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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On the first day of spring last year, I took an early-morning bus to Boston to see Buterin after he spoke at Harvard for a conference on payment systems. He was visibly out of place among the suits from MasterCard and Moneygram. (“It almost felt like an engineering committee for Brave New World,” he later wrote on Reddit.) In the months to come, he would receive a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship and Ethereum would have a presale of its currency, ether, that would raise nearly $20 million. The “genesis block” of ether should be released early this year.

Buterin and I sat by ourselves in the dining room of Annenberg Hall, picking at lobster rolls and coleslaw. His voice was a singsong; his long fingers kept time. Born near Moscow, he moved to Toronto at six and began programming at eight. He was addicted to World of Warcraft for three years. In 2011, at seventeen, he came down with the Bitcoin bug, when each bitcoin was still worth less than a dollar (the price, as high as $1,242 in November 2013, hovered around $400 at the time of this writing). Early in 2013 he left the University of Waterloo, in Canada, to start coding full-time.

Buterin was a libertarian and cautious anarcho-capitalist, he said, not a corporatist. He had visited Occupy Toronto and was basically sympathetic, but thought the protesters lacked the infrastructure to achieve their goals. “Groups like the cryptocurrency movement, the Occupy movement, and some of the anarchist movements realize that the real reform isn’t just about swapping out bad players for good players. It’s really more about the structural.” Distributed autonomous organizations — D.A.O.’s — are “about figuring out how we can deinstitutionalize power; how we can ensure that, while power structures do need to exist, that these power structures are modular and they disappear as soon as they’re not wanted anymore. . . .

“I’m not a really big fan of envying the rich and saying it’s wrong for one guy to have a huge amount of resources,” he continued. (He has said he’d like to make $100 billion and donate it to life-extension research.) “I prefer thinking about the problem of ‘How do we make sure that all people have at least something?’ So figuring out how to create a currency that would, say, give everyone on earth one unit per year — to me, that would be the ideal.”

The belief that math, perfect information, and market mechanisms would solve the problem of politics seemed naïve, I said to Buterin. Sure, he said, but what was really naïve was trusting corruptible humans and opaque institutions with concentrated power. Better to formalize our values forthrightly in code. “On some level, everything is a market, even if you have a system that’s fully controlled by people in some fashion. You have a number of agents that are following specific rules, except that the rules of the system are enforced by the laws of physics instead of the laws of cryptography.

“The cryptography approach,” he added, “is superior because you have much more freedom in determining what those rules are.”

The dining hall closed, and we walked across a lawn to Harvard’s Science Center, where we sat on a low concrete bench. He’s read through the Less Wrong Sequences; the previous October he had read HPMoR. “That was a really good book.” And Skynet? “A fun joke.”

In The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, his human flesh broken, hides his cyborg red eye behind dark black glasses. He’ll be back, as villain or hero. The movies become an allegory not of Luddism but of collective human agency, in a world where we know we’re all hybrids. We can’t just smash the machines.

The last thing I did in Cambridge that afternoon was ask Buterin for a photo for my notes. On the flagstones outside Annenberg Hall, I held up my Android while he posed, hands behind his narrow back. He was dressed in black except for his laceless white Pumas; one sole was beginning to peel. He had sleepy eyes between jug ears; buzzed hair and an expanse of acned forehead; a long, thin neck; faint eyebrows; postpubescent scruff dusting his chin.

There was a pause after I tapped my touchscreen for the shot, and he twisted down into his small black knapsack. “While we’re on the subject of Skynet,” he said, and put on a pair of mirrored sunglasses before setting his delicate jaw.

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