about supporting Dorian’s right to privacy regardless of whether he was the real Satoshi or not, and they duly led a fundraising campaign for him as a show of their support.

So whilst this burgeoning Bitcoin community can be wildly dysfunctional and even toxic at times, they made the point that Satoshi’s identity was a taboo subject because the individual’s right to privacy is sacrosanct.

The Nakamoto in this case, apparently had no connection to Bitcoin, much less a background in cryptography, P2P protocol engineering, or economics. He appeared to have lived a simple life and had recently suffered a stroke that had left him a bit confused, but, curiously, he lived in Santa Monica not far from Hal Finney, one of the originators of Bitcoin’s underlying technology, RPOWs. (The original site is now, sadly, gone).

Forbes magazine’s Andy Greenberg, in his concurrent journalistic search for the real Satoshi quickly hit on Hal Finney as a possible candidate and wrote an excellent article about him entitled: “Nakamoto’s neighbour” in which he interviewed Hal and puts to rest speculations that he was indeed Satoshi, and then, three weeks ago Finney finally passed away from ALS, right at the pinnacle of the ALS ice-bucket challenge fever which has been raging on social media for the last few weeks to promote awareness of the disease.

Finney’s (long time extropian) decision to opt for cryo-preservation seems heraldic in retrospect, if not slightly ironic to some observers. In the eyes of many, Hal opted for the ultimate Ice-Bucket challenge. And good for him. Whether or not you agree with the decision to freeze your body at the point of death, and many don’t, it was eminently his choice to make, and hopefully one that will benefit science and technology in the long run.

Then, directly on the heels of Finney’s delayed-departure, we had the satoshin@gmx.com email hack, with accompanying news “I know who he is… and he’s alive!” which sort of got everyone hot under the collar again for a minute but… not so much.

Last year, amost everyone seemed hungry to know who Satoshi was. These days people are more ambivalent. The slogans ‘We are all satoshi” and “I am Satoshi” (å la Spartacus standing up against the Romans) still apply to the faithful, but the problem is, it’s getting harder and harder to sustain faith in a single financial technology, not because its not groundbreaking and revolutionary. It is both those things, but mainly, because it is people, not money and not technology, that one really needs faith in.

Nicolas Courtois made some excellent criticisms of Satoshi and the Bitcoin protocol in general at the Inside Bitcoins conference in London yesterday, but as a professional Cryptographer, that’s his job. He wouldn’t be doing it properly if he didn’t. The truth is that too many scams , pyramid schemes, failed alt-coins with good intentions and terrible developement teams, along with hacked exchanges and other general dodgy shenanigans in the Bitcoin space have proved again this year that a ‘Trustless Network’ demands a real network of real peers, who you can really really trust, which necessitates a regulatory framework around the money services businesses which transact and deal with Bitcoin too. Regulators, for the most part, are currently concerned with consumer protection in the wake of the collapse of Mt Gox, and rightly so.

That’s why I’m calling out the community for being dysfunctional, and echoing Courtois’ sentiment that it fosters a ‘toxic culture’. Criticisms from s cryptographer of his calibre are seriously interesting, and all too often get shouted down by the Bitcoinista “sales and marketing department” (yours truly included btw) who are usually beating the drum relentlessly because they stand to profit.

Seriously, I still love you guys, but hear me out. Bitcoin isn’t ‘a brotherhood’ anymore as Charlie Schrem once said. It’s a sisterhood too as I’ve come to realise and appreciate more and more, and now whilst bitcoin maybe still in childhood, but is hopefully maturing towards adulthood soon.

With a bit of luck ‘the trolling problem’ that Gavin Andressen refered to at the Amsterdam Conference in 2014 can be addressed properly, because if Bitcoin does have serious weaknesses and flaws, whether social, political or economic, or the codebase itself has flaws, then we need to be aware of them properly to understand more fully what they are and how to tackle them.

Likewise, Money Services Businesses like exchanges and payment will be regulated in some form or other. In most cases, SME MSBs are crying out for regulation that makes sense. MSBs hold our money; and if they abscond with our money, or if they get hacked, or otherwise lose it, then we all lose out, the public loses trust in the technology, and the eco-system dies.

