Dustin Breitling: Could you reflect on your personal trajectory? You have been steeped in digital art, Token Engineering, and DarkFi. What were some formative moments in propelling you along your journey? Further, you draw upon a myriad of thinkers who arguably form a constellation and are in dialogue with concepts such as autonomy, automation, Artificial Intelligence, encryption, Xenofeminism and Patchwork. Additionally, can you reflect upon the influence of thinkers like Amy Ireland, Nick Land, CCRU, Sadie Plant, and Anna Greenspan?
Rachel-Rose O’Leary: I started studying art because I thought art was essentially something pure, outside the realm of profit-seeking and other kinds of activities. I ended up being very disappointed, but thankfully I got into philosophy when I was in art college and I started reading a lot of philosophy books. I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on Nietzsche. It was called ‘The Death of Art and the Birth of Tragedy: Apollo and Dionysus in late Modern and Contemporary Art’. So I was occupied with the limits of art-making very early on.
As an artist I worked in the field of conceptual art and sculpture. This was sculpture in an expanded sense because I was treating language and even thoughts as a kind of material that you could operate and shape. I became concerned with what words do you use to describe sculptural things? I was also interested in epistemological gaps and was generally sceptical of human claims to knowledge. Then when I was doing work as an artist, I encountered a philosophical term that I didn’t know the meaning of until much later, which was this idea of Correlationism. Correlationism is a major subject of philosophy essentially since Kant and was a point of departure for many contemporary philosophies, especially in the domain of speculative realism.
What Correlationism says is there’s the human faculties of perception, and then there is the outside knowledge that exceeds these human faculties. Before I knew this term, I think I was already encountering it through sculpture and this investigation of architectures and sculptures of language and thought. Essentially, what kind of architectures are we inhabiting through these kinds of fake worlds we have constructed. Also, that was about like 2015, and it corresponded to me getting into Bitcoin around that time. And that was largely because I was very inspired by the person who introduced me both to Bitcoin and the concept of Correlationism, which was Paul Dylan-Ennis, a philosopher and still a good friend of mine.
A later work I did with some friends was to create weaponized tech wearables we called Malware. During this time I was interested in the idea of self-defence because I was reading Freud and came across this notion of the death drive. And there’s a passage in Freud where he describes the ramification of cell walls being bound up with the death drive. He talks about how the differentiation of the cell is somehow integral to what makes the cell, where the formation of cell walls is essential to the cell’s identity. He says there’s a residue of the outside which is kind of left within the cell. And that’s what manifests as the death drive, and he uses these biological metaphors to explain this concept of the death drive.
I found this idea of cell ramification and differentiation as defensive mechanisms fascinating. I wanted to extend this notion to self-defence to do something like Cody Wilson had done with “The Liberator”. I was also in a European context where guns are illegal, but we can have other kinds of weapons. So I really liked the idea of a USB weapon, which is what Malware was, because it’s something indetectable, it’s kind of hiding in plain sight. And this was about 2016, and I still hadn’t learned programming. So this attempt to build a USB weapon was very limited and could have been much more sophisticated. And so we did that by just putting a DBAN on the USB, so it’s basically a way to nuke a hard drive. And then we marketed these USBs as something like weapons that you could like wear and take with you as a defensive means.
My principal reason for learning programming ran in parallel to the philosophy that I was reading at the time. After getting interested in speculative realism, I encountered these philosophies like Nick Land, Amy Ireland, Anna Greenspan, the CCRU, and Xenofeminism. It was the book by Sadie Plant called Zeros and Ones, which is a fantastic work of what they call cyber-feminism. She basically uncovers this conspiracy between women and machines, where she says that women and machines are in a dark alliance to overthrow the patriarchy, which I thought was just amazing. At some point, I think Lucca Fraser, who is one of the members of the Laboria Cuboniks collective asserted that the conclusion of Xenofeminism is to learn programming. Ultimately, the key takeaway of Xenofeminism for me and the essence of cyberfeminism was tied into the mandate to learn programming.
