What Sonya Wrote, Summer 2018

Hello everyone! I just switched from MailChimp to an indie newsletter service called Buttondown. It is my dearest hope that everything goes smoothly and this email doesn’t get lost in your spam folder 😓

Life has been busy busy busy since I last updated you in June. Highlights:

If you want to learn way more about the Zcash Foundation’s doings, click here and here.

Outside of work:

Internet idealists talk about how freedom of information opens up opportunity for everyone. You can learn whatever you want, build whatever you want, and communicate whatever you want. For example, instead of needing thousands of dollars to self-publish a physical book and buy ads for it in a magazine, you can make an ebook for free, distribute it however you like, and promote it on social media. Compared to the previous status quo, this is a genuine improvement! The internet idealists are right: Opportunity truly is more broadly available than it used to be.

But what if Amazon bans your ebook? What if Barnes & Noble and Kobo also deem it inappropriate? The unspoken catch of the internet as democratizing force is that if you are weird enough, or aberrant enough, and you either use the wrong keyword or attract the baleful eye of the administrators, you’ll be banished. In that case, it doesn’t matter that there are fewer gatekeepers — the handful of big, flourishing gatekeepers are key, and they have shut you out.

It may be that there is another path. Disenfranchised hackers and crypto-anarchists are building parallel institutions that no one group can own or control, instead of trying to force giant tech platforms to accommodate them. They recognize that any entity that prizes advertising revenue above all else can’t be relied upon for civic neutrality.

  • Expanding on that theme, I explained how cypherpunk politics means choosing exit over voice.
  • And then expanding on that theme even more, I argued in a CoinDesk op-ed that cryptocurrencies can circumvent financial discrimination.
  • My fiancé and I went on a trip to New York City. We visited lots of friends and it was exhausting but wonderful.

I think that’s it! As usual, please reply and let me know what youuu were up to this summer!

However, I have learned from experience that if you send me a long email, I will take forever to respond. It happens because I start feeling bad that I haven’t come up with an equally involved response. Nothing personal! Sorry in advance!

💕 Sonya

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American Neo-Nazis Don’t Have the Numbers

The following is part of an article I wrote for Inc. about interviewing the semi-infamous hacker Weev (legal name Andrew Auernheimer). He currently runs dev-ops for neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer — or at least that’s what he was doing when I talked to him during August and September, 2017.

I’m only publishing the second half of the article because frankly, Weev’s enthusiasm for genocide is banal among neo-Nazis and doesn’t need more coverage. I may change my mind and publish the full essay eventually, who knows. You can read the interview transcript on Pastebin or peruse my commentary on Twitter.

A context note: The news peg for the article was Cloudflare and a bunch of domain registrars booting The Daily Stormer, so that kerfuffle is alluded to a couple of times. My current view is that cypherpunk resistance to censorship is the way to go, but I don’t want to get into that here.

And now, why I think neo-Nazis aren’t as much of a problem as they pretend they are! Some of the following data is surely outdated, but I still believe that the preponderance of evidence points to neo-Nazis and other white nationalists being primarily LARPers (at least in America).


Andrew Auernheimer’s position on de-platforming was straightforward: “People can either talk about things or they can kill people. Only paths to social change.” And: “If we are disallowed from airing our grievances in the marketplace of ideas the only option will be violence.”

Although put in brutal terms, this is logical. If you are sufficiently fed up, and sufficiently silenced, what else can you do but resort to fists, knives, or guns? Auernheimer added, “Not a threat, just an obvious conclusion.”

On the bright side, follow-through seems unlikely now that The Daily Stormer is once again accessible on the open web, although Auernheimer was recently banned from rightwing Twitter equivalent Gab for expressing a similar idea. [Note from the present: I’m not sure whether TDS is still available beyond Tor, but I don’t care enough to check.]

Auernheimer’s common sense ended there. He delighted in quasi-apocalyptic fantasies: “When the final round comes, you guys are gonna see how significant our numbers are. Because we don’t throw tantrums in the street like liberals. If we move, we will move once to solve problems, and that will be that. There will be no demonstrations. There will be a movement in the night. The next day will be rosy for us.”

He added later, “Either we are going to get what we want or our enemies are going to have their houses burned down with their whole families inside.”

While Auernheimer’s vision is terrifying, on a practical level Neo-Nazis and their ilk simply do not have the numbers. The Daily Stormer is the best-known white supremacist website, and its monthly traffic before the recent ordeal broke down like this, according to Auernheimer: 6 million monthly unique visitors, roughly 19,000 of whom are forum members, who generated 545 million page views altogether. (A mainstream politics website like Politico garners more than four times the unique visitors.) Auernheimer estimated that 45 percent of the traffic came from the US, while most of the rest was from Europe.

