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How Bitcoin Revived the Cypherpunk Revolution

Adoption & community - How Bitcoin Revived the Cypherpunk Revolution

Zooko Wilcox-O’Hearn found the cypherpunks mailing list when he was 19. Since then, he has been lucky enough to work on cypherpunk-oriented technologies for most of his adult life. Currently, Zooko is the CEO of Zcash, which is a truly anonymous alternative to Bitcoin.

Zooko was recently interviewed on Epicenter Bitcoin, and he shared some of his thoughts related to the recent revival of the cypherpunk movement. In his view, Bitcoin has given this technological revolution new life.

Who Are the Cypherpunks?

The definition of a cypherpunk tends to vary based on whom you ask, but the generally accepted definition of a cypherpunk is anyone who uses strong cryptography in an effort to enact social or political change. 

The cypherpunks first came to prominence via the cypherpunks mailing list in the ‘90s.

During his recent Epicenter Bitcoin interview, Zooko described what happened when he first stumbled upon the cypherpunks mailing list:

“I became exposed to all kinds of grandiose visions of how the combination of the Internet plus cryptography plus those two things becoming widely available to billions of people could have all kinds of fantastic consequences.”

Cypherpunk philosophy is perhaps best described by former Intel senior scientist Timothy C. May in The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto. In the manifesto from 1992, May writes:

“These developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret, and will even alter the nature of trust and reputation.”

Bitcoin Is a Cypherpunk’s Dream

A workable form of digital cash has always been on the minds of the cypherpunks. During the ‘90s, much of the activity on the mailing list was associated with various schemes for digital cash systems. Zooko discussed this point during the interview:

“The development of Bitcoin was a breakthrough that a lot of the cypherpunks, including me, had dreamed of from the beginning ‒ where the beginning is like 1993 or so ‒ and couldn’t figure out how to make that dream real until Satoshi [Nakamoto] came up with it.”

The fact that so many cypherpunks had failed to create a useable form of digital cash for so many years is part of the reason many of them were skeptical of Bitcoin when it was first announced by Nakamoto. For example, Blockstream President Adam Back was one of the first people Satoshi emailed about his Bitcoin white paper, but the hashcash inventor did not get involved with the digital currency until much later.

Zooko talked about his own struggles with developing digital cash schemes during his Epicenter Bitcoin interview. 

“I struggled for maybe 12 or 14 years to come up with something like Bitcoin, and I couldn’t figure out any way to make it work,” he said.

How Bitcoin Revived the Cypherpunks

Zooko also explained how the philosophies of the cypherpunks were dying off before the creation of Bitcoin. He talked about how, at times, he thought he was the only cypherpunk left in the world. He added:

“There was a widespread narrative that privacy is dead and no one cares. That’s what was, from my perspective, completely upended by the Bitcoin phenomenon.”

In Zooko’s mind, Bitcoin changed the view of what is technically possible in the world today. This new technology has breathed new life into the cypherpunk movement. Zooko concluded:

“[Satoshi’s] breakthrough about what’s technically possible combined with the community of Bitcoiners who were motivated emotionally, politically and morally to invest in it and make it important to their lives ‒ that is what sort of revived the whole cypherpunk revolution in my experience.”

Kyle Torpey is a freelance journalist who has been following Bitcoin since 2011. His work has been featured on VICE Motherboard, Business Insider, NASDAQ, RT’s Keiser Report and many other media outlets. You can follow @kyletorpeyon Twitter.