Hackers and Sphincters

Yesterday Wired published a thing about Bitcoin over ham radio. It seemed mostly harmless, until I found the comment section on Hacker News. The top dozen comments were from people quoting their understanding of the law and how Bitcoin transactions run afoul of FCC regulations.

When did Hacker News become the domain of snitches and squares?

Hacking is about beating the system, about finding ways to get around rules that don’t make sense for our situation. When it comes to software, the rules are encoded by machines. Licensing, for example. Commercial software often requires an activation key to use the product. Hackers don’t always appreciate this rule, so they deconstruct the software to remove the copy protection.

There was a time, long long ago, when Hacker News (and its proprietor, Y Combinator) held hackers in high esteem. In fact, the old YC application specifically asked founders to describe a non-computer system they successfully hacked. Responses ranged from traveling on the cheap (Kathryn Minshew, TheMuse) to, uh, shoplifting (Mahbod Moghadam, founder of Genius). In 2010, Paul Graham wrote that this was one of the questions they paid most attention to when judging applications.

Between 2014 and 2015, YC dropped this question from the application. They’re not looking for hackers anymore, they’re looking for people who toe the line.

This is the natural evolution in any industry. Conduct is initially self-limiting in a small community, but as technology becomes widely available the culture degrades and rules must be brought in.

Rules are created as a codification of cultural norms. Rules beget more rules, and over time the culture is forgotten and all that’s left is an industry obsessed with rules.

Amateur radio began with an ethos of experimentation. In the early 20th century, kids rigged up radio stations by winding electrical wire around curtain rods (for the tuning coil) and attaching batteries to sewing needles (for the spark-gap transmitter). There was a general understanding that spectrum is a shared public good, and hams tried to avoid interfering with others. It’s hard to codify “Please share and be nice” unto law, so the Amateur Radio Relay League lobbied the FCC to divvy up the amateur frequency spectrum, with different rules about how each frequency can be used, what can be transmitted, and for how long.

Over the decades, radio operators fixated on the rules and forgot about experimentation and sharing. Instead of “From each his abilities, to each his needs,” ham radio turned into an industry full of sphincters complaining about who’s been using too much spectrum, or using it the wrong way.

This is why communism doesn’t work.

Same with YC and the rest of Silicon Valley. The Bay Area used to be a haven for fruits and nuts, but eventually the culture of welcoming misfits deteriorated into speech codes where anyone who comes remotely close to disparaging a minority loses their job, their friends, and their Twitter account. It’s gotten to the point where entire political parties are banned from speaking for the sake of “inclusion”.

This is probably the biggest risk for mainstream Bitcoin adoption. As the original cypherpunk culture fades, people will look for a codified set of rules. Non-technical normies can’t accept that they have nothing of value to contribute, so they’ll be especially eager to help. They’ll argue over the meaning of “Peer-to-Peer Cash”, or transaction costs, or which software implementation best represents Satoshi’s Vision™. Each faction will stick to their staunch interpretation and governing bodies will be created. Its origins long forgotten, Bitcoin will have turned into the bureaucratic monetary system it once set out to destroy.

9 thoughts on “Hackers and Sphincters

  1. Only when I’ve finished reading one of your posts do I realize I’ve been holding my breath as I feel the comfort of an exhale. Thanks for making my life less lonely Elaine. Best! Bitcoin Belle

  2. I wonder how many FCC inspectors and ham busy bodies it would take to shutdown a wireless mesh network based on SDR and spread spectrum short burst messages.. who thinks ham push-to-talk analog audio or even crappy broadcast TV are really the most interesting uses for those frequency blocks?

    1. are ppl actually complaining about wireless mesh networks? Their range is so small, they can’t possibly be getting in anyone’s way…

      1. I suspect Steve was implying that maybe we can just hack the spectrum we want to use for mesh communication and damn the FCC. Not a bad idea. With open source mobile phones like the Pine Phone from Pine64, why not just create hacked drivers that allow mesh communication over the 3G or even 2G radios built into the phone. Long range, decent bandwidth.

        “Pirate Mesh” has a nice ring to it, no?

  3. The irony is that the FCC does hardly any enforcement on HF. They only care when someone is interfering with safety-of-life communications. These busybodies are making a prison inside their own heads.

  4. At some point unsubscribed from any HN comments or content. Feels like discussions of emotionally undeveloped people who need to share their thoughts and opinions about everything they don’t even closely understand.

  5. You are a gifted writer and I really enjoyed this post.

    “As the original cypherpunk culture fades, people will look for a codified set of rules”. In other words, people look for bureaucrats to create laws to “prevent you from doing specific things” or because they don’t trust you to do the right thing. What attracted me to cypherpunk culture was the courage, tinkering, and belief of privacy for everyone! While reading your fantastic post, I’m reminded of one of Taleb’s tweets.

    “If you are trying to be liked by both the left and the right, you are a demagogue. If you don’t mind being hated by both, you are morally upright.” — Nassim Taleb

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