ABOUT THE ARTIST
New Yorker, Jim Epstein, is Executive Editor of ReasonTV & writer/producer at Reason.com, the leading Libertarian magazine & video website. He primarily covers Bitcoin, education & urban issues. Reason provides hard-hitting independent journalism on civil liberties, politics, tech, culture & commerce.
"Libertarians see the appeal of an alternative to State-issued money."
Jim’s writing & videos have appeared in the New York Post, Daily Beast, PBS & Fox. Before coming to Reason, he spent eight years producing video at WNET in NYC, where he won 5 NY Emmys & 3 CINE Golden Eagle Awards.
"It’s been a great time to work in video. My career has straddled the change from television station to online."
Jim recently produced & released a four-part documentary series “Cypherpunks Write Code”. It chronicles the origins & history of the hackers, cryptographers & activists of the 1990s who built & fought to secure the foundations of digital privacy in the early Internet. Their origins trace back to a quirky but visionary group of computer scientists known as the High-Tech Hayekians in the 1980s San Francisco Bay Area.
"I’m incredibly optimistic & excited about Bitcoin."
In a very real way Bitcoin represents the living, breathing manifestation of this Movement’s decades old technological & ideological insights. We owe this pantheon of visionary Cypherpunk figures a huge debt. Their history is a vital lens on where we now stand & humanity’s future prospects for liberty.
"People who are activists or dissidents living under repressive regimes will discover Bitcoin’s utility."
The title ‘Cypherpunks Write Code’ is a beautiful summation Cypherpunk philosophy – that technology is the driving force in human history. It’s a phrase by Eric Hughes, Cypherpunk co-founder & mathematician.
"Technology is what changes things, politics does not."
The key early Cypherpunks figures were Libertarians : Hugh Daniel, Eric Hughes, Tim May & John Gilmore. Huges & May were primarily interested in technological development rather than advocacy issues. Jim had the opportunity to meet and interview some key Cypherpunks including Tim May, who passed away, suddenly, not long after filming.
"Tim was still as radical as ever."
Tim May, author of the ‘Cypherpunk Manifesto’, confidently but provocatively asserted, even up to his recent death, that no-one could be “morally responsible for what people do with this technology.” He spent years intellectually grappling with these ideas and very logically concluded that such inevitable technological progression, like the telephone, will be used for diverse, unforeseen purposes, from drug deals to peace negociations. In a way, this is always true of technology, but ultimately, it inexorably drives history forward. Resistance to this is futile, ill-conceived, Luddite and will fail – HFSP 🙂
Part 1 explores the early Internet years of the late 1980s, before the WWW & commercial Internet – the days of Compuserve & USENET groups. It focuses on a community in Silicon Valley that saw what was coming and that we’d be able interact & trade through this new tech. They saw how ‘game changing’ personal computer was, but also that it had the potential to empower freedom or the Orwellian surveillance state.
"Technology is the driving force of history & there’s ultimately little anyone can do about it. Politics instead, always disappoints."
One of these early visionaries was Phil Salin, the key figure in a group called the High Tech Hayekians. His ideas were a little different to those of the other key figure Tim May – father of the Cryptoanarchists. May was interested in using technology to build ‘shielded worlds’, inspired by Ayn Rand – worlds separate from the real world & free from government control. May believed that encryption technology would explode the grey areas in society, that we’d use it to trade, interact & communicate freely.
Salin wasn’t just an intellectual, he was also an entrepreneur. He built an early eCommerce platform in the late 80s called AMIX (American Information Exchange). The tech worked but never really took off, although it still manifested these nascent ideas of digital liberty & free trade. And of course it’s a clear example of action over thought – ‘Cypherpunks Write Code’. It was also a major inspiration for Tim May, and helped formulate his ideas on what would serve as the root of the Cypherpunk Movement.
Part 2 looks at the concept of ‘public key cryptography’ in the late 70s. Diffy Hellman and other mathematicians/cryptographers at Stanford & MIT put together these groundbreaking ideas. It allows two people who don’t know each other to interact privately with uncrackable encryption and no third parties. It was a complete transformation in the field of cryptography.
Few people at the time realised the implications of PGP. To early cypherpunks however, like Tim May, it provided a glimpse of game changing implications for individual privacy & liberty. These insights inspired him to pen the ‘Cypherpunk Manifesto’.
"As Bitcoin starts to replace fiat money, governments will do whatever they can to stop it. The Crypto Wars are going to heat up. They’ll find more reasons to regulate or ban it, but ultimately, I don’t think it’s going to work"
David Friedman compared the power of encryption to the Second Amendment right to bear Arms. He believed the technology provides protection from tyranny, the same way guns did in early America. There’s a great paper called “From Cryptography to Crossbows” which explores this, one of the first things posted to the infamous Cypherpunks mailing list. It draws the same analogy, that encryption is a tool to shift the balance of power between State & the Individual.
