“Technology in general, and the Internet in particular, are catalysts of decentralization.”
Interview with Icaros
For this interview, I have reached out to Icaros, principal author of the blog coronacircus.com. He is part of a group of liberty lovers working to build a “freedom cell” in the Swiss Alps. Before the interview, he told me the project is advancing well, as four new families have joined recently. I also happen to know him in real life, although he is completely unaffiliated to my commercial activity.
His background is information technology, and he sees the Internet as a tool of emancipation and liberation, rather than oppression and subjugation; it is in that regard specifically that I have decided to interview him, far from the (sometimes) esoteric themes he addresses on his blog.
Icaros, can you tell us about yourself? Who are you and why do you choose to remain anonymous?
I do not think my identity is relevant at all. I do not want anyone to “identify” with me, or to agree/disagree with the musings I put forth merely because of my face. I wish to stay in the realm of ideas, and to retain total intellectual freedom; that is especially important, as some of the things I write about could be construed as controversial. I am just a random guy on the Internet.
That being said, I will unfortunately have to “come out” when we are ready to speak more widely about the freedom cell project we are currently working on. It will then become clear why we had to stay under the radar up until that point.
You have a technical background, and so do others in the freedom cell group. That is quite peculiar for people looking to live in remote, secluded areas, away from the rest of society. Can you explain why the two things aren’t incompatible?
Technology in general, and the Internet in particular, are catalysts of decentralization.
Sure, technical innovation has in the past been monopolized by big government, and used to oppress, surveil and wage war; but that is only one side of the coin. The other side, one that has become more evident in the past two decades, allows for the exact opposite.
But before I try to make that demonstration, let me set the record straight.
The goal of civilization is the radical decentralization of power, ultimately to the level of the individual. Its culmination involves monarchy of divine right – for everyone. You govern yourself and nobody else.
The barbarians who purport to rule the world want us to believe the exact opposite; they want us to think that without great Statesmen, those who heretofore built Versailles, erected the cathedrals and “civilized” many lands, the “noble ones” who promoted Michelangelo and gave us the Louvre, these “visionaries” who today drive the space program and human progress, we would be nothing; they would have us believe we would be barbarous, grotesque cavemen, unenlightened by reason and civilization.
The opposite is actually true. Stochastic and distributed innovation is, has always been, and will always be, in aggregate, superior to monolithic, centrally planned undertakings. This is an observable fact of nature: unilateral action, trial and error, and competition are what characterize it. This is why Wikipedia is superior to Britannica, Linux superior to Windows, or cryptocurrencies superior to fiat money; this is also why economic freedom is congruent with prosperity, and why freedom of expression should he cherished.
Central planners despise this elementary truth, so they inculcate a lie. They trust only the organized collective – with themselves atop. They fear unilateral action, despise the solitary human mind, deny the creative nature of individuals. We are algae to them, prone to cause eutrophication if allowed to proliferate.
A symptom of this is the ubiquitous statist bias in education. As children, we are bombarded with stories about royalty. We learn irrelevant factoids about Louis XIV’s life (“the sun king”), or Charlemagne, or Richelieu, or dozens more “important historical figures”; their whims, proclamations, crimes and other exploits.
In school, Gallic War is the first text we translate from Latin; History presents Alexander’s and Napoleon’s rampages as noble, visionary enterprises; geography forces us to learn all the names, borders, capitals and logos (“flags”) of artificial/oppressive government constructs.
Typical arguments such as “military research and wars help scientific innovation” are complete and utter nonsense. They are similar to being amazed at the Soyuz spacecraft and concluding the Soviet Union provided a fertile ground for the emergence of new ideas.
Big government enterprises are not what drives actual progress. I can give you a few simple examples.
Do you know the name Thomas Newcomen? I didn’t either. He invented the atmospheric engine in 1712, which heralded the start of the industrial revolution. Or George Stephenson? He is responsible for the locomotive and thus the historical transcontinental American railway system. These are important historic events, and people, and yet they are barely ever mentioned.
Humans came up with the idea of the shipping container in the 19th century. Before that, goods were handled individually as break-bulk cargo; unloaded one at a time from the boat onto the carriage, and vice versa. A standardized transportation box would have been a great idea in Antiquity (they had quite effective manual cranes). They were smart, they did tremendous commerce, and yet they didn’t think of it. For many millennia nobody had thought of putting the stuff in a big box.
