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Code as a Weapon: Amir Taaki Wants You to Join the Real Crypto Revolution

There are many words that could be used to describe Amir Taaki – but today, ambitious is best.

The infamous bitcoin developer – known for co-creating Dark Wallet, Darkleaks and OpenBazaar – took the stage during a hackathon he hosted in the wake of the Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium (PETS) in Barcelona last week, the same city where he plans to set up his academy of coders, hackers and philosophers dubbed Autonomous Polytechnics.

It’s a bit of a shift, about 1,800 miles to the West from Taaki’s earlier idea, which was to build the academy in Greece. But with a toolset focused on anonymity and autonomy, it might make more sense to build the project in the capital city of the autonomous Spanish community of Catalonia.

Spending no time mulling over the decision, Taaki took to sketching out his political vision on a dirty whiteboard.

In a series of diagrams, Taaki described the evolution of biological cells, the structure of societies and the impact that technology can have on such systems, sparking runaway trends to monopolization, or its opposite — atomization.

Tying the latter to the UNIX philosophy, a branch of coder theory that vouches for minimal and modular units of software, Taaki then exposed the upcoming product suite his academy will build.

Albeit loose mathematical sequences, the audience could tell the scripts comprised the details of an entire dark machinery, a kind of subterranean web 3.0. Distilling the wide-ranging talk, one attendee quipped, “Plans to anonymize the world.”

And while Taaki insisted the details on the whiteboard not be published for fear they be co-opted – “There’s a lack of ideas in this space,” he told CoinDesk – it’s clear the tooling he’s got in mind would be a revolution, which is exactly what he wants.

Having left bitcoin development to fight alongside a Kurdish militia in Rojava, an autonomous region in northern Syria, Taaki is hoping to spread that region’s practices of democratic confederalism, a political theory that advocates for small, self-governing communities.

“Every revolutionary movement needs to have a technological arm, and we are the technological arm of the democratic confederalist movement,” Taaki told CoinDesk,

“This is our objective as an organization, which is using technology for autonomous democracy and the collapse of the system of nation states around the world.”

Politics and tech

To make this happen, Taaki expects participants of the academy to undergo a strict training. Newcomers are subject to a three-month introduction period, one that repeats every six months to one year.

“It’s a vehicle for developing them as leaders, to develop their skills technically, socially and being able to effectively organize other human beings and coordinate together tightly,” Taaki told CoinDesk.

While there’s room for ideological diversity within the organization — for example, Taaki wants to set up multiple tiers of participation and a system of allied academies globally — core attendees will need to follow careful timetables, give up other engagements and dedicate themselves fully to the project.

“Together we can elevate each other higher, we can learn from each other, we can dedicate ourselves to a sense of purpose and become stronger,” Taaki said. “And because we gain something from this, we are willing to forgo certain comforts of life, certain smaller freedoms for an even bigger freedom that we want to grasp.”

For himself, Taaki lives a rigid lifestyle: lifting weights, measuring his meals, avoiding weed and alcohol. And with the occasional snide remarks about “lazy hacker culture,” he doesn’t hide his disdain for those who don’t.

“You can’t party and have the revolution at the same time. They’re mutually incompatible things,” he told CoinDesk.

That’s one of the outcomes he fears for bitcoin, and even the cryptocurrency community as a whole – that while it has attracted some of the best minds in technology, there’s a risk that it will simply devolve into play.

“There’s a danger that bitcoin as this transformative tool to liberate humanity will just be turned into a nice subculture where we meet up with friends at conferences and a few geeky people play around, make investments, but it’s nothing more, and the potential that exists, that truly exists inside of bitcoin, does not get realized,” he said.

That’s why instead he wants his followers to have a serious drive.

That drive is a mix of both the democratic confederalism of the Rojava movement and a distinct theory of technology theorized by American philosopher Lewis Mumford.

The basic premise of democratic confederalism is self-governance, but the theory also elevates environmentalism and feminism.

On the other side, Mumford suggests that there are two types of technological process, monotechnics and polytechnics. Whereas the former creates global, top-down, single-purpose technologies, polytechnics conceives technology for users across different socio-political contexts – and it’s the latter that Taaki believes can bring about change.

“We believe in building technology on a human scale, for humans to employ in many different contexts to solve problems that they face,” Taaki told CoinDesk, adding:

“The technology needs to be targeted for socio-political change, not just to find like the perfect mechanism to make people comfortable, for convenience, to make people happy.”

Exhausted ideas

Not only the fears of bitcoin becoming just another fun fad, but Taaki also believes what’s missing from the first and largest cryptocurrency is this idea of polytechnics.

According to Taaki, bitcoin’s failure came from the belief that the technology itself was sufficient to enact a global reorganization of power, and by simply inserting it into systems, human freedom would increase.