Further, I wrote my master’s thesis on accelerationism, which was a strange thesis, it was called Inhumanism: an erotica, where I examined Nick Land and Marquis de Sade. I found a common pattern, which was this desire or this tendency to dissolve the representational characteristics of language, and the human realm of secondary nature in order to reveal these more elementary or primordial things such as numbers beneath them. Nick Land would write about fusing with the source of the signal and aligning natural languages onto number, which dovetailed with thinkers of Correlationism, and the notion of the outside. There is also Deleuze’s reading of Sadism, in his book on masochism, where he talks about the kind of inhuman architectures of sadism as being this kind of sadistic spreadsheet, where humans and bodies are transposed onto geometry, and they become like geometric or algebraic structures, and they’re dehumanised or inhumanised in this way. So, I was very interested in this notion and argued in this thesis that there was a similar dynamic between natural languages and programming.
With respect to Accelerationism, I think we see there are a lot of different political aspects or nuances. Back in the 90s, the CCRU had a variety of thinkers with different political trajectories. And then as time played out, 10-20 years later, we can see that they forked off into different aspects of the political spectrum. But early CCRU was very mixed. I think there was a tendency towards extremes in general, it wasn’t necessarily left or right wing. But we do see in the more contemporary thinkers of Accelerationism that they talk about a split between left-wing Accelerationism, which is epitomised by the likes of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams which is very focused on automation, and then right-wing Accelerationism, which is more associated with Land. And I think it is essential to distinguish between those two strands but for me, I always felt that there was a confusion. I felt that Landian accelerationism could be understood better through a temporal dimension or as a theory of time. And then the another kind of accelerationism, I think of it as a spatial accelerationism, a geographical accelerationism. My critique was that it’s about establishing a globalised vision of a single world order which is brought together by machines. And I was always more interested in the Landian and Patchwork vision which has been explored by Amy Ireland and advocates disintegration and dissolution and the break-up of the global political order. I think both forms of accelerationism have the potential or the tendency to be radically anti-state and anti-hegemonic but in general I found Landian accelerationism to be more interested in the establishment of patchwork, or smaller political forms which are conducive to a higher degree of autonomy and freedom.
I migrated out of the art field due to disillusionment with the Art World, essentially discerning how it was an expression of classist dynamics populated by middle or upper-class people attending exhibitions and I wanted to break away from that. From reading Nick Land, I became convinced we had to accelerate the process and believed in investing our effort behind an accelerationist vector, which was Bitcoin. I firmly believed we had to put all of our energy behind Bitcoin and we should do it through writing articles on the internet because writing articles and putting them online has this amazing, immense, unpredictable kind of networked effect. And so I went to CoinDesk. But then, when I was at CoinDesk I began to build a practical understanding of crypto and what is it comprised of and how does it work, and that led me to believe that technology is fundamentally misunderstood by philosophers.
In particular, there are some things about technology that are very obvious when you’re dealing with technology as a programmer, or even just very practically, as a user or a researcher. So I felt there was some ways in which thinkers like Land, and other thinkers of the philosophy of technology were misled. And so one of the things, the idea that became obvious, was actually this question of agency. So the idea that technology is something pure and immutable, and it’s something essential and aligned with the outside. This crumbles when you are face to face with the kind of realpolitik of how technology is created. Firstly, it’s done and created in such a way that it’s infused with the politics and the mindset of its creators. And then there’s also the way it plays out, where the lifecycle of software is full of these very human stories.
A concrete example would be the around the time I was working at CoinDesk, there was the DAO hack, which was the first major hack on Ethereum. The software philosophy of Ethereum in those early days was very influenced by the philosophy of Nick Szabo. There is a commonality with Land where both Land and Szabo have this idea that software is something pure and incorruptible. This philosophy of software was very influential upon the original incarnation of the DAO, where they had all this language about the incorruptibility of code and algorithmic disinterest. This language can also be found in the Ethereum Yellow Paper, which was written by Gavin Wood, where I think Szabo also influenced Wood.
