Make Cypherpunk - one Ethereum block at a time

30 years passed since the Cypherpunk Manifesto was published. And people in crypto like Vitalik Buterin keep returning to the cypherpunk ideology claiming that our industry has lost its original purpose. There's a clear mismatch between original tech-savvy cypherpunks and degens chasing memecoins. But what if precarious people can transition to cypherpunks over time? Let's unpack this journey.

From zero to hero

People are different. A crypto-savvy person in San Paolo can be drastically different from a Mumbai-born & raised Solidity developer. What unites them is the search for a financially stable income, a sense of belonging, and the promise of a bright future. They aren't financially or technically privileged, but they want to have the same access to alternative economies and decentralized technologies as someone in Berlin or New York.

Timothy C. May https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_C
Timothy C. May https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_C

Marketing people have a questionable reputation in the crypto industry. Meanwhile, they know that the transition from a lack of knowledge to mastering a subject or skills can take years and years. Especially with our highly fragmented anddrained attention. And if you try to oppose the same technocratic standards to everyone, it may never happen: tech exclusion is real.

A cypherpunk is any individual advocating widespread use of strong cryptography and privacy-enhancing technologies as a route to social and political change [source].

An oversimplified "Hero's Journey" (based on Joseph Campbell's book The Hero with a Thousand Faces) could come in handy in analyzing a cypherpunk pathway full of challenges, revelations and direct action. It would highlight one'sinability to close their eyes and become Timothy May overnight. Especially when "Darth Vader" (the most praised application of a hero's journey) can be as powerful as the government, capitalism or Big Tech.

Illustration by Valentina Forni @cloudandcowfish
Illustration by Valentina Forni @cloudandcowfish

"Do you use Mac? That's shit" - a common patronizing insult from sovereign stack people. They never try to understand personal rationality, cultural context, family dynamics, or generational attributes. They lack empathy. And somehow the majority of them are men.

One could choose to be more like my former colleague at Nym, Daniel, who was one of the first hacktivists at plaza del Sol in Madrid in 2011, and who is now a big believer in the youth, personally helping underrepresented people learning activism, alternative internet, coding, crypto, nodes administration etc. He's humble, open, and helpful. It doesn't matter if you are from Mexico or Brazil - he will help you. Particularly, when you don't have money to buy a notebook or a Banana Phone.

A privacy-focused squad from Brazil: https://x.com/tupinymquim/status/1798046003641348425
A privacy-focused squad from Brazil: https://x.com/tupinymquim/status/1798046003641348425

This article aims to understand cypherpunk profiles, breaking them down them into stages of possible development and providing approaches to education and support.

Crafting cypherpunk personas

Personas is a common UX/UI approach that is aimed at understanding diversity & specifics behind people's interest in the organisation, product, project etc. It's one of the most essential frameworks for a humane approach to others, but it’s still highly neglected within the crypto.

Tor actively uses personas for its developers "to better understand the motivations, pain points and goals of its users", analyzing their technical proficiency, bandwidth, and local Tor-related regulation.

https://community.torproject.org/user-research/personas/
https://community.torproject.org/user-research/personas/

Personas also illustrate diversity within what could have looked like a homogenous group, in our case: cypherpunks. So, let's start with the basic segmentation: technical vs non-technical people.

This one helps to put core challenges at the forefront: not everyone can write code, read documentation and run Linux. Or more correct way, do it the same way as you do. For example, because they need to work hard to have food on the dinner table & don't have time to learn so hard, so much etc.

Technical people

  • technical proficiency - a general level of tech (both software & hardware) understanding

  • code writing -¬†practical application of software & hardware skills. Should be understood broadly. Including admin nodes, customizing Linux etc.

  • FOSS usage - free & open-source software support level, by general amount & daily usage habits (from end-to-end encrypted messaging to GrapheneOS).

Not all technical personas are equal. Everyone who works for traditional IT knows it - there's a clear grade system from juniors to C-level executives. The same can be applied to cypherpunks - newcomers lack not just general knowledge, but practical experiences at scale (better - in groups).

My personal example: I just installed GrapheneOS, got recommendations for 40 apps to substitute proprietary software - will need half a year to fully adjust to all of this. But still, I am years away from Linux & coding (because of many reasons, from war to organizational management).