Six million sounds like a lot of people until you put it in perspective. 45 percent comes to 2.7 million, which is eight tenths of a percent of the United States’ 323.1 million residents. That is 3.2 percent fewer than the number of Americans who will tell pollsters that they believe lizardmen run the earth, and also the number of Americans who will tell pollsters that they’ve personally been decapitated. Of course, The Daily Stormer’s audience can’t be assumed to contain all of the United States’ militant racists, but it’s a helpful benchmark.

Richard Spencer, one of the most prominent American white nationalists, put on a conference in 2016 that was only able to pull 300 people, which was — generously — 4.2 percent of the attendance of BronyCon, an event for adult fans of the My Little Pony franchise, as The Daily Caller noted. Ahead of the Charlottesville protest, AltRight.com declared, “A conservative estimate would put us at about 500, although if […] affiliated groups come through, we can top 1000,” which would be a whopping 14.3 percent of BronyCon.

Auernheimer did offer a counterargument. “We are a pro-genocide publication,” he explained. “For everyone that consumes pro-genocide media, there are far more than will embrace casual degrees of media. And having people saying really extreme things redefines the edge of political theater to make people closer to us be more towards the center. Now 10 percent of people think it is acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views.” Nine percent, actually, according to a Washington Post poll. “That’ll be 25 percent shortly,” he continued. “And we’ll keep pushing.”

It would sound ominous, but the notion is again undermined by data. In 1996, United States law enforcement recorded 1,109 hate crimes against Jews. In 2015, they recorded 695. That’s a 37 percent reduction over barely two decades.

Furthermore, 39 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats said that “prejudice against Jewish people is in the United States today” is either a “very serious problem” or a “somewhat serious problem,” according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in August. Forty-four percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats said that yes, “white supremacist groups pose a threat to the United States.”

Meanwhile, white attitudes toward blacks have been steadily improving since the mid-1900s. Americans are increasingly concerned about race relations since the early 2000s, but it does not follow that a spate of racially motivated massacres loom on our national horizon.

Interviewing Auernheimer was a frustrating experience. I still feel torn between the view that de-platforming is a dangerous trend, and that free speech as a cultural value is in peril — versus the opposing view that private companies can use their infrastructure however they wish to, and The Daily Stormer is welcome to use Tor or to print out physical “spamizdat” (classic Weev trick) if no one is willing to enable them to do anything else.

I talked it over with fellow civil libertarian Giancarlo Sandoval, a PhD researcher in digital cultures at Birkbeck, University of London. He said, “I don’t believe there’s a shadowy cabal pulling the strings,” but rather that The Daily Stormer is suffering the natural consequences of advocating extremely unpopular ideas. Sandoval added, “Registrars can do whatever they want, they are commercial entities.”

Ultimately, my conclusion is that businesses refusing to serve someone isn’t a problem that demands legislation. So what if building your own internet infrastructure is expensive — buying a printing press was too! Censorship by the government is another matter, since nation-states force compliance with their rules at gunpoint.

It is true that ICANN, the organization that stewards domain names, was started in part by the United States government. But with the advent of Tor and other decentralized networks, ICANN can’t choke off dissenters, just force them to resort to less convenient options.

Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the United States Constitution, but cheapness of speech and ease of speech are not. Nor do I think they should be. Until I’m convinced that the government itself is suppressing The Daily Stormer, my unease about de-platforming will stay passive.

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Ambivalence on Technocracy

I really have a knack for clickbait titles, don’t I?

Hello hello! The weather is emphatically swinging into spring here in the SF Bay Area. Cheery sunshine = I feel cheery too. One of my friends delivered a lamb for the first time today, which is amazing 🐑

My last email to you was about livestreaming. In retrospect, that post was vapid and undershot my standards for Sonya Notes. Editorial quality will hopefully improve as I continue to iterate, and I appreciate your patience so far!

Granted, I originally pitched Sonya Notes as an experimental newsletter. Experiments often yield dumb results, so I don’t feel too guilty.

I’ve been sitting on the following post for a while, trying to get it where I want it.

“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.
“I marveled at how the flow of people through security screening looked like a time-lapse factory film.” Photo by Melissa Gutierrez.

Two of my favorite heuristics conflict with each other:

  1. Competitive markets solve most problems on their own. (The largest exceptions are externalities and physical monopolies.) Market participants should be free to express their preferences and create an emergent equilibrium, instead being subject to an authority that tries to engineer specific results.
  2. Any given member of the general public is a moron with no proper idea of what is good for them or anyone else. (See also: Cipolla’s laws of stupidity and Hanlon’s razor.)

#1 is a libertarian idea and #2 is a progressive idea (at least according to early American progressivism or perhaps High Modernism). #1 is bottom-up improvement of society and #2 is top-down improvement of society.

