Image Source: The Art of Not Being Governed.
Does the predominance of the Internet mean that we can, and will, live in a great, stateless society? On 12 March 2014, BBC's show HARDtalk interviewed Cody Wilson, Gen Y enfant terrible of 3-D printed gun on the Web fame, about the rise of crypto-anarchy.
Wilson expresses a perspective coming from a generation that has grown up without reference points outside of technological immersion. HARDtalk interviewer Stephen Sackur's uneasiness was evident. Wilson displayed cheerful enthusiasm and faint condescension as he dished out life's tough new truths for HARDtalk's viewers, whom he obviously presumed were out of the loop. Wilson was eloquent, voluble, intelligent, and not nice at all. Or perhaps he only meant to appear that way. He has had a media makeover over the past year; for all his disdain for the MSM, he loves publicity.
Wilson dismissed 20th century liberal values as a catechism of control, murder and inefficiency, a grand moralistic delusion which enables state, social and economic oppression. He off-handedly referred to Obama as a "grocery clerk" (in a sly nod to Kurtz's dialogue in Apocalypse Now, Coppola's 1979 version of Heart of Darkness). Wilson's aside spoke volumes: how far will he take us up the river? As far as he - and we - can go. He was giggly and laid back, but make no mistake: he was deadly serious.
Clip of HARDtalk interview between Cody Wilson and Stephen Sackur (12 March 2014). Video Source: BBC via Youtube.
Max Keiser interviewed Cody Wilson in November 2013. Keiser called Wilson a "citizen of the future," "living in a trifecta of disruptive technologies." Here, Wilson insisted on the subversive and anarchic aspects of these technologies while he talked about crowd-funding an anonymous 'Dark Wallet' for Bitcoin users. Video Source: RT via Youtube.
Sackur asked Wilson whether corporations and governments might be better placed and able to mobilize the power of the Internet as opposed to lone individuals. Thus, the Internet actually strengthens the power of the state, rather than weakening it. And Wilson acknowledged:
the internet [i]s a powerful tool for both states and individuals, adding: "There is no way to separate the eminence of the mechanisms of control from what would ostensibly be the techniques of liberation."
Yet Wilson speaks with the confidence of a citizen who lives in a country with a functioning state (troubled though it is). He is a member of a sophisticated, very wealthy, powerful - and democratic - society. He doesn't really know what it would mean to sweep that edifice away.
Groomed, curious and charitable in his odd moments, one senses that Wilson knows that life outside the comfort zone would be inhospitable. He doesn't look like that's his real goal. His Crypto-Anarchic talk carries a meta-level of communication. His interview is shock marketing for his Dark Wallet - and for himself. He's an anti-capitalist venture capitalist. He's a Bad Boy crashing the BBC's MSM party. A true revolutionary would not bother to attend the party.
There is another undercurrent in this interview. What is to stop those who build the Internet's most innovative tools to step into the shoes of the old school oppressors they criticize? Certainly not the tools they use, perhaps only their consciences. It is evident that visionaries like Wilson have confused the two. They are bewitched by the inherently egalitarian nature of their online tools, especially the pure, clean mechanisms of peer-to-peer technology.
They forget the other half of the equation, namely, how those tools are perceived, discussed, modeled and imagined. The application of technology has a cultural meta-life removed from its mechanisms and capabilities. And that meta-life is hierarchical.
Wilson stumbles here. Anarchy is supposed to enable total freedom. But for this young American, freedom has a moral and historical value. He brings baggage to the table. He assumes he knows what liberty means, that it has an irreducible positive value which he can distinguish. By falsely equating those historically-informed values with the value of radical technologies like Bitcoin and 3-D printing, Wilson seeks to establish crypto-anarchy. In so doing, he steps into a role of authority; he is a builder of a new establishment, with (gasp) a moral agenda. He is not a clear-eyed visionary and liberator, blasting away the myths which enslave citizens and netizens. He is a would-be usurper. And he is one, precisely because he believes that he is not one.
The rhetoric that seduces so many radical digital technologists these days also blinds them. They're so sure that what they are building - a peer-to-peer distributed utopia - constitutes a positive rethinking of the entire establishment. Their quantitative assumptions about their capabilities may be close to that mark. But their corresponding qualitative assumptions are dangerous and misleading. They forget that this incredible and neutral technology mirrors their souls, motivations, personalities, flaws and blind spots as well as their abilities, dreams and talents.
In the wrong hands, this ticket to a greater world has all the makings of the most terrifying Tower of Babel the world has ever seen. Perhaps today's crypto-anarchists are tomorrow's tyrants. Perhaps they are true revolutionaries. Perhaps they are both. And as Wilson himself admitted, no one can tell. No one understands how this saga will play out, because it depends on a symbiotic dynamic between human and machine, not solely on the machine.
Thus, open source technologies like the Internet and cryptocurrencies carry with them an unexpected layer of mystery. This blog has repeatedly documented instances where the Internet builds and rebuilds systems and bodies of data in supposedly rational, logical or random ways. The Internet as a system, along with its users, constantly impose order on chaos, and the results are nearly always skewed, wrong, taken out of context and artificial. In short, humanity's greatest tool for logic is its ultimate generator of myths. Mystery and misinformation create paradigms of unequal authority in competing hierarchies of relative belief. The Web hypnotically fosters delusion and hypes illusion in the guise of upholding rationality and imposing order. Even when it doesn't, and sites are built for positive reasons, its users increasingly cannot distinguish truth from falsehood, reality from unreality, or good from evil.