Rachel-Rose O’Leary is a cryptocurrency writer and trainee C++ developer at PolyTech. Currently a contributor to CoinDesk and the Defiant newsletter, she has written about cryptocurrency since 2015. She holds an MA in digital art and philosophy.
These days I spend most of my time tweaking the code of a bitcoin wallet that runs in Terminal. Based on Libbitcoin, it’s built to work over Nym Technologies’ anonymizing mixnet. I call it the Dark Renaissance wallet.
It’s mostly a learning exercise to hone my C++ skills, but the Dark Renaissance wallet is a harbinger for what is to come.
Working with a small, focused and ideological team, my comrades at PolyTech are upending some of the key assumptions on which the crypto industry has been built, and are plotting an all-out privacy offensive.
Our mission – the Dark Renaissance – is strategic and philosophical. At a personal level, it relates to a lifelong obsession with the philosophy of technology, and an intense awareness of the power of software.
It represents a desire to reconnect with bitcoin’s crypto-anarchist roots and fend off the forces of surveillance that creep into every aspect of our lives in 2020.
But first, it requires an understanding of the distant past.
Code as magic
Like the ancient Irish poets, the filí, programmers have the ability to alter reality with an utterance. Code is an incantation, an act of summoning ideas and inclinations into material reality. It is a conduit between the sphere of ideation and that of politics and sociality.
But technology isn’t merely the product of ideas – it actively shapes belief systems, reconfiguring the world in which it is applied.
Programmers know this: When a user’s behavior is influenced by code, it’s called opinionated software. When a user is manipulated for corporate interests, it is known as a dark pattern.
Software also has unintended consequences. Released into the wild, code propagates ideology in unpredictable and chaotic ways. Inevitably, it backfires, and innovation flows through human society, irrespective of, and indifferent to, political difference.
To what extent technology is informed by and produces belief systems has haunted me throughout my adult life.
It has caused me nightmares: dark conclusions on the nature of technology, prophecies of machine takeover and terrifying visions of the future of war.
It has also given me dreams. I believe it is within humanity’s power to reshape the narrative by which technology is formed. In doing so, it becomes possible to take back the reins of runaway technological innovation and re-orientate human destiny.
Crypto is at the front line of this struggle.
I came to crypto through encryption. I saw hash functions as a kind of abstract poetry that spoke of the secrecy of nature and the unknown.
Crypto was immersed in a romantic glow. In Ethereum’s early days, I believed I was witnessing the emergence of Skynet. It was the promise of Turing Complete, general computation and if artificial intelligence was going to emerge anywhere, it would be there, I believed at the time.
It was my doomer phase, and Ethereum was a source of dark fascination. Inspired by the Ethereum yellow paper, I wrote my master’s thesis in 2016 on what I felt was a sadomasochistic dynamic between natural language and code. It included an erotic poem featuring a kind of vampire DAO (far before I had familiarized myself with the unicorns and rainbows that better represent the Ethereum community).
But while my approach was unconventional, the idea dates back to a problem as old as philosophy itself. To borrow a metaphor from computers, human experience consists of abstractions: mere interfaces that we interact with. Base reality occurs on a lower level, corresponding to hardware and raw machine code.
This hierarchization of reality – of partitioning nature into the more and less real – occurs across philosophy in different guises and names. For some philosophers, such a partition gets us no further in understanding the “things-in-themselves.” Humans are encased by a sphere of representation, wholly cut off from an inaccessible and inhuman outside.
At the time, I believed the reality hierarchy had a linguistic equivalent. At the bottom were operational languages such as computer programming. At the top were descriptive, natural languages.
With this philosophical backdrop, code acquires a profound metaphysical weight. It became a way to transmute the lowest level of reality into human experience.
The DAO hack was the first crack in this worldview.
Implicitly, I maintained at the time that natural language was somehow inferior to the perfect objectivity of code.
Not only that, but I believed the behavior of technology within capitalism – its tendency toward monopolization, value-extraction and surveillance – was technology’s true nature revealing itself.
Martin Heidegger – a philosopher known for supporting the Nazi party and for transforming Western philosophy – calls this tendency Gestell, or enframing.
According to Heidegger, technology is a process of dismantling, quantifying and repackaging for export. In modernity, it has captured humanity, reducing people and everything else into a resource, a “standing reserve” to be exploited by the technological regime.
According to Land, technology exposes an inhuman intelligence optimizing itself at the expense of the human. Stimulated by finance and a strange, contorting temporality, this inhuman intelligence is climbing its way up the reality hierarchy, threatening to replace the human as the world’s top predator.
It might sound like science fiction but crypto is full of this kind of rhetoric. Early efforts toward smart contracts promise nothing short of optimizing humans out of the equation. The blockchain is described as pure, trustless and incorruptible, turning all that it touches into glacial, inalterable code.
Ethereum’s infamous experiment in corporate governance, The DAO, echoed this language.
As Ethereum Classic fans will no doubt remember, The DAO was a high-profile fundraising campaign for a decentralized incubator. Its marketing spoke of “the steadfast iron will of unstoppable code” – a phrase whose irony is hard to forget.
Due to a vulnerability discovered in Solidity smart contracts not long after its launch, The DAO was subject to a re-entrancy attack, in which a hacker exploited a function within the code to drain 3.6 million ether out of it.
The DAO episode exposed many myths about blockchain, but this one stands out: Despite claims to the contrary, crypto contains an inextricably human element.
Not quite Skynet
I spent the subsequent years following the ebb and flow of Ethereum software development as a reporter for CoinDesk.
