How Cryptography Revolutionized Revolution

I am no fan of violent revolution, yet I have to admit that John Kennedy had a point when he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” The forces that drive revolutions push themselves to the surface one way or another. If they can find a peaceful path, they have a chance to transform the world slowly and beneficially. If they are repressed, violence occurs sooner or later.

Entrenched regimes, however, all but never give up power willingly. It makes no difference whether the regime is a monarchy, democracy, theocracy, republic or whatever. Once entrenched, power-holders fight to the last gasp. This is not a function of the system; it is a function of power itself, and the humans who become addicted to it. And so we’ve seen a long succession of violent revolutions.

The good news of our time – the transformative news of our time – is this: Cryptography displaces violence. However much cryptography we use, change will require that much less violence. And there is a very good reason for this: Cryptography is impervious to weapons.

Cryptography, after all, boils down to math, and you can’t put a bullet through a math problem. Well-applied cryptography, then, is immune to the usual applications of power. And so, whatever we cloak in cryptography can push through barriers erected by old, grasping regimes. 

And please consider the awesome power of cryptography. In a very common application, it is roughly 2 to the 100th power times harder to decrypt a message than it is to encrypt it, unless you have the key.

In other words, to blow through cryptography, you have to guess the correct answer among 1,267,650,600,228,229,401,496,703,205,376 choices. That’s 31 digits of power. This isn’t just theoretical; it’s the kind of encryption we’ve been using in everyday life for many years.

The universe, as Julian Assange noted, favors encryption.

Where Cryptography Is Already Displacing Violence

Please understand that without strong cryptography (for which you can thank the early cypherpunks), the world of 1984 would already be here. Surveillance is the crack cocaine of the powerful, and political systems have done little to restrain it. But encryption has.

Right now we can cloak all our communications in cryptography. Further, we can (using a variety of related techniques) make them anonymous. That blinds the regime to a great many things, leaving them unable to target and justify their violence.

The great fear related to this is reactionary: “Bad people will use it to destroy us!” But that dear reader, is simply fear porn. Here’s why:

We’ve had powerful encryption since about 1992, and since that time, violent crime has declined. More than that, the dreaded “terrorism” has not risen. And the one blinding terror event of our time – 9/11 – was accomplished, not with strong encryption, but with text messages.

And so the downside of cryptography is minuscule while the upside is nothing less than the progress of the human species. Easy choice.

Crypto involves far more than communication, of course, it also involves money. Bitcoin began as a nothing out of a dark corner in 2009, but has refused to die, no matter how much propaganda (and worse) has been thrown at it. 

Even if Bitcoin were undermined in some way, the concept of cryptography-based money would remain, and other models of digital cash are waiting to fill any gap. This genie is out of the bottle; even if somehow slowed, it won’t fit back inside: Far too many people know that it works.

As one small example, consider: Without Bitcoin, where would Wikileaks have been? Undoubtedly they would have resorted to a variety of funding methods, all less than pristine, which would have been strangled in one way or another. But by using Bitcoin, peaceful people were able to fund the peaceful Wikileaks by peaceful means.

The regime ultimately caged Assange, but Wikleaks and the Wikileaks concept stand. And please understand that their model is almost the only one still holding power to account.

Planet Crypto

Consider a world in which no one can force you to do anything thing you don’t want to do. Not shouldn’t force you, but can’t force you. Consider a world that is geared for the golden rule. A world that has no gearing for violence… that has no handles for power to grab.

That’s the world cryptography gives us. And however well and broadly we implement cryptography, that much of a golden-rule, forceless realm is open to us.


Paul Rosenberg