On Crypto Anarchy and Cyber Liberty

Timothy May was a formidable figure on the cryptography and privacy scene and a voluminous writer on all things cypherpunk. His peak work was in the 90s, but it hasn’t aged much, and the recent waves of blockchain popularity and interest make it all the fresher.

Tim May has penned the highly influential The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto in 1988 and coined the term crypto anarchy.

I highly suggest that you read his essay Crypto Anarchy and Virtual Communities, which is a fantastic piece printed back in 1994 and that is very prescient on a lot of points of what’s happening today.

There’s a piece from the essay that I’d like to particularly dwell on that recounts how Tim May came up with the word “crypto anarchy” and what he meant by that:

I devised the term crypto anarchy as a pun on crypto, meaning “hidden”, on the use of “crypto” in combination with political views (as in Gore Vidal’s famous charge to William F. Buckley: “You’re crypto fascist!”) and of course because the technology of crypto makes this form of anarchy possible. The first presentation of this term was in a 1988 “Manifesto”, whimsically patterned after another famous Crypto Anarchy and Virtual Communities manifesto. Perhaps a more popularly understandable term, such as “cyber liberty,” might have some advantages, but crypto anarchy has its own charm, I think.

Cyber liberty. Think of the term cyber liberty as this is where I’d like to deviate a little from what's elaborated upon in Crypto Anarchy and Virtual Communities and put it in the perspective of today.

Whether we like it or not, the words anarchy and crypto anarchy can be a boogeyman to the general public, and Tim May went along with the term because he liked it but the cyber liberty one might be more fitting by his own admission.

At its essence—and if you remove any emotion and the multitude of connotations that weight the word down—anarchy means that communities and community members can function in a highly conscious state. In a state in which they can freely cooperate and self-govern without the need of the government. Anarchy is not about actively getting rid of the government; it’s about operating as a tightly knit community.

And yet the term cyber liberty is a better one and is extremely fitting today.

With the spread of the mobile technology, mobile money has become not only popular and accessible but pretty much a necessity to a lot of people. Today, there are about 168 million active mobile money accounts worldwide, and the center of the active use is Africa. In Zimbabwe—to bring forth the most salient example—96% of all transactions are the electronic mobile ones.

What happens is with the spread of technology—cheap smartphones as in the case with Africa—more and more people are joining the world economy and getting the means to cross the local boundaries. What would people in Zimbabwe use for money, when their national currency completely collapsed, were it not for the access to technology, and cheap access too? This is cyber liberty. Albeit a limited one, but liberty nonetheless.

The advance and spread of the blockchain technology gives even more opportunities for people to go translocal and transborder. All that people need is a device, an Internet connection, and a willingness to learn. This is not to say that all three of these are easy to accomplish, but they are a possibility and they are opportunities.

While mobile money is just that—a currency, even though a currency that’s convenient and even life-saving to some that also gives a taste of joining the world economy, the blockchain is the next step and the opportunities that come with it are truly fitting for the term cyber liberty.

Imagine being able to generate content regardless of where you are and be paid for it. Imagine being able to grow your community and online presence and be rewarded for it. Imagine realizing that your attention is actually worth something. Think of what happens when it dawns on people that the effort of learning, exchanging information, and sharing the knowledge is what has a direct and inalienable value. The value that is also financial and all of it is a part of a vast ecosystem.

No boundaries. Hassle free. You immediately gain by merely becoming a part of the world economy, and all you need for it is a device (not necessarily a powerful one), a connection, and a willingness to learn.