Once described by PGP creator Phil Zimmerman as “the Mister Rogers of cryptography,” Hal Finney (1956) was known for his relentlessly uplifting spirit. He carried a positive perspective on life with him even when amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) paralyzed his entire body, until the Bitcoin pioneer ultimately passed away from the disease on August 28, 2014.
In the 1980s, as a graduate from the California Institute of Technology working in the startup computer game industry, Finney’s optimism made him fit in naturally with the Extropians. This Californian techno-libertarian movement drew much of its inspiration from Austrian economists and libertarian authors, and embraced nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, space travel and other futuristic technologies as tools to propel humanity toward a next evolutionary stage. If science and innovation could progress free from government interference, the Extropians believed, eternal life and other transhumanist goals were within reach.
Finney, too, liked to operate on the cutting-edge of technology. When the internet became publicly available for the first time in the early 1990s, he immediately began to explore the World Wide Web and other corners of the brand new information superhighway, and quickly recognized the revolutionary potential embedded in the nascent network. Humanity would for the first time become connected across the globe, regardless of geographic distances, cultural differences or arbitrary borders.
But there was a flip side. Finney, well-versed in the design tradeoffs presented by the internet, knew that cyberspace didn’t just offer exciting new possibilities, but also potential risks. As communication went digital, anyone’s conversations were in peril of being monitored. The Net could represent an encroachment on everyone’s privacy and, therefore, become a possible threat to human liberty.
This was true for regular communication, and Finny realized it was equally true for financial…