The “container revolution” is directly responsible for an increase in world commerce of 700% in just 20 years. This is much larger than the effects of all so-called “free trade” agreements. Ever heard of a free trade agreement? Probably. Ever heard of the “container revolution”? Quite unlikely (at least I hadn’t until a few years ago).
In other words: I contend that if wealth hadn’t been looted to build the Sistine chapel, Gothic cathedrals, Loire castles, Versailles, etc. and other stuff we generally find “marvelous”, humans would already have understood who they are, and we would already be living in paradise.
True progress and innovation are driven by unilateral human action; the Star Trek model of a plethoric State allowing for a highly prosperous, technological and enlightened culture, is a lie. Nature abhors central planning, which in truth only produces enslavement and misery. Similarly, technological innovation actually undermines big government; this is especially true in this digital age.
So it makes perfect sense for innovative and productive people, in the 21st century, to move away from “society”, away from the clowns and the barbarians. We don’t need them; we don’t need to be ruled by unproductive parasites. We are perfectly capable of producing wealth without them; we can live on our own terms, governed by conscience and voluntary cooperation.
You speak of the digital age as being congruent with decentralization, but the Internet’s precursor is a creation of the US military. Similarly, the World Wide Web was devised at CERN, a big government enterprise par excellence. Doesn’t this falsify your point?
No, it doesn’t. First, because government didn’t actually originate the innovation.
The pioneer who formulated the original idea of a global computer network was called Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, and he did so between 1960 and 1962 as Vice President of Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc., a private American research and development company. In a series of memos, he discussed the “Intergalactic Computer Network”, in which he presented concepts that contained almost everything that the Internet is today, including cloud computing. It is at BBN that he conceived, funded and managed the research that led to modern personal computers and the Internet.
His (and BBN’s) ties with the US government followed thereafter. ARPA took over, funded and developed a preexisting innovation.
As far as the protocol layer is concerned, the original genius came from Yogen K. Dalal, an Indian electrical engineer and computer scientist, and his professor Vinton Cerf at Stanford University; their work resulted in a networking model that became known as TCP/IP. Again, the US government merely recognized the innovation, and sponsored its further development.
As far as the World Wide Web is concerned, the proposal developed at CERN was modeled after the SGML reader Dynatext by Electronic Book Technology, a spin-off from an institute at Brown University. It itself descended from IBM’s Generalized Markup Language, developed in the 1960s.
Second, and most importantly, the Internet we know today was never centrally planned. The infrastructure itself is a dynamic and heuristic amalgamation of bilateral peering agreements, i.e. it is intrinsically decentralized. The protocols are furthermore freely elected by participants; there is no coercion, and two peers may at any time decide to rely on different protocols (or physical communication technology) to communicate with one another.
In other words: governments may have indeed played a role in sponsoring some of the original innovation that led to the modern Internet. Still, they did this for other purposes altogether, and never envisioned what it has become. It is thus correct to see the Internet as the unplanned and formidable product of free, unilateral, individual human action; the fact it is nowadays powered by open source software greatly adds to that point.
While two generations ago, everyone envisioned a 21st century made of flying cars and butler robots, the Internet seemingly popped up out of nowhere. The distributed intelligence of humanity that freely and heuristically elected its underlying technologies is responsible for what it is today, more so than any individual inventor.
So, I can reiterate my previous point: central planners are themselves uncreative. They may at most have the ability of recognizing innovation in other people, and taking it over, plagiarizing it, and corrupting it.
Still, it is undeniable that powerful interests exert strong control over the Internet. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Apple are not exactly benevolent companies. People are tracked, monitored, censored, propagandized, etc. What do you make of that?
The Internet is so much more than these few behemoths!
People congregate to these platforms because of the network effect, i.e. because they want to be where all the other people are; however, the best have moved away already.
Personally, I don’t think the situation is so dire. On the contrary: I have the impression central planners are investing great effort to drive us to pessimism, and thus to sabotage the formidable free market of ideas the Internet represents.
Let’s take the case of Edward Snowden. Of course, what he has disclosed is essentially true. Are we to believe however that an actual whistleblower, one who really embarrasses the powers that be, gets a Hollywood movie made about him? Or that he enjoys such ubiquitous publicity by legacy propaganda outlets?
You also have the case of Mark Zuckerberg “warning about threats to freedom of expression”. At the same time, of course, he advocates for “a clear regulatory framework that comes out of Western democratic countries”.
In my opinion, the manufactured outrage that’s been going around YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. is meant to give birth to the idea of “public utilities” on the Internet. Problem, reaction, solution: the government would have to “step-in”, to “safeguard the fundamental right” to rely on these platforms for “self-expression”, or whatever nonsense they’d come up with.
