The cryptographic divide

By Ev Bogue - June 17th 2016

1111 words are below. You may need fifteen minutes to read it, and a year to grok it.

Five years ago I didn't know anything about cryptography. Even though I'd used a computer since I was a toddler, I had no idea what a public/private keypair was and what to do with it. Not to mention merkle trees and merkle dags. The only hashes I'd ever used previous to 2011 were Torrents (to download libre open source programs, of course.)

Five years ago I was a thoroughbred centralized Googler. I read my email in Gmail. I searched the web with Google. I socialized on Google Plus. I wrote my books in Google Docs. I used a Mac to launch a web browser and plugged my brain into a monoculture every single day.

Then one day, everything changed.

I can trace the moment back to a hotel room in a beach town in Mexico. It was dark. Somewhere off the distance an open air club was blasting music out onto the beach. I was snuggled under a Mexican blanket as the wind whipped in off the pacific into the uninsulated room. I was scrolling the Internet, trying to get my mind off the club music, when I found an article on Wired about a technology called Bitcoin.

Being a fan of Wired at the time, I read the article. First with semi-interest. Then with slight heart palpitations. Next I fell out of the bed, wrapped in a Mexican blanket.

After reading about Bitcoin the first thought that occured to me in November 2011 was... 1M6nPnZtXFnBZCFRkpWrb2Gb5cBjKKERqB.

I won't tell you what my thought was. Because it's probably best to use an encrypted channel for that kind of thought these days. We'll just say my interest was piqued, even though I had no idea what cryptography was nor how a public/private keypair works.

In November 2011, a single Bitcoin would have cost you around $2 USD.

I'm not an investor, and I had no idea how to get Bitcoins at the time, much less secure them. So I didn't buy any, I only observed the scene from a distance with fascination.

In 2012 I earned a few Bitcoin by selling books and doing a little freelance work. I never bought any Bitcoins myself. As I said, I'm not an investor. Someone gave me a physical Bitcoin once, and I still carry it around today.

In 2013 I lost all of my Bitcoins (except the physical one) because I was using a 'cloud wallet'. I felt like a dumbass. I got out of the Bitcoin scene altogether for awhile.

In 2014 I watched the price hit $1000 USD and fall back to a more reasonable $400. Around this time I started offering to sell books for Bitcoin again. Now I keep my negliable amount of Bitcoins in a safe place.

Fast forward today, I have a little bit of money in Bitcoin. Not a lot. Just a little from selling an occasional book from $17-$35 USD for the equivilent in Bitcoin. I'm somewhat confident I'm running a secure stack.

I'm noticing a troubling trend. I've decided to call it The Cryptographic Divide.

When I was a kid there was this thing called The Digital Divide. It was a term people used for people who lived in underprivileged households in the first world or in the developing world that either couldn't afford Internet or didn't prioritize it. People who worried about such matters were concerned that people who didn't use the Internet would be 'left behind.' Eventually all of these people got closed-sourced cellphones with monthly subscription fees, and people declared The Digital Divide over.

I'm concerned there's a new divide right now, and it's between the people who have a grasp on public/private key cryptography and those who do not.

I use a lot of software that depends on cryptography right now. I hold a little money in Bitcoin. I use Git for all of my software projects and writing. I use SSH to Mosh into my VPS. I use IPFS to broadcast files to distributed peers. I use Scuttlebot to social network with peers across the distributed Internet. My operating system uses GnuPG to secure the software that is installed on my Arch Linux system. I've played around with trading Bitcins between Litecoins and Dogecoins. I have an Urbit planet floating in Urbitspace somewhere. I've used, on occasion, OTR communication protocols and GnuPG over email. There are probably a dozen other projects I've either saved private keys from, or I'll generate a new private key for, if these projects ever get off the ground. Even my website has cryptographic certificate now!

These days, I prefer using a heavy crypto stack instead of the centralized stack I was using in 2011. I don't use any Google products anymore.

My concern is that there is a legion of people who are being left behind as these technologies take off in computing.

My fear is The Cryptographic Divide is real.

That being said, I hesitate to advocate for any cryptographic technology besides Git. I love Git. I think everyone should learn Git and use it until something better comes along.

However, many of these cryptographic technologies have either a tendency to scare the living shit out of normal people, or are sometimes surrounded by a sketchy crowd.

Cross this with the lingering pain I have from losing that handful of Bitcoins back in 2013 -- PTSD from getting digitally mugged.

This means I don't go around telling everyone to get on board the next crypto bandwagon, because who knows what will happen with these technologies. And also it takes a certain level of skill even to keep your private keys safe. A skill that has been actively underdeveloped by the software companies that appear to be most highly valued at the moment.

In closing all I have to say is I am concerned about The Cryptographic Divide. I'm worried that some people will be left behind. I'm worried it will take them as long as it took me to learn how to keep cryptographic keys safe. I'm also worried that these people who are left behind, when they realize they need to catch up, will do dumb things like me and put their Bitcoins in a 'cloud wallet' or whatever the future equivilent of being dumb with cryptography turns out to be.

What will the future of crypto hold? I have no idea. The Bitcoin price will either climb, fall, or be normal for a long time. Experimental technologies with live and die. New technologies will come out. Old technologies will become the status quo.

Me, I'll be keeping my private keys close to my person.

You? That's up to you.


If this article made you think, consider telling someone about it either online or in person. Thank you. -Ev

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