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Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias

Editor: Peter Ludlow
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001
Review Published: May 2003

 REVIEW 1: Atara Frenkel-Faran & Merav Katz

Utopian dreams and visions concerning general betterment and perfect social order have accompanied Western societies since the Classic era. Thomas More (Utopia, 1516) was the first to coin the word "utopia" as a pun on two Greek words (eutopia and outopia, meaning "good place" and "no place," respectively). Anarchist thought, sharing some similarities with utopian plans (notably, its attempt to transcend the contemporaneous political order) although less commonly discussed nowadays, has also populated the Western imagination. The first use of the word "anarchy" - from Greek, literally, absence of government or ruler - as an approbatory description of a positive philosophy, appears to have been by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (What is Property?, 1840) who described himself as an anarchist, believing that political organization based on authority should be replaced by social and economic organization based on voluntary contractual agreement.

In Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias, Peter Ludlow, an associate professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, offers a collection of writings that is the latest expression of these dreams, visions, and programs. In addition, he includes works that are to be seen as critical responses to these visionary plans. The result is a collection in which both anarchy and utopia play the leading roles. The whole gamut of texts – from the utopian and anarchist manifestos, to the critical responses to them, to the more sober discussions on law and jurisdiction – touch on (within the purview of political philosophy) many of the issues that are at the heart of the public debate surrounding the Internet and cyberspace over the last decade.

Ludlow provides a useful preface and an important introductory section, "New Foundations: On the Emergence of Sovereign Cyberstates and Their Governance Structures," where he puts the works in context. He expresses two overt intentions: 1. to "set up the problem in an interesting way, and then just leave the room (xv); and 2. "not to inspire new utopias or even deeper thought about possible governance structures" (xx).

He expresses his overt intentions to "set up the problem in an interesting way, and then just leave the room (xv) . . . and not to inspire new utopias or even deeper thought about possible governance structures" (xx). He successfully accomplishing these goals.

Together with Ludlow’s previous collection, High Noon on the Electronic Frontier (MIT Press, 1996), a book that addressed such issues as property rights, privacy, community, and identity, Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias provides an important road map to historians, sociologists, and political scientists who study the vivid debates surrounding the Internet realm. Referring to the "post-Derridian word salad currently popular in certain academic circles" (xvi), Ludlow deliberately frees the volume from the shackles of academic jargon. The result – a cyber-underground mix of classic rants with post-millennial realism – is an easy read and an excellent basis of discussion for the undergraduate who might be delving into politics, philosophy, media, law, sociology, or computer science.

The book is organized into five sections. The first section, "The Sovereignty of Cyberspace?" discusses the issue of the sovereignty of the cyberspace beginning with Barlow’s 1996 "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace." Critical responses by David Brin, David S. Bennahum, and Richard Barbrook follow. The second section, "Crypto Anarchy," deals with the possibility of crypto anarchy – literally, "carving out space for activities that lie outside of the purview of nation states and other traditional powers" (xviii). "The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto" and "A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto" by Timothy C. May and Eric Hughes, respectively, are re-printed here as well. This section encapsulates an important debate about the extent of human freedom, the nature of society, and the powers and rights that devolve from governments to citizens. The issue seems even more relevant today given the probable role played by encrypted satellite communications in the planning of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the necessity to consider future policy.

There are some overlaps in the issues discussed in Sections III, "How VR is Claiming Jurisdiction from RL," and Section IV, "The Emergence of Law and Governance Structures in Cyberspace," concerning questions of legal jurisdiction raised by the so-called new borderless world and virtual space. An editorial suggestion would be to unify the two of them into a single section.

The fourth section looks at specific experimental governance structures evolved by online communities (Jennifer Mnookin, Charles J. Stivale, and David R. Johnson). Stivale’s remark regarding these experiments is rephrased in the French proverb "plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose," suggesting that claims for transformation of political structures through cyberspace have not found yet practical models through which they might effectively be realized (317).

Whereas the first section opens with Barlow’s manifesto and is followed by three critical responses, the fifth section, "Utopia, Dystopia, and Pirate Utopias," commences with critical responses to the whole utopian discourse surrounding the Internet and cyberspace (Karrie Jacobs, Jedediah S. Purdy, Barbrook & Andy Cameron, and Mark Dery) and ends with Hakim Bey’s (a.k.a. Peter Lamborn Wilson) essay "The Temporary Autonomous Zone" (TAZ). Thus, the Alpha and the Omega (first and last texts) set Ludlow’s optimist point of view as one that favors utopian possibilities. He aspires to the kinds of utopias that "may be community-based, experimental, dynamic . . . and perhaps short-lived. They may be places carved out of cyberspace and protected by encryption technology, and they may nonetheless be squashed out of existence by government action or by economic reality" (21). This collection includes only two works that are in the spirit of former utopias (by Barlow and Bey). These represent but a part of the entangled cyberutopian visions that aspire to include every aspect of our personal, national and global lives. Generally speaking the complicated utopian discourse surrounding the Internet and cyberspace lacks coherence, and as its spokesmen are numerous and diverse, parts of it conflict with others.

As for ‘anarchy,’ while the word is tossed around throughout the entire collection, only the last two essays (by Bey and Noam Chomsky) offer general conceptual observations, but they too are not without problems. Bey's story of the anarchic "pirate utopias" is fascinating, but basically poetic. Rather than a political dogma, Bey doesn’t intend the TAZ to be taken as more than an essay (an "attempt"). He deliberately refrains from defining it and only circles around the subject. TAZs are "like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, time and imagination) and then dissolve [themselves] to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it" (404). On the other hand, in an interview first appearing in 1996, Chomsky presents a lucid, self-deprecating account of the potential uses of anarchism, but alas, without ever mentioning the Internet.

