'Weary Giants of Flesh and Steel,' Meet Bitcoin

John Perry Barlow fought for an open internet. Late in life, he cautioned blockchain innovators that the technology could be liberating or oppressive.

AccessTimeIconFeb 14, 2018 at 7:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 7:34 a.m. UTC

Marc Hochstein is the managing editor of CoinDesk. 

The following article originally appeared in CoinDesk Weekly, a custom-curated newsletter delivered every Sunday exclusively to our subscribers.

"You have no sovereignty where we gather. We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one..."

The "we" John Perry Barlow referred to in his 1996 essay "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" was a then-emerging, global community of internet users. But you'd be hard pressed to find a subset of that community who took the ethos to heart more than the pioneers of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. For better or for worse.

Barlow, who died last week at the age of 70, was a towering figure among digital-rights advocates, an early champion of a permissionless internet – something users may take for granted today but was far from a guaranteed outcome in 1990, when he co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

A longtime lyricist for the Grateful Dead, Barlow envisioned cyberspace as "a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth ... where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular."

While Barlow's work focused on freedom of expression and privacy of communications, the principles he stood for arguably animate bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which are designed to be censorship-resistant, anonymous and open to all comers.

For example, anyone with a working internet connection, no matter who or where they are, can download the basic software and use a bitcoin wallet to transfer value to anyone else who has one, no matter who or where they are. No middleman can veto the transaction. Likewise, anyone can contribute code to an open-source project; other members of the community will accept or reject their work according to merit, not status or credentials.

"In some ways, the best of bitcoin, and blockchain technology in general, adheres to that vision of personal freedom" that Barlow espoused, said Patrick Murck, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

Barlow was no Pollyanna, however, and while optimistic overall about digital technologies' potential to improve people's lives, he acknowledged the downsides and cautioned against binary "good or bad?" thinking about the subject.

"You are designing the architecture of liberty and enslavement, both, in these tools that are being derived around the blockchain and other things like it," Barlow told a gathering of technologists and entrepreneurs at Stanford University in 2015. "What you do and the ways in which you do it will have long-lasting effects."

That was an important message for the community to hear, said Primavera De Filippi, a researcher at the National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris and at the Berkman Center. "You cannot assume that just because a technology dis-intermediates and is trans-national that it cannot potentially be used to reinforce existing social, political and economic structures," she said.

The technology is "going to be used by every stakeholder to promote their own interest," added De Filippi, noting that much of the investment in blockchain software has come from financial institutions, the very same actors that bitcoin sought to bypass.

While it's all well and good for corporations to improve transparency and streamline the reconciliation of ledgers, the takeaway from Barlow was that "unless we go and invest time and effort in building those applications from a civil society perspective, no one else will do it," she said.

I had the privilege of attending the Stanford conference, and I'll never forget what Barlow said about the value of online anonymity.

"I feel the same way about anonymity as I do about guns," said the cattle rancher and onetime Republican. "It may be useful to have in the closet if the government gets out of control."

Worlds collide

Speaking of governments, bitcoin and its descendants have been testing the limits of the independence Barlow declared for cyberspace.

The core protocols aren't and probably can't be regulated by any state, but the on-ramps, where fiat currency is converted to crypto and back, can and are. Likewise, Bitcoin addresses are pseudonymous, but licensed crypto exchanges require users to identify themselves.

And while initial coin offerings can solicit funds from users across the globe, in the U.S. they are regarded as subject to Depression-era securities laws, as Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Jay Clayton made very clear during a recent Senate hearing.

The common thread is that the "weary giants of flesh and steel," as Barlow memorably described the world's governments, tend to reassert their authority at the borders between cyberspace and meatspace, where the new decentralized networks touch the incumbent centralized ones.

"If you're constructing a system that really is tethered to the existing institutions of the old world, you're going to be bound by the rules of the old world," said Murck. "That's where we're seeing regulation." On the other hand, "no one's saying you can't run a bitcoin node," an activity that's endogenous to bitcoin.

Today's web 3.0 projects, such as Filecoin, Blockstack and Sia, seek to create networks that truly would live entirely in the new world, Murck noted, but whether they succeed is yet to be determined.

Quite apart from whether it is feasible to create a self-contained virtual realm where the physical world's "legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply," as Barlow put it, some would question whether it's even desirable.

These skeptics will point to the nastier uses of cryptocurrency, such as ransomware or assassination markets – not to mention online abominations in general, like revenge porn and mug-shot blackmail sites – as evidence that without regulation, a freewheeling internet inevitably degenerates into a Hobbesian war of all against all.

But without condoning any of those vile activities, they need to be weighed against the benefits to humanity: of enabling like-minded people to form communities irrespective of geography; of opening access to knowledge for those inclined to learn without making them sit in a classroom six hours a day; of allowing peers on different continents to trade with each other as easily as if they were standing face-to-face in a bazaar.

I suspect the cost-benefit analysis would come out squarely in favor of an open internet – and an open financial system.

So let Barlow's words continue to be an inspiration to the builders of a new digital economy. Be careful, though. Those giants of flesh and steel may be weary, but they have guns.

John Perry Barlow image via Wikipedia.


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