Cryptographic Imaginaries and Networked Publics

This project provides an account of cryptography as a counterbalance to the force of networked connectivity. I argue that encryption technologies, which enable the transformation of a message or data into code inscrutable to anyone save those with the key to unscramble it, can grant individuals space to disconnect, or to regain autonomy around how and to whom we connect. Encryption can be used to protect our privacy under the conditions of surveillance capitalism. But, importantly, it can do so without requiring that we exile ourselves from society: encryption is itself a connective technology, with mutual relationships and trust paths built into its very architecture.

Building upon research for my dissertation, I use multi-site ethnography to trace encryption across both historical archives and contemporary communities engaged with the production of privacy-enhancing technologies, I consider shifts in the cultural meaning of encryption technologies in relation to networked infrastructure. I analyze a complicated tangle of regulatory, economic, and social factors that combined over the course of the 1960s to present day to shape the evolution of cryptographic technologies from a monopoly by state intelligence agencies, used for spycraft and information control in the cold war, to developing new and alternative meanings for the protection of data and enabling of e-commerce.

Through ethnographic observation of communities of technologists working on cryptographic projects in the present day, I trace an imaginary still in formation: one that sees the achievement of autonomy as a collective enterprise and seeks to use encryption to create spaces where individuals with marginalized identities or views can gather together in association free from the gaze of the surveillance state.



West, S.M. (Forthcoming). Survival of the Cryptic: Tracing technological imaginaries across ideologies, infrastructures, and community practices. New Media and Society.

West, S.M. (2018) Cryptographic Imaginaries and Networked Publics: A Cultural History of Encryption Technologies, 1967-2017. (Dissertation). University of Southern California.

West, S.M. (2018) Cryptographic Imaginaries and the Networked Public. Internet Policy

Review, 7(2). DOI: 10.14763/2018.2.792

West, S.M. (2017). Data Capitalism: Redefining the Logics of Surveillance and Privacy,

Business and Society.

West, S.M. (2017). Survival of the Cryptic, Limn, 8.

© 2020 by Sarah Myers West