Thoughts on Cypherpunks 2.0

Sun Oct 13, 2013

This is a post about fear. It’s easy to write about things that everyone says they are afraid of, but less so about nightmares that you suspect might just be your own. The latter is much more distressing and also easier to push out of the way. I’ll try to elaborate on something that has been in the back of my mind.

Last night, I went to a talk by my friend Andy titled, “Cypherpunks 2.0.” Andy thinks that there’s been two major waves of activity in the cypherpunk movement: the one that peaked in the 90s and put technologies like PGP, SSL, OTR, and Tor in the hands of ordinary people (at least in the U.S.); and the one that started this summer in response to the Snowden leaks.

Andy is hopeful. He points out that Cypherpunks 2.0 has dozens of active crypto and techno-activism mailing lists, as well as IRL meetups like Techno-Activism Third Mondays, CCC, and Cryptoparty. On the technology front, we’re watching projects like Tahoe-LAFS, CryptoCat, Whonix, and Tails become what John Gilmore referred to as the physics and mathematics that guarantees a fair society when legal systems are insufficient (as they typically are).

There was a slide in Andy’s talk that really stuck with everyone in the audience. It read:

[Cypherpunks 1.0] “Look at this utopia we can build, using cryptography!”

[Cypherpunks 2.0] “Look at this dystopia we have built, using cryptography!”

And yes, Cypherpunks 2.0 feels less like a revolution for utopia through free cryptography and more like an arms race against Orwellian governments that fundamentally disagree with us on whether privacy is a human right. Cypherpunks today don’t talk about winning, for the most part. We talk about staying above water. We say that the best we can do is to make mass surveillance both illegal and extremely difficult through maximal use of end-to-end encryption. We’re doing the best we can to prevent and protect people from the hells of targeted surveillance if they are ever so unlucky, but it’s hard to make promises when you don’t know if your adversary model is close to realistic.

Last night, I realized that every article I had read about the Snowden leaks either implicitly or explicitly suggested that we should be afraid, because the Orwellian dystopia is already here. Everyone is being watched all the time. Our crypto abilities are decades behind those of the government. Free societies cannot exist in such a state. Etc.

None of the above distresses me, though. Those of us who identify as cypherpunks or simply people who dislike surveillance are in a better spot than before. Every week, we learn a bit more about how government surveillance works, and we adjust our tactics accordingly. Pull, push, merge.

The part that I am truly, deeply, unapologetically terrified of is that we’ll step away from our laptops, take a look at American society as a whole, and find that almost nobody cares.

I’ve had this fear in some form or another for a decade. In 2006, I was 15, rather cynical, and planning to drop out of public school in inner-city Saint Louis. I wanted generational identity instead of Facebook wall posts, protests instead of biweekly third-period Home Economics. There was nothing I despised more than apathy.

That year, I purchased the first book I ever bought for myself. It was Amusing Ourselves to Death, an ever-relevant work of nonfiction written by Neil Postman in 1985. The foreword has a stunningly prophetic passage that, like a boomerang, swings out of the far blue distance and dares us to duck fast:

 … we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another- slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

Postman, in painful detail, considered the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right. Nonetheless, nobody really wants to talk about Huxley. Orwellian surveillance is, in a certain light, a sexy thing to fight against. The apathy of the average person who spends 4 hours per day watching reality TV is not. For most of us, it’s much more fun to hack on Tor than to explain to a grocery store cashier why they should support free software projects that are far less usable than Dropbox.

My fear is that outside of the technological elite, convenience will perpetually win over privacy. I’m afraid that if staying alive in the war against surveillance relies on winning the war against apathy, Cypherpunks 2.0 is moving forward in the wrong direction.

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