So these days, whilst I still believe there’s a great future in Bitcoin as a currency and as a platform for other great technologies, my attitude has been tempered by hard lessons learned taking Bitcoin to poor areas of Kenya in February and March earlier this year and I’ve grown to understand more about the political, economic and social limitations of Bitcoin as a result.

Bitcoin is not a universal panacea, and it will not necessarily ‘free us from government regulation’. Sorry, that’s wrong. If anything, the general consuming public need protection from thieves, hackers, and greedy corporations and sometimes, it’s only the governments and rational social democractic social strucures we’ve put in place that can provide those protections.

As a result, my ‘2013 double-bubble’ enthusiasm has dwindled a little. I can’t say if it’s temporary or permanent, but I will say this: regulation works both ways. The Gold market is regulated, and assets and comnmodities markets are regulated, and virtual currency markets will be regulated too, most likely by mutual consent

If Bitcoin were excluded in toto it wouldn’t fail to win consumer adoption, but it would most likely fail the banking system’s fundamental and underlying need for the technology.

I’m not in anyway advocating the idea that any government ought to take control of regulating or manipulating the protocol. That idea in itself is rather terrifying. I’m just pointing out that Bitcoin is an inclusive system, more than an ‘exclusive’ one. It might have arrived exogenously like a global financial exoskeleton but both the private and public sector are catching up fast and building on what is essentially still new territory.

SWARM & Regulation

The issue that faces me today is whether SWARM, the crowdfunding platform which I have a vested interest in, and truly want to see succeed, is going to face regulatory trouble down the road. I’ve got a personal stake in its success, and it’s also the platform on which Alex Preukschat’s Bitcoin Comic is being launched, in which I also have a stake.

I also have some nascent designs on launching a “Cypherpunk brand” on the platform sometime next year, and I’d like to be confident that things are being done properly with regards to issuing IP rights in the Bitcoin Comic, as it’s a project which is close to my heart. But that’s a bit of a side issue, mainly because, whilst the prospect is interesting, it’s not the most interesting aspect of SWARM.

As far as I understand it, SWARM is aiming to be a timeline oriented, peer reviewed social network for Bitcoin entrepreneurs, that acts as a way of keeping track of, and vetting who’s been successful so far in the world of Bitcoin entrepreneurship and development. A little bit like Linkedin or Facebook, SWARM is aiming to become a kind of ‘digital street’ for the Bitcoin world. (I might be wrong on this though, you’ll have to ask them yourself what exactly they’re planning to do).

Cypherpunk Street Culture:

In “Cypherpunks, Bitcoin & the Myth of Satoshi Nakamoto” I introduced the idea that cypherpunk was more nuanced, more serious and more focused than cyberpunk ever was, but that, like all good punk movements, it was a radical movement by design, aimed squarely at disrupting the status-quo and protecting people’s privacy. But to me, Cypherpunk has always been a bit more than that; perhaps because I’m a neuromantic* at heart, I’ve always thought about the movement in culturally aesthetic terms. (Hence why I’m such a fan of the Bitcoin Comic.)

Tim May declared that: “Cypherpunks Write Code” but like many of us, I grew up admiring graffiiti artists whose intricate cyphers were splattered over the urban landscape using spray cans and paint pens, hiding secret messages in the most obvious and colourful places; and rap artists like Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Saul Williams, whose elaborate street cypher-sessions were wrapped in clever codes with subtle hidden meanings; a method which they employed to broadcast their thoughts far and wide, whilst keeping the intimate nuances of their language obscured, such that only ‘those in the know’ could understand their poetry fully. (No, not me, I’m a white middle class kid from the suburbs of London… but I got the gist for the most part).

To a degree, I think, Cypherpunks have always been with us, it’s just the context that’s changed.

‘Cypherpunk’ was the missing word in a cultural lexicon I’d been using since I was a teenager. On my first Let’s Talk Bitcoin interview I said I thought that the word ‘Cypherpunk’ was really a fashion statement, and I still believe that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a healthy respect for the ‘true’ Cypherpunks and the grassroots movement it represents which is a blend of deep intellectual integrity born of serious academia, infused with a radical brand of socially wild rebellious freedom. (Amir Taaki et al.)

But because of its deep roots, there is a nascent debate surrounding the word and the culture. Are Cypherpunks terrorists?

