Aug 1, 2023

Conjuring Alice and Bob: Cryptographic Deities

Imagine this: last year, I found myself amidst the buzzing energy of ethBerlin, among thousands of thriving hackers. Here, I met a charismatic fellow named Gregoris who had curated a serene space for light therapy.

I heard from him again a few weeks ago. He shared an intriguing proposal for a short film to be screened this September at Protocol Berg.

Title: Rawsciousness

Abstract: Exploring the Meaning of Existence in a Futuristic Crypto Epoch

Description: A and B two fictional characters who transcend to a parallel crypto space. After reflecting on each others existence and how they’ve been communicating, only then are able to reveal the true essence of a decentralised world.

A Short Film (A Non-Dual Media Production) Starring Alice and Bob Sci-Fi 15 min (FSK 12) 4k Language English

Alice and Bob are names often used in examples of cryptographic exchanges. The concept was that these characters would were real people in a parallel decentralised world, who start to see our dystopian, centralised world.

ethBerlin is more than a hackathon - it’s a vibrant microcosm with values deeply rooted in open source, collective welfare, and pro-social behavior. What sets it apart from the generic crypto sphere (and other ethGlobal cities) is its clear stance against hype, scams, and airdrops. They recognize the corruption of centralized power and the economic stresses pushing many into consumerism or surrender. These smart, motivated individuals are leveraging economic tools to combat these troubling trends, and their dedication is truly inspirational.

The idea of this film had been simmering in Gregoris’s mind all year, fueled by how the Berlin community is challenging the stereotypical, dystopian image of the Crypto world. He’d scouted magnificent backdrops for the film—an amber mine, Nicosia Freedom Square, a crypto mining facility—each resonating with unique themes.

A small problem though. The film still had no plot or script! He’d submitted his proposal not really expecting it to be accepted. But it turned out to be one of the favourites! The film production would start now, but might not be fully ready by September.

So his proposition: how about we design a workshop for Protocol Berg? Needless to say, I jumped at it. The whole idea sounded super fun!

So, why not join us in this incredible journey as we dive into the strange world of cryptography (not cryptocurrency), explore its potential, and maybe even help shape its future? It’s a story we’re writing together, and we can’t wait to see where it takes us all. We’re even planning on including Protocol Berg in the film itself…

Workshop: experiencing cryptography in your brain

When Grigoris first asked what kind of crpytography workshop we could do, I imagined some pen-and-paper cryptography done in role-playing scenarios, to create an embodied knowledge of how cryptography works. To feel it’s power through lived experience.

For example, setting up a big room like the Byzantine Generals problem, where allies had to yell at each other across their “enemies” and manually do a Diffie-Hellman key exchange. (It’s not that hard - just long division!) Then, even though their enemies heard everything, the generals still end up with a secret key their enemies won’t know.

How does cryptography change our collective understanding of truth?

I wanted to build on this, to connect it to this alternate dimension concept of Alice and Bob. I started with some metaphysical metaphors of cryptography: to get people really thinking about how cryptography changes our understanding of our world. How does our idea of truth change when messages and records can be verified with cryptographic signatures? (We take it for granted, but this has never been possible to humans until now!)

In many philosophical schools, we try to understand “everything” by understanding ourselves. There’s the Spinozan concept that Nature is God, and Physics shows us that Nature itself speaks in Mathematics. Cryptography is pure math, so can cryptography help us experience something of ourselves we couldn’t before?

There’s a Buddhist concept of interdependency called dependency-arising: everything is phenomena, and every phenomenon exists only in relation to other phenomena. Cryptographic systems also have deeply interconnected traits. In “asymmetric” cryptographic exchanges, a public key needs a private key to exist, and vice versa. And nothing exists without two parties exchanging.

There’s also the Kant’s distinction of Phenomenon (the experiencable world) vs Noumenon (the unknowable, actual world). Can we truly know Nature? If not, what can we truly know? Just because we can use cryptography to verify “authenticity” of a message (as actually sent by the sender) doesn’t authenticity mean something deeper? What if there was a cryptography of the heart - to tell you if what you’re saying to yourself is true?