Of course, once these new “rights” are secured, in order for people “not to abuse them”, we ought to be properly and formally identified online; that is the objective. Have you ever wondered why André Kudelski has been a member of the Bilderberg committee for so long? I’ll tell you: his company, the Kudelski Group, is a global leader in access control and digital rights management technologies. It is also a “strategic partner” of the World Economic Forum. He must hope to become a contractor for a hypothetical future mandatory “e-Passport”.
These plans have come out in the open last year with the abhorrent “ID 2020 alliance”. It represents a “multi-stakeholder effort focused on user-managed, privacy-protecting, and portable digital ID”. It was founded by Gavi, Microsoft, and the Rockefeller foundation.
The Swiss have fortunately just rejected (by referendum) such a liberticide “e-Identification” law. The European Union however is moving forward. On its website, we read it “can guarantee the unambiguous identification of a person and make it possible to ensure the right service is delivered to the person who is really entitled to it”.
Here is the truth: the only eternal threat to liberty comes from government. We must reject regulation of any kind on the Internet. Trust the people. Twitter, Facebook et al. will suffer the same fate as so many other shoddy companies before them. We just have to wait, and let them fail on their own.
Here is another truth: if you want to, you can enjoy a level of privacy and self-expression that is unparalleled in history. Strong cryptography, when it is well implemented (i.e. open source), represents a formidable obstacle to the ruling class. Similarly, there are blockchain-based social media that are completely resilient to censorship.
About the coming e-ID, that’s my point: how to avoid such pessimism, when governments are implementing (and imposing) things like it? And biometric passports, robot soldiers, face recognition, pervasive data mining, movement tracing, etc.? How not to be reluctant towards digital technology when all this stuff is happening?
I agree all these applications are bad. It is undeniable the tyrants of this world are relying on technology, as indeed they always have, to try and exert greater control. As the technology progresses, so do their means of control.
My argument is there’s another face to that coin, and it is often overlooked. Actually, I think the propagandists want us to overlook it. For every oppressive use, there are dozens of liberating and emancipating ones.
I could give pages of examples, but the elephant in the room is of course open source software (and hardware). The amount of wealth being produced every day, in a purely disorganized, unplanned, and unilateral way, is mind-boggling. Big money and big government simply cannot compete.
From Linux to GNU Radio, LibreOffice to Godot, Transmission to Blender, Calibre to OBS, Rstudio to Audacity, it is difficultto find an application for which the best alternative is not open and free. In the past 20 years, humanity has taken back so much already!
Want to avoid unlawful searches? There’s strong cryptography.
Want to avoid immoral monopolies on ideas? There’s the torrent network.
Want to avoid media conglomerates? Anyone can broadcast their ideas from their garage.
Want to avoid wealth confiscation? You can pay without parasitical taxmen and intermediaries.
A generation ago, it would have been very difficult to produce your own electricity, to make a gun at home, to safeguard your correspondence, to pay anonymously, to freely share knowledge and ideas, to efficiently learn about a controversial topic, or to spoof or jam an arbitrary radio signal. Now all of this has become easy, and it is becoming easier by the day.
My point is we are better armed now than we have ever been to fight back and/or protect ourselves from government thugs in costumes. Even better: we don’t need to decapitate the kings anymore, we can merely ignore their proclamations and edicts.
About the e-ID specifically, I don’t see how, technically, they can ever enforce such a mandate. Exchanging information is akin to uttering numbers; and it is impossible to efficiently control or prevent the free utterance of numbers. If they try, it would most likely go the way of HADOPI, that infamous attempt by the French State to prevent file sharing – and which only drove people to use VPNs. Even the Great Firewall in China, despite the tens of thousands of people it employs, is all but useless; anyone who wants to circumvent it can indeed, as it is not difficult.
Of course, we still have a physical body, which we must protect from molestation; we still have physical wealth, which barbarians can loot. But the Earth is vast, overpopulation is a myth, and governments have never been able to efficiently exert physical control in remote, mountainous locations; even at the height of the Argentinian military dictatorship, people in Patagonia still went about their lives in relative peace.
Dense population centers will witness growing tyranny, but any human who wants to avoid it can indeed. Not everyone cares, as some people are utterly domesticated, but that’s another issue. For those who do, the good news is they don’t need to live like the Amish anymore.
It seems you are thinking only of people who have high technical skills. What about the rest of us? Will we have to submit?
