Sunday, September 27, 2009

Where did they go?

I'm not a good programmer. I'm naturally quite techie, but I've never really had the patience to sit down and make great art with my PC. The skills I have are those I was able to absorb from those in my immediate vicinity - replication not initiation.

That said, I do enjoy absorbing the culture of tech - the story of mel, the jargon file, esoteric languages, and the old tales of the MIT AI lab and Xerox Park. I read books by Neal Stephenson and William Gibson. Buried somewhere on my hard drive is the complete archives of Phrack mag, although I barely understand half of it (typically the obsolete half - yay analog phreaking!).

And one of the things I pick up from these shards of geekiness is a sense of wistfulness. They talk about the September that never ended. They talk about the AI Winter. They refer to newsgroups and communities of unsurpassed elegance and sophistication, that now no longer exist. There's a sense of stumbling across the forgotten artifacts of some lost higher civilisation. Once heroes and wizards strode the Earth; now there are only echoes.

Where did they go? What happened to the cypherpunk generation? Did they all quit programming, or wind up in wage-slave jobs that crushed their creativity, or die of drug overdoses, or get locked up for not respecting someone's lack of respect for computer security? Have the elves passed into the West, making way for the Age of Man?

I hope not. I like to think that, somewhere, these ideals hold on. Somewhere, in a hidden mailing list, on a firewalled server, carried by a stream of encrypted emails spliced into innocuous data, the crypto-anarchist dream lives on. It's just waiting to be found, locked behind doors that cry out for the right key. So what if the key in question is 8192-bit?

Maybe I'm deluding myself. Maybe the cypherpunk movement just died out, faded back into oblivion. It would be a poorer world if that were so, but the world has no responsibility to respect our desires.

But I allow myself this one dream. And in consolation for the lack of evidence, I hold this thought tightly:

If they couldn't hide themselves from people like me, they wouldn't be worth admiring...


Dunc said...

The "cypherpunk" punk movement was never all it was cracked up to be in the first place. You might as well read all that wonderful late-19th-century Imperial hagiography and get all wistful for the days of Empire. Never believe people's own PR.

As for what happened to them... The same thing that happens to all of us: they grew up. They just took a little longer about it than most.

At the end of the day, technology is just a tool, and tools exist in social, political, and economic contexts. New technology rarely (if ever) fundamentally changes society by itself. New technologies can just as easily re-enforce existing inequities as overthrow them - more easily, in fact, as they're always available to the current beneficiaries of those inequities first, and they're best placed to exploit the new opportunities arising from them.

The spirit of cypherpunk lives on in those twats pining for The Singularity. Most of them will eventually grow up too.

Lifewish said...

Haven't heard many people talking about the Singularity recently, I think the Terminator movies kinda killed the idea.

Point taken re PR. But, looking back, the thing that puzzles me the most is: why didn't crypto-anarchy happen? We live in a world with SSL, PGP, Tor, etc, and I keep stumbling across other random crypto stuff. How can the NSA still function? Is it just that all the people they spy on are really stupid and/or cryptographically unsophisticated?

Similarly crypto banking. I understand how governments managed to stop Cryptonomicon-style cryptographic banking in the US: they put the squeeze on Paypal. But surely it only takes one bank in one country to break the system by allowing anonymous transactions. I'm mildly amazed that e.g. the Cayman Islands haven't yet decided that this is a good idea.

Maybe the general public just doesn't understand crypto well enough for it to be used on a large scale.

Dunc said...

Why didn't crypto-anarchy happen? Well, it's not a subject I've thought that much about, and there's probably a number of reasons, but the big one that occurs to me off the top of my head is that nobody wants to get irreversibly locked out of their own life because they've forgotten their password or lost their keyfile. The second big reason is that, for the vast majority of people, there's really no need for it.

The big problem with crypto is managing your secrets. Do you go with something really secure but difficult to remember, or something easy to remember but easy to brute-force? How many different systems can you re-use the same password on? Etc...

As for the likes of the NSA, hard crypto is bugger all use if they can attach a hardware keylogger to your machine. Also, bribery is extremely useful in many situations. Finally, there's always this.

When it comes to crypto-banking, the problem is that if you don't abide by the agreed rules of the game, nobody else will play with you. What good is your double-secret Cayman Islands account if you can't actually get the money out and spend it anywhere off the island? You gonna spend a billion dollars on coconuts and banana daiquiris? The existing level of secrecy provided by tax havens is more than adequate for the vast majority of users - and that includes former Nazis and international drug barons. Why go thermonuclear when conventional will do the job, and attract less notice in the process?

There's a lot to be said for simply not putting up a big sign saying "I'm trying to hide stuff." Nobody's looking that closely anyway, unless you give them a reason to. Not attracting attention is usually a better bet than being heavily armoured.