Hearing my rhapsody, Grigoris got excited, and decided I would help! We could do it in a month!

lfg!

Grigoris asked a friend, Argyris Loizou, a champion slam poet (!), to write the script.

He asked if I could be be the resident cryptogrpahy expert (I’ve done some production crypography work a long time ago, and know my way around basic SNARKS.), and help with dialog (I’ve taken Chuck Palahniuk and Robert McKee writing courses, just for fun. I’m a bit of cinema nerd.)

Grigoris came up with the clever idea that Alice and Bob communicate telepathically in the film - letting him start shooting right away. We could add the dialog as voiceover later.

The Alice and Bob Universe

I’ve starting thinking up a story universe to see if we can place the plot within it, and connect it to historical cryptography concepts:

The ideas is that as mathematicians designed cryptographic systems in 60s and 70s, we used the names ‘Alice’ and ‘Bob’, which conjured them as deities in a kinda David Lynch way. As cryptographic systems came into use, Alice and Bob started to see our world through the information that we encrypted.

Think about every time you use secure connections to safely enter credit card information online; there’s always encryption at work here. On Telegram calls, four emojis appear - only visible to you and your caller - signifying your unique key only known by the two of you.

Now picture Alice and Bob seeing only what is encrypted because they were born from cryptography itself! Every time you see a 🔒 icon protecting that communication from prying eyes, these cryptographic deities are invoked and see what’s hidden behind that lock!

Alice and Bob become curious. Now that we use cryptography everywhere - mostly without even realising it because it’s automatic - they started to see a more and more of our world - but a strangely incomplete side. They still only see what we encrypt. A beautiful inversion - all our secrets are open to them, but everything we do in the open is not visible to them.

They see our personal chats and our shopping carts - but not the world itself that we’re talking about. So they want to manifest into our reality to experience it.

Intrigued by us, they also have fascinating questions for us about truth and authenticity, to help them understand who they are.

I was spit-balling that at our Protocol Berg workshop, Alice and Bob will “meet” humans for the first time though our “hands-on” cryptography in our own brains.

Hearing this, Grigoris thought, let’s record our workshop as one of the scenes!

The workshop as a portal between worlds

I’m still sketching out options for this workshop:

We can start the workshop by showing a rough cut of the previous acts. Then together, in exchange with each other, how can we ask these questions about authenticity? What do Alice and Bob want to tell us (or warn us) about in our world, and how will be be able to interpret or verify that?

I want us to feel cryptography by doing it in our own brains, with pen and paper. That’s a very empowering and enlightening experience - to truly know how encryption works. Even funner will be to go deeper into our minds, asking if the message is genuine; where does it come from?

It’s such a great opportunity to bring this project into a community of diverse experts like Protocol Berg. I’d love to design this experience to be really generative, opening a range of possibilities for the film from everyone’s reflection and feedback.

If you have any ideas, feel free to drop me a line!

If you’d like to meet Alice and Bob, or yourself in a new way, join us at Protocol Berg.

What am I up to these days?

I’m a new parent, and prioritising my attention on our new rhythms as a family.

Work-wise, I’m trekking along at a cozy pace, doing stuff that doesn’t require meetings :)

I have a few non-exec/advisory roles for engineering edu programs. I’m also having fun making a few apps, going deep with zero-knowledge cryptography, and have learned to be a pretty good LLM prompt engineer.

In the past, I've designed peer-learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures, The Royal Academy Of Engineering, and Kernel, careering from startups to humanitech and engineering. I also played a role in starting the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.

Contact me

Books & collected practices

  • Peer Learning Is - a broad look at peer learning around the world, and how to design peer learning to outperform traditional education
  • Mentor Impact - researched the practices used by the startup mentors that really make a difference
  • DAOistry - practices and mindsets that work in blockchain communities
  • Decision Hacks - early-stage startup decisions distilled
  • Source Institute - skunkworks I founded with open peer learning formats and ops guides, and our internal guide on decentralised teams