Interview: Bitcoin Pioneer Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof on Bitnation and M+
Q1 Susanne, h+ Magazine readers may not be familiar with you or your background. Can you give us a brief history of you, a summary of your background with bitcoin and transhumanism and a short intro to what you are currently doing?
I grew up in Sweden, my parents where Polish and French immigrants. My father was stateless for many years, which made me question the point of the nation state construct altogether. My passion was politics, and I wanted to make the world more borderless. I started writing about competing non-geographic nations at the age of 20. However, I thought the best way to change things was to work ‘within the system’. Hence to that end, I started working as a contractor for the most powerful government I could find, the US Government. I spent nearly 7 years working as a contractor in various conflict zones, from Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Egypt and Libya — assisting with building and overthrowing governments. However, as time went by, I believed less and less in what the government did, and I started sympathizing more and more with the ‘ungoverned’ societies. The civil war in Libya was quite a wake up call. When I first came to the rebel controlled territories there was de-facto no government at all (the rebel council were about 10 guys hiding out in a basement, and their sole job was to speak with foreign media to gain recognition for the territories), but yet — everything worked amazingly well. Volunteers were doing everything from trash collection to traffic policing, neighborhood watch and cell tower engineering. But as layers of government got added, security deteriorated.
Around the same time a friend of mine was conducting a study in villages in Southern Afghanistan and South Sudan, measuring the difference between villages with the same socioeconomic and ethnic composition, but different amounts of points of social interaction — like wells, schools, etc. As one would intuitively assume — the study showed that villages with many points of interactions were less prone to violence, than those with few, because even if people – different tribes and ethnicities didn’t get along – just the fact of having to interact on a day to day level over simple things like ‘who should clean the well?’ reduced the level of violence. Fostering collaboration on small, seemingly insignificant tasks also been a common strategy in diplomacy between countries hostile towards each other. Hence, I thought, if we assume this theory to be correct, then wouldn’t Facebook be the biggest experiment for peace in the world ever? The fact of liking someone’s Instagram of their lunch, regardless of political or geographical differences? That would make sense.
Hence, I went through a brief period of great self-doubt, where I thought what I had done for most of my 20’s was pretty much either not very significant in terms of impact, or even at times straight out harmful — while Zuckerberg, through a computer in a dorm, had done more of a positive impact than I could ever have dreamt of. I felt depressed, because I didn’t know how to impact things without working with the government, but I started spending more time around tech people, travelling to San Francisco, hanging out with the Burning Man crowd, going to libertarian meetups, etc. I had a feeling that the answer where somewhere in the technology sphere. Then, enter Bitcoin. The day I discovered Bitcoin my worldview changed forever — I realized that it was possible to not ‘change things from the inside’ but to actually totally reinvent something, and compete heads on with the current paradigm. It wasn’t impossible. Bitcoin did, and succeeded with it. That inspired me to leave my work as a contractor, and follow my initial dream of creating virtual competing nations. I travelled the world while writing about it, went to various anarchist communities and crypto startups, and then it suddenly dawned on me: why write about it? The blockchain technology — as a distributed public ledger — have all the functions I need to actually start it, without very much investment at all. Hence, I started Bitnation.
I got into Transhumanism through Biohacking. I operated in a magnet in one of my fingers, to see what it would be like. I posted the photos of the operation on Facebook which got me a lot of attention from the Transhumanist community, so I started to look deeper into all things connected with Transhumanism, and really fell in love with the field. I guess being able to to control your destiny, through cryonics, downloading brains, modifying the body, etc is the ultimate frontier for liberty, once the violent global oligopoly on governance is gone. Immortality!
Q2 Tell me about Bitnation some more and explain to h+ Magazine readers what it is about. Let’s say I want to start my own transhumanist nation.Can Bitnation help me? I’m also interested in the notion of services that use the blockchain technology but are not properly involved with bitcoin per se. Can you comment?
If you break Bitnation down to its very essence, it can be described as a peer-to-peer platform with a set of Do-It-Yourself governance (D)Apps (like the Apple app store, as an example), backed by encrypted communication, ID and reputation, and dispute resolution.
Bitnation is the first ever Virtual Nation which provides actual governance services. Many of those services are based on the Bitcoin blockchain technology – a decentralized public ledger – which we use for all kind of records. From insurance, to dispute resolution, to family contracts like wills and marriages, to education, and more. Later on we’ll also add non-technology powered services, like security and diplomacy.
There are many metaprotocols on top of the Bitcoin blockchain, that can be used for things like crypto token creation, timestamping, etc. This year – 2015 – I expect smart contracts to really take off. These sounds like simple tools, but they offer such an extraordinary broad range of applications that it’s nothing short of breathtaking.
Everything Bitnation do is open source, and we encourage people to fork it, and create their own nation. If you would want to start your own transhumanist nation, the easiest way to get us onboard rather than just forking the idea straight out, would be to either work with us for a while, and see what you could make different, to better adapt it to your community, or engage us as partners to help you set it up. Forks are both inevitable, and healthy. I, personally, set out on this path, because I wanted to see a world of thousands or millions of competing borderless governance providers, competing through offering better services, rather than through the threat of violence within imaginary lines called borders. But someone had to be the first to do it, to demonstrate the virtual nation model in practice, and clear the path for others – just like Bitcoin did for cryptocurrency — so that’s what I did.