It’s worth noting that I phrased #1 as optimistic and #2 as cynical. (I used to go around defining myself as a “cynical optimist” like Bryan Caplan. Still pretty accurate: I’m cynical about human nature and optimistic about technology.)

The conflict between the heuristics is okay, as long as I’m aware of it. Heuristics need to be useful cognitive shortcuts more than they need to be completely accurate in all scenarios.

Despite my politics being laissez-faire overall, I have a soft spot for paternalistic technocracy. I think mixing the two yields a basically functional government. The current American system is too hands-off in some ways, but mostly far too interventionist (in the lives of its citizens, but also in the affairs of foreign countries).

I like how Redditor darwin2500 put it, with flipped rhetoric:

[P]ersonal responsibility is often a great idea for giving an individual one-on-one advice to improve their life, and is usually a terrible credo for public policy debates and political activism.

A society without both personal-level and systems-based vigilance and improvements will ultimately fail. You can’t only focus on one and not the other.

I tend to say that “anything gov’t touches is so routinely dysfunctional that we should only delegate issues that can’t be handled any other way” — in other words, minimum viable government. I would be a minarchist if minarchism accounted for social safety nets.

The soul of libertarianism is “everyone gets to do whatever they want unless they’re directly harming someone else,” for a pretty narrow definition of direct harm. (Yes, it has failure modes.) I find that very appealing, as a person who chafes under authority.

The soul of progressivism is “we need to take care of everyone and here’s how,” with a very strong desire for rules and behavior-shaping.


I don’t have a neat conclusion, so I’ll end with this quote about populism, which I recoil from, excerpted from an essay called “The Ignoble Lie”:

The uprising among the working classes across the developed West arises from a perception of illegitimacy — of a gap between claims of the ruling class and reality as experienced by those who are ruled. It is no coincidence that these rebellions come from the socialist left and authoritarian right, two positions that now share opposition to state capitalism, a managerial ruling class, the financialization of the economy, and globalization.

See also: “The Twin Insurgency” by Nils Gilman.


Originally posted on Substack.

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Elitist Elites and Non-Elite Elitists

This morning I tweeted a string of thoughts on political elitism. I’m replicating those tidbits here so that I can 1) easily relocate them later and 2) share them with non-Twitterites. Feel free to read the originals in their native habitat.

Helpful background: Slate Star Codex’s “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup” (long but worth it) and “Staying Classy” (also long and also worth it).

If you’re not familiar with the cadence of Twitter conversations, the following may seem choppy or disjointed. I didn’t edit much. Other people’s interjections are included as block quotes.


It’s easy to be an elitist when you’re part of the elite. Is that tautological?

Example of a non-elite elitist: high school dropout who thinks people with college degrees should be in charge.

As far as I know, non-elite elitists don’t exist, or there are very few of them. [This assertion gets walked back momentarily.]

However, you could argue that this position, when held by random schmucks, is non-elite elitism: “Donald Trump should run things because he’s a successful businessman” or “Hillary Clinton has lots of foreign policy experience”

And random unimpressive people hold positions along those lines, as noted here:

“I dunno, does not appear to match observations unambiguously. Plenty shit-eating basement dwellers dreaming of elitist shit” — @okayultra

Even non-elite elitists seem to always follow cultural lines. “The people I identify with should be in charge.”

Important to remember: “the people I identify with should be in charge” is different from “people like me should run things”

Like Sam says, there are different elites for Red Tribe versus Blue Tribe:

“this is pretty common, they just define ‘elite’ in non-educational terms — religious leaders, rich people, etc” — Sam Bhagwat

There are arguably even different elites for different sub-segments of each tribe. Progressives’ idols are not neoliberals’ idols.

“Also subtribes — grey, red-grey, blue-grey, etc. (Technocratic elites)” — @orthonormalist

So I’d amend my original tweet like this: “It’s easy to be an elitist with respect to elites that align with your culture and ideology.”

“society is dominated by elites and always will be. Only question is which ones they are” — Adam Elkus

“every time a barbarian horde deposed an emperor a new class of elites was born” — Adam Elkus


Insightful responses from Facebook friends:

elitism Facebook comments

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Social Cohesion via Memes

“The actual propositional content of doctrines has little to do with how religion works socially. Far more than the content of faith as such, what makes religion religion are the images and rhetoric loaded with atavistic and esoteric archetypes (chaos; order; Kek; frogs; a ‘God Emperor,’ to use a common 4chan appellation for Donald Trump) that tend to propagate virally, independent of a centralized source, because they tie into the cultural zeitgeist or answer some cultural need. […] Every time a meme is replicated or a symbol is reused, it only strengthens the socially determined bond of meaning.” — Tara Isabella Burton

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