I do not consider myself to be particularly technically gifted, as I am humbled every day by the incredibly talented developers on the various open source scenes. And yet I can do all these things that I mentioned, thanks to the work of others.
For people who have even less technical skills, there is no need to worry either. Things are becoming easier by the day. Think of how difficult it was to send an email in 1992, or to setup a VPN gateway in 1999, or to pay anonymously to the other side of the world in 2010; nowadays any preadolescent can do any of these things.
Such is always the way: the most talented are early adopters, and we can count on them to make the innovation readily accessible to the rest of us. And as far as living in remote locations is concerned, we need builders, beekeepers and farmers more than we need hackers; everyone has a place, provided they can produce something useful.
You keep talking of anonymous payment, and I suppose you have Bitcoin in mind. What do you think of its surge? Do you see this development as part of a bigger shift socially, politically and economically?
Blockchain technology is amazing. It can have an even greater impact on humanity than the Web itself, as indeed its applications go way beyond money. I am however somewhat reluctant towards Bitcoin, and I’ll explain why in a second.
As far as money is concerned, our generation has the opportunity of realizing Hayek’s dream of its denationalization (which I prefer to call separation of money and State). But first, we must remember it has two distinct functions: it can be a store of wealth, or a medium of exchange. In developed countries, fiat money has for a few generations fulfilled both roles. That is however no longer the case.
As a medium of exchange, government money has become unsuitable; over-regulation, cost of transactions, prohibitory delays, capital controls, and parasitical intermediaries illustrate this well. As a store of wealth, the need for an alternative is even more urgent, as monetary debasement and negative interest rates are increasingly relied upon to rob savers.
There is furthermore no reason for both of these functions to be fulfilled by the same asset class; and actually, in many developing countries, they typically aren’t; for example, people might have been trading in the local legal tender, while saving in dollars. They would hide the harder form of money under the mattress, while keeping only the minimal amount of debauched currency for immediate trade and commerce.
Cryptocurrencies are undeniably superior mediums of exchange, as they represent a safer, cheaper, and quicker alternative to bank transfers. As stores of wealth however, they are unsuitable in my opinion; the reason has to do with the nature of open source itself.
You see, open source projects produce such splendid results precisely because they compete with one another, because they are unplanned, and because of the right to fork. In other words, open source projects should come and go, change and fail. New ideas are built upon old ideas, and when old ideas are open and free to build on, newer ideas emerge faster and better.
Therefore, when an open source project becomes victim of its success, i.e. popular and plethoric, it is typically taken over by something else. Hive has made Steemit obsolete; Wikivoyage has overtaken Wikitravel; MariaDB is better than MySQL; LibreOffice is preferable to OpenOffice; these are only famous examples, but there are hundreds more.
The point is open source defeats the very purpose of a long-term store of wealth. I’m not saying you cannot gamble and make money; it’s just that savers shouldn’t count on open source projects not being taken over by a better alternative, especially if and when they become very mainstream and popular. That’s indeed the core reason that makes open source so amazing.
More specifically about Bitcoin, I am reluctant because most people who own it are merely holding it, and do not use it for payment. Many of its core developers are furthermore employed by Blockstream, which I find unpalatable. Finally I do not see why it should be worth so much, when there are so many better alternatives around. As far as I’m concerned, the current situation is comparable to the Web in late 1999: the technology was great, but a correction was overdue.
Nobody knows what the future will look like, but I’ll venture a guess: when the current unsustainable fiat money system goes, and after the dust settles, precious metals will become once again the preferred store of wealth, as they’ve been since the dawn of civilization; thousands of cryptocurrencies will compete with one another, and decentralized protocols will handle the exchanges. People will hold just enough crypto liquidity they need for payment purposes, the bulk of their savings being in gold or silver. As far as investments are concerned, they will mostly be in local companies that are tangibly and objectively productive.
If you dislike Bitcoin, what cryptocurrency do you like? Which one would you recommend my readers look at?
I’m not qualified to give investment advice, nor do I wish to do so. All I can talk about is where my personal preference goes, on the standpoint of technology.
As far as payments are concerned, I personally love Monero. I was very impressed with the way the community forked the project at the end of 2019, and adopted the RandomX algorithm, which is truly a work of art; it drastically increases resistance to ASIC mining, and therefore safeguarded the coin’s decentralized nature. In general, the level of competence and dedication in the Monero community is amazing; plus I find the anonymity and privacy of that blockchain very attractive.
The most underrated coin in my opinion is Siacoin. It doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page yet, despite being a beautiful project. It is vastly superior to its direct competitors, and indeed has the potential of revolutionizing cloud storage.