Part 3 explores the 90s Crypto Wars, the battle between government & civil liberties activists about whether or not people should have the right to use encryption & whether companies could build end to end encryption (E2E) into their products. The government recognised how powerful the tool was.
"Governments banning public access to E2E encryption is terrifying."
Immense thanks must go to people like John Gilmore, co founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF.org) an early Cypherpunk, who fought a brilliant legal and public relations battle to keep cryptography legal. He battled successfully for legislation to protect code as free speech.
"Encryption is free speech. It’s just software, words, language & the government has no right to ban that. I think that’s ultimately the best tactic."
Despite this iconic victory, in many ways, these wars have never ended. People continue to be anaesthetised by a lullaby of distracting ‘content’ and governments continue to obfuscate and subvert digital freedom whenever the opportunity arises. Through awareness of these issues, through Bitcoin & agencies like EFF.org, perhaps we can resist this erosion & strive again towards self sovereignty. This is our hope.
Part 4 loops back to explore the different philosophies between the High Tech High Hayekians and May’s Cryptoanarchists. It uses the Berlin Wall metaphor to show the incredible optimism of those times and the emerging realisation that cryptography could be applied to money. It explores early attempts to create digital, borderless money & global free trade platforms.
"Until 2008, the Cypherpunk Movement hadn’t really worked but Bitcoin completely revived it. These guys were so early, way ahead of their time. We’re just starting to see their ideas come to fruition."
To some degree, the Cypherpunk Movement had been seen as somewhat of a misdirection before Bitcoin. There was a sense that privacy was disappearing, that most of the ideas hadn’t come to pass. The synthesis of this evolution with the launch of Bitcoin in 2008 however has ushered a renaissance of these ideas & enthusiasm for this history.
WATCHING ONLINE KILL TV
Jim feels very privileged to work in Online Video & to have seen the old TV world too. He spent 8 years at WNET, a PBS TV station in NYC. On coming to Reason.com, he started working online and instantly realised how much better it was. The feedback from YouTube alone and no longer being shielded from his audience was a revelation.
"The quality of video storytelling & documentaries has improved so much online. By opening up the tools & lowering the barriers to entry, it’s transformed the medium & pace of innovation."
Jim’s produced feature stories on the secret, dangerous world of Venezuelan Bitcoin mining; a documentary on how Robert Moses destroyed an all-black community on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that was featured in the New York Times; a report on Washington DC’s taxi system that got him arrested; a documentary about Brazil’s growing Libertarian movement.
"Of all the all the things I cover, Bitcoin interests me the most. I think it has the most potential to make a freer world."
Jim first heard about Bitcoin in 2011 but really started digging into the Rabbit Hole in 2014. He’s since realised how the themes of digital privacy & freedom many of us talk about today, have this little known Cypherpunk historical antecedent. Heavyweight figures have been thinking deeply about these issue and this rich history seemed ripe for exploration.
"I’m pretty bullish. I think the price will keep going up & people will get in as an investment, not totally understanding its implications but that’s okay. The network grows stronger."
With the CWC, he realised early on that it was basically a bunch of smart guys sending emails to each other with limited visuals. He had the idea to lean on some of the art and ads from Classic Computer Magazines on archive.org. This provides an important ingredient to the style of the series.
"Filmmakers ask “what am I going to put on the screen whilst people talk? That’s a big puzzle & it pushes you to be creative."
His creative process is different for each project but it starts with an idea, often his last project. He starts calling people, doing interviews, and just figuring out what the reality is. Through that process of writing questions, he focuses in on what story to tell.
"When you’re making documentaries, you gather the ingredients you need : interviews, footage & graphics."
He assembles the ingredients, sit down at a computer, edits a script, tries it out, puts it into a timeline. Inevitably it doesn’t work, so he goes back & fixes it. It’s a process of constant revision.
"You really have to be patient to get through it, because it’s very frustrating before things gel."
The cameras they’re using are Sony FS700s but Jim increasingly uses his iPhone to shoot – 4K stabilisation & beautiful imagery – it’s an incredible tool. He’s a Final Cut editor & uses After Effects although most of his colleagues use Adobe Premiere.
Jim conceived, wrote, filmed, edited, narrated and did the graphics for the series. Intro graphics were done by Lex, a brilliant graphic motion artist Bitcoiner called Lex whose also at Reason.
They’re both working on the first of a new Op Ed series of video essays about Bitcoin. Watch this space . . . They’re keen to get more Bitcoin into ReasonTV and to collaborate with different people on this, so please reach out if you’d like to get involved.
"I’d love to see more big titans of tech, talking about & integrating Bitcoin, I think that would be really impactful."
Follow Jim on Twitter at @JimEpstein. You’ll find all the articles and videos he’s done at Reason.com and ReasonTV YouTube Channel.