The extropian roots of cryptoeconomics
I'm persuaded that other Extropian ideas will have a huge impact when their time comes.
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See my 3-parts love letter to Elon Musk ((1, 2, 3).
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Turing Church meetings calendar.
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The first Turing Church meeting (open) will be on Saturday, November 19, at 11am ET (8am PT, 5pm CET). I’ll start with a talk on “More things in heaven and earth, Gods by any other name.” I gave this talk at the TransVision 2019 conference in London, but the conference was not recorded.
I found out that my old article “The Extropian Roots of Bitcoin,” published on CCN in 2014, has been made into a scrolling text video.
I’m taking the liberty to republish my 2014 article here (scroll down), in case it disappears from the internet.
I have been a proud and avid member of the extropian community for more than two decades. Recommended reading: “The Spike: How Our Lives Are Being Transformed By Rapidly Advancing Technologies” (2001), by Damien Broderick, one of the first and still one of the best books on the Singularity and all that.
I maintain an archive of available scans of the late lamented “Extropy” print magazine in a subrepository. The archive is now complete, but volunteers are needed for some more work. All issues of the magazine (1–17) are available as PDF scans, but some issues have not been OCRed. So the text in some issues is not searchable. If you have the know-how, OCR tools, and time, please join the Github project “Extropians” and volunteer to OCR the archive!
The ideal outcome of this project would be a freely downloadable EPUB ebook with all the issues of the Extropy magazine, easily readable and well-formatted, with images, ToC, index and all. But a PDF ebook with searchable text would be a good intermediate outcome that the world needs.
The old “Extropians” mailing list is now called “ExI-Chat.” The official list archive at extropy.org starts in October 2003. A Github repository named Extropians, open to contributors, includes an Extropians list archive from 1996 to 2003.
Another mailing list called “Extropolis” was founded by a group of extropians as an open forum to discuss all sorts of topics, including controversial topics.
Replying to a thread aptly titled “You are all fucking assholes,” one of the founders described Extropolis as:
“It’s like ExI except where bad behavior is allowed: personal attacks, political campaigning, anything… it’s the rough country-western bar next to the nice restaurant and lounge.”
I hope Extropolis will recapture some of the radical and intense spirit of the early Extropians list.
Adults should be able to discuss and dissent clearly freely. These days this is out of fashion (temporarily I hope), but closed mailing lists like Extropolis are a step backward in the right direction.
About the name Extropolis:
“Most Extropians won’t really feel at home until we reach Extropolis: an artificial city floating far above Earth’s surface. As the trail-head for exploration of the solar system and beyond, Extropolis will place us on the verge of an infinity worthy of our expansive ambitions… (source: Tom Bell, Extropia: A Home For Our Hopes, Extropy #8. Note by the author: Max More deserves the credit for thinking up this apropos name.).”
“The playful mock-up of a future currency on the cover of [Extropy #15, see cover picture] was issued by the ‘Virtual Bank of Extropolis’ over the ‘Distributed Networks of Extropia,’ dated 2030 and denominated in ‘hayeks.’ Hayek himself appeared in the oval portrait, looking owlish and remote. On the reverse - where a US$5 features the Lincoln Memorial - Max More and T. O. Morrow appear, waving in sunglasses with the posture of rock stars doing a curtain call: their future’s so bright they need to wear shades… (source: Finn Brunton, ‘Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency’).”
See here for a short summary of my past in cryptoeconomics. TLDR: Cryptoeconomics IS important. Not the most important thing, but an important thing. A parallel economy relatively independent of Big Government and Big Business, with working interfaces to the mainstream economy, can do good to many people.
I think this is, and has always been, the real value and the killer app of a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Ethereum. I also like simple smart contracts. Here’s a simple smart contract: we bet on a football match and send the money to a smart contract in a blockchain-based escrow. After the match, the contract reads the football news and sends the money to the winner. Simple, and efficient.
But a football match has a simple and clear outcome. Who wins the bet is not a decision, but a fact. When it comes to decisions, I do NOT want inflexible software to decide in our place. Therefore, I have reservations on Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs). I want people to make important decisions, not software.
The Extropian Roots of Bitcoin
Bitcoin is booming, but not every enthusiast knows that the cryptocurrency has roots in a radical, futurist philosophy that started to bloom in the California of the 80s.
By Giulio Prisco, CCN, October 2014.
Hal Finney, a Bitcoin pioneer and the first person to ever receive a Bitcoin transaction, was cryonically preserved by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation on August 28, 2014. Please don’t say to Hal friends that he “passed away” or worse - cryonics enthusiasts hope to be revived by future science, in a few decades or centuries down the stream of time.
Cryonics was (and still is) frequently discussed on the Extropians mailing list. The list (now called Extropy-chat) started in the 90s with the Internet and is one of the oldest mailing lists still active. The Extropy Institute, founded in California in the 80s a few years before the Internet, published a print journal (image below) for a few years. They say death and taxes are the two things you can’t escape, but escaping death and taxes is precisely what Extropy was all about in its early days.
