May 26, 2012

Interview with Danny, author of “#agora - a novel?”

#agora - a novel? coverI got a chance to interview Danny a couple days ago about his 126-page story of Bitcoin, sex and a young wannabe-cryptoanarchist: "#agora - a novel?"

Here’s the interview:

David: Hello Danny, it’s great to get a chance to find out more about you and your thoughts behind the novel. By the way, your novel is the first I’m aware of that mentions Bitcoin and so I’m wondering, how did you hear about Bitcoin and what can you tell me about your experience with the software or the currency so far?

Danny: Hi David, I first heard about Bitcoin in December of 09, IIRC. They were worth a fraction of a dollar back then, and pretty much the only thing you could buy with them was alpaca socks. To be honest, I feel kind of stupid now for not buying a bunch back then and growing rich. But hindsight is always 20/20. Within a few months, I saw Bitcoin rising to dollar parity and then beyond it. The concept of the distributed hashtable was what really got to me. Satoshi Nakamoto recognized that organized crime (private or public sector) will always try to attack the single point of failure, so he created a system that didn’t have a single point of failure.

I’ve never been a gambler, so I didn’t (and still don’t) feel like speculating on Bitcoin gaining in value tremendously. I’m fine with it staying at any level, and just using it for transactions. Getting dollars in quick, sending them, and the other guy getting them out again. For that, bitcoins are just amazing. No other transfer system works as smoothly. I think this is actually a genius idea on Nakamotos part. Not only is Bitcoin a currency, it is also a value transfer system. I could use gold or shells or promises as currency, but I can’t easily send them in an enforcable and safe way. Gold is hard to counterfeit - but hard to ship around. Promises could be sent by email - but are hard to enforce and not very complicated to fake.

Bitcoin solves not only one, but two major problems that all other currencies have. It’s actually way easier to send bitcoins than to make an Amazon or iTunes account, enter your credit card information, trust the vendor, and finally click on “buy”. I bought a few eBooks off of coinDL.com within literally seconds. From seeing the book to having it downloaded took less than a minute. No registration. I guess you could count the time to buy into Bitcoin, which is like signing up for Amazon or iTunes. But I already had some bitcoins lying around, so I used those.

Overall, I am amazed by Bitcoin. It’s not useful for 100% of my transactions, but for a very specific subgroup, it’s just perfect. And that’s what’s being offered. It’s no big deal for me to buy groceries at the store with dollars. But I’d rather buy my VPN, webspace, domains, prepaid credit cards, digital goods and drugs with pseudonymous internet money. Not saying I wouldn’t pay for my groceries with Bitcoin, but some things lend themselves to a cryptocurrency more than others. Namely those where anonymity is either important, easy to maintain on delivery (like most digital goods and services where the vendor never sees your face), or both.

I think that even if Bitcoin doesn’t replace the dollar, it’s going to be around for a while and be used in ways we can’t imagine. Things like Bitcoin-backed real anonymous cryptocurrencies, physical bitcoins, point of sale, digital hawala. It could completely replace PayPal now if it wasn’t so hard to get the money out of the system again.

Every time I buy or sell something using bitcoins, it just feels so easy and hassle-free to me. That’s what makes me think it (or one of its successors) will have a great future.

David: The book works in a lot of technology that Bitcoin users will be familiar with. Things like IRC, eBooks, and the web are pretty well integrated, even essential to the story. How do you see technical settings like IRC functioning in fiction? Are you worried at all that the novel will be dated by specific tech?

Danny: It’s not The Grapes of Wrath. If some people read it now and nobody remembers it in 100 years, I’m totally fine with that. So I’m not worried about being too specific. I even have github repos and Bitcoin adresses in there. Lots of URLs that will change over time. Oh well.

Integrating all those things helps readers go deeper into the topic, and it made it easier to write for me. Surprise, I hang out in those same IRC channels mentioned in the book. I visit those websites. I read those books. You could do the more abstract approach, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, where the hackers all use “decks” as computers, cyberspace is more of an analogy than an actual interface, and very few technological details are provided. But I feel like we have enough of abstract, grand-overview cyber/cypherpunk. At least a lot more than specific, do-it-now stuff. And that is what I’m missing.

