Freedom technologists: Revolutionaries or secessionists?

John Postill invited me to contribute to his ‘freedom technologists’ series over on his website. John’s a digital anthropologist and Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University. His current research focus is where internet activism becomes entangled with broader societal struggles, e.g. the 2011 global wave of protests. Think Occupy, Twitter, and revolution.

Here’s my take on things. I say: think Bitcoin, crypto, and secession…

By Trent MacDonald

This is an invited post to the freedom technologists series by Trent MacDonald. Trent is a PhD student at RMIT University, Melbourne. He is currently doing research on non-territorial governance, a type of governance that seeks to decouple political unit from territory so that multiple jurisdictions can overlap in the same location. His Twitter handle is@trentjmacdonald.

I am interested in the notion of ‘freedom technologists’ (Postill 2014) because I think I may have found a variety of freedom technologist in my own research: the cryptoanarchist. Cryptoanarchists are commonly associated with the bitcoin movement and emerging blockchain-based ‘bitcoin 2.0’ projects. According to Techopedia:

Cryptoanarchism is an ideology that espouses the use of cryptography to maintain freedom of speech and prevent government control and regulation of the Internet. The increasing sophistication of cryptographic methods is making it possible for people to communicate over the Internet in a way that is anonymous, untraceable and tamper proof.

This movement is often associated with cypherpunks, who view privacy as a good thing and wish there was more of it. Governments tend to object to totally anonymous interactions online because they can be used by drug dealers, tax evader and those who may pose a threat to national security.

My hypothesis is threefold: (1) cryptoanarchists are freedom technologists; (2) they organise themselves in political innovation commons; and (3) their objective is not to change existing political structures but to subvert them, in the process creating new, non-territorial polities. That is, they are secessionists, not revolutionaries (or reformists). Some working definitions:

  • Freedom technologists: social agents who combine technological and political skills to pursue greater internet and democratic freedoms, which they regard as being inextricably entwined.
  • Innovation commons: an institution in which private agents engage in collective action (i.e. cooperate) to solve the innovation problem by developing rules for the creation and sharing of innovation resources (both material and informational) and for the governance of those resources.
  • Political innovation commons: an institution in which freedom technologists engage in collective action (i.e. cooperate) to solve a political problem by developing rules for the creation and sharing of political resources (both material and informational) and for the governance of those resources.

Clearly the revolutionary and reformist freedom technologists exist and their role in the waves of protest movements and democratisation is important and interesting. But I think another research front could be opened up by studying secessionist freedom technologists.

A reason for the different varieties of freedom technologists and their differing objectives might be the political-economic situations they face in their places of origin (dictatorship vs. democracy, high vs. low development). Secessionist freedom technologists don’t want freedom from dictatorial minorities or to assert their right to govern as a democratic majority. They want freedom from both dictatorial minorities and democratic majorities so they (and others) can personally secede and re-coalesce in new, self-governing polities. Of course, democratisation is not a pressing issue if you already live in an affluent, highly-developed democracy like the US, UK or Australia.

Another difference might simply be ideological: social democrats value voice; anarcho-libertarians value exit. This goes to one of the footnotes in Postill’s (2014) article where he mentions that he originally planned on calling freedom technologists ‘techno-libertarians’ but decided against it on the basis that they were actually “culturally and ideologically highly diverse”, “ranging from radical leftist communitarians to free-market libertarians.” I would posit that revolutionary freedom technologists (social-democratic, protesters) might sit closer to the leftist communitarian end of the spectrum, while secessionist freedom technologists (cryptoanarchistic, subverters) sit at the free-market libertarian end. But that’s just another hypothesis.

In fact, even though they might have different focuses, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was significant overlap between the two groups (making the distinction somewhat moot). For instance, many of the cryptoanarchist coders frequent collectives like Calafou and Cooperativa Integral Catalana in Barcelona, and the ‘G8 squats’ in London.

I think some of the tactics they use for organising are probably similar to the ones described by Postill (2014) — tapping into free culture and making use of ‘squatter labs’ and ‘urban hack spaces’. Jason Potts might call these models ‘innovation commons’ because quite often coders from different projects come together in hack spaces and share resources and knowledge  the three examples of secessionist freedom technologists I present below collaborate, share knowledge, have contributed to, and have even funded each other’s projects and development goals in the past.) Do they share political-ideological knowledge too? Perhaps. But I believe since they are engaged in technological innovation with ostensibly political objectives (that is, they want to effect political subversion), the networks and temporary spaces should qualify as ‘political innovation commons’. But that idea needs work/elaborating.

I’m thinking in particular about three ‘bitcoin 2.0’ or ‘governance 2.0’ start-ups/groups that are worth looking into: UnSystem, Ethereum, and BitNation. I’ll warn you here that much of this is probably going to sound more like ‘techno-utopianism’ than ‘techno-pragmatism’. But having said that, Bitcoin is a very real phenomenon; the people behind UnSystem have a track record of delivery (e.g. Defense Distributed, the first ever 3D-printed firearm) and the beta for their current project has been released; and Ethereum is the second most-funded crowdfunding project in history (over $18 million).

UnSystem are developers of a crypto platform called ‘Dark Wallet’. Dark Wallet is a bitcoin walletthat includes “extra protections to make sure transactions are secure, anonymous, and hard to trace — including a protocol called “trustless mixing” that combines users’ coins together before encoding it into the ledger.” UnSystem has been described as “self-proclaimed crypto-anarchists” and “a collective of politically radical coders”. They state that: Our goal is not to placate and obey the rules of the people responsible for navigating the world into a permanent financial crisis. With or without their permission, we are going to build a better future out of the ashes of this system”. They sound like freedom technologists to me. Their goal is to take as much economic activity as possible out of the reaches of incumbent states — what’s known as ‘economic secession’ — and they see technology as the facilitator of this reclaiming of liberty.

The second group is called ‘Ethereum’. This group is developing

a platform and a programming language that makes it possible for any developer to build and publish next-generation distributed applications. Ethereum can be used to codify, decentralize, secure and trade just about anything: voting, domain names, financial exchanges, crowdfunding, company governance, contracts and agreements of most kind, intellectual property, and even smart property thanks to hardware integration.

In plain language, they’re trying to build the economic and legal infrastructure that would underpin a crypto-economy. They’re trying to make it so you can buy more than drugs and guns on the dark web.

The third is called ‘BitNation’ and they very explicitly state: “the blockchain technology is literally the end of the nation state” and: “The purpose of BitNation is to create a full-blown blockchain based government service provider which is easy to use, affordable, non-geographically contingent, voluntary and trustless.” BitNation is described as offering a “full range of services traditionally done by governments” including a cryptographically secure ID system, block chain dispute resolutions, marriages and divorces, land registries, education, mutual insurance, security, diplomacy, and more. What BitNation supposedly aims to provide is “a toolbox for Do-It-Yourself governance”.

To conclude, my main point is that these seem to be freedom technologists of some sort — they combine technological and political skills to pursue greater freedom. But they’re doing it in a very different way to those that use technology for social organisation, occupation, and protest for greater democratic freedom. They want to subvert the whole political apparatus and create parallel systems that people can secede into. And they seem to use innovation-commons-like ‘squatter labs’ and ‘hack spaces’ to develop their ideas and technologies.

But this is just wild speculation at this stage — I think it would make for a great study.

Reference

Postill, J. 2014. Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas. Convergence 20 (3), 402-418.

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