Amir Taaki has big ideas of how cryptocurrency's anarchic roots could change society.
Amir Taaki is a busy guy. Between working on new Bitcoin technologies, the British-Iranian software developer finds time to churn out projects that could impact trade, communication, national security, transparency, and pretty much everything else, not to mention stir controversy.
Taaki doesn't see these as isolated projects, but as part of something bigger. “With the future we're heading towards, we need to have these tools that we can use to live,” he told me.
PayPub is a Bitcoin-powered app that financially incentivises people to leak documents, be they classified government secrets or corporate documents. DarkMarket is a prototype of an online marketplace similar to Silk Road that can't be shut down owing to its decentralised model. The layer underneath this, and the piece of technology that could have the most impact, is Dark Wallet, a browser plug-in that aims to make anonymous, secure Bitcoin transactions easy for anyone to carry out.
At the moment, Taaki and the Dark Wallet team—which also includes 3D-printed gun enthusiast turned Bitcoin evangelist Cody Wilson—are attempting to develop a ground layer to allow anyone in the world to use Bitcoin. But his hope ultimately is that people will be able to use the technology to form self-governing communities. I got in touch to find out more about Taaki's big picture.
It takes a couple of days to get hold of him. Primarily based in London, he hops from one continent to another, invited to collaborate on various projects or to enter programming competitions. I get a mobile number to ring while he's in Paris, where he says Mozilla are trying to get his Dark Wallet app onto a $25 phone they're developing. “That's massive because you now have anonymous Bitcoin on a [cheap] phone,” he said. “It gives them access to a global market.”
“Right now we're just trying to get the basic things there, the fundamentals, so that later we can have the platform that we can build all of these things we want to build on.”
Taaki started hacking as a teenager, when he would find exploits in classic video games such as Final Fantasy and Abe’s Oddyssee. He soon got into developing his own games, creating and manipulating the virtual worlds within them. This mentality of finding something wrong, engineering a solution, and creating something new is what continues to drive Taaki today.
Amir Taaki at a hackathon earlier this year. Image: Flickr/@JanMiranda
Now 26 years old, he works on projects that he hopes will, in his view, improve the physical world. “Right now we're just trying to get the basic things there, the fundamentals, so that later we can have the platform that we can build all of these things we want to build on,” he said.
Starting with the basics like Dark Wallet, he has grand ideas about how society could benefit from these tools. He gave the example of the Cooperativa Integral Catalana (CIC), which he described as a “start-up government” that wants to provide basic services to its citizens and manage resources in a more efficient, democratic way than the state.
The CIC supports the Dark Wallet project, and Taaki feels that with the correct tools, these kind of communities can become more autonomous. He hopes that his and others' technology “can enable people to work on a large scale without needing the courts, judges, police, bureaucrats, politicians and all the big buildings. We can do better; for the people, by the people.”
The key to using technology to govern, Taaki says, is the blockchain, a part of Bitcoin that is yet to be fully explored. As a way of transferring data in a transparent and secure fashion, it has the potential to impact voting, minimise corruption, and increase confidence between negotiating parties.
“You can use the tools to establish contracts between people,” Taaki explained. “If you have communities of 100 people, then people can know each other and trust each other. But once you get beyond that the trust starts to break down. That's why corporations make contracts through the legal law, but now we have a whole new class in mathematical law that we can use to do things.”
“For me the technology is a tool for people to be able use, it's not some like toy.”
Taaki's aversion to traditional governance was obvious when I asked him what he thought of those who suggest his work is dangerous. “I call them fascists,” he immediately replied.
He agreed that his political views are very similar to his Dark Wallet collaborator Cody Wilson's. “Cody Wilson thinks more about the drama kind of stuff, I dunno. I have lot more in my mind about constructing or creating things, or what's possible. That's only a minor thing,” he said. They share open-source principles: developing and releasing software for free, and allowing anyone else to take their work and build upon it. The point is always, in Taaki's words, “to think about the things not for short-term profit, but for long-term gain.”
“For me the technology is a tool for people to be able use, it's not some like toy,” he said. “You get a lot of these hackers who are mercenaries, working for the military. You also get a lot of these programmers who are wasting their skill building toys. You talk to them about it, and they say that 'people download my app and pay for it, therefore it's useful.' Don't delude yourself: You're actually just building toys for the iPad.”
Despite making the Forbes '30 Under 30' list and often receiving job offers, Taaki has no plans to cash in on his programming skills. He has a history of living in squats with other developers, and is now looking to set up “an open source research and development centre” to work on tools. From here, the ambition is to build “our own open source cities and build our own shanty towns.”
When I asked what he hoped to achieve with his various projects, he said, “I want to empower people to be able to solve problems that they need to solve to live.”