What are we to make of Hal Finney’s email to ‘cypherpunks@al-qaeda.net’ for example? Or is it the true, hard-core Crypto-Anarchists that are the real terrorists? I don’t mean to downplay the word Cypherpunk by suggesting it’s ‘just’ a fashion statement, because it isn’t, but to me it is inspirational and I’m inspired by these kind of fashionable concepts, ideas, words etc.

Call me shallow if you like: that’s part of my nature, but I’m inclined to argue that anyone can be a Cypherpunk, they just need to write code of some kind and be aware of what’s happening around them; the rise of the surveillance state, of corporations and industries that steal, scrape or buy their personal data so they can predict the populace’s behaviour more precisely, influence their social and political decisions more subtly and ultimately target their wallets more comprehensively.

But let’s get back to the basics of what this debate about anonymous cash is all about and talk about what ‘real’ cypherpunk kids like Julian Assange were doing in the 1980s, namely; hacking phone networks and discovering vast, unprotected credit card repositories.

Suelette Dreyfuss’ 90s book ‘Underground’, which is available for free download and was heavily researched by Julian Assange, spells out in detail why it was such an obvious necessity to have a pure form of digital cash that didn’t rely on identity for exchange.

In ‘Underground’ Assange’s peers saw the inherent design weaknesses in having credit card details stored online and whilst his recent book ‘Cypherpunk’ lays out the fundamentals of today’s Security vs Privacy debate, ‘Underground’ gives a really accurate account of what was going on back then, and, to a large degree shows why Assange is in the position he’s in now.

Then, groups of teenagers were outclassing sophisticated spy agencies, banks and governments. Today, the same appears to be true, but the battle-lines have changed. The real cypherpunks, script kiddies, hackers and crackers who abound just beneath ‘the surface’ of the web, especially in the crypto-currency scene, have come of age: open-source emergent fin-tech like Bitcoin represents an almost certina material threat to the existence and survival of some aspects of banking and governance. Exactly how much however, is unclear.

Rght now, today, for teenagers and disaffected youth, I think declaring oneself ‘a cypherpunk’ in public is the kind of statement that expresses a strong will towards autonomy, a generalised desire for economic and political change and a recognition of the rise of the Big-Data Nation State.

Yet, just because a cyberpunk is revoutionary doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re destructive. On the contrary, I think cypherpunks should be, and are to a large extent, extremely creative, pragmatic and resourceful.

Just as street rappers and artists exemplify creative urban rebellion in ‘the real street’ so do cypherpunks exemplify creative civil rebellion in the online street. The word ‘cypherpunk’ itself is a bridge between those two worlds: the real, and the virtual, the subtle and the crass.

The crucial differenting factor between cypherpunk subculture and traditional street culture, is that cypherpunks wield powers enough to create their own money, their own distributed, decentralised organisations and corporations and their own democractic institutions.

Just as Pop-Art gave rise to Street Art, Bitcoin is turning ‘Pop Finance’ to ‘Street Finance’. Taking kick-starter crowdfunding to the digital street where the traditional rules no longer strictly apply. SWARM is the perfect case in point.

Let’s follow the analogy. Graffiti is illegal in many places, but visit Hoxton and Shoreditch in London on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll be glad it isn’t illegal there. It’s lively, it’s fun. It’s exciting and vibrant. Simliarly in cities all over the world, from Berlin and Amsterdam, to Tokyo, Paris, Barcelona, and New York, the rule is: where street art is tolerated, talent blooms, communities flourish and economies hustle.

SWARM is perhaps one of the first examples of this kind of “digital street-finance” where, although the law is clear: ‘No Graffitti — Offenders will be prosecuted,’ the artists (thankfully) aren’t listening, and nor should they neccessarily.

SWARM might be situated on a digital street (like in Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash) instead of Wall Street, but that’s the beauty of it. The digital street is located in cypherspace: it’s a place to play, where entrepreneurs are free to experiment, take risks, and build new technologies for their peers to explore.

That’s why ‘The Hunt for Satoshi’ Comic Book is such a great idea and fits so perfectly there. It’s a fusion of street art, cutting edge technology and cypherpunk ideology, and I really hope it succeeds, I’d like to see future editions, sequels, re-tellings of the story and of course a movie.

Finally, I’d like to tell my own personal story about ‘Finding Satoshi’, but I still feel that’s a few years off, and is, most defintiely not quite as straight forward as I first thought it was.