Report — From the January 2015 issue

Come With Us If You Want to Live

Among the apocalyptic libertarians of Silicon Valley

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“Just by a quick show of hands, has anyone heard of a D.A.O. or an agent before?” asked Jonathan Mohan. He was in his mid-twenties and wore a beige Bitcoin T-shirt. As if to scratch my head, I halfway raised my right arm. A dozen others raced up past mine.

Forty or fifty of us were in a glass-walled coworking space at 23rd Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan, at a Meetup for a technology called Ethereum. Invented by a nineteen-year-old Russian Canadian named Vitalik Buterin, and still unreleased and under development on the day of the Meetup, in February 2014, Ethereum is intended to decentralize control of the Internet and anything connected to it, redistributing real-world power accordingly. Mohan was a volunteer for the project.

Illustration by Darrel Rees

Illustration by Darrel Rees

“Effectively, what a D.A.O. is — or a distributed autonomous organization, or an agent, as I like to call it — is sort of this Snow Crash futuristic idea, and funnily enough only a year or two away,” he said. An agent, in computer science, is a program that performs tasks without user input; in Neal Stephenson’s science-fiction novel Snow Crash, humans interact with one another and with intelligent agents within the more-than-virtual-reality Metaverse. “Imagine if you wrote some program that could render a service, and it generated enough of a profit that it could cover its own costs. It could perpetuate indefinitely . . . because it’s just the code running itself.”

“How much Skynet risk is there?” a young man asked Mohan, using sci-fi shorthand: Could a few lines of open-source code, meant to augment human autonomy by obviating opaque institutions like Goldman Sachs and the federal government, metastasize into a malign machine intelligence, like Skynet in The Terminator? That movie was released thirty years ago, Snow Crash more than twenty; for decades, cyberpunks, cypherpunks, extropians, transhumanists, and singularitarians have imagined a world made out of code, one in which politics is an engineering problem and every person is a master of atoms and bits. The promise is a future in which we become more than human. The threat is a future without us.

“So you’re going to go from one D.A.O. to ten D.A.O.’s to one hundred D.A.O.’s to ten thousand D.A.O.’s,” Mohan replied. “Then, just based off of profit maximization, they’re going to start merging and acquiring one another.

“But I don’t know if we’d ever get to Skynet,” he said. “Maybe in all our code we can say, ‘If Skynet then exit.’ ”

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