Cypherpunks (and Women) Write Code: Jude Milhon and Community Memoryby@obyte
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Cypherpunks (and Women) Write Code: Jude Milhon and Community Memory

by ObyteMarch 8th, 2024
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Jude Milhon, a key figure among cypherpunks, emerged from the civil rights activism of the 1960s to become a leading voice in cyberculture. Her contributions ranged from establishing Community Memory, a precursor to modern online platforms, to advocating for gender inclusion and individual freedoms in the digital realm. Milhon's legacy continues to inspire technologists and activists striving for a more equitable and liberated cyberspace.
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“Cypher” alludes to encryption and cryptography, while “punks” talk about rebellious people. Rebellious people who use encryption and cryptography tools as shields and weapons: they’re the privacy activists known as Cypherpunks. Satoshi Nakamoto was one of them, but the founding members appeared long before. Judith Milhon, known as “St. Jude,” was the person who first suggested this name for the group. And made a lot of other things too.

She was born in Washington (USA) in 1939 and taught herself programming by 1967. She wasn’t exactly quiet before that, though. She emerged from the beat/hipster scene in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1960s. Engaged in civil rights activism, she participated in significant events like the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

In case you don’t get it: voting rights for African Americans, who then suffered from a harsh law of racial segregation in the country. Milhon was white herself but fought anyway for the rights of her compatriots. Years later, after her involvement in technology, she also advocated for women's inclusion in the emerging cyberculture.

Her first job as a programmer was at the Horn & Hardart vending machine company in New York. However, she soon relocated to Berkeley, California, as part of the counterculture movement. She was also employed by the Berkeley Computer Company (BCC), where she played a role in installing the communications controller for the BCC time-sharing system. This is a precursor of modern computing paradigms where resources are shared among many users, such as cloud computing and virtualization.

Community Memory

In 1971, just after divorcing her first husband and moving to San Francisco, Milhon teamed up with other community activists and technology enthusiasts at Project One, an intentional community focused on leveraging technology for social impact. Within Project One, she was especially intrigued by the Resource One project, which aimed to pioneer the Bay Area's first computerized bulletin board system. Their objective was to use this system to facilitate communication and information sharing among residents.

In 1973, a subgroup of individuals from the Resource One team, including Milhon, decided to split off and establish their own project. This initiative eventually became known as Community Memory in Berkeley. “Community Memory” was also adopted as the name of the machine itself: a Teletype Model 33 terminal linked to an SDS 940 computer via telephone connection, employing a 10-character-per-second acoustic coupled modem.

Community Memory Terminal at the Computer History Museum (California). Image by Evan P. Cordes / Wikimedia

It may sound and look terribly old for all of us, but it was the first time using a computer for a lot of people back then. The machine was placed at the staircase entrance of Leopold's Records in Berkeley next to a bustling traditional bulletin board. Anyone could come and read what others posted for free, or pay a small fee to post a new forum or announcement.

All of this was before the massive creation and adoption of personal computers, and even before the release of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners Lee in 1989. Despite its humble beginnings, Community Memory laid the groundwork for modern online communication platforms. It fostered local community engagement, particularly among artists, and its legacy can be traced to the bulletin board services (BBS) and newsgroups that inspired the World Wide Web.

Mondo 2000 and Cyber-activism

Jude Milhon made significant contributions to the cyberculture landscape as both an activist and a pivotal figure at Mondo 2000, a renowned cyber-culture magazine of the early 1990s. As a leading cyber-feminist and early cypherpunk, she advocated for women's inclusion and empowerment in the burgeoning digital realm. But Milhon's activism also extended beyond gender advocacy, aligning with the countercultural ethos of the time, promoting free speech, and challenging societal norms.

Her tenure at Mondo 2000, considered a precursor of the currently renowned Wired, further solidified her status as a voice of the cyber community. Serving as a senior editor, Milhon leveraged the platform to explore cutting-edge topics at the intersection of technology, society, and human consciousness. Her writings and editorials not only reflected the avant-garde spirit of the magazine but also contributed to shaping the discourse around emerging digital phenomena.

Mondo 2000 Issue 1 available in the Internet Archive

Beyond her editorial role, Milhon's influence as a cypherpunk underscored her commitment to individual freedoms in the digital age. She viewed hacking not just as a technical pursuit but as a form of resistance against oppressive systems, emphasizing the importance of circumventing imposed limitations. Just as she shared in her “Nerdgirl's Pillow Book:”

“Hacking is the clever circumvention of imposed limits, whether imposed by your government, your IP server, your own personality, or the laws of Physics (...) Hacking doesn't stop with computers. Every revolutionist is a hacker, hacking the social system. The nerd-heroic Wright brothers hacked bicycles before they started hacking airplanes (...) The hacker approach works for everything in life. At least, it will make you more likely to analyze the elements of your life. At best it will make you want to transform those elements like an alchemist.”

A Legacy for Everyone in Cyberspace

In essence, Jude Milhon's multifaceted contributions as an activist, cyber-feminist, and cypherpunk underscored her unwavering dedication to fostering a more inclusive, free, and empowered digital society. Her work at Mondo 2000 and her advocacy efforts continue to inspire generations of technologists and activists striving for a more equitable and liberated cyberspace.

She also left behind several published books: How to Mutate & Take Over the World: An Exploded Post-Novel (1997), Cyberpunk Handbook: The Real Cyberpunk Fakebook (1995), and Hacking the Wetware: The NerdGirl’s Pillow Book (1994). She passed away in 2003, not without reminding us: “Whether we're set upon by zealots or bigots or abusively correct politicos, we have to learn to defend ourselves.”

As she and her teammates, the cypherpunks, knew very well, the best way to defend ourselves in this censored and monitored digital world is by using encrypted and decentralized technology to protect our privacy and freedom. Obyte, with its decentralized architecture, stands out as a potent tool for safeguarding personal data and liberties in the digital realm.

This platform stands out primarily due to its Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG) system. Unlike blockchain networks, which rely on linear chains of blocks and miners or “validators” who create them, Obyte's DAG architecture enables users to register their transactions themselves, without middlemen.

Additionally, Obyte incorporates features such as smart contracts and autonomous agents, which further enhance privacy and freedom online. Smart contracts enable users to execute self-enforcing agreements without relying on intermediaries, while autonomous agents automate tasks and transactions, reducing the need for human intervention and potential points of vulnerability.

By adopting cypherpunk principles, Obyte gives everyone the means to assert their rights and resist censorship in an increasingly surveilled digital landscape.

Read more from Cypherpunks Write Code series:

Tim May & Crypto-anarchism

Wei Dai & B-money

Nick Szabo & Smart Contracts

Adam Back & Hashcash

Featured Vector Image by Garry Killian / Freepik

Jude Milhon Photograph by Montgomery Police Department