Q3 Bitcoin has a long history in the transhumanist world and some of the early adopters were transhumanists and the idea of “cryp” was a frequent topic on the Extropian Email List. Hal Finney was recently cryopreserved and was one of the first owners of bitcoins. as well as an Extropian. Ralph Merkle invented some of the core mathematics (Merkle trees) used in bitcoin and is a transhumanist who also has done a lot of work in nanotechnology. What’s the connection from your perspective between transhumanism and cryptocurrencies? Cryp was envisioned as an anonymous and untraceable method of payment, but bitcoin hasn’t quite gotten us there. What’s next for truly anonymous and untraceable crypto currencies?
Many questions to answer here at once!
From my perspective the similarity between the two is twofold: 1. that technology empowers superior innovative solutions than an outdated dinosaur of a centralized administrative structure, and b. that technology inherently defeats things as borders, because it connects people throughout time and space, irrelevant of where they were born, or what laws an irrelevant piece of paper (like a passport) claims they’re subject to. In essence, transhumanism, as well as Bitcoin, recognise that we’re much more than our physical flesh and blood, but that we’re also sensitive, thinking, feeling individuals who may or may not operate within forced upon (geographical) frameworks. That our mind and spirit stands above, and defeats, arbitrary lines in the sand — to a great extent via the beauty of the ever evolving technology freed from bureaucratic red tape.
Anonymity is important now, as we’re in the strange middle ground between the nation state world, and the post nation state world, where many visionaries still need to keep a low profile. Over time, however, identity and reputation will be more important. Though, lets keep in mind that for various reasons, it will remain essential for a person to be able to have multiple identities at the same time (like if being haunted by a homicidal ex husband or living a double life as gay/ hetero or human/ cyborg) etc. But at the same time, limiting Cybil attacks will also be crucial.
Another area where crypto meets transhumanism seems to be Basic Income. We have a Bitnation 3rd Party DApp, called basicincome.co developed by the Swedish prodigy Johan Nyberg, using p2p cryptoledgers to create a voluntary basic income system. Zoltan Istvan recently wrote about Transhumanism in VICE where Bitnation was quoted.
Q4 You recent joined the Advisory Board of Människa+, the Swedish chapter Humanity+. What’s happening with transhumanism in Sweden right now and the M+ group in particular? What next?
Sweden has always been a playground for new technologies, because – for better or for worse – it’s a fairly small and homogenous population —- meaning that if a concept catches on, pretty much everyone will adapt it rapidly. Swedes are also, generally speaking, very tech-savvy people who loves emerging ideas. Hence, because of rapid adoption rates, and Swedes natural love for everything seemingly empirically rational and scientific, I believe Sweden is ideally suited to be one of the leading geographical areas for transhumanism.
Q5 I notice that you are one of the few transhumanists that seems to understand Africa. Humanity+ board member Ben Goertzel also maintains an office in Ethiopia. And I think Africa is going to play a huge role in the future of transhumanism. Africa was first to widely adopt digital payments systems outside of mainstream banking with M-PESA and now seems hot on bitcoin. What’s the future of bitcoin in Africa and beyond? What is your view on the future of Africa and Africa’s role in creating the global future?
I don’t feel like I understand Africa particularly well. I spent roughly a year in North Africa (Egypt and Libya, throughout the Arab Spring), and some time now in West Africa, Ghana – which is an entirely different animal. Frankly, the more time I spend around here, the less I understand it. I do think, through cell phone adaption, remittance payments from abroad, and the natural ease of using digital money m-pesa style, Bitcoin will have quick adaption rates here, as you mentioned in your question. Frontier markets like this is also where it’s most needed of course — we’re speaking of billions of unbanked people who can’t access normal banking systems, etc.
For Bitnation, that’s huge – naturally. Billions of people who need our services really bad, because their local governments are to slow, to corrupt, and too expensive to deal with. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the last frontiers of development (with perhaps the exception of places like Afghanistan and North Korea, etc). While we can expect steep rises in productivity, GDP, etc — it’s also very clear that there’s a very long way to go over here. For instance, in Ghana (which is by no means one of the poorest countries in this region) only 40% of the population have toilets (and the definition of toilets also includes holes in the ground) – just to illustrate average middle class living conditions. While they’re definitively leap frogging on some technological levels, the average life expectancy, life quality (like electricity, running water, etc) remains extremely low — and that will take much longer to fix. So while it’s overall getting better, don’t expect it to be the next ‘tiger economies’ any time soon — apart from a few expectations like Kenya, Nigeria, etc of course.
Q6 2015 may be noted as the year transhumanism became political. With a lot of activity around the Transhumanist Parties in the EU and UK recently. What’s your view on transhumanism and politics generally? How can Bitnation help transhumanists who are politically active? How can or should the TP interact with the Pirate Party, Green Party, etc.?
First of all, from my personal perspective, technology change politics much quicker than politics change politics. Point in case: it’s more efficient to create a better alternative, like Bitcoin, who just outcompetes the old bad system, rather than to get a job at the FED, and try to change politics from the inside.
If people really do want to interact with the dinosaur political system however, I suppose it can be useful, in a Ron Paul type of way; where they use political channels as platform to spread ideas. It has some merit to it. Concerning what parties to engage with, I’ll always vouch for the pirate party – they’re willing to break norms, and think forward. The green party really varies from one country to another. While I do believe in the importance of preserving the environment, I would never engage with the Green Parties I’ve seen so far, because in my view they’re old left-wing reactionaries who mainly want to back-peddle development. I may be wrong, but that’s what I’ve seen so far. Libertarian parties are sort of an oxymoron, if you come from the anarchist spectrum of it. I don’t personally vote, because I believe it’s immoral to show consent to a geographical monopoly on violence through participating in its illusion of ‘it’s all okay, because we can vote every now and then on who will be our front slave master’. But hey, each to their own.
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