Before the Web: The 1980s Dream of a Free and Borderless Virtual World (Pt.1)

Part one of a four-part documentary series about the cypherpunk movement of the 1990s, which led to the creation of bitcoin, WikiLeaks, and more.
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In the early 1990s, a group of mathematicians, misfits, hackers, and hobbyists calling themselves "the cypherpunks" came together around a shared belief that the internet would either demolish society's artificial walls or lay the groundwork for an Orwellian state. They saw cryptography as a weapon against central planning and surveillance in this new virtual world.

The philosophical and technical ideas explored on the cypherpunks' widely read email list, which launched in 1992, influenced the creation of bitcoin, WikiLeaks, Tor, BitTorrent, and the Silk Road. The cypherpunks anticipated the promise and the peril that lay ahead when the internet went mainstream, including new threats to privacy and the possibility of building virtual platforms for communication and trade that would be impervious to government regulators.

The first episode in Reason's new documentary series on the cypherpunks looks at a clash of ideas over how the internet could lead to a more free society, which was a precursor to the formation of the cypherpunk movement. It took place between the economist and entrepreneur Phil Salin, and the former Intel physicist Timothy C. May, who became known as the father of "crypto anarchy." (Salin died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 41, and May passed away in 2018 at the age of 66.)

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Written, shot, edited, narrated, and graphics by Jim Epstein; opening and closing graphics by Lex Villena; additional graphics assistance from Isaac Reese; audio production by Ian Keyser; archival research by Regan Taylor

Music: "Moving on" by Jay Denton, licensed through Artlist; "High Flight" by Michele Nobler, licensed through Artlist; "Machinery" by Kai Engel, Creative Commons — Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International

Photos: Hugh Daniel at the Ottawa Linux Symposium, Paul Wouters/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0; John Gilmore, Paul Kitagaki Jr./ZUMA Press/Newscom; John Gilmore at Burning Man 2005, Creative Commons — Attribution 2.0 Generic License; Whitfield Diffie, Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service; David D. Friedman, Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0; Cody Wilson, Jay Janner/TNS/Newscom; Ross Ulbricht,; Julian Assange, Dominic Lipinski/ZUMA Press/Newscom; London Protester, Tal Cohen/Photoshot/Newscom; Louis J. Freeh and Bill Clinton, Ron Sachs—CNP/Newscom; Bill Gates, Staff/Mirrorpix/Newscom; David Chaum, AP PHOTO/DUSAN VRANIC.

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