Bear in mind that the goal here is to highlight general avenues for technical profiling, not to list all the micro-nuances on hacktivism, self-sovereign stack, and End-to-end encryption.

Non-technical people

  • surveillance capitalism knowledge - a general understanding of how of Big Tech business models work, how you are the product, and of how oligopoly shapes relations between people online

  • cypherpunk culture sync - a broad comprehension of the relation of the¬†individual to the state, of the necessity of free software, hacktivism culture, cryptography basics & so much more.

  • economics (as in self-custody too) - a knowledge of what money is, how they work, of the role of financial institutions, of crypto-economics, of self-custody etc.

Non-technical skills or even a worldview sometimes require years of study (think of a proper horizontal university). It's not enough to be surrounded by hacktivists & get into an echo chamber. A healthier way is to apply local context to generalized phenomena like Cypherpunks.

How would Singaporean cypherpunk be different from the Ugandan one? Is there room for pro-local government cypherpunks in the global movement? Can there be a wide range of political spectrum within cypherpunks?

Cypherpunk types

Time to map some cypherpunks! 5 profiles have been based on real-life people I met during my years in the industry. They are structured by progression from newcomers to savvy techno-centric people.

Examples

  • Starter: Chloe Zhu - highly-interested in privacy, intensified by Covid surveillance measures in China, ETHBerlin was her first hackathon

  • Seeker: PG - core at Web3Privacy Now, ETHRome & ETHDam, grandson of the influential Italian people‚Äôs politician, seeks justice, found community in the web3

  • Enthusiast: Rocio - active participant in the Nym community from Latin America, executes privacy tech in her life, feminist

  • Ambassador: Franzi - core at Department of Decentralization, ETHBerlin, Protocol Berg, constant educator

  • Practitioner: Rachel-Rose O‚ÄôLeary - core at DarkFi, activist, active speaker, agorism advocate

The goal here isn't to map the whole 1001 types of cypherpunks, but to find commonalities and differences on the road to becoming a "Timothy May" & "cypherpunk-manifesto-fit". The goal is to make cypherpunks an open system that can teach everyone how to organize, use software & hardware, and build alternative systems. You can call it "cypherpunk decolonization", especially, from a European white male perspective, or "code as speech", from a US vantage point.

Motivation

Sometimes we tend to generalize. It helps to simplify the world. And yet again we are surprised that people have different tastes, share opposite beliefs, can change their opinions over time. Maybe, just maybe, there are hundreds or even thousands of motivations why people like to explore the cypherpunk culture and history:

  • Some of them love to avoid taxes

  • others are full-scale activists in countries like China

  • third - just don‚Äôt like being surveilled

  • fourth watched The Social Dilemma movie on Netflix, you name it.

The beauty of Cypherpunk's motivation lies in the diversity of these voices. So we can learn more about each other, share knowledge and aspirations, learn new techniques, tools & rituals. I recently saw how two accurate cypherpunk people were discussing physical exercises to be in good shape.

Pain points

Honestly, there are so many. I don't know where to start. Let’s map some of them:

  • lack of tech knowledge* -*¬†cypherpunk default culture puts too high demands on non-technical people (note: we are talking not just about coding, but¬†about¬†specific equipment, bandwidth to download/install/use them)

  • language barrier¬†- few localisations exist beyond¬†the¬†English-centric cypherpunk totality-making movement¬†that would be¬†accessible to people from non-English cultures

  • UI sucks* -*¬†compare with the proprietary stack & you will lose, but thinking of simplified interactions with FOSS¬†would¬†help¬†to onboard more people

  • Exclusive club vibe* -*¬†some cypherpunk anon or¬†pseudo-anon communities aren‚Äôt friendly to newcomers, because they oppose high ‚Äúentry tickets‚ÄĚ from¬†their¬†tech stack to¬†their¬†culture of conversations (or you just need to praise¬†a¬†specific tool¬†to enter, alternative opinions aren‚Äôt appreciated).

Open question: the original cypherpunks were applying cryptographic tools to liberate to people. Does it mean that the Ethereum Foundation’s Privacy & Scaling Explorations team researching private voting, gated group access, and on-chain reputation is inherently cypherpunk?