Hal was a frequent participants in the Extropian online discussions of cryonics, life extension, space colonization, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, mind uploading (the transfer of human consciousness from biological brains to alternative high-performance substrates), and the technical, social and political aspects of cryptography. Julian Assange lurked, and occasionally participated.
I joined the list in the 90s after reading a Wired article titled “Meet the Extropians.” The list has been one of my main sources of intellectual nourishment ever since, and I made a lot of good friends there. I never met Hal in person, but we often corresponded, and I treasure the emails that I received from him.
“Long-time [Extropy] member - and honored cypherpunk and Bitcoin pioneer - [Hal Finney] was declared clinically dead this morning and is now being cryopreserved,” Extropy founder Max More, now Alcor CEO, announced to the list. “Hal, I know I speak for many when I say that I look forward to speaking to you again sometime in the future and to throwing a party in honor of your revival.”
Who is John Galt?
The discussions of cryptography on the list were informed by a strong Libertarian stance that was characteristic of the early phase of Extropy, similar to the philosophy of Ayn Rand’s hero John Galt. The ideological framework is outlined in Max More’s “The Principles of Extropy,” and the following passages are especially relevant here:
“Extropy means supporting social orders that foster freedom of communication, freedom of action, experimentation, innovation, questioning, and learning. Opposing authoritarian social control and unnecessary hierarchy and favoring the rule of law and decentralization of power and responsibility.”
“Extropic societies are open societies that protect the free exchange of ideas, the freedom to criticize, and the liberty to experiment. Coercively suppressing bad ideas can be as dangerous as the bad ideas themselves. Better ideas must be allowed to emerge in our cultures through an evolutionary process of creation, mutation, and critical selection. The freedom of expression of an open society is best protected by a social order characterized by voluntary relationships and exchanges.”
It’s interesting to note that these words could seem too sedate and watered down to many hardcore Extropian Libertarian of the 80s and 90s. On the other hand, many flavors of radical futurism have emerged since the 90s, which are distributed all over the political spectrum.
Perry Metzger was (and still is) a staunch, uncompromising Extropian Libertarian. Metzger defines himself as “Transhumanist Market Anarchist, Systems and Security Geek, Molecular Manufacturing Semi-Pro,” and he is the owner of the Cryptography mailing list.
Not all cryptography related discussions on the Extropy list were political though - there was a fair deal of hardcore technical and mathematical detail (and even more so on the Cryptography list), offered by top experts including Hal (who participated in the early development of PGP), Nick Szabo, and Wei Dai.
At the Extropy Institute’s fifth annual conference Extro-5, in 2001, Szabo spoke of smart contracts that solved the problem of trust by being self-executing, and property embedded with information about who owns it. For example, the key to a car sold on credit might only operate if the monthly payments have been made. These ideas are clear precursors of “Bitcoin 2.0” technologies such as Ethereum.
Who is Satoshi Nakamoto?
It’s interesting to note that Hal Finney, Nick Szabo, and Wei Dai have been rumored to be Satoshi Nakamoto, the mystery man who announced Bitcoin in October 2008 on Metzger’s Cryptography list. Hal Finney had made attempts to create his proof of work based currency, called RPOW, while Nick Szabo and Wei Dai had proposed similar e-cash frameworks called, respectively, Bit gold and b-money.
All three have denied being Satoshi Nakamoto, but the rumors persist. Nick Szabo and Wei Dai are still suspected to be but two of the many pseudonyms used by the invisible genius who also used the Satoshi Nakamoto pseudonym - the now 86 years old Nobel Prize winner John Nash of “A Beautiful Mind” fame.
I don’t know how seriously we should take those rumours. Most certainly, those persons have the intellectual bandwidth to pull something like Bitcoin out of the unseen realm of arcane mathematics, but the allegations still seem too far-fetched to me. However, I suspect that Satoshi Nakamoto may have been lurking or even participating, under other pseudonyms, on the Extropy list.
The Legacy of Extropy
I started a discussion on the Extropy list to gather thoughts and recollections to use in this article.
“I don’t remember much of the discussions, but they were often pretty extensive,” says Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and continues:
“Both anarchocapitalist ideas and how to implement PPL using smart contracts (old issues of [the Extropy print magazine] might have a few illuminating articles), technical discussions about protocols and of course hardware worries about rod logic computers cracking codes. I think the key insight was that crypto could act as a primitive for building awesome things.”
“The Extropy archives will indeed be a goldmine for future historians,” says Mike La Torra, a Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.
Hal Finney had similar thoughts in 2006:
“It’s possible that someday this material will be seen as representing the birth of ideas which turn out to be key to the further development of humanity.”
Hal also said:
“[T]he original extropians mailing list had a policy of quasi-secrecy with regard to list archives. As a result, much of that free-wheeling discussion has been lost, an information exchange which many of us remember as among the most dynamic and engaging we have ever encountered. It may never be possible to reconstruct and restore those lost archives, but eventually, the list policy changed, and we should make sure that what remains is not lost.”
I think a lot of ideas that will have a huge impact of the world originated on the Extropy list or at least found an early greenhouse there. Bitcoin, which seems well on its way to having a huge impact, is but one of the first, and I am persuaded that other Extropian ideas will have a huge impact when their time comes.
Turing Church is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.