“Everybody thought that bitcoin would come as this huge inevitability,” he told CoinDesk. “You saw this also, people talking about the honey badger, the honey badger can’t be stopped, there’s a sense of inevitability or linear historical trajectory.”

However, that vision failed, in part due to an inability for bitcoiners to propagate the political concepts inherent to the technology and adopt the tooling to constantly evolve with the landscape.

“Technology is the means, or the instrument of power that we use for shaping the society, but we are fundamentally the drivers of that technology,” Taaki asserted.

In this way, Taaki’s central tenet maintains that without ideological purpose, technologies cannot survive.

“The problems with bitcoin are in no way technical, they are deeply social and economic problems,” he said, adding:

“The ideas behind bitcoin have exhausted their potentiality to be able to advance that project forward.”

And this seems to stem, according to Taaki, from the prevalence of the “engineering mindset.”

“There is an elite inside bitcoin. They have a very particular way of seeing the world, and that viewpoint of the world, which sees things in a very technical way … in some cases can be extremely limiting,” Taaki said.

He gave the example of the lightning network, which while it solves a much needed technical problem — scalability — it cannot solve the wider societal issues surrounding the cryptocurrency’s lack of adoption. At the same time, corporations and central banks are co-opting the technology, developing more usable products and overtaking the cryptocurrency community.

“Unless there is a fundamental correction in the course of events that we’re heading into now, that is what is going to happen,” Taaki warned.

And that’s a large part of the work he is trying to achieve with Autonomous Polytechnics.

Where’s the money?

At the time of writing, Taaki and the earliest enlisted members of the revolution are squatting at the historic home of the Cooperativa Integral Catalana, a cooperative that spawned a cryptocurrency of its own, FairCoin.

But the plans for their very own academy are laid out.

It’ll be located at the base of Carmel Hill, stretching across 8,600 square feet, containing a shared workspace, living quarters, a garden and if they have enough money, a basement that can host conferences, hackathons and other events.

Taaki has even designed a special flag for the academy, in the colors of the organization, green and black, with a blazing sun, as a symbol of technology, in the center.

And with that, there’s no shortage of interest from potential participants in the program, many of which are currently living with Taaki and told CoinDesk they’re excited to begin. But still, they wait.

“It’s been almost a year now, and we’re still waiting to get started,” Taaki told CoinDesk.

Part of this stems from the construction of the building, which is slow going, but another thing stands in the way too — a lack of funding.

Taaki is looking for $10,000 to $20,000 – merely a drop in the bucket compared to the huge amounts of money being raised by sometimes suspicious initial coin offerings (ICOs) – however, many investors have been unwilling to donate without the promise of something in return.

But the academy’s plans are to create free technology, and even its business arm would merely be a mechanism for funneling excess profits into the support of democratic confederalism around the world.

“Right now to get established we’re trying to get donations which is kind of difficult because despite rhetoric a lot of people in this crypto space are very stingy,” Taaki said.

At the moment, the project is being sustained through donations from Cody Wilson, the co-creator of Dark Wallet and the infamous creator of the 3D printable Liberator pistol.

But Taaki would like to diversify those donation streams, and at this point, he’s running out of options.

Laughing, Taaki concluded:

“Dude, at this point, I would take money from African dictators.”

Amir Taaki with Dark Wallet logo via CoinDesk.

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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Code Is Speech: Amir Taaki on Crypto's Debt to Phil Zimmerman

Amir Taaki created libbitcoin, the first alternative bitcoin implementation, and worked on wallets such as Electrum and Darkwallet, as well as privacy markets and decentralized technologies.

Currently, he is establishing an academy in Barcelona to train hackers to work on revolutionary technology projects.


I recently had the honor of meeting Phil Zimmermann, the creator of PGP, the world’s first freely available encryption software for the masses.

The development of PGP (which stood for “pretty good privacy”) was a socio-political cause when Zimmermann managed to defeat the United States through a subversive mechanism and enshrine code as a form of free speech.

As such, it’s a foundational tale for the cryptocurrency community, one well worth retelling from time to time.

During the late 1980s, around the fall of the Soviet Union, there was heavy activism in the nuclear disarmament movement. Zimmermann, a software engineer, was deeply involved, even going to prison at various points with Carl Sagan and Daniel Ellsberg. He became well known in the circles as a speaker and organizer.

As a believer in civil liberties, Zimermann felt that humans throughout history had shared secrets and made alliances with each other to organize politically. That we always had the expectation of a private communication with another person and no third party involved. And he wanted to extend this freedom to any two people communicating across the globe.

