Cypherpunk Godfather Timothy May Was Lightyears Ahead of His Time
The crypto world has been mourning the passing of Timothy C. May at the age of 67. While an unknown entity to the general public, to early internet adopters, cypherpunks, libertarians, and cryptography evangelists, May’s writings remain hallowed. The intellectual was an early advocate against state surveillance, privacy erosions, and bête noire of the statist Silicon Valley startups whose tech dystopia has surreptitiously smothered society. May’s legacy lives on through his powerful writings that are as potent today as when they first appeared in the late 80s.
Timothy May: Taken Too Early and Ahead of His Time
“Interactions over networks will be untraceable, via extensive re-routing of encrypted packets and tamper-proof boxes which implement cryptographic protocols with nearly perfect assurance against any tampering,” predicted Timothy May in 1988 with uncanny prescience. “Reputations will be of central importance, far more important in dealings than even the credit ratings of today. These developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret, and will even alter the nature of trust and reputation.”
The cryptography community has often bemoaned the cryptocurrency community’s commandeering of the phrase “crypto”. In the case of Timothy May, however, both groups can lay claim to the cypherpunk godfather’s legacy. May was crypto in every sense of the word, shaping the nascent cypherpunk movement, which pioneered and pushed for strong cryptographic protocols, while paving the way for the cryptocurrency revolution that would burst into life more than two decades after he published his seminal Crypto Anarchist Manifesto.
A Free Bird Who Refused to Be Pigeon-Holed
May (left) gracing the cover on a 1993 Wired magazine
Timothy C. May, or simply Tim to his friends, was a visionary, a maverick and a free-thinker. The phrase “ahead of his time” has long since been reduced to the realm of cliché, but if ever there was a man to whom the the term belonged, it was May. While it’s easy to compose hagiographies of the recently deceased, it’s hard to look at May’s most famous writings and not feel a sense of awe. Had they been composed in 2018 they would have warranted all the RTs, regrams, shares and faves they would have doubtless received.
Tim May was my chief cypherpunk inspiration. His vision is of a cyberspace free from government oppression. I was further blessed to be able to hang out with him and kvetch about our crazy world. Will miss you greatly Tim! https://t.co/cLx5dpiUEF
— Nick Szabo [Jan/3?] (@NickSzabo4) December 15, 2018
Many of the crypto OGs tweeting out tributes to Timothy May this week weren’t even born when his magnum opus was composed, or even when it was later subsumed into The Cyphernomicon. But for those who previously took the time to read May’s words, their resonance and relevance will have been felt as strongly today as they did upon first perusal. In 1994, most people had yet to even envisage using the internet, let alone conceive the need for electronic privacy and anonymous digital currency. May wasn’t so much ahead of the curve as on another racetrack altogether.
“The State will of course try to slow or halt the spread of this technology, citing national security concerns, use of the technology by drug dealers and tax evaders, and fears of societal disintegration,” predicted May with unfailing accuracy. “Many of these concerns will be valid; crypto anarchy will allow national secrets to be trade freely and will allow illicit and stolen materials to be traded. An anonymous computerized market will even make possible abhorrent markets for assassinations and extortion … But this will not halt the spread of crypto anarchy.” He further foretold:
Just as a seemingly minor invention like barbed wire made possible the fencing-off of vast ranches and farms, thus altering forever the concepts of land and property rights in the frontier West, so too will the seemingly minor discovery out of an arcane branch of mathematics come to be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property.
It wasn’t just what May envisioned that captivated his modest but passionate audience – it was the way he told it. Two decades after Timothy C. May shared his anarchist’s rallying cry to a cryptographic mailing list, a certain S. Nakamoto followed suit. The latter’s decision to share his own manifesto with the world via the same obscure route is no coincidence. What the cypherpunks, led by Timothy May, started, Satoshi propelled to its logical conclusion, sowing the seeds for the anonymous digital currency his forebear had prophesied.
Timothy C. May was a co-founder of the Cypherpunks and an influential crypto-anarchist, whose writings helped shape the vision of the "Libertarian in Cyberspace" being built upon every day.
Rest in Peace.
SNI proudly hosts a number of his essays here: https://t.co/UIYqT0pMyD pic.twitter.com/fB9MkZhrSB
— Nakamoto Institute (@NakamotoInst) December 15, 2018
“I can’t speak for what Satoshi intended,” said May in October, in what would be his last major interview, “but I sure don’t think it involved bitcoin exchanges that have draconian rules about KYC, AML, passports, freezes on accounts and laws about reporting ‘suspicious activity’ to the local secret police. There’s a real possibility that all the noise about ‘governance,’ ‘regulation’ and ‘blockchain’ will effectively create a surveillance state, a dossier society.” It is up to those of us who still care deeply about May and Satoshi’s vision to ensure the cryptographic protocols we we’re blessed to possess remain the preserve of the people.
All humans are fallible, but Timothy May’s perfections and imperfections made him the natural mentor for the current crypto generation. Don’t follow leaders, but do read the writings of Timothy C. May. Combined with Satoshi’s whitepaper, they form the essential starter kit for any self-respecting bitcoiner.
What are your thoughts on Timothy May’s passing? Let us know in the comments section below.