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Thoughts on “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto”, part 1

Ever since discovering the early writings of the group called the “Cypherpunks”, I’ve been drawn to the thoughts and ideas expressed so concisely by them. These ideas shaped cryptocurrencies and all that I am working in right now. I am saddened they are not read as wide as I’d like.

On the one hand because I think they warned about a lot of things regarding privacy that are problems today. One the other, it deprives me of people I can talk to about these ideas. And I love to talk about them. So to satisfy both ends, I’ve decided to dedicate a series of posts to their writings as they strike me, in the hopes they will stir something in you, too.

The first text I want to cover is “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto” by Eric Hughes.

Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age. Privacy is not secrecy. A private matter is something one doesn’t want the whole world to know, but a secret matter is something one doesn’t want anybody to know. Privacy is the power to selectively reveal oneself to the world.

This paragraph is telling, in that it immediately places the focus on a big issue when transitioning from the physical to the digital: you start leaving traces everywhere!

In our day, we are becoming more and more aware of this, but remember this short essay was written in 1993. The Manifesto immediately points to this problem and outlines a program to address it.

When discussing privacy, you usually end up in a confusing debate about the issue of anonymity and how anonymity is inherently bad these days. Arguments of criminality and terrorism are the preferred rhetorical topics to bring up.

The Manifesto however does not start with anonymity; it starts with the question of what privacy is. Privacy is not hiding. Privacy is not keeping secrets. Both of those presuppose that your base state is one where you and your information are not hidden.

This is not the case: most of our information used to be hidden. For most of us, it still is. When I meet you on the street, I know some things about you: your height, your gender, your clothing preferences and a few things more. These things will by the way all be assumptions on my part: you might wear platform shoes, you might not identify with your physical gender and you might be on your way to a fancy dress party.

Most of the information about you will be hidden from me: your address, your relations, your political identity etc.

The only social way for me to find out about these is for you to choose to share them with me. This has been the default for most of our history.

Now if we were good friends, you might want to choose not to share something with me. If our norm would be that we’d usually share such specific things with each other, then we can speak of you keeping something secret from me (and maybe others).

A digital space makes all of this very difficult. As we all know (or can learn very easily), most people are leaking information all over the internet. Just by using Google and some creative searches on social profiles, it’s remarkably easy to find out a lot of these things that we previously could only learn by asking and the other person granting the information to us. In effect our private space has shrunk to a large degree.

What’s more: we have lost our ability to choose whether to share this information selectively. And this is precisely what the Manifesto is addressing.

The rest of the Manifesto builds on this simple premise and question: How can we retain our power to choose to share information selectively in a digital world?

Bas Wisselink
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Bas Wisselink

Freelance trainer and speaker at Blockchain Workspace
Bas Wisselink is a freelance writer, public speaker and trainer. He is a founder of Blockchain Workspace. His expertise is in education, training and presentation skills.
Bas Wisselink
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Also published on Medium.

Published in Articles Cypherpunk Texts