I’d Rather Be a Revolutionary

DarkFi programmer Rachel Rose O’Leary on building encrypted worlds beyond the state.

Text Adina Glickstein
Published 23 May 2023

In a harrowingly prescient essay penned in 1964, the historian Lewis Mumford established a distinction between “democratic” and “authoritarian” technics—speaking not just of technologies as such, but the value systems and broader cultural protocols that structure their use in the world. His sketch of the authoritarian tendency is all too familiar in our platform-centric present: “if one surrenders one’s life at source,” he writes, “authoritarian technics will give back as much of it as can be mechanically graded, quantitatively multiplied, collectively manipulated and magnified.”

Mumford’s vision of a democratic technics, on the other hand, is founded on “self-direction, self-expression, and self-realization”—ideals to which many contemporary crypto projects pay lip service but spectacularly fail to deliver. So where did crypto go wrong, deviating from its subversive origins? Where we once dreamed of disintermediating economies and stripping power from the nation-state, we now have, in essence, a Web3 world of user accounts and traceable transactions.

Rachel Rose O’Leary has been working towards a more democratic technics for the blockchain age. Coming from a background in digital art, she exited the cultural sector to become a crypto journalist. In 2019, she joined the Rojava revolution. Since her return to Europe, O’Leary has been working on DarkFi, a zero-knowledge layer-one blockchain that strives to return to Bitcoin’s original principles (and then some). Shortly after DarkFi’s testnet launch, she spoke with Adina Glickstein about dark forests, Lunarpunk, and why anonymity is essential to sovereignty.

Adina Glickstein: At a very high level, can you explain what DarkFi is and how it’s different from the major blockchain projects like Bitcoin and Ethereum?

Rachel Rose O’Leary: DarkFi is a blockchain for anonymous applications. We have three major apps currently running on testnet, including anon payments, anon swaps, and anon DAOs. The DAO tooling enables fully anonymous, collectively managed treasuries that can be used as the basis of anon-protocol-owned liquidity or other advanced onchain applications. We will add support for anon NFTs soon and other exotic primitives will follow post-mainnet.

AG: That’s interesting… how does the collective decision-making component of a DAO get undertaken, on- or offchain, if you don’t know who you’re coordinating with?

RROL: There can be different degrees of trust within an anon DAO. For example, if you’re a collective, you’re aware in real life who the participants are, but the blockchain (or the world-at-large) is not. You could also operate it in a fully anonymous way, where you’re interacting with people in a purely online community who are all anon.

DarkFi is built for anonymous coordination in general. We have a peer-to-peer chat that’s totally anonymous—it has no concept of identity. You have encrypted channels and encrypted DMs. A DAO using DarkFi’s anonymous tooling could choose to operate on fully encrypted channels like this, or it could coordinate in public on transparent channels.

AG: So there’s a spectrum?

RROL: Exactly, a spectrum is a really nice way of putting it. There’s a spectrum of anonymity that is set by the participants. The shift that DarkFi is making is to a paradigm of selective transparency. Anonymity is the default. Transparency can also happen on DarkFi, but it’s never enforced by the network or the blockchain.

Anonymity allows people to create new ways of being and generate alternative political systems outside the small sphere of state-sanctioned activity. We call this the dark forest.

AG: That’s a complete paradigm shift. I mean, to a layperson, there’s often this misconception that any blockchain is anonymous by default. And, in some ways, that was part of their early vision of Bitcoin, drawn from the earlier cypherpunk imaginaries that led into the blockchain projects we have today. Where did they deviate from that vision? What went wrong?

RROL: Like you said, Bitcoin is pseudo-anonymous, and it has some anonymity properties. At the beginning, it was believed that Bitcoin was anonymous and could be used anonymously. It wasn’t until time passed that it became obvious that while it’s difficult for humans to read, it’s quite trivial for computers to track the flow of funds through the network.

In the case of Ethereum, it’s even more extreme. Bitcoin relies on something called the UTXO model, which means there are inputs and outputs that you can use to track the flow of funds. Ethereum is an account-based model, which makes it more human-readable. You can click on someone’s account, just like a Web2 profile, you can see all of their transactions and everything that’s ever happened.

Via Ethereum, there’s a shift where crypto is blending with the paradigm of big tech, which is very focused on identities and data-richness. Whereas Bitcoin is ideologically more cypherpunk, and was more interested in privacy in the early days.

AG: Why do you think transparency became important in crypto?

RROL: I think it’s multifaceted, but there are a lot of people with financial investments in Bitcoin and they are incentivized to minimize risk. I think that has involved whitewashing the Bitcoin narrative and packaging it as something that will be more friendly and accepting of institutional money, which means transparency.

AG: Why are people so scared of anonymity?

RROL: Because it’s a source of power, and people are afraid of giving people power.

AG: Why does anonymity matter, then, politically speaking? Because I think that the answer you’re getting at is much more nuanced than the talking points that often get thrown around, along the lines of “anonymity lets you buy drugs and drugs are bad.”

RROL: Look at the difference in user behavior on Web2 websites that have a strong concept of identity, like Instagram, versus places that have a weak concept of identity, like 4chan. 4chan is the origin of most of the memes on the internet; it’s an extremely generative creative space. I think that is because people aren’t stuck in a constant performance of identity and the paradigm of self-policing that comes with surveillance.

The question of anonymity and surveillance is essentially a dialectic of forests versus deserts. The desert is a place of complete uniformity and homogeneity. The forest is natural encryption where people are protected and they can advance their own ways of being. Anonymity allows people to create new ways of being and generate alternative political systems outside the small sphere of state-sanctioned activity. We call this the dark forest.

AG: Dark forest, nice. I think I’ve heard that term before in a different context. Can you expand on how you’re using it here?

