The threat (and promise) of crypto-anarchism

In an article for The Guardian entitled Forget far-right populism – crypto-anarchists are the new masters, Jamie Bartlett outlines something that I think isn’t even remotely on the radar of most people.

Bartlett explains how the surge in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to an approach to the web that’s a couple of decades old. While Theresa May and her ilk want to decrypt everything, crypto anarchists want to, as their name suggests, encrypt everything. Not only that, they want to do so in a way that makes the idea of the ‘State’ irrelevant:

Crypto-anarchists are mostly computer-hacking, anti-state libertarians who have been kicking around the political fringes for two decades, trying to warn a mostly uninterested public about the dangers of a world where everything is connected and online. They also believe that digital technology, provided citizens are able to use encryption themselves, is the route to a stateless paradise, since it undermines government’s ability to monitor, control and tax its people. Crypto-anarchists build software – think of it as political computer code – that can protect us online. Julian Assange is a crypto-anarchist (before WikiLeaks he was an active member of the movement’s most important mailing list), and so perhaps is Edward Snowden. Once the obsessive and nerdy kids in school, they are now the ones who fix your ransomware blunder or start up unicorn tech firms. They are the sort of people who run the technology that runs the world.

Understandably, the ‘deep state’ and institutional antibodies are going to kick in to fight against crypto-anarchists. In the end, though, politicians aren’t going to have much choice, argues Bartlett:

At present, technology stands outside the messy business of politics, but in a couple of elections’ time, AI, big tech, the sharing economy, will be discussed as angrily as immigration or the NHS now. Does anyone seriously believe that Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May or Tim Farron or Nicola Sturgeon have the foggiest clue about any of this, and what to do about it? (I’ve not even mentioned climate change, synthetic biology, the continued mass movement of people, billions of connected internet-enabled devices.) To most politicians – even the left, which once imagined that its “white heat” would forge a better world – technology is mainly viewed as a job creator or deliverer of efficiency. The phrase “centre of innovation” is the digital equivalent of motherhood and apple-pie: no right-minded politician could ever oppose it. True, things are slowly changing and there’s more about digital technology in this round of manifestos than ever before: the Conservatives promise a digital charter, the Lib Dems mention artificial intelligence, and Jeremy Corbyn launched a special “digital manifesto” last year. Maybe I’m expecting too much, and maybe citizens don’t care enough either. But none of this yet amounts to a vision that matches the scale of what’s going on.

What’s scary from my perspective is that, on the whole, people aren’t getting more digitally savvy, they’re getting less so. I see a retreat to shiny walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple services that make everything seamless. Users no longer have to think. Decentralisation and the circumvention of gatekeepers only leads to good things if citizens can make informed choices. I don’t think that’s currently the case, and unless something radically changes, it’s certainly not going to happen in the future:

[P]erhaps a better comparison than the 1930s for our age is the 1820s. That period witnessed what must have felt at the time like unprecedented change and confusion: the onset of industrialisation, political revolution and counter-revolution, great leaps in science, and the first railways. A British prime minister was assassinated. Luddites smashed machines, fearing that the power loom – that generation’s artificial intelligence – would cause mass unemployment. But the turmoil and instability of the last industrial revolution did not thrust us inexorably into the arms of tyrants. It did however shake up old assumptions as never before, stimulating a flowering of ideas, some of which were stirrings of the modern world: working-class consciousness, extended (albeit still limited) suffrage, Factory Acts, socialist theory, Catholic emancipation and utilitarianism.

Up until now, my fears about technology in the future haven’t been groundless, but things nevertheless haven’t turned out as bad as I thought they perhaps could. One of the reasons for that has been the ‘deep state’, the institutional antibodies, slowing things down. What’s described by Bartlett in this article, however, is technology coming directly for those antibodies, destroying them, and building a new world.

Anyone for Bitnation?