How to achieve anarchy using computers

In the 1970s there was a battle going on in Harvard. It was between two impressively tall men who were sat in their offices trying how to best figure out how the world should work. They wanted the world to be as fair as possible for as many people as possible.

This was ultimately a question of how the government should work.

The most important person (for our purposes, at least) [1] was Robert Nozick who argued in Anarchy, State and Utopia, that we should have a minimalist government. The only reason for government to exist is to provide security to its citizens. Perhaps the main reason why he reached this argument is that the act of taxation is theft. While tax can be helpful because it provides healthcare, education, social services and so on, it doesn’t reduce the importance from the idea that any time the government taxes you, it unfairly takes away something you have earned.

This was for a long time one of the most popular renditions of libertarianism. However, it isn’t taken seriously now because of the consequences such a system would cause. You are probably already thinking of the problems – no universal healthcare, increasing social and economic inequality, fewer education opportunities open to the least well off and so on.

Importantly, it wasn’t anarchy. It wasn’t meant to be a lawless mess but ultimately, the government wasn’t allowed to do more than provide security for its citizens.

Now, what if the government simply couldn’t provide security to its citizens? Or provide any social services?

The difference between the government choosing not to provide social services and being unable to provide them is important.

In the first instance, there isn’t much stopping them providing services past political difference. Usually, tax is still collected but used for minimal things such as security.

The second is much more problematic. It’s scary. And it could be happening sooner than we think.

Enter crypto-anarchy…

Cryptoanarchy is anarchy achieved through technology. People send information to one another using cryptographic software which allows for a large degree of anonymity. Proponents of cryptoanarchy say there are three main benefits of this:

  • It protects from mass surveillance
  • It prevents censorship
  • It provides an alternative to traditional banking

Before we delve more into this topic, let’s clarify what cryptography is:

“Crypto-“ can be translated as “hidden” or “secret”.

“-graphy” can be translated as “to write”.

Together, it means writing private messages or information. Cryptography relies a lot on mathematics and algorithms. This is where you’ve probably heard of computers mining for bitcoins. It requires a lot of processing power. As more bitcoins are mined, it becomes harder to get more. [2]

Let’s move onto some pictures.

Cryptographic communication.PNG

  1. Messages are encrypted with keys that are generated with algorithms.
  2. The public key is shared, and the private key is private.
  3. These keys are similar and mathematically linked.

Now that Oj has encrypted the message using Michael’s public key, the only way to decrypt the message is with the private key. You can try to figure out the message without the key but that may take millions of years.

Right, now we have some understanding of how it works. Don’t worry if you’re still not 100% on it. The basics are enough for now.

What’s the deal then?

Imagine all our communications are done this way. There is no middleman between myself and the person(s) I’m talking to. The government has now lost control over what is said and how it is said. What if our social networks were like this?

Now, Facebook and Twitter act as publishers for our material (although they want to be platforms [3]). They have rules for what can and cannot be said as per their terms and service. With increasing frequency, social networks are struggling to remain as neutral as possible because of the demands on them to remove hateful speech as well as strike a balance between allowing their users to be as active and expressive as possible.

Because they own the servers, they can ban people and follow the requests of the government to disallow certain things being said. However, and you’re probably seeing the trend now, if we remove these centralised networks, we can say whatever we want and be anonymous while doing it.

The most popular use of this technology is through currencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum.

Governments around the world rely on taxation to fund social services such as security, healthcare and so on. With a reliable banking system, we can track earnings, force people to pay tax and fines. If there’s a problem with our finances, in the UK at least, the government can protect up to £85,000 of a person’s savings.

A decentralised system used to make payments works to remove the Government’s ability to do these tasks. How do you tax a transaction if you don’t even know who made it? Or who it was sent to? Should we remove the government’s ability to do these necessary tasks, we lose the benefits that come with it.

Returning to Nozick’s minimalist government. He put forward the philosophical argument that the government should not tax us for things beyond security.

In the scenario above, it may not even be able to provide us with that.

No computer should have all that power

A problem with reading books on technology and intelligence in the 21st Century is we may work ourselves into a bit of a frenzy. It seems like the world’s first smarter-than-all-humans-ever computer will appear tomorrow and it’ll be let loose into the world. Then it’ll turn us all into paperclips [4].

There are headlines of computers finally beating the world’s best Go and chess players without any prior data at all [5]. This is exciting stuff within the field of A.I. Surely, they’re only a few years away from beating us in everything?

No. Robots suck at picking things up from the floor [6]. We’re a while away from becoming paperclips.

Yet, the rise of crypto-related technologies forces us to think about and answer questions regarding the reach of the government. Jamie Bartlett rightfully notes that in a mature democracy, we give up certain individual liberties in order to secure collective rights (such as security).

Crypto-related technologies consolidate massive amounts of power into a small population of people who can do large amounts of harm. How many people know how to use cryptographic technologies? (Not many.) Bartlett also says that the Government would likely need more authority to ensure the safety of the public.

And we can already see how Governments across the world are acting in response to technological advancements right now.

On October 2nd, 2013, a couple was arguing in the San Francisco library. They were distracting everyone nearby. One of the distracted members of the public was Ross Ulbricht who as a result had his laptop taken from him.

He was then arrested and taken to federal prison and faced charges of money laundering, computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics.

You see, Mr Ulbricht was the founder of Silk Road. The dark net online marketplace that was famously known for facilitating the sale of nearly $1 billion worth of drugs. He was found guilty and sentenced to 2 life sentences without the possibility of parole.

It’s an interesting case because it seems like a heavy-handed sentence for a person who allowed people to shop anonymously. Additionally, it is somewhat like the cryptographic social network described above.

Having a middleman allows regulation because activities can be seen and impacted. People can be attached to the actions they take. If everyone is anonymous with no central platform, we lose security protections afforded by central non-anonymous platforms.

Should the possibility of cryptoanarchy be taken seriously?

If so, how should democracies around the world respond to the rise of such technologies as they potentially rip control out of their hands?

If cryptocurrencies continue to rise in popularity, how will we manage the inevitable increase in inequality since most of the population have no stake in things like bitcoin?

Will the Government need more powers to ensure our security?

How much liberty are willing to sacrifice for the promise of security?

Final words…

As I mentioned earlier, I do not believe crypto anarchy is something we need to be afraid of right this second. Currently, it is a useful tool to think about how governments around the world should respond to the increasing complexity of technology and, in this case, its direct opposition to how the world currently functions.

However, this isn’t just a thought experiment.

The technology is real. The problems are real. The questions must be answered.


As always, thank you for reading!

I know this is a stray away from my usual personal development posts. I hope it was enjoyable nonetheless!

I’d recommend reading Jamie Bartlett’s The People vs Tech for a much better explanation of the problem. This was heavily inspired by the final chapter.


[1] I think most would rightfully argue that John Rawls had a much greater impact on political philosophy in the long-term.

[2] There was a cap placed by Satoshi Nakomoto at 21 million bitcoins. There are currently about 18 million in circulation.

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jul/02/facebook-mark-zuckerberg-platform-publisher-lawsuit

[4] This is a famous example given by Nick Bostrom in Superintelligence where he argues that a super-intelligent artificial program may just want to develop as many paperclips as possible. We will be those paperclips if necessary.

[5] Artificial intelligence: Google’s AlphaGo beats Go master Lee Se-dol

[6] Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s