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Timothy May’s Passing And Crypto Anarchy’s Place In Today’s Crypto Incrementalism




What Timothy May achieved in the crypto community and what his writings mean now.

Timothy May, known for co-founding the cypherpunk's mailing list and penning "The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto," passed away last week due to natural causes, according to a Facebook post on December 15.

May's spot in the cryptospace began with the 1992 publication of "The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto," which he wrote four year earlier. In the (concise) manifesto, May expressed his views of what cryptography could achieve in the future, some of which would eventually find their way into the world of cryptocurrencies. May wrote:

"Two persons may exchange messages, conduct business, and negotiate electronic contracts without ever knowing the True Name, or legal identity, of the other. Interactions over networks will be untraceable, via extensive re-routing of encrypted packets and tamper-proof boxes which implement cryptographic protocols with nearly perfect assurance against any tampering."

In 1992, May co-founded an online mailing list called "Cypherpunks," which grew to include posts from the likes of Adam Back, Hal Finney, Julian Assange, and Zooko Wilcox. In 1994, he published a cypherpunk FAQ, which he dubbed "The Cyphernomicon." In it, May noted that some cypherpunks were uncomfortable with being described as anarchists or crypto anarchists. May clarified that "crypto anarchist" as a term only refers to the idea of not having formal leaders: "No ruler = no head = an arch = anarchy."

Who's Holding the Clippers?

May wrote in his manifesto:

"And just as a seemingly minor invention like barbed wire made possible the fencing-off of vast ranches and farms … so too will the seemingly minor discovery out of an arcane branch of mathematics come to be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property. Arise, you have nothing to lose but your barbed wire fences!"

May, who claimed in "The Cyphernomicon" that crypto anarchist and cypherpunk beliefs were US-centric, clearly saw the cryptospace as an opportunity for people, or at least US citizens, to "fundamentally alter the natures of corporations and of government interference."

At the moment, however, the cryptospace seems bound to crypto incrementalism, where crypto and blockchain systems are being designed around, or are at least being asked to comply with, government policy. It's far from "an arch," and May conceded in his manifesto that "the State" would "slow or halt the spread of [cryptographic] technology, citing national security concerns." Moreover, he posited, "Various criminal and foreign elements will be active users of [the cryptospace]."

Along with a government's financial and security concerns, questions of scalability also permeate the cryptospace in its current form. Cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies are early on in their development – too early, it seems, to achieve May's goal of total crypto anarchy. To ask the cryptospace to hold a pair of clippers to a barbed wire fence while it's still learning to control itself seems dangerous.

In the Facebook post, Lucky Green, a fellow cypherpunk, wrote that with May's help the cypherpunks and their mailing list became "perhaps the single most effective pro-cryptography grassroots organization in history." Indeed, after news of May's passing spread throughout the crypto community, Vitalik Buterin tweeted a link to "The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto."

Nicholas Ruggieri

Nicholas Ruggieri studied English with an emphasis in creative writing at the University of Nevada, Reno. When he’s not quoting Vines at anyone who’s willing to listen, you’ll find him listening to too many podcasts, reading too many books, and crocheting too many sweaters for his dogs, RT and Peterman.

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