Tech conferences are on hiatus, and virtual ones just aren’t the same. Could cypherpunks have done cool stuff without in-person interactions? I asked Nick Szabo. His response is summarized below.
Note: This is the first in a series of questions. Others will be posted pending correspondent approval.
Cypherpunks was a creature of internet mailing lists, a virtual place to exchange ideas. The main purpose of hosting in-person events is to build trust and suss out the sock puppets. Interpersonal trust is important for a subversive discussion group.
It’s possible to do this without local meetups. List membership was generally by invitation — people invited those they had met through other Usenet groups.
That created a self-selection process. In the early 90s, few people had internet access, and fewer still could get on Usenet. AOL served as a honeypot for normies, a shiny diversion where people could feel like they were using cutting-edge technology without getting in the way of hardcore nerds who were actually trying to build things. Kind of like Ethereum.
Cypherpunks were motivated by cool technology rather than money. We were coders, not traders. Today, you have investors assembling mailing lists full of big important people for the sake of discussing Big Ideas, but they end up trying to impress each other or schmooze. You end up with Davos, but on the internet.
Highly motivated individuals don’t need a shared physical space to get stuff done. Most of the cool stuff was done remotely. Lance Cottrell was in San Diego when he wrote the Mixmaster anonymous remailer. Julian Assange first became widely known by his posts from Australia. Adam Back occasionally visited California, but mostly developed hashcash in England. Nick Szabo’s bit gold was inspired and informed far more by mailing list conversations and university library research than by face-to-face meetings.
It also helped that the topics of discussion were mostly abstract and mathematical, reducing the need for empathy and nuance than if you were to discuss, say, blockchain governance.
When you discuss topics of emotionless objectivity, there is no need for empathy and nuance. It’s just logic and math, right?
I asked Nick about the lack of diversity on the Cypherpunks mailing list (I’m woke like that), at which point he hung up on me. But the last statement didn’t seem quite right. People argue about seemingly objective topics all the time, and quite emotionally so — just look at all the Bitcoin forks!
I’m reminded of an interview with Max Levchin, co-founder of Paypal. (The transcript seems to have vanished down the memoryhole.) Levchin attributes Paypal’s early success to the team’s lack of diversity. You don’t waste time arguing about frivolous stuff if everyone thinks just like you do. You also don’t worry so much about empathy and nuance if everyone comes from the same background. Those who complain about a “toxic culture” are probably just too diverse to fit in.