AS BITCOIN TURNS 10, a new book aims to chronicle the digital currency's ideological origins. "The technology alone is not enough," Finn Brunton writes in Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency. "Even with good math, scientific discoveries, the free circulation of ideas, reliable hardware and running code, you need a desire, a vision, a dissatisfaction, a fantasy, a story." The source of that story was a movement called the cypherpunks, which started to coalesce in the late 1980s. In turn, the cypherpunks did not appear suigeneris but were the culmination of decades--centuries, really--of broadly libertarian thought and activism.
Brunton, who teaches in New York University's media department, first offers an overview of the history of monetary authentication, then traces cryptocurrencies' roots to several offbeat subcultures. He finds precursors ranging from the Great Depression-era group Technocracy Inc. to the Extropians, a band of trailblazing transhumanists and accelerationists that flared up in the '80s. (The Extropians' plans included cryonic timeouts: If their preferred future didn't come fast enough, they planned to freeze themselves and wake up later.) Another chapter examines gold bugs and devotees of Austrian economics, who took the 2008 recession as a vindication of their contempt for central banking. Digital Cash even voyages into the niche waters of seasteading, an old idea that has garnered new interest since the early 2000s.
Brunton argues that "early Bitcoin itself was understood as a Utopian, speculative currency in the context of libertarian dreams: digital cash built for verifiably inflation-proof production, in anticipation of a redemptive economic emergency." Cryptocurrencies appeal to fringe optimists and fringe pessimists alike, with tenets encompassing both monetary romanticism and economic eschatology.
Brunton argues that these subcultures' clustered world-views laid the groundwork for Satoshi Nakamoto's synthesis of cryptography and Austrian economics--that is, for bitcoin. This observation is at once banal and profound.
On the banal side: Of course people's intellectual fascinations lead them to corresponding social milieus. And when you're dealing with people who have been striving for years to extricate money from state control, of course those social milieus are often on the fringes. "You can't really work in cryptocurrency without an...