Going 'Down the Rabbit Hole' with Zooko Wilcox
Zooko Wilcox has spent his career getting people to care about privacy.
If you’re well-versed with the history of cryptocurrency, you might recognize Wilcox as one of the first cryptocurrency pioneers. He’s a cypherpunk, cryptographer, activist, coder, and entrepreneur. Today, he’s best known for his role as the CEO of Zcash, a privacy-protecting, digital currency. Since the launch of Zcash in 2016, it has grown to be one of the most valued and admired cryptocurrencies in the world.
We had the pleasure of talking with Wilcox about how he became so interested in private, digital money, and how it has led him to where he is today.
Zooko told us that he’s had a long and winding path. “Along the way, I’ve often been discouraged by the lack of appreciation from the rest of society about the importance of privacy and decentralization,” he says. “Privacy is a necessity for economic opportunity, equality and ultimately, for freedom.”
It’s the necessity of privacy that Zooko Wilcox speaks so passionately about. And his foresight and dedication to designing a future where money is digital, decentralized and private are what makes his story so unique.
Bryce Wilcox – or Zooko as he is known in the space (a name that came from the cypherpunk movement of the 1990s) – was born in Pheonix, Arizona in 1974. As a child, computers seemed magical to Zooko. “It wasn’t until later when it seemed like a social revolution,” he says.
Falling Down the Rabbit Hole
During our conversation, Wilcox also shared two pivotal life moments that ultimately led to where he is today
The first occurred in November of 1989. After decades of a city and a nation divided, the Berlin Wall fell. A border that was preventing people from communicating – both physically as well as metaphorically – had finally come down. Wilcox saw war and oppression eradicated, and believed that humanity could indeed flourish, just as it deserves.
Wilcox began to shape his opinions about the world, and ultimately his vision for a utopian future.
The second significant moment took place in 1992, the year Wilcox discovered the internet. This served as a thematic continuation of breaking down borders and communication barriers between people (because, of course, before the internet, it wasn’t easy or usual to communicate with people living in other countries). “Discovering the internet was hugely important. I knew there were billions of people who had the potential to help one another, and now we have a way to do it,” he says.
The fall of the Berlin Wall gave way to political freedom; the internet gave way to information freedom. Wilcox saw a pattern emerging – could economic freedom be next?
“I’ve always had a deep conviction that many humans around the world are in desperate need of economic opportunity and the economic freedom that they deserve.”
In 1993, after these two influential events in his young life, Zooko discovered the concept of digital money. At the time, he was a computer science college student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Here, he came across a scientific paper written by cryptography pioneer David Chaum. Chaum’s work, which proposed privacy-preserving digital money, also showed how you could implement it cryptographically. According to Wilcox, “this was when I first fell Down the Rabbit Hole.”
“I’ve always had a deep conviction that many humans around the world are in desperate need of economic opportunity and the economic freedom that they deserve. And when they are given this, they will use it for good.”
And by 1996, he had dropped out of college to take an engineering position at Chaum’s company, Digitcash – the first electronic money startup. In many ways, DigiCash was a predecessor for what would eventually become Zcash. One of the significant failings of Digicash, however, was centralization, and to Wilcox, privacy is essential to decentralization.
“I’ve always believed economics isn’t about money. It’s about people: their choices, their opportunities, and their values, or lack thereof. People who are given opportunity and freedom will use it for the things that they love and value,” he says.
And at the end of the day, Wilcox’s passions extend far beyond cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. We finished our interview by discussing how he wants to be remembered. He gave a thoughtful pause. “I want to be remembered by my relationships with family and others, and the time that I got to spend with my children and loved ones.”
To learn more about Zooko and Zcash, watch ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ Episode 1: The Technologist.
Editor’s Note: As of February 21, 2019, the Zcash Company was renamed Electric Coin Company. View the announcement here.