Image via Wikimedia Commons
“I want to develop an ethics for Bitcoin,” Cody Wilson told a rapt crowd in London. “I feel like Bitcoin has no strong ethicist.”
You probably know Wilson as the guy who 3D prints guns, and makes them free for anyone to download. With his latest venture, a virtual currency wallet called Dark Wallet, he’s bringing his libertarian philosophy to Bitcoin. It's a browser plug-in that ostensibly lets you store, receive, and send bitcoins securely and anonymously—and of course, it's open source. After more than a month, the project has yet to reach its IndieGogo crowdfunding goal of $50,000 in standard donations. Nonetheless, it earned Wilson an invitation to London to speak at the 2013 Bitcoin Expo, which saw hundreds of miners, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts descend on two Shoreditch venues to discuss the present and future of the cryptocurrency.
The 25-year-old’s arrival in the UK made quite a splash, with rumours flying around that he was detained by the Home Office on entry (not true, he confirmed), and British newspaper The Independent running the headline, “Cody Wilson created a gun that can be downloaded and built with a 3D printer—is he too dangerous for Britain?” Wilson certainly doesn’t shy away from ruffling a few feathers in the process of making his views known, and he's now appointed himself as something of a spokesman for the cryptocurrency cause.
Taking the stage in well-shined boots, a denim jacket, and, bizarrely, one black glove (not intentional, he told me later—he just accidentally took only one off), Wilson commanded a quiet that was notably absent throughout the rest of the conference, which generally found speakers fighting against a rather shambolic background of discussion, debate, and Bitcoin exchanges.
After appealing to the audience to contribute to the campaign to raise defence funds for alleged Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht—“This guy is like the fucking genius and pinnacle of all things Bitcoin and libertarian”—he explained that Dark Wallet was fighting back against “what Bitcoin has been allowed to become.”
Wilson argued that Bitcoin is increasingly becoming a plaything of venture capitalists and a re-creation of the state in miniature and came out against the “twenty-somethings in suits” who pander to VC money with their Bitcoin startups, and in doing so reduce Bitcoin to little more than a solution for merchants and consumers. (It should be noted that many such suited twenty-somethings were taking to the same stage that day to pitch those very solutions.) Their main problems, he said with a snicker, are along the lines of, “How do we decrease transaction costs?” or, “How do we add more accounts?”
To Wilson, as to many Satoshi devotees, Bitcoin is so much more than that; it has the potential to be “a means of forbidding and disclosing the state.” Seeing Bitcoin as just a payment solution, he argued, turns it into “a new and better lubrication of our domination. It’s the new KY, man.”
After the talk, I sat down with Wilson to talk more about his vision for Bitcoin, and how it fits in with his views as a self-proclaimed crypto-anarchist. He explained that he first came across the cryptocurrency around 2009 or 2010 while studying economics at college, but didn’t realise how well it fit in with his politics until a while later. “When we started Defense Distributed in 2012, Indiegogo kicked us off and I started worrying that Paypal might kick us off. I just took a page out of Wikileaks and started accepting Bitcoin,” he said. He went on to meet well-known Bitcoin developer Amir Taaki at a 2012 Bitcoin conference, and they started developing the idea of Dark Wallet together.
Bitcoin is many things to many people; it’s a currency, a commodity, a political statement. The latter holds most value for Wilson, who sees it as part of a broader libertarian project. I asked him how Bitcoin related to guns and vice versa, given his interest in both.
“They’re both related to conditions of power; they’re conditions of each other. Power comes from weapons. Power comes from wealth and privilege and money; all three seem incestuously interrelated,” he said. “They both come from a libertarian use of the internet as a means of resistance.”
But for Bitcoin to retain this libertarian appeal, it’s important that it preserves its original features of privacy and decentralization, and resists attempts at regulation. “It has these principles that are just totally antithetical to the modern paradigm of monetarism and wealth management and navigation of economics based by these superpowers,” Wilson said. “It’s just antithetical to all these things; it maintains a space for privacy. In the end, no one fucking issues it; it’s resistant to political caprice.”
Safeguarding these qualities, then, is the main impetus behind Dark Wallet, which Wilson claims has already obtained over double its $50,000 goal when Bitcoin donations are included in the count. The tool is meant to represent a broader Bitcoin ethos, and Wilson said that other pro-privacy projects would be able to get a “Dark Wallet certification”—a kind of seal of approval from the libertarian Bitcoin faction. The video for the campaign, he explained, sums up what it stands for: “I thought it was necessary first to have a cultural moment where we explicate, look, we think that Bitcoin can be this and should be this,” he said. The original Bitcoin ethos as something radical and revolutionary was lost, he felt, in the mainstream narrative—“Like the anarchists had lost control, and it was just the money people and the mature people who were finally starting to develop it.”
As for the actual Dark Wallet client, he admitted it wasn’t all that different from other Bitcoin services, borrowing bits and pieces from Electrum, Hive, and Obelisk. “It’s an intelligent cannibalisation of a lot of things already in the space, but at the same time its direct intentionality and PR is so strong and so therefore we’ve packaged it differently,” he said. “Our impetus is you the user, and your privacy, and the politicisation of Bitcoin forever into eternity. That’s the real difference.”
Of course, Wilson has interests other than the purely political when it comes to Bitcoin—he’s got some himself. He came close to telling me how many, but shied away on the basis that people might be angry at him for asking for donations to the Dark Wallet campaign if they knew how much was in his stash. He did say, however, that he bought a lot about a year ago, but had to spend more than he would have liked over the summer when regular income was slow. He doesn’t intend on letting go of the others any time soon. “I’ll hold on to them, what do you think?” he laughed. “It doesn’t seem to me that things are slowing down right now.”
Before he left to speak to more admirers and pose for photos (I guess the Bitcoin crowd doesn't have many celebrities), I asked about those recent press allegations: Is he dangerous? "Nah not really," he said, rather bashfully. "Come on, I’m a puppy dog."