Before the Web: The 1980s Dream of a Free and Borderless Virtual World

This is the first installment in Reason’s four-part documentary series titled „Cypherpunks Write Code.“ Watch part two and part three and part four.

In the early 1990s, a group of mathematicians, misfits, hackers, and hobbyists calling themselves „the cypherpunks“ came together around a shared belief that the internet would either demolish society’s artificial walls or lay the groundwork for an Orwellian state. They saw cryptography as a weapon against central planning and surveillance in this new virtual world.

The philosophical and technical ideas explored on the cypherpunks‘ widely read email list, which launched in 1992, influenced the creation of bitcoin, WikiLeaks, Tor, BitTorrent, and the Silk Road. The cypherpunks anticipated the promise and the peril that lay ahead when the internet went mainstream, including new threats to privacy and the possibility of building virtual platforms for communication and trade that would be impervious to government regulators.

 

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