Nonetheless, the hilarious irony was that the DAO was hacked and drained of all its money. Then there was a big war between these two schools, the former were followers of that Szabo philosophy of pure, incorruptible code, they formed Ethereum Classic. The ones who are a bit more liberal stayed with Ethereum. The kind of crux of the debate mutated into whether it was okay to reverse the truth of the blockchain. So that was the point where I think Paul Dylan-Ennis analysed and he described it really well, as the two kind of most important moments in the history of crypto for Bitcoin and Ethereum. Respectively, these two watershed moments were the DAO hack for ETH and the scaling debate for Bitcoin because they both demonstrate the dominance of social agency over these technological phenomena. And being made aware of this, I began to question the narrative that code was something pure and external and something that we couldn’t control. This is also what eventually led me to engage with thinkers like Öcalan and Mumford. These are philosophies of technology in which agency has a much higher role.
DB: Your recent video has laid down the tenets of Lunarpunk where fundamentally you differentiate Lunarpunk from the more transparent nature of the crypto space especially bound up with the socio-political imaginary of Solarpunk. To some extent, Lunarpunk can be understood as the antithesis of Solarpunk where you espouse operating within the opaque habitat of the Dark Forest as well as harnessing zk-SNARKs. Also, one of the fundamental points that underwrites Dark-Fi/Lunarpunk orbits around the concept of ‘antifragility’. This echoes Nassim Taleb where you are harvesting from convexity or to be more specific in respect to the cryptospace, the anticipated crackdown as well as its recuperation i.e. Central Bank Digital Currencies, Black Rock teaming up with CoinBase, the sanctioning of Tornado Cash.
Lunarpunks see anonymity as a kind of asymmetric warfare against the monopoly of surveillance. It’s similar to a form of guerrilla warfare because if you have a guerrilla insurgency, and the state doesn’t like it, it will use all of its means to suppress that insurgency. But by doing so it unintentionally ends up increasing the ranks of the insurgents. So there’s a weird kind of death spiral where the more resources the state employs into trying to stop the insurgency, the further they fall into this spiral. Now we’ve seen that when Anonymity software is made illegal, the users don’t disappear, they actually become more radicalised. So that’s a really interesting aspect of the Tornado Cash community. You can checkout the Telegram group, there’s a lot of the people there making using copies of the Tornado Cash GitHub, and sharing information like how to access Tornado Cash and how to use censorship-resistant platforms. So you can see it has had the adverse effect, where the surveillance wants to actually destroy it, but oddly, they’re handing over more power and more reason for it to exist.
LunarPunk is also underpinned by the notion of cultivating dark spaces outside the reach of the state, like the dark forest that you mentioned. This is where Lunarpunk is externally oriented towards an Outside beyond the state. This is a notion of an outside that is something extraterrestrial or Xeno but combined with the ideas of Öcalan, who basically says society has been imprisoned and captured by the state, that the state has imprisoned society and has robbed its moral and ethical framework. Thus, Lunarpunk wants to decouple from the state. It’s worth nothing that Öcalan’s revolutionary philosophy is premised on restoring the moral political fabric of society. Therefore, the claim of Lunarpunk is that it’s only by differentiating ourselves from the state and surveillance through the process of Anonymity and you can establish these new moral political societies, which we call the dark forest. Our use of this term speaks to the fact that the crypto space functions like a transparent desert more than a forest where the users attempt to hide from the danger of the state.
DB: We can continue on the thread of anonymity where one of the key pillars of technology that you deploy is zk-SNARKs, already playing a prominent role within Zcash and I believe with Monero, as well as the Mina Protocol. Could you walk us through zk-SNARKs? I’ve seen some of the tentative definitions, where there are two parties interacting such as a ‘prover’ and ‘verifier’ and a secret key that is linked to specific information, yet you can only reveal specific facts pertaining to this information without its full disclosure. Moreover, an example I’ve heard is something along the lines of using Where’s Waldo i.e. you have a book, or a page in a book that’s populated by all these Waldos. Let’s say, I know the information as to where Waldo is, and I will have a piece of paper, and then I cut a hole in that piece of paper, and then I’ll place it over the Waldo. I didn’t reveal the information as to ‘how’ I found where Waldo was, but I did prove to you that’s where Waldo is located on the page. Otherwise, the other necessity to use zk-SNARKs is undergirded by the need to hide transaction details. Perhaps you could elaborate a bit more upon zk-SNARKs? And also how does your project employing zk-SNARKs already synergize with existing crypto infrastructure? And perhaps, how does it differ?
