The cypherpunk revolution

Punk is resistance. During the 1980s and ’90s, the subculture was resistance of a special kind: heavy on fashion and light on politics. Punk generated eccentric hairstyles, tattoos, boots and leather outfits, drug habits, and hard-core music that oozed being against stuff. Yet fashion trumped direct action. Punk was aesthetic anarchy.

When computers and networks were added to the mix, cyberpunk was born. The 1990s were a time of extraordinary hope. The decade came barging right through Brandenburg Gate, with the Berlin Wall crashing down in the background. The end of the Cold War and the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union released an intoxicating sense of optimism, at least in the West. Washington debated the “end of history,” with liberal market economies coming out triumphant. In the Persian Gulf War of 1991, perhaps America’s shortest and most successful ground war operation to date, the Pentagon overcame the mighty Iraqi army — and with it the lingering Vietnam hangover.

Silicon Valley and America’s technology startup scene, still bathing in the crisp utopian afterglow of the 1980s, watched the rise of the New Economy, with vertigo-inducing growth rates. Entrepreneurs rubbed their hands in anticipation. Intellectuals were inebriated by the simultaneous emergence of two revolutionary forces: personal computers and the internet. More and more PC owners connected their machines to the fast-growing global computer network, first with clunky, screeching modems, then with faster and faster broadband connections.

But amid the hype and a slowly but steadily growing economic bubble, it dawned on a number of users that something was missing: privacy and secure communications. History, thankfully, was gracious. Even more than that: nature itself was generous to humans in front of plastic keyboards. Unrelated to either PCs or the internet, cryptographers had made a third and no less far-reaching discovery in the 1970s. They didn’t just invent a technology; more like explorers than innovators, they discovered an algorithm based on a beautiful mathematical truth. That truly revolutionary technology was finally unleashed for widespread public use in June 1991: asymmetric encryption, also known as public-key cryptography.

When free crypto was added to the computer underground, “crypto anarchy” emerged. Now people with mirror shades, modems, and PCs could be against stuff. And even better, despite the decade’s spirit for unrestrained optimism, they had found something concrete to be against: the government’s attempts to regulate ciphers. And so cypherpunk was born, a pun on “cyberpunk.” The ideology was powerful — far more powerful and durable than those whimsical and short-lived names implied...


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