Crypto-[graphy|currency]: two cultures

Cryptography and cryptocurrency. The arguments over each seem be two sides of the same coin, mirror-images of each other that misunderstand the reality when proposing solutions. Governments who find it unacceptable they cannot pierce the cryptography that keeps messages secure, and crypto-currency proponents find it unacceptable that governments can decide to devalue their money by printing more, or that they have to trust banks to not close their accounts. I've seen a lot of news stories (and arguments) about both over the last few years.

The split for both is "code-of-law" vs. "code-as-law".

"Code of law" is how humans think, even when the words themselves are arcane: laws are written by humans, read by humans, interpreted by humans, enforced by humans; and judgments and appeals are likewise human. All these parts know that humans are flawed, and have soft edges accordingly — it's physically possible to do bad stuff, but you can be caught and punished and financial harms can be undone.

"Code as law" is different. Computer code is only in the first instance written by humans, but that human on the keyboard is giving instructions to a compiler rather than a judge, and the compiler has a degree of pedantry that lawyers would consider absurd: "Oh, this is a number, sure, but it's only integers in the range -32,768 to +32,767, and if you add or multiply two of these numbers and get a number outside that range it doesn't work"; or "You wrote 'or' but you meant 'either … or …', well you should've been more careful because I just did what I was told and not what you meant; etc. — and it remains at this level of pedantry with every other system that code interacts with.

This means that people who are used to the way laws work, speak as if it's fine to just "tell a computer that the police wants these private messages" — because that actually works when it's humans doing things: when someone impersonates a police officer, that's a crime, whatever they did can be found out and undone. Do this on a computer and you lose everything, forever. When a single person can only impersonate one police officer at a time, the damage is limited, but a hacker can say "I'm a police officer" on the order of a million distinct requests in one second, even when using a home internet connection. If you just have a simple convenient way for a human to ask for private messages because they're the police, you also have a simple convenient way for hackers to do the same, and it's extremely difficult to secure a private message system at the best of times, much more so when you have to provide a mechanism for the police to gain access when they say they need it. And, crucially, that's still the case no matter how right the police are about needing it to do their job.

The other way around, cryptocurrencies are all based on the idea that it is desirable to remove all this pesky "trust" from the banking system — "Why simply 'trust' that the bank won't go under, or that the government won't choose hyperinflation, or that you won't be forced to pay money directly from your account when you don't want to, when you can secure your money with the exact same unbreakable encryption that the government wants to remove from private messages?" — and the answer is: that's because of humans, and laws.

Money is for humans, not for simply sending from one account to another, and humans are flawed, we make mistakes, we can be defrauded, we can be mis-sold, we can buy things on credit that were not as advertised. Turning human judgement into the kind of pedantry needed for it to become a computer program, only works in extremely simple cases; this is why it took so long to get chatbots which were any good, and also why they frequently give us terrible advice.

When you've only ever used a hammer and a nail, it's confusing to be told screws don't work that way; and when you've only ever used a screw and a screwdriver, nails look stupid too. Laws and cryptography, both trying to put legal limits on cryptograph and using cryptography as a replacement for law, are the same kind of mis-match.

Tags: bitcoin, cryptocurrency, cryptography, economics, Politics, Technocracy

Categories: cryptocurrency, cryptography, Politics

© Ben Wheatley — Licence: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International