His concept of free speech was a direct consequence of his experience in organizing activists. PGP was specifically developed for anti-nuclear weapons activists. He took out six mortgages over a multi-year period to finance his venture, and he became skilled at making excuses to his banks. Yet he managed to pull through and PGP was born.

At the time, strong encryption software was classified by the U.S. government as military munitions that could not be exported from the country. Yes, cryptography was in the same category as missiles, fighter jets and advanced weaponry. It took an idealist like Zimmermann to have the courage to defy this law because of the conviction that privacy of speech through cryptography was a
fundamental human right.

The U.S. government opened a criminal investigation against Zimmermann. Phil told us that despite it in retrospect being good for his career, at the time he was in a very stressful dark place and for several years he was working desperately with a team of lawyers to find avenues to keep himself out of prison.

Legal checkmate

It was at a conference when Zimmermann was approached by a big U.S. publisher, the MIT Press, who asked him to publish a user’s guide to PGP. He immediately responded, “Yes, but I want you to also publish a second book.”

Why? Zimmermann had heard about another case where Phil Karn had applied to the U.S. State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls for a license to export Bruce Schnier’s book Applied Cryptography. This book includes many code samples for cryptographic algorithms with explanations and is a standard text in the field.

The regulator was puzzled why a book was being applied for a commodity exports license and replied back that there is no restriction on exporting books in the U.S. They didn’t even consider the contents of the book, given that books are protected under the First Amendment right to free speech in U.S. Constitution.

Then Karn did something curious. He sent the same regulator a floppy disk with files including the same code inside the book. They promptly rejected it, since it contained cryptographic technology and was restricted by the munitions export list. Karn took the government to court and eventually won.

With that case in mind, Zimmermann told MIT Press that he wanted to publish a second book with the code for PGP. They accepted.
And this book contained everything you need for the PGP software package, the source code, the make files, all the config files… everything.

Then they repeated the same process Karn had done in applying for an export license. The government quickly realized it had been trapped. If they said no, the government would be no longer be able to regulate cryptography. If they said yes and accepted his export of the book, then Zimmermann would win his case.

Zimmermann and his team excitedly waited for an answer. He had caught them in a clever legal bind. They never responded, and very soon dropped the case against him.

Legacy

Later PGP and other cryptography products started to become big, and now play a fundamental role in our industry. Zimmermann went on to work on several other important cryptography related projects, steering and advising many standards including development of ZRTP which is an important widely used voice encryption system for messaging applications on mobile and desktop.

But it was his act of courage that led to the liberation of crypto from the control of the U.S. government into the hands of idealist hacker programmers, and more generally into securing our lives on the internet.

In 1992, the year after PGP was born, we saw the Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto calling for using this new power of cryptography to liberate humanity from the yoke of the state and central banks. Then in 1993, we saw the Cypherpunk Manifesto which laid down the philosophy for a movement which created many new ideas around digital currency and ultimately birthed bitcoin.

It was incredible to hear the story of a pivotal moment in computing history from the man himself. I’m sure I haven’t done it full justice in my retelling but I hope I have captured the general importance of PGP in the heritage of the free technology movement.

Image via PhilZimmerman.com

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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‘Obsessed With Price’: Famous Bitcoin Developer Wants To Save It With 5 Female ‘Monk Hackers’

Revered UK Bitcoin developer Amir Taaki wants to recruit five “preferably female” developers to live a “quasi-monastic” lifestyle in order to give Bitcoin a “vision,” Wired reports March 6.

In an interview with Wired, Taaki, who is known among the Bitcoin technical community as a central figure in preserving the largest cryptocurrency’s original values, said he even has plans to use the “monk hackers” to effect Bitcoin- and Blockchain-powered political change – beginning in Catalonia.

“It will be like a startup accelerator, only a politicised one. Not driven by profit, but by social change,” Wired quotes him as saying during a speech in the politically troubled Spanish province.

From September 2015, Taaki spent several months fighting Isis terrorists in a Kurdish-controlled autonomous part of Northern Syria before engaging with social reconstruction while introducing inhabitants to Bitcoin.

Now, he says, reviving the spirit of Bitcoin is one step on the road to the “complete collapse of the world state system.”

“Bitcoin doesn’t have any vision behind it, any vision of where it’s going,” Taaki told Wired.

“All the original ideas about using bitcoin for challenging power – or privacy, or new forms of economic systems – are falling by the wayside. Now it’s simply a small community obsessed with the price going up.”

The five prospective hackers, which should ideally be “young and female” for “gender equality” reasons, need not have technical experience – but be willing to work for free in a house with Taaki in Catalonia.

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Radical Academy: Amir Taaki's New Hacker Team Is Spreading Bitcoin in Syria

Lugging an AK-47, fighting ISIS in Syria – Amir Taaki has seen some shit.