For two years I attended every single Ethereum core developer call. I tracked decision-making on the platform like a jealous lover, refreshing Twitter handles, expanding sprawling GitHub discussions, quietly watching chat groups.
During this time, Ethereum faced the fallout of its DAO refund and dealt with the challenge of informal, decentralized governance. This challenge was intensified by a few simple facts: Ethereum has a leadership that is ideologically opposed to authority, and a vision that is inclusive to the point of being meandering.
Criticisms aside, Ethereum was in uncharted territory. And despite the odds, the platform managed to keep its course, even with pressure from monetary interest pulling it from each side.
Over time, I understood the mistakes I had made. Ethereum is not Skynet, and code has much more in common with natural languages than the raw mechanics of primary nature. I learned that sometimes, developers actually trade efficiency for readability; favoring clear, modular code over code which is fast.
I also learned power exists on all decentralized networks, but it is typically nameless and therefore unaccountable. Over time, power relations solidify. Networks become institutionalized and the rift between users and developers deepens.
Software, I decided, is a social good, like water and clean air. To maintain the balance of power, coders must elevate those around them. They must discourage passive user-ship, inspire users to become active network participants and train the next generation of coders to replace them.
Armed with a newly found focus, I left the Ethereum beat to join the Rojava revolution in North Syria.
Inspired by the writings of Kurdish ideologue Abdullah Ocalan, the Rojava revolution sprang up during the Syrian Civil War. Its supporters maintain that the nation-state is an abstraction badly suited to the Middle East. In its place, Rojava is pioneering new forms of decentralized social organization.
But it is not merely a social organization that binds Rojava together. Rather, Rojava is governed by a collective idea: the concept of democratic modernity.
In his five-book manifesto written from Turkish prison island İmralı, Ocalan essentially agrees with Heidegger’s “Gestell” – there is a reductive, exploitative process at work within modernity.
But Ocalan does not identify this process with technology. According to him, it is the logic of capitalist civilization itself.
The task of democratic modernity is to decouple technology from globalization. In its place, new modernities can be built, based on a plurality of logics – not merely Western-style reductionism that has come to dominate the world.
In Rojava, learning is paramount. People are encouraged to develop “xwe zanîn,” or self-knowledge, inspired by the Ancient Greek maxim “know thyself.” This is a project of remembering, of resurfacing histories worn away by globalization.
Here, I spent my time establishing technical academies. Inspired by the scientific centers of the ancient world, like Plato’s Academy and the House of Baghdad, our goal was to train a new generation of philosophical programmers.
But my time in Rojava was cut short.
During the nine months I spent there, the risk of a Turkish invasion weighed heavily. It cast a dark shadow across all of our work, like a storm cloud looming in the distance.
Finally, the storm came, and the sky rained bullets and bombs. Disguised as a man, I was among the last foreigners to cross the border to safety before the death count started to rise.
I found myself at the Devcon5 Ethereum conference in Osaka, Japan, one week after leaving Syria.
With friends on the front line, I found it hard to look people in the eye. Ethereum’s unicorn-punk aesthetic set against the backdrop of war was hard to stomach.
Sleeplessly refreshing the Syrian Civil War subreddit and Syria Live Map on my phone, I watched the war play out in total horror.
Airstrikes, bombings, body counts. On stage, well-meaning developers called for diversity and social justice, innocent to, or oblivious of, the blanket of physical safety that surrounded them.
It was overpriced and sparsely attended. At a panel on Ethereum-based mixers an audience member warned that facilitating “bad guys” through privacy-tech could alienate the “average user” – a statement that was met with broad approval.
Maybe it was my state of mind, but it felt like the dissonance between cryptocurrency’s stated aims and its material reality was reaching a fever pitch. The general effort toward compliance was not only enabling certain forms of oppression but at times actively supporting it.
At that moment, I decided that anonymity is where all philosophy of technology collides. In technical terms, it is synonymous with freedom. Practically, it can mean life or death.
The Dark Renaissance
Since then, I have set about orchestrating the Dark Renaissance.
The Dark Renaissance is a revolution within cryptocurrency. It is a rallying cry to all who still believe in crypto’s true potential. It calls for a rebirth back to bitcoin’s original principles: to be autonomous, censorship-resistant and dark-by-design.
While crypto-anarchist in origin, bitcoin has lost its way. Rather than empowering black markets, it has allied with state and corporate interests – traded its radical potential for mainstream adoption.
But by suppressing its crypto-anarchist roots and whitewashing its aims to appeal to bankers, crypto has cut itself off from its source of power. The Dark Renaissance seeks to resurface that power, to allow the truly disruptive potential of cryptocurrency to realize itself.
That truly disruptive potential lies in cryptocurrency’s ability to extend the space of illegality outward: to increase the remit and power of unauthorized black market activity and strip resources away from the nation-state.
Our methods are part educational, part software production. We are setting up the PolyTech Academy, where technical skills are taught in tandem with a philosophy curriculum.
Through education, we want to elevate the culture of the cryptocurrency space, to create a community of active network participants and to inspire a new generation of programmers to succeed us.
In our code, we build tools to practically enforce our ideology. Advocating autonomy, anonymity and censorship-resistance, we will lead with the launch of several financial products, and iterate into a full-fledged dark financial system.
These tools will enable us to create a new economic paradigm. We are building financial networks to disintermediate local economies away from the state and large banks, and to usher in a more democratic alternative.
Rather than controlling people through mechanism design as much crypto-economics often intends to do, we are instead seeking to inspire people – to create a vision of technology that empowers people from within.
We are in the midst of a turning point. Technologists today are faced with a choice: Either passively advance the interests of a system fated for destruction or undertake a psychic reversal.