Before the Web: The 1980s Dream of a Free and Borderless Virtual World
In the early 1990s, a group of mathematicians, misfits, hackers, and hobbyists calling themselves “the cypherpunks” came together around a shared belief that the internet would either demolish society’s artificial walls or lay the groundwork for an Orwellian state. They saw cryptography as a weapon against central planning and surveillance in this new virtual world.
The philosophical and technical ideas explored on the cypherpunks’ widely read email list, which launched in 1992, influenced the creation of bitcoin, WikiLeaks, Tor, BitTorrent, and the Silk Road. The cypherpunks anticipated the promise and the peril that lay ahead when the internet went mainstream, including new threats to privacy and the possibility of building virtual platforms for communication and trade that would be impervious to government regulators.
The first episode in Reason‘s new documentary series on the cypherpunks looks at a clash of ideas over how the internet could lead to a more free society, which was a precursor to the formation of the cypherpunk movement. It took place between the economist and entrepreneur Phil Salin, and the former Intel physicist Timothy C. May, who became known as the father of “crypto anarchy.” (Salin died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 41, and May passed away in 2018 at the age of 66.)
Salin was part of a community of young computer scientists in Silicon Valley, who the George Mason University economist Don Lavoie dubbed the “High Tech Hayekians” because of their efforts to blend the insights of Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek with computer science. The group included the pioneering technologists Mark S. Miller, Chip Morningstar, and E. Dean Tribble; Salin’s wife and business partner Gayle Pergamit; the software developer and science fiction writer Marc Stiegler; K. Eric Drexler, who is best known for his pioneering work in nanotechnology; and Christine Peterson, who later co-founded the Foresight Institute with Drexler.
Salin believed that personal computers linked up in a global communication network would make it possible to build a borderless, frictionless, global marketplace that would improve human coordination in the economy. May thought this would have negligible impact, positing instead a new world in cyberspace similar to what the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge had described in his novella True Names: an “other plane” completely shielded from government surveillance and control.
When May met Salin in 1987, it was before the release of the World Wide Web, but home computer hobbyists were already getting online in limited ways. Users could dial into servers through their phone lines to post to message boards, check their horoscopes, read the news, or go shopping.
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