All that being said, if history doesn’t repeat but rhymes, it rhymes nowadays with Weimar. I believe well-advised savers have already converted much of their hard-earned savings into precious metals.
If the Internet represents a threat to the powers that be, why don’t they simply shut it down?
They’re definitely considering it. The move is called the “Internet kill switch”. There was even a bill introduced in 2010 in the US senate, called “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act”, that would have allowed such a thing to be attempted. It expired on the end of that year without being passed. In the United Kingdom, the Communications Act 2003 and the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 allow the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to suspend Internet services.
Apart from the legal hurdle, the first obstacle is that such a measure, if successful, would severely impact economic growth. However, after the coronacircus-related closures, we know that isn’t an issue.
The second and most important obstacle is that it would be very difficult to actually implement. As I mentioned before, the Internet is not built like the telephone or electrical grids: it is not centralized in nature. The network was built stochastically, as a patch-work of bilateral peering agreements, that isn’t even fully known; routing protocols furthermore allow packets to find the best route, which can change from one second to the next. There is no central line that could just be cut. Because it is so decentralized, the Internet is extremely resilient to interruption.
Sure, big governments could still severely affect its operation; that would mostly involve threatening Internet Service Providers with physical violence, or sabotaging the biggest exchange points. That’s how Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and China for example shut down Internet services for limited periods in the past.
But even if that happened, we could most likely quickly build back a clandestine Internet, albeit with a limited scope. Using mesh network topology, people could connect to their neighbors (e.g. with WiFi), and traffic would jump from neighbor to neighbor to connect sources with destinations. Larger gaps could be filled with direct wave antennas and a variety of protocols. If that happened, we would first have several “local” Internets, which would eventually be connected to one another through gateways (i.e. hosts connected to two or more different networks).
The point is this: third-world and overtly totalitarian governments have tried to shut down the Internet, limit it, censor it, surveil it, etc. and only with very limited success. This shows how ineffective Western governments would be in attempting the same thing.
The best way of sabotaging the Internet is through subversion, i.e. by making popular platforms overtly toxic, by scaring people into using it, by seeding distrust, by driving people into echo chambers, etc. Similarly, now that information can be exchanged freely, classical censorship doesn’t work anymore; central planners have to rely on reverse psychology and misdirection to achieve their goals. Because they cannot kill the signal, their only recourse is to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio.
So, in summary, the only way for the digital age to come to an end, at least temporarily, would be large catastrophes, such as nuclear electromagnetic pulses, massive solar flares, or complete failures/sabotage of the electrical grid. In such an eschatological scenario however, procuring food would become the first priority, rather than our ability to communicate. And if it happened, the State would end-up suffering the most, as it would definitively loose the means of controlling survivors.
Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add?
I agreed to this interview because it represented an opportunity, through your large network of subscribers, to correct some of the most common misconceptions regarding the Internet and the digital age. Indeed, I believe the central planners themselveswant us to distrust it, and I realize that is a controversial argument to make.
If some of your readers remain unconvinced, there is one last thing I’d like to say.
If we were to compare the Internet to past inventions, only two would fit the bill. That is, the printing press, and writing itself. Indeed, the Internet is best characterized as an innovation allowing a massive decrease in the cost of accessing ideas, as the word “idea” (or information) has become a synonym of “number”.
But the raw material used to build new ideas is old ideas. Therefore, by decreasing the cost of accessing old ideas, we decrease the cost of producing new ones.
Both of these past inventions have also been relied on by barbarians to advance their agendas; the written word and the book were used to deceive, lie, propagandize, terrorize, etc. And yet, both these inventions still had a tremendously positive net impact on humanity.
The reason is found in nature: if you increase the competition of cobblers, the quality of shoes increases. If you increase the competition of ideas, more truth emerges. A very popular experiment illustrates this well.
If you fill a transparent jar with hundreds of marbles, and ask one person to guess how many there are, he will most likely get it wrong. If you ask a hundred people, the average answer will be much closer to the truth. If you ask a million people, the average answer will be precise; indeed it asymptotically converges towards the correct amount.
The reason this is so is a matter for philosophers to discuss. The way I like to see it is error on the right cancels itself out with error on the left; until only the truth remains. In other words, truth is a fundamental substance of this universe, and if ideas are allowed to compete, only beauty can come out such competition. The barbarians have already lost, and it is only a matter of time before everyone realizes it.
Interview done by: Claudio Grass, Hünenberg See, Switzerland