Real Sci-Fi: Anarchists, tech utopians and digital cash | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 09.07.2019
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Shining examples

Real Sci-Fi: Anarchists, tech utopians and digital cash

The story of cryptocurrency reads like science fiction - technology shaping the real world. Finn Brunton wrote the book.

DW: The history of digital cash - cryptocurrency - is vast and ongoing. It's still writing itself. And yet it already feels like the story of another country. An unknown place, home to outlaws. Just looking at some of the words that jump from the pages of your book "Digital Cash," like frozen bodies, cypherpunks, libertarians, micronationalists, private spaceships, a tank of frozen heads, zero-knowledge… One can only ask, Who are these people?

In one sense, the book's major characters are relatively homogenous. It's really striking that there's this group of people who are almost all white men, early middle age (at the time), working in the computer industry, and who all live in the same four or five postal codes! Most of the time, they know each other. It's a small and closely woven community.

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But there's one other thing they had in common, which speaks more directly to your point. And that is that they were all people who shared a "science fictional sensibility."

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It was a specific attitude that derives from reading the American science fiction of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It was a unique genre in its very specific emphasis on an idea of the radical social change that was possible solely through technical means. And a number of these people wrote their own science fiction, too.

Well, you mention "True Names" by Vernor Vinge a few times…

Yes, right. And, for instance, when Tim May wanted to publicize his BlackNet project [Ed.: a proof-of-concept cryptographic trading platform], he did so through a fictional, hoax manifesto.

Finn Brunton, professor at New York University and author of the book Digital Cash (New York University)

Finn Brunton, professor at New York University and author of the book "Digital Cash"

So, they loved reading science fiction and writing hypothetical versions of things.

One of the threads in the literary world that they inhabited was this idea of a character who discovers "that single thing" - a tool, a gadget, the faster-than-light drive, the death ray, or an immortality serum - and then irreversibly changes the world, producing a radical, abrupt, total transformation.

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They are subversives, aren't they? As in John Brunner's "The Shockwave Rider," with its idea of a government and network that's collapsed, and a separate society… It's a very technologist, libertarian view of the world.

Absolutely. And Roy Walford was a symbol of that philosophy. He was an extropian fellow-traveler, a doctor, an advocate of changing your diet, taking supplements, and living longer to see these total transformations.

Biosphere 2 in Arizona, USA — a testing ground for an autonomous space habitat (DW/H.Kaschel)

Biosphere 2 in Arizona, USA — a testing ground for an autonomous space habitat

Walford was also the chief medic on Biosphere 2, a model of technology, engineering and managing ecosystems to try to produce a completely autonomous, parallel world. It was a testing ground for an autonomous space habitat.

And if you think about the theme in the book of people wanting to build off-shore political bodies or run a whole society off a platform in international waters, there's a recurring thread of an idea that if you build the right technology, you can unseat the world you were born into and create your own vision of the future.

  

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It seems a very American ideology that underpins this technology. And yet it has a very real impact for us all. If this idea came from a group of people who wanted a parallel society, how must they feel that governments these days are so keen on their idea of cryptocurrency and blockchain, too? It's a bit ironic, isn't it?

Oh, God, yes! And it's significant that Facebook has just formally announced its own cryptocurrency, Libra - working at the scale of billions of people in partnership with enormous corporations [Ed.: like Visa, Mastercard, Paypal, Uber].

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Many of the original characters are deeply distressed by the ways that cryptocurrency has been incorporated and used by central banks and governments. How they've become institutionalized. Having laid the foundations for these parallel societies, they've instead been absorbed in large part by the very systems that they were meant to replace.

To quote Michael Franti: "Shining examples of the systems they set out to destroy"…

Yes.

But with some excepts, such as David Chaum. He developed a model of digital cash that is anonymous, protects privacy, resists the use of money for censorship, but also has a means to anonymize existing money.

It's not about creating your own bank or currency or inventing something that is wholly anonymous and useful for money laundering or running drug deals. But instead it's something that works with existing governmental systems and provides a privacy-protecting alternative.

And Chaum has going concerns, doesn't he, such as his "blind signature" technology for document protection? So that's a real impact for all of us beyond cash. It seems to be an ongoing theme from your last book - perhaps it's even the struggle of our times ­- this issue of how to protect privacy while moving freely between digital and analog worlds. The question of how to balance an open society that doesn't leave us all vulnerable with a level of protection that isn't abused by criminal actors.

And part of the challenge is to prevent the transformation of privacy and personal autonomy and freedom from becoming only the privileges of the wealthy.

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Because the people who need privacy most are already vulnerable and lack power. The people able to opt-out of a privacy-destroying technology and other invasive systems are people who are rich, people who are already in a good place.

And what's pertinent about digital cash, and which often gets lost, is the ability to have money that is not being used against you - that's an important component of a free society.

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For instance, people in poverty in New York State receive electronic benefits, which allow them to buy things like food. Those benefits are aggressively data managed, and they are only good for certain things and not others. So, you don't really have money, you have tokens.

And you can easily imagine dystopian situations where you could use data about money to seize assets belonging to people of certain ethnic or religious communities, or people engaging in practices deemed unacceptable, such as sex workers who are driven back into the hands of pimps when payment systems look for data about their activities and then freeze their assets.

We pay a very high social price when we lose the ability for money to be private. And that again turns privacy and assets into something that only belong to the wealthy and leaves everyone else in a vulnerable position.

Finn Brunton is an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. "Digital Cash" is published by Princeton University Press.

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