Persona in practice: starter type

Every persona can be mediated through a set of characteristics. These variables will help to understand the starting point of the journey and potential necessity for action: education, support, collaboration, grant giving and so on.

Progression isn't necessarily linear: for example, a non-technical person can master the use of FOSS, but still lack coding skills or lack node administration experience. In contrast, this person can master tokenomics from a humanitarian perspective, while lacking a strong math background or an applied technological understanding.

Full chart

The framework can be best used through conversations around hackathon ethics, community spirit, crypto activism practices, and research priorities.

Technical parameters are tied to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 levels (5 in total).

Non-technical parameters are tied to poor, basic, middle, high, very high variables (5 in total).

Detailed portrait

Complexity makes cypherpunk a lifelong learning experience, encompassing many aspects of life from political to financial ones. It’s an active lifestyle based on researching the latest cryptographic advances, testing tooling, checking security updates, reading books, manuals and whitepapers. Ideally, it’s a socialized life where experienced cypherpunks share knowledge to expand the movement.

Mario Havel can fit into this profile: https://x.com/TMIYChao
Mario Havel can fit into this profile: https://x.com/TMIYChao

Contemporary privacy narratives are over-criminalized (the same way hacking culture is stereotypically portrayed in popular culture through a man in a hoodie with bad intentions).

Rachel-Rose O'Leary from DarkFi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KChN9v7dTzc
Rachel-Rose O'Leary from DarkFi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KChN9v7dTzc

Here cypherpunk advocate Juraj Bednar highlights the activation engine for crypto-anarchy.

Juraj Bednar at MoneroKon 24': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBOumm2SrcU
Juraj Bednar at MoneroKon 24': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBOumm2SrcU

Let’s dive more into the hyper-cypherpunk lifestyle:

technical proficiency

Theory

  • General IT understanding

  • Hacking culture & history

  • Dev culture, knowledge & history

  • Admin (as in nodes)

code writing

Theory

  • General programming language theory

  • Read & understand the docs

Practice

  • Practice coding

  • Deliver something useful

  • Audit new software releases

VC case study: whether you like it or not, hyper-capitalists have already invested in mixnets, zk identity, anon engineering, self-custodial wallets, FHE, TEE, intents.

Some of them even publicly claim to belong to the cypherpunk movement.

example of a "normcore cypherpunk" working for a VC that actively invested in privacy tooling: https://x.com/guywuolletjr
example of a "normcore cypherpunk" working for a VC that actively invested in privacy tooling: https://x.com/guywuolletjr

FOSS usage

Theory

  • familiar with the necessity of FOSS

  • Knows the history, trade-offs, specs

  • actively onboard others

Practice

  • GrapheneOS + Linux

  • the more free apps - the better

  • active use

  • potential contribution via donation, code reviews, PRs on Git etc

surveillance capitalism knowledge

Theory

cypherpunk culture sync

Theory

Economics (as in self-custody too)

Theory

  • Familiar with crypto (Bitcoin)

  • Private coins like Monero

  • Self-custody, DEXs, stablecoins etc

Practice

  • Owns their money (self-custody): wallet, DEX etc.

  • Perform private transactions: Railgun, Firn, Monero, Shielded Zcash etc.

Other

  • DAOs

  • Tokenomics

  • Political theory

  • Organising & activism ‚Ķ

Ying Tong, Applied Cryptographer x Geometry Research at Web3Privacy Now meetup in c-base, Berlin.

Soft skills call

They are missing from this profiling, but they are crucial to counter "bros culture" in IT, and its lack of diversity.

"Soft skills" ¬†are a military invention appropriated by¬†capitalism,¬†they are about¬†maximizing efficiency within human beings¬†for exploitation.¬†We can call them ‚Äúpersonal qualities,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúsensitivity,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúempathy,‚ÄĚ and¬†so on. Basically, it's mutual help, care, support for others (and not just¬†for the¬†"self" as in self-sovereignty).

If Cypherpunk is a movement, then its strength is in numbers. So instead of separation, it should be responsible for growing allies.

Where "growing"

  1. Education (Ben West book recommendation example)

  2. Humble support

  3. No patronizing, but listening, caring (read: empathy)

  4. Focus on diversity (both geographical, representation, languages, cultures)

Hacktivist Jaromil on the necessity of interdisciplinarity

The practical cypherpunk you become, the more "leadership" you should practice

Not dumping/leaving "normies" (aka general non-tech public) behind - rhymes "rich people leaving Earth to Mars".