According to Ludlow, anarchy becomes a topic of interest in cyberspace simply because with the widespread availability of various technologies it now appears that certain anarchist ideals may be possible, if not inevitable. Net technologies may undermine the concentrations of power (such as nation states and legal institutions), thus allowing us to take on substantially more individual responsibility (xvii, 8). Chomsky’s definition of anarchism is a thesis that hierarchical authority must be justified and that when institutions of authority cannot be justified, they should be dismantled (435-436). In accordance with Chomsky’s definition of anarchy, as synonymous with ‘libertarian socialism’ (438), Brin and Purdy separately wish to emphasize that in the West, government presently threaten to fence off vast realms of cyberspace less than corporate mega-commercial interests (33, 357).

As quoted by Chomsky from an anarchist sympathizer a century ago, "anarchism has a broad back" and "endures anything" (438). This may seem to be the only explanation regarding the liberty of some to add ‘anarcho’ to ‘capitalism’ forgetting that anarchism holds that liberal postulates are realizable only on the basis of the abolition of economic monopolies and the coercive institutions of political power, because while equality is possible without liberty, there can be no liberty without social and economic equality. Contrasting Michael Bakunin’s claim that "liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice," the ‘Californian ideology,’ widely discussed in the collection, is a neo-liberal West Coast attempt to "reconcile the anarchism of the New Left with the entrepreneurial zeal of the New Right" (50). According to Barbrook & Cameron, as peculiar as it may sound, this contradictory mix of technological determinism and libertarian individualism is becoming (according to some) the hybrid orthodoxy of the information age (366).

According to Post, the global network proves relatively resistant to centralized control (197). Together with Johnson, Post claims that nation states will find it increasingly difficult to enforce their taxation laws. An independent legal jurisdiction is emerging for cyberspace and undermines the feasibility and legitimacy of applying laws based on geographical boundaries, as the volume of electronic communications crossing territorial boundaries is just too great in relation to the resources available to government authorities to permit meaningful control (150). With all that in mind, Newman concludes that state and local governments are rapidly becoming, as the title reads, "road kill on the information superhighway."

Anarchy as a concept has been tainted by other associations such as lawlessness, disorder, and chaos. Similar accusations have been voiced regarding the Net. The two also seem to share common concerns - such as the problem of reconciling social harmony with complete individual freedom - a recurrent problem in anarchist thought and in Internet research alike. Regardless of the conclusions presented by different writers, Ludlow rightly asserts that if the "birth of the Internet and the emergence of crypto anarchy at the dawn of a new millennium in the West bring us utopian visions, perhaps that is all for the best, even if those visions never come to fruition" (xix). It is an opportunity to sit back and reflect on our existing political structures and orders, laws, and the way we live as human beings.

Ludlow recalls wondering after the publication of his first book: "Would they understand that the essays were there to initiate discussion and have some fun rather than give the final word about the nature of cyberspace?" (xv). After completing Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias, there seem to be even more unanswered questions. That can be added to provocative ‘answers’ such as Barbrook & Cameron's response to the query "will the advent of hypermedia realize the utopias of either the New Left or the New Right?", responding that "as a hybrid faith, the Californian Ideology happily answers this conundrum by believing in both visions at the same time – and by not criticizing either of them" (368). This is none other than a perfect answer to Ludlow’s question.

It is true that most of the works in this collection were published earlier, the majority during the mid-1990s. Rather than being a problem, this may be seen as an opportunity for retrospective criticism, such as the one expressed by Denning, who claims in her Afterword, "Since I revised that article . . . the cryptographic landscape has changed significantly. Besides being woefully out-of-date, the article is overly alarmist" (103).

A possible criticism of the collection is that it lacks contemporary academic essays dealing with realistic assessments of actual political and legal possibilities made realizable by the Net. Rather than dealing with a past that will never come back (Internet romanticism) or a future that will never happen (cyber utopia) the book should have adopted the methodology of studying a foreign language - starting with the present simple. Nowadays, even the most proclaimed manifesto writers seem to acknowledge the fact that their utopias are dreams of the past. On the other hand, Net anarchists seem to be disillusioned wishful thinkers dealing with realistic prospects.

One should not conclude that we are better off without such visionary writings. On the contrary, we are calling for an omission of standardized up-to-date academic essays. Utopian visions have accompanied Western societies for so many centuries, and are much needed as a (metaphorical) place where we can express our deepest desires. According to Oscar Wilde in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, "a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing."

Let us conclude with a suggestion in the spirit of the collection. Unsurprisingly, many of the book's essays can be found online. If you can’t make up your mind whether or not to purchase it or simply wish to have some cyber-fun, we would say: go look for it on the Internet.

Atara Frenkel-Faran & Merav Katz:
Atara Frenkel-Faran (asifsono@hotmail.com) and Merav Katz (merav_kats@hotmail.com) are doctoral students in Bar-Ilan University, Israel, in the Political Studies Department – Public Communications Programme and at the graduate program for the History and Philosophy of Science, respectively, where they analyze anarchistic aspects of the Internet (Atara) and technological utopianism (Merav) to better understand cyber-anarchy and Internet-utopias.  

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