Cryptography as a personal practice


I gave this talk a few months ago, and it is something that came out of working through cryptopals at RC.  I was drafting the powerpoint into a conference proposal that sort of encapsulates my thinking right now.

I am going to look at encryption broadly – as a process that undergirds all technological knowledge. Anything from compression (e.g., a JPEG) to cryptography (e.g., PGP), to the binary system on which all computers run, I consider a form of encryption. Almost all current encryption protocols, while mostly open source, are monolithic and centralized. The structure of knowledge can be construed as depended on the structure of encryption protocols. How do we create our own personal practices and systems of encryption and cryptography to restructure knowledge?

Personal practices are at the forefront of today’s life-hacking movement(s). The cultivation of the self, once a matter of character, is now a matter of capital. Today we ask, how can I optimize myself and become the most efficient self that is able to contribute to capitalist production and consumption? There is a history of using personal practices as a bulwark against commodification, in practices from anarchism to veganism.

It is in this vein that I want to consider personal practices of encryption and the broader question of how can we rethink technological production and consumption in terms of a personal practice? This is particularly urgent when we consider our engagement with technology as part of the feedback loop of knowledge production. Even for something as banal as using a search engine, creates usage data that turns into knowledge, which then structures our next search.

When we extrapolate this to mapping and sensors, as well as the use of energy and physical space for manufacturing servers and microcontrollers, we are directly in the physical realm – the realm of nature.

Technology practices contribute both to the practical use case of data collection in the creation of AI, and the theoretical consideration of cybernetic impact of culture on nature.  As the LAMP stack was an innovation critical to Web 2.0, encryption and cryptography is an innovation critical to the rise of AI and its dependence on our data.

There is a rich history of personal practices of encryption from DaVinci to Anne Lister. In the past it was to keep thoughts radical thoughts private.  Now we need it to keep thoughts non-commodified.

How do we bring back a craft culture of encryption? What is knowledge produced and codified through personal encryption? What happens when our encryption systems are ‘artisanal’ instead of commodities? How can we engage in personal practices of encryption and what sort of knowledge organization will this create?