RROL: You’ve maybe heard it in the context of internet subcultures. It’s sometimes used to describe the fractal, shadowy world of forums, image boards, chat rooms, and so on. This is a “light forest”. It’s all under surveillance, which means it’s always already inside the realm of state-sanctioned activity. That’s what makes the majority of online subcultures politically impotent. There’s a performance of politics but it never actually materializes in the real world.

This is key to how the state operates. The state removes people’s ability to generate values and put those values into practice. Anonymity is corrective. It is synonymous with weaponization. So, the real dark forest is a zone of affirmation, regeneration, and multiplicities, of encrypted worlds that have decoupled from the state. The dark forest is non-state, rather than anti-state. It is radically exterior, alien.

AG: What role does culture play, then, in supporting the creation of dark forests and non-states? And where might non-technical people fit in, in terms of spreading wider awareness of the importance of privacy, as it stands?

RROL: I take issue with the notion that there are some people who are technical and others who are non-technical. I think everyone has the capacity to be technical or non-technical. Personally, I come from an art background, but I forced myself to learn programming. This was a painful process but one that I undertook with a revolutionary discipline. It’s a question of focus and energy.

A lot of women, especially in Western societies, will say that they’re not technical. My suspicion is this is a cultural phenomenon, more than it is a statement about women in general. I think that women are perfectly capable of being technical, but they need a strong, compelling reason to face up to the struggle that is associated with acquiring technical skills.

AG: I’m glad you took me to task for upholding that distinction. Because I agree; I think it’s a cultural default, and one that has pretty harmful repercussions. My friend and teacher Melanie Hoff, who organizes the School for Poetic Computation, speaks and writes about how, in some sense, everyone is “always already programming.” Whether or not you think of yourself as a programmer, you’re interacting with code in a meaningful way, and it is acting on you in return. Simultaneously, the social structures that we are embedded in are reflected in code. This way of seeing things empowers people to understand that when they’re acting within protocols—whether literally writing code or more generally interacting with networked technology—they already have the capacity to program and to be programmed.

Also, to my mind, a lot of the efforts dedicated towards getting women interested in math and science—especially in the US, where I grew up—are so aesthetically unappealing. The initiatives are called things like “Girls Who Code.” I can’t think of anything more disempowering than having this state of always already programming, of being embedded in networks of techno-social meaning-making, reduced to being a “girl who codes”. I would much rather be a revolutionary.

RROL: In Rojava, I had a conversation with a woman commander who was criticizing Western feminism. She said Western feminism began as saying, "We want to free women; we want to liberate women." But in the end, it led to new forms of enslavement. So the Rojava revolution is not about freeing the individual, or freeing the woman as an individual, so that she’s free to go against her family and do whatever she wants. It’s more about the belief that no one cannot be free until the society is free. It’s the pursuit of collective self-determination that constitutes freedom rather than freedom from any kind of attachments or bonds.

Fundamental to lunarpunk is the idea that anonymity is the means by which people can create new worlds.

AG: Yeah. I think that touches on something important in cryptolibertarian discourse, in general: everyone is obsessed with unshackling themselves from whatever they perceive themselves to be hemmed in by. But then, you’re left with this state of total individual autonomy, and no productive means for freedom to be generative, which I think, necessarily, entails collaborating and being with others.

RROL: Yeah, definitely. You see this in open-source culture, which is dominated by a belief in meritocracy. In principle, the movement is open, and anyone can be a programmer and use information on the internet to learn. Which is true. But it’s often used to say, ”Well, if women were interested, they would learn, themselves. The information’s available to anyone.”

It’s sad because even though there are horizontal entry points, those pathways are not being taken. We have an extreme asymmetry in Web2, where something like 92% of all software developers in big tech are male. Women, on the other hand, comprise the majority of the selfies on social media. So, there’s this whole gendered dynamic to social media. It’s disturbing because the relationship between the user and the programmer in proprietary software is one of exploitation. The user is disempowered. They have no control over the software that’s controlling them.

DarkFi is strictly free software. We use an AGPL license, which means that anyone who uses our code also has to license it as free software. And any apps on DarkFi will also need to be free software. And that’s because we believe in a paradigm where people are empowered to change the code, read the code, and modify the code in any way. The free software paradigm is one in which users also become programmers. So, it is actually about elevating people.

AG: Hearing about your time in Rojava, as well as the forest-desert dialectic you mentioned earlier, makes me think of this notion you’ve brought up elsewhere, this idea of lunarpunk. What is lunarpunk?

RROL: The short version is, if the surveillance paradigm tries to crush anonymity and privacy efforts, it will be, in a strange way, actually good and actually give power to those movements. It comes down to the concept of anti-fragility. Anonymous networks are anti-fragile because users have plausible deniability. Users can participate in an anonymous network without accruing mortal risk to themselves. This is why we use the analogy of the forest: DarkFi is an encrypted fabric that protects communities.

Fundamental to lunarpunk is the idea that anonymity is the means by which people can create new worlds. Without anonymity, we have a desert landscape where the space of activity is highly restricted, so it ends in dystopia. Solarpunk, for example, is a utopian vision—but it’s one which relies heavily on transparency. That utopia is always sinister, because it’s a utopia that contains surveillance. Lunarpunk is similar to solarpunk, in that it’s also utopian, but it uses anonymity as the means by which communities can differentiate from each other and create encrypted boundaries, like how a language forms a natural border within a community.

Lunarpunk has a strong emphasis on community and operating collectively online through tools of anonymous coordination. Lunarpunk tries to propose a positive kind of affirmative freedom, which is freedom to create new worlds. Anonymity is a precondition for the creation of new worlds.

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