ETHRome case study: debut Rome hackathon focused on privacy and governance in 2023. It gathered hundreds of hackers, lots of professional educators from Privacy & Scaling Explorations, Waku, Railgun & Sismo, Web3Privacy Now Summit with speakers from Nym to Dyne.org, conscious hackers from OONI to Infotropic.

What if such events or contexts create a potential for cypherpunk seeds to grow? Especially, when learning by doing matches on different layers: group collaboration, peer-to-peer knowledge exchange, expert education and so on.

Fluidkey & Web3Privacy Now Explorer were hacked during ETHRome.
Fluidkey & Web3Privacy Now Explorer were hacked during ETHRome.

Evolutionary phases

Many traditional cypherpunks advocate for full anonymity online, which is an aspirational goal, rather than an on-chain reality. Especially for the¬†general¬†audience in need of¬†a¬†simplified UI, ‚Äúone big button‚ÄĚ to go anon-mode‚Ķ

But we can already map down the evolution from a proprietary stack towards full self-sovereignty and total control over one's online data. From the ethos and technologies of decentralization to real anonymity through the reclamation of privacy.

Phase 1. Decentralization

Here decentralization can be seen as the first philosophical or educational step towards an alternative world-building. Teaching people who to decentralize from, why doing so, highlighting the fact that decentralization doesn’t end with banks, what ownership really means, etc. are necessary steps.

See Buterin's "Make Ethereum Cypherpunk Again"‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äčhttps://vitalik.eth.limo/general/2023/12/28/cypherpunk.html
See Buterin's "Make Ethereum Cypherpunk Again"‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äčhttps://vitalik.eth.limo/general/2023/12/28/cypherpunk.html

Phase 2. Privacy

The second phase can stress existing relations between promises of decentralization and on-chain total transparency. Is this decentralization if you are fully surveilled? How does this play out in non-democratic countries, or countries with swinging regimes?

Some cypherpunks will choose Privacy Pools way - exclusion sets: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4563364
Some cypherpunks will choose Privacy Pools way - exclusion sets: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4563364
Left - Vitalik's 2023 take, right - expanded privacy stack
Left - Vitalik's 2023 take, right - expanded privacy stack

Phase 3. Anonymity

Anonymity equilibrates one's relations with the digital realm, especially, from a philosophical point of view: who am I online, how is this identity linked to myself, who should know what, where & how do I do things online? What is my agency over my data within my relations with people, companies, and services?

Reality check: many people will stay on the non-anonymity side, for example, for public organizing activities, rallying and fundraising. Post-Covid solidarity needs ‚Äúhuman touch‚ÄĚ, a feeling of the human spirit in flesh & emotional touch.

In May 2024, we organized a meetup in one of the oldest hacktivists spaces in the world: c-base. There, Josh Davila aka The Blockchain Socialist was stressing out a thin line between anonymity and solidarity, working-class struggles, crypto fundraising, and mass surveillance [watch his talk]. What was so special about this event was the opportunity to meet people from different generations, cultures, backgrounds, and political views.

Josh Davila aka The Blockchain Socialist at Web3Privacy Now Berlin meetup, c-base 2024
Josh Davila aka The Blockchain Socialist at Web3Privacy Now Berlin meetup, c-base 2024

The popular¬†call to¬†‚Äúopt-out‚ÄĚ can be easily criticized¬†to be a¬†hyper-individualistic¬†and¬†privileged action. But¬†it¬†can be also seen as an aspiration to open up towards more conscious, meaningful¬†and¬†actionable micro-communities with a local-first approach (in sync with a¬†degrowth¬†ecological movement).‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč

A "cypherpunk" word is missing from ETHBerlin manifesto, but still it embodies cypherpunk spirit: https://ethberlin.org/manifesto/
A "cypherpunk" word is missing from ETHBerlin manifesto, but still it embodies cypherpunk spirit: https://ethberlin.org/manifesto/

On the way to alternative states

The last few years have been full of network state conversations that elevate the original crypto anarchist spirit towards autonomous and organized communities beyond just DAOs.