There’s a scene in the book where I talk to Fellow Traveler on IRC, and I plan to write a client part for it. I tried that in real life, but I never got far. Sad, personal defeat, and I’m not proud of it. But that’s what happened, so it’s in the book. Being pseudonymous makes it easier for me to admit that failure.

If you encounter something while reading, like a link to a website/project or see a book mentioned that you haven’t read yet, check it out. Most of these books/projects have changed my thinking substantially. And then go out and meet agorists and cryptoanarchists in real life. Nothing beats meatspace sometimes. And write books about them ;-)

David: Your characters also come into contact with cryptography and agorism in the book. These are fairly deep, technical areas of study so I’m wondering if you had a process by which to gauge how much explanation was needed with them. How do you find a balance between allowing the reader to get lost in the story and inspiring them to learn more about these subjects?

Danny: Haha, there’s not much of a balance. I just wrote it like it occurred to me. I gave it out to a few friends (like the people in the book) for an alpha and beta read, and a few complained that I was hitting the reader over the head. Interestingly, it was mostly the philosophical stuff, not the technical part. I’m really kind of hung up on the idea of moral relativism, since morals are values, and we know that values are subjective. That’s why a significant part of the book is spent on rationalizing why it’s ok to do drugs, fuck hookers, be a whore and not pay taxes. Some people might not be interested in seeing that over and over again.

Denton told me that he’d found at least half a dozen places where somebody tells another character to “read Human Action” or “read Stirner”. So I toned it down a little and made the main characters less of smart-assy, know-it-all wise-guys. If that’s still the impression you get, you should’ve seen it before the changes ;-)

I believe a big part of this balance is whether you like the memes in it. If I’m reading an agorist book, I love to see all the references to Austrian Economics and cypherpunk. That’s just stuff I like. When you give the same book to a communist, he’ll hate it, because it references stuff he disagrees with. I hate books that hit me over the head with environmental, moralizing or anti-capitalist crap.

In short: if you like bitcoins, cryptoanarchy, hot girls and are a moral subjectivist, you’ll like this book. If not, go find some other book.

David: Do you have any plans for a follow on novel or is there anything you’re working on now that you’d like to mention?

Danny: I always have plans, but I don’t have a significant number of words down for any of them. I have a few chapters of Anonymous-meets-P2P-wikileaks-and-assassination-politics, a few chapters of #agora 2.0, and a bit of what might be an end-game anarcho-capitalist novel, i.e. the world is now mostly anarchist, the protagonist is an insurance agent (the new “police detective”), and so on. But nothing that you should wait for. Most of these ideas will never make it past 10k words ;)

In closing, I’d like to mention how awesome CoinDL.com is. This shit is exactly where Bitcoin entrepreneurs can code circles around Amazon, Apple, Walmart or any of the other dinosaurs. Enabling people to reach a fringe public with a fringe eBook. The cost for me to upload the book and receive bitcoins is so extremely low that I would make a profit if only 5 people ever bought it. Bitcoin, and CoinDL using it, lowers the barrier to entry enormously, making it possible to publish stuff that I could never have published at Random House.

For me, Bitcoin, CoinDL and all the other entrepreneurial activities are a form of super-empowerment (after John Robb). A few guys with a webserver and some coding skills can enable thousands of people to transact, publish, buy, sell, read, listen. This will fuck up the status quo in a way the printing press could never even dream of. You can print books really cheaply? Impressive. I can receive money for an eBook from all over the world with about 30 minutes of investment, at zero additional marginal cost per extra copy.

The near future is going to be very exiting.

And that’s the end of the interview. The book is available at: CoinDL

I want to thank Danny for doing this interview, for writing this novel, and for choosing to post it at CoinDL. Did I miss something? Have any other questions? Comment below and I’ll see what I can find.

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