But, through it all, the hacker – best known for writing crypto code in abandoned London flats and creating one of the earliest dark markets powered by bitcoin – has kept the technology at the forefront of his mind. Now, emerging from his latest chaotic period, he’s promoting the idea that the cryptocurrency needs to be taken back from central banks, governments and other powers that be.

In his first interview about a new unnamed project – which he simply calls “the academy” – Taaki laid out his plan to convert an entire region in northern Syria to a bitcoin-based economy.

While Taaki expects the project to take nearly 20 years to implement, he’s completed the first step, recruiting a team of five “revolutionary hackers,” who he describes as committed to ensuring bitcoin doesn’t fall victim to the same fates as other once-revolutionary technology movements.

He told CoinDesk:

“Bitcoin is now in that crucial balance where it can either find itself, like the other technology movements that have come before it, confined to irrelevance, or people can start to gather together to try to really, truly think about, on a social level, what bitcoin is really about.”

The idea for the academy came from Taaki’s months on the front lines, fighting with a group of revolutionaries — the Rojava Kurds — who believe in direct democracy with little to no government. Financially cut off by embargoes against Syria and facing an inflating Syrian lira ($1 is worth over 500 lira), Taaki began to imagine how the cryptocurrency he had previously worked with could be used to connect the Rojava people in entirely new ways.

Following a period he described as being dedicated to study (after his time in the Middle East, he spent about 10 months in England on house arrest), Taaki drew up a two-year plan for an entity based in Greece that was part hacker collective, part social engineering experiment and part school.

Now with a small team assembled to work toward that vision, Taaki said his next step will be to expand it to as many as 20 individuals within the next eight months.

As part of the early stage work, the academy intends to organize a series of educational events to lay the foundation for a “large-scale payment network” powered not by central banks or even the internet, but with a combination of Wi-Fi-enabled ESP 12 modules and counterfeit-proof paper wallets, which he hopes the academy will be able to develop.

But while this might all sound radical, Taaki argues it’s actually the normal, everyday people that are living a lie.

“What’s happened in recent years is technology has lost that big vision that it had before, and it has just sunk into now a lot of people escaping into a kind of dreamworld,” he said. “Bitcoin really comes at the end point, the tail end of that bigger political movement of the hackers, [but] even bitcoin is experiencing a lot of problems with a lack of vision.”

A new kind of business

Core to the academy’s ethos is a synthesis of various existing technology movements, including the free-software movement, the crypto-anarchist movement, the Anonymous movement and the pirate movement.

But while the radical nature of Taaki’s different projects, this one being no exception, could seem anti-business in its calls for individual empowerment, Taaki is actually neither full-on iconoclast nor rabid anti-capitalist.

For instance, crucial to a bitcoin-powered economy is the idea of open-source software, which powers not only all public blockchains, but also most permissioned blockchains too.

He describes business-led contributions made to the open source community, such as IBM’s Fabric and Intel’s Sawtooth – both part of the Hyperledger blockchain consortium now – as “necessary for the success of free software and open source.”

Central banks, though, he does have a beef with.

In fact, Taaki is skeptical that central bank interest in the technology is anything more than a distraction from bitcoin’s potential to empower individuals, but understands they could offer stiff competition for his vision of large-scale adoption and day-to-day use of bitcoin.

“We need to re-situate the economy back to something that’s connected to life and humanity,” he said. “And to people’s personal sense of fulfillment, and bitcoin … is a big tool that we use to challenge the power of central banks.”

The roadshow

While challenging central banks is a ballsy move, Taaki is currently undertaking a roadshow of sorts in search of financial sponsors, partner organizations, more “revolutionary hackers” and an actual location within Greece for his academy.

Most recently, the roadshow took him to a stage at the Breaking Bitcoin conference in France, where he revealed for the first time, what the academy is all about.

During that talk, he said he wants to make bitcoin the “national currency of Rojava,” complete with a series of exchange shops where local bitcoin traders can buy vouchers for any number of products.

The next stop for Taaki is to address the attendees at the M-0 conference in Zug, Switzerland, next month. Hosted by the ethereum-based Melonport asset management platform, the conference is geared toward portfolio managers, investors and lawyers looking to save costs by conducting trades on a blockchain.

For a man who both embraces the power of business to help make his ideas a reality and has in a sense turned his back on traditional finance, such a venue is perhaps both fitting and alien to the programmer.

“It’s not for money that I work,” he emphasized, concluding:

“And the people that I surround myself with as well, they should be driven by working on their ideas, not for material gain in this life – because they want to leave something behind, put their image into the world, their ideas, their spirit.”

Photo courtesy of Amir Taaki 

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is an independent media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. Interested in offering your expertise or insights to our reporting? Contact us at [email protected].