When Satoshi Nakamoto cracked the code for the blockchain he/they altered the course of all our lives, whether one has an interest in using Bitcoin or not. The full extent to which the world is changed by this peer-to-peer technology is not yet realized, but becomes more and more apparent as Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies grow and develop, and future platforms built on top of these networks are envisioned. It is not an exaggeration to write that a major paradigm shift has occurred, one that many believe is of similar caliber to the World Wide Web.
Given this revolutionary aspect, it seems natural to be curious as to the source of the change. After all, bookstores are filled with biographies of great inventors and artists, and the Internet of interviews