Jarrad Hope at HCPP: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgme0qeCQYg
Jarrad Hope at HCPP: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgme0qeCQYg

Logos is building a movement empowered with by self-sovereign tools, Zuzalu is practicing ZK identity and the whole privacy stack. The future will be stacktivist.

What’s the role of cypherpunks here? To learn coordination, the ability to talk to each other, to work in small groups, to analyze the missing components of the privacy tech stack and to think about easing the transition to a full blown cypherpunk movement (account abstraction, ZK identity, slick UI can help here).

Stacktivism thinking helps to apply a helicopter view above a small solution (research on interconnectivity between hardware and software, peer-to-peer tech (mutually trustful), coordination with people excluded from your stack and so on).

The legal space adds an extra spicy layer to the cypherpunk lifestyle. There is a tremendous difference between Ukraine where millions are pirating media content today and Germany banning any so-called "illicit" activity online.

Framing cypherpunks as anti-state, anti-Big Tech, anti-anti-anti doesn't help the millions of people who depend on state, or who are highly surveilled and for whom any "deviation from the online norm" can be pursued as a crime. This sensitive subject needs more pro-cypherpunk legal advice. Fortunately, we have many wonderful people around: Ahmed Ghappour, Silke Noah, Fatemeh Fannizadeh, Peter Van Valkenburgh among others.

Peter Van Valkenburgh’s talk on cypherpunk & policy - one of a few conference x speech responses to Vitalik’s post

The legal space will be an important player in the dialogue with the cypherpunk spirit in the coming years. Crypto will spawn so many VC-backed (read: compliant-first) companies, trying to navigate privacy-centric communication while excluding Iranians, Russians, North Koreans from their projects. Foundations will actively separate themselves from theimmutable tech built with their money. ZK won't save privacy just because it's a buzzword and a wonderful invention.

Tribalism

Lunarpunk vs solarpunk, or broader lunarpunk vs cypherpunk vs cyberpunk vs solarpunk dichotomies are a necessary evil within a Eurocentric world, a quasi-religious belief system re-introducing the evil vs good approach to the public. This way, individuals who share certain codes of conduct can get organized & advocate for in-group values.

Rachel-Rose O'leary on necessity for Lunarpunk culture & memetic warfare: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KChN9v7dTzc
Rachel-Rose O'leary on necessity for Lunarpunk culture & memetic warfare: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KChN9v7dTzc

Epilogue

This article has been created in a Cryptpad. It was a slow, buggy experience. Especially when I compare it to a smooth Google Docs ride. That's what we call a trade-off. Experience constant challenges growing up.

It's really a time to take care of how our mind will avoid hard work (whenever it can) and prefer constant entertainment in socials. This requires extra mental work. Especially, when you learn so many new skills, software & hardware.

I recommend searching for a helpful group of people that can be open, listening, supporting and truly inclusive. Meaning that you can come from different cultures, and share alternative belief systems, but will still be welcome.

It's it post-modernism, free will, capitalist paradise or something else?
It's it post-modernism, free will, capitalist paradise or something else?

The cypherpunk movement should adapt to progressive societal changes, become more inclusive in keeping the techno spirit alive.

Otherwise, it can mirror techno-optimists agenda (there‚Äôs an irony that hyper-capitalist Marc Andreessen is cited as a ‚Äúnotable cypherpunk‚ÄĚ on Wikipedia) - when technology will eat the world and rich people will still be in power.

Amir Taaki: “thing is in 2012 we all believed crypto would overthrow the state - it didn't

we all thought it was inevitable, so we didn't really organize as the cypherpunk constituency within crypto, as a powerbase to push this thing forwards.

Instead we let all the VCs and non-ideological people infiltrate and squat power. The originators of crypto were usurped.

This time around with the new renaissance, we have to learn from our mistakes and not repeat the past. That means holding people accountable to radical language, but it also means we must organize and fight to grow and expand outwards. Like a new lifeform born into this world, it must from birth compete to survive and grow‚ÄĚ.

Let the spirit of cypherpunk be with you!

Mykola, Web3Privacy Now

p.s. thanks, OddName for editing, jensei for check up!

Subscribe to Web3Privacy Now
Receive the latest updates directly to your inbox.
Mint this entry as an NFT to add it to your collection.
Verification
This entry has been permanently stored onchain and signed by its creator.