Re: BOOK: Cryptonomicon
Sun, 13 Jun 1999 17:43:36 -0700

E. Shaun Russell, <>, wrote, regarding Stephenson's Cryptonomicon:

> I am nearing the end (about 3/4 of the way through) and have found
> it to be the best book I have read since his _Diamond Age_. Stephenson has
> a style which sits somewhere between Robert Heinlein and Robert Anton
> Wilson, but contains far more signal than either of those authors could
> ever muster. Neal Stephenson's use of figurative language is a real treat.
> Interestingly, the book is *not* science fiction, and is immune to a lot
> of the popular stigma associated to that genre.

I did enjoy the book, but I thought it could have been tightened up some. Really, three pages on the joys of eating Captain Crunch cereal?

The other problem I had with it is that the main present-day action involves establishment of an offshore cryptographic data haven, which will also serve as a bank issuing virtual currency backed by gold. These are a couple of topics long discussed among cypherpunks, but I didn't think Stephenson did much to address the hard issues, both ethical and practical, raised by such proposals.

Untraceable digital cash could be used to promote various forms of crime. This would include things which most of us would not oppose, such as money laundering (hiding your spending patterns) and purchases of banned information. But it could also facilitate crimes of coercion, such as kidnapping or extortion, where most of the risk involves collecting the ransom. Stephenson does reveal that the data haven is attracting the attention of a lot of criminal types, but he doesn't seem to have his characters go through the difficult process of weighing the moral benefits against the costs.

Also, there is no necessary connection betweena data haven and a gold backed virtual currency. The technology needed for the two would be pretty different, I think. The data haven needs a lot of storage space and high speed connections, plus some simple software to charge for the data as appropriate. The bank needs gold to bank the currency, some cryptography to make the virtual coins unforgeable, and a mechanism to allow people to exchange payemnts untraceably. It will benefit from high speed access and plenty of storage but these are not crucial requirements to make such a scheme work.

The novel mentioned a threat on the part of governments to cut cables if necessary to prevent this service from threatening their power, but I don't recall how this was resolved. Certainly there would be many practical obstacles to successfully operating a bank like this in today's political and financial environment.