RROL: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, I think you did actually really good job of explaining the high level nature of ZK- SNARKs just now. So I would say the way to describe ZK-SNARKs in the most kind of abstract way is that it is a way to trustlessly and anonymously enforce relations between values. And so I’ll give an example of a ZK smart contract that I made, that I wrote last week to demonstrate to some other developers an aspect about our current smart contract architecture. It was just a test contract to demonstrate some architectural decisions that we’d taken. And what that contract was, it had two values, A and B. The contract basically added A and B together to make C, and so proved that A plus B equals C without revealing the numbers A, B, or C. Thus, you’ve proved this relationship between values equals C, when none of the values involved are known. So basically what that means from a programming perspective is that you can effectively do anonymous engineering. So that means a fundamentally new type of engineering, in that it’s engineering based off of hidden information. Whereas usually especially when it comes to the blockchain paradigm the variables in our programs are always known. And we calculate other variables or functionalities based off the fact that these variables are known. So a big example of this is AMM(Automated Market Makers). So an AMM such as UniSwap, calculates the price that you should pay for a trade according to the quantities of coins that are held in the pool. This is done according to an equation, which is set by a smart contract, the popular one is (x*y = k) where K is a constant. And so this is basically a decentralised Oracle, in a way, it’s a way to price assets, that doesn’t rely on a price index by a centralised exchange.
Nonetheless, it requires us to know everything about the quantities of what assets are in the pool, and the price that they are at. Basically it requires that the state, which is the global data at a particular point in time, is required to be public. Whereas in anonymous engineering we make decisions based upon hidden variables. That means that as engineers, we don’t always know what those values are. The really nice thing is that you have to evolve this new kind of engineering based off hidden information. But you also have the option to reveal values when you absolutely must do so. For example, if we had something like an anonymous DAO, we might decide to reveal how much was in our treasury. For any number of reasons, we might want to reveal that information. However, we decide whether or not it makes sense to reveal it. And it’s like an extreme case, it’s an unusual case, if we choose to make that information public. This is the opposite to the paradigm of blockchains which is that everything is public and if you want to hide something it’s incredibly difficult to do so. So in DarkFi this paradigm is reversed. So we’re kind of correcting, or what I see as correcting, the priorities of blockchains when it comes to the sharing of information.
Now, we’re using Halo2, which is a ZK algorithm developed by the Z-Cash team. And we’re using that with a virtual machine and an assembly language built by one of our programmers. We create these ZK proofs or ZK smart contracts that enforce the relations between values and the order of your program. And they make it so that you are committed to the values that you’ve described in the proof, in a way that’s completely trustless. It’s determined by math, anonymous, quite restricted and enforces the order of your programme and it enforces the relationships between values. And that’s your proof. And we have an intermediate language, it’s a very simple, low-level language, for creating proofs that we feed into our VM. Basically, we compile the proof into machine code using the VM and then we load that proof in Rust. The final step as we use this not fully implemented, but we will use WASM as the way to execute those contracts. Whereas the ZK stuff was done at the wallet level.
So yeah, it’s a very different way of thinking about software and it leads to the creation of novel kinds of applications. So in the same way that the AMM emerged as a new kind of application, under the constraint of how do we build essentially decentralised peer-to-peer analogues to centralised financial services? Like an order book. How do we do that? In the same way we have the similar challenge that’s occurring to us in anonymous engineering where we’re forced to create new applications, because we’re dealing with this new design space of of engineering with hidden information.
DB: Can you provide us an assessment where Dark-Fi and DAOs intersect? In your DarkFi manifesto, DAOs are becoming one of your primary focuses, what are your thoughts concerning the potentials and possibly remaining issues of DAOs as vehicles of social design and governance?
