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The Cypherpunk Origins of Bitcoin

We, the bitconers, tend to be Rousseaunian philosophers who natively believe that the human nature is good in its largest majority (and it's mostly the society which corrupts us). Consequently, malevolence and bad faith are the exception to the rule – and not the rule itself. This classical liberal way of thinking, which opposes the post-9/11 and Patriot Act-driven assumption that anyone can be a terrorist and should be subjected to mass surveillance for a greater good, was most notably introduced in the "proto-crypto" space by Tim May. 

In his influential work "The Cyphernomicon: Cypherpunks FAQ and More", the OC (Original Cypherpunk, that is) describes a strong divide between privacy and compliance with laws. According to him, we should have "free speech and privacy, even if it means some criminals cannot be caught". Correspondingly, the immutable nature of the Bitcoin blockchain is designed on the basis of this "anarchist" philosophy which makes the individual responsible for his or her own security, and also creates a greater demand for trustless systems.

Speaking of trustlessness, Nick Szabo is definitely one of the most influential ideologues in the space. Not only that he invented Bit gold (the digital money experiment which is closest to Bitcoin) and pioneered smart contracts, but he also wrote some excellent research papers on his blog, Unenumerated

Szabo famously reminds everybody that trusted third parties are security holes as a way of promoting the idea of "trust minimization" which Bitcoin champions, encourages individuals to make changes in their lives autonomously by making their own law, and documents the history of non-governmental money in order to let everybody know that Satoshi Nakamoto's invention is the culmination of a centuries-long pursuit. Moreover, the cypherpunk will point out to the fact that trust scales poorly and societies need automation for the purpose of developing and advancing in a way that's both peaceful and productive. 

We can't end this rundown of bitcoiners' fundamental beliefs without talking about David Chaum and his lifelong research in the field of privacy. Thanks to his theory on mixing, Bitcoin benefits from "Chaumian" CoinJoin implementations such as Wasabi, Samourai Dojo, and JoinMarket. His concerns for an Orwellian surveillance system date back to 1985, when he wrote "Security Without Identification: Transaction Systems to Make Big Brother Obsolete", and it's mostly thanks to him that we possess the vocabulary and means to understand how and why privacy matters in the digital age. 

Last but not least, we must take into consideration the first form of electronic cash, whose main feature and priority was to enhance financial transaction privacy. Ecash is Bitcoin's ambitious forefather, whose commercial failure has taught Satoshi important lessons about decentralization and reliance on trusted third parties. It would have been a lot better if our internet credit card payments used ecash for maximum privacy, but now we have BTC to solve some of the issues and give regulators worldwide one big headache. 

In a nutshell, these are the main ideas which construct the Bitcoin narrative and turn it into the champion of cryptographic money. While other heavyweights such as Ralph Merkle, Wei Dai, Adam Back, Hal Finney, and W. Scott Stornetta are responsible for influencing the technical side of Satoshi, the understanding of the phenomena is a merit of Chaum, May, and Szabo. 

Without the ideologues who shaped our perception of what digital anarchy implies, we would be looking at systems that governments and trans-national corporations decided to keep for themselves while leaving us clueless and stuck in our mundane ignorance. And in the absence of pioneers to publicly release their experiments on the internet, Satoshi could have felt discouraged from attempting to publish anything. 

When we think about the Bitcoin creator, it's important to have a greater understanding of the phenomena and inventions which preceded his emergence. Satoshi was not a god, a time-traveler, or some sort of artificial intelligence. Satoshi Nakamoto was a brilliant individual who took previous inventions, put them together, and found ingenious solutions to the shortcomings of his predecessors. His (or her) original design for Bitcoin was far from perfect, resulted from a long series of attempts to create uncensorable digital money, and is under a constant process of improvement and refinement. Therefore, it's important to remember and give credit to those who made this adventure possible.

Tim May

Prolific writer and ideologue, responsible for documenting and spreading the cypherpunk ethos. 

Nick Szabo

Bit gold creator, smart contracts pioneer, researcher in the fields of human evolution and history of money (among many others).

David Chaum

Inventor of the first form of digital cash, early advocate for privacy, cryptography pioneer who ran the first blockchain in 1982 at UC Berkeley.

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Sunday, 22 September 2019
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