Paranoia as a design choice

A lot of people have been making a lot of noise about this post about bitcoin. Even before that, people were making noise about the bitcoin community being full of goldbugs. The thing is, bitcoin is a cryptocurrency whose primary design goal is paranoia, and all other factors are secondary. Nothing about the bitcoin design or the bitcoin community will make sense if you don’t recognize the intentional placement of paranoia in its design.

Bitcoin isn’t the only technological system built explicitly around paranoia. In the crypto and computer security communities, building systems around paranoia is normal, in the same way that it’s normal in a late-capitalist environment to build systems around profit maximization. SSH is designed around paranoia (and this is why you no longer can enable ‘cipher=none’ in SSH at compile time); the WWII-era ‘double-cross’ espionage structure that underlies cold-war spy thrillers is a social technology built around paranoia; the hospital policy surrounding disposal of drugs is based around paranoia.

Systems that are intended to be secure but are not designed around paranoia tend to become security theatre if they function at all — consider the HTTPS certificate system, the TSA, gun lock technology (and indeed much of regular lock technology), community policing, credit card and check based payment mechanisms, website password protection prior to widespread access to two-factor authentication, and highway toll stations. Security theatre is not entirely ineffective — after all, most people follow the rules most of the time and security theatre hints at the idea that the rules are important enough to be enforced — but it typically combines most of the inefficiencies of a truly secure system with most of the insecurities of a truly effective system.

When we’re talking about bitcoin, we’re talking about a conception of money wherein the government is the enemy. We’re also talking about a conception of money wherein banks and corporations are the enemy. We’re talking about a system where the assumption is that hours of clear time is a small price to pay for proof that double-spending is nearly impossible, and wherein the ideal community of users is a global network of wealthy individuals who never communicate except by exchanging money for goods or services and who have no friends or loyalties. Bitcoin is a currency designed for people who think of other people as potential enemies first.

There are circumstances where that view of the world is accurate.

This doesn’t really explain why large banks are investing in bitcoin, or why bitcoin startup companies exist. Even mining pools are too communal: the moment that the interactions of the bitcoin universe fail to consist solely of pristine blocks of pure value reeking of the scent of poorly-veiled animosity and apprehension, we are on the slippery slope to collusion-based attacks to debase the currency. Mining pools have gotten close to 51% before and have backed off out of the good in their hearts; however, whenever the good in people’s hearts matters, this represents a failure of any security model based around paranoia.

Of course, at least for the startups, we can look to the california ideology for why bitcoin was adopted by actual organizations. We can look to strange hybrids like ESR. The thing about the paranoid position is that it can be easily distracted from old threats by new threats; this is why libertarianism is a right-wing ideology now while it was a left-wing one fifty years ago. If you distrust the government because they are the one with all the guns and money, you’re right — they have both those things and they may or may not be on your side; but, if you support them wholeheartedly as soon as another party attacks, you’re gonna have a bad time. Bitcoin’s paranoia is against any kind of collaboration, but the bitcoin community’s mix of the generally paranoid and those paranoid only against the bugaboos of the moment (along with various collaborations, scams, and internal politics) have caused a mix of fracturing within the community and collusion with forces from without it. Bigotry is fractal, and as soon as the policy of paranoia in bitcoin became twisted, the community shattered.

This is a pretty common failure mode. Think of mole hunts in the CIA under James Jesus Angleton. Think of Jim Jones. Think of Ayn Rand’s last amphetamine-fueled years. A failure of appropriately applied paranoia cannot be remedied with an excess of poorly applied paranoia.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software.

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