RROL: DAOs are the first major use case for DarkFi. This is in line with the kind of vision of Öcalan of emergent moral political societies. The issue is DAOs today have this strongly democratic energy, but they’re operating completely transparently. And many of them, I would say, have the naivety of thinking that their transparency is their best feature. I think that in some cases, you can choose to make things transparent. And you can do it in a way which is trustless. You can say, definitively, this is our treasury. However, I don’t think that should be the default for all DAOs, because it just leads to persecution, as we’ve seen in the case of Tornado Cash. None of them have anonymity to protect themselves. I think if DAOs really want to do something radical to bring this to the next stage and not just be subsumed by the global order, they must be anonymous.
Also, there are a lot of problems with having transparent voting. Like everyone agrees, even non-ideological DAOs, that having the votes known in advance changes the outcome of the vote. What you eventually see these kinds of Shelling Points emerging very early on, where everyone sees, oh, looks like that proposal is going to win. All votes converge on a single proposal, a kind of cascade of unconscious behaviour where people converge and mimic each other. And so what you’re seeing is that it’s actually coming closer to a representative democracy. And there’s a lot of delegation, which tends towards disempowerment, a diminishing of the emancipatory potential of the user.
DB: Can you speak about the other members that are spearheading Dark-Fi? Amir Taaki who has been quite a prominent figure within the Bitcoin space as well as the creator of Dark Wallet. He is also notable for going to Rojava and serving in the YPG military. And then you also have Ivan Jelincic, who has been a long veteran in the free and open source movement. Can you talk about some of the kind of pivotal discussions and debates, your overlapping trajectories that became critical in shaping the architecture of Dark-Fi?
RROL: I’ll just say that we have developers with some of the best technical talent in the whole of crypto. They’re also philosophically driven and it’s a very potent combination. Amir is an excellent developer, and I would strongly suggest to look at Libbitcoin, which was the Bitcoin implementation that he wrote in C++ where he basically said let’s write an implementation of Bitcoin in a highly efficient manner. Ivan has a background in an amazing community of software developers called “suckless” which are the most up there in terms of the best followers of the traditional Unix philosophy. Everything we do as programmers is oriented towards writing software that other programmers can use. And so that’s why we have this preference towards simplicity, and ease of comprehension, rather than these types of programming which are harder to understand and are more complex and more error-prone.
There’s a very strong philosophical undercurrent informing the software trajectory of Dark Fi. You’ll see this in our choice of software licence, which is AGPL, the most radical type of free software license. Essentially, if you want to use the software, you can, but it must be a licenced free software. It’s one of the most constrained but also the most ideological licenses that’s insistent on user empowerment. I feel very indebted to these programmers I work with. I feel so privileged to have been able to work under these masters of programming and to learn from them, you know, as mentors. If it wasn’t for their support and teaching, there’s no way that I could be where I am today.
Everyone on our team is deeply grounded and strongly ideological. And you mentioned Amir left a very promising career and went to Syria, because he felt compelled to do so because he has ideological principles. And I’m very happy that he did, because a lot of those big developers of that time have since left their roots, maybe they started off as being advocates of privacy. Now they’re all defending transparency, and they’re congratulating states for cracking down on crypto. And as you mentioned with Amir there was an extent to which he was pushed out for being too radical, which just kind of points to the overall culture of the Bitcoin core development. And it’s also worth mentioning that, you know, he put a lot of effort into Libbitcoin, which is a more efficient implementation of Bitcoin, but Bitcoin has this propaganda where there can only be one implementation of Bitcoin and multiple implementations breaks consensus. So this is a kind of a weird monotheistic notion.
DB: Perhaps you could also highlight how the work of Abdullah Öcalan has been instrumental in shaping your work and has written manifestos such as ‘Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization’ and his political philosophy ‘Democratic Confederalism’, how does his work also underpin Dark-Fi? Further, can speak about your experiences in Rojava?
RROL: He arises from where Kurdish identity is seen as an existential threat to Turkey’s nationhood. Further, it’s also very much an attempt to establish a type of free life and Kurdish autonomy, in spaces that are carved outside of the nation state. He was captured around 20 years ago now, and he’s been on a prison island ever since. This is where he’s written these books, as you mentioned, and the books were smuggled out of prison as a form of defence to the European Court. And they’re definitely worth reading, I think that we should pay attention to the philosophers who are writing from prison. I would highly recommend his books. So basically he says, and this is also interesting, because he does overlap with some more libertarian thinkers, like Samuel Edward Konkin III who was highly influential for Bitcoin. He says that there’s a monopoly like tendency which extracts value from society, and that he calls state-based civilization. He tries to explain where the state-based civilization emerged, what its characteristics are, and what its arc of development is. He asserts it is our duty to try to study history and to define instances of different kinds of society that exists outside the logic of what he calls state-based civilization. Respectively, he also argues that things like technology and economy, which is the area that DarkFi is operating in, are very much informed by the mindset of the paradigm it is embedded in. He would say that the technology we’re exposed to, like Big Tech, and so forth, is a version of state-based civilization. We haven’t discussed Ted Kaczynski, but Kaczynski basically says that technology is this self-perpetuating process that is expanding itself at the expense of all else. It’s a runaway process, which is destroying all resources in service of itself, and it can only lead to self-destruction. I would basically agree with us. But Öcalan would say that this is only one instance of technology. It’s the technology that occurs within state-based associations, within the mindset of state-based civilizations. So you know, there you can see that Mumford influenced Öcalan. Mumford conducts a similar analysis where he talks about monotechnics versus polytechnics. Following this point, mono-technics are state-based civilization versions of technology. Whereas the polytechnics will be more in line with what kinds of technologies are created by a free society and a non-state society. And so this is also where, in LunarPunk we talk about disintermediating state-based society from free society, and creating new mindsets, which will also lead to new forms of technology, new forms of the economy being developed.
DB: Can you flesh out the points of Richard Werner’s book as well ?
RROL: Certainly. So Öcalan is a brilliant thinker weaving a lot of information in terms of history, mythology, ideology, politics, and economy. Werner is an economist and I think his ideas are highly compatible with Öcalan’s vision. The book that I’m talking about is called A New Paradigm for Macroeconomics. And it looks at the situation in Japan, which was the boom-bust cycle of the Japanese economy in the 80s. Werner expounds upon what happened there as a way to discuss theories of money and what money is and how money functions in an economy. He tries to empirically map money flows as they move through banking and financial sectors. He argues that interest rates, this idea that you can tweak interest rates up and down, and that’s your lever for contracting and detracting economic expansion. He says that’s not true, and he uses statistics to try and prove the contrary and shows that economics in general has been captured by this nonscientific kind of thinking, very deterministic, weird deductive ways of thinking. Rather, the conclusion that he comes to is fascinating, where he says the fundamental driver of economic growth is credit creation. So he contends that the banks are actually issuing credit and they are printing money. He also says that the issue is that often times this money that’s being printed, given it is in this liberal paradigm, the money that’s printed is being given to speculators, especially for real estate purchases, which is what is propping up the housing and property bubble. Thus, this kind of inflation or expansion of the money supply only leads to inflation, basically, the devaluing of currencies relative to goods and services. He posits that the alternative to this is to do credit creation, but allocate the credit to productive goods, productive industries, education or agriculture, or industrial production, rather than allocating capital towards speculative financial, which is just devaluing your currency.
He talks about how there was a coup inside the Japanese central bank, where the Minister of the Central Bank decided to implement structural reform, which meant liberalising the economy and getting rid of window guidance. Money was no longer allocated towards productive sectors but instead was allocated towards speculative purposes to create the structural reform that would engineer a crisis. There is a really good documentary about it, it’s actually about one of his other books called Princes of Yen, which I haven’t read, but the documentary, the same name on YouTube, which is definitely worth checking out. But the conclusion he comes to is he says that this policy of window guidance was basically fascist. And so he says, how do we do this in a way which is not fascist? And he says, the solution is to decentralise it. So instead of having a central bank which does credit allocation, you should have a network of many decentralised banks that can allocate credit to the communities they operate in. This is the kind of banking that has been very successful in Germany. He’s working with people in crypto to try to create an alliance between small to medium banks and crypto against the big banks, the World Bank, and so on. So that’s a brief overview of what he says, and where I see it as potentially compatible with some of Öcalan’s ideas, and also with the Landian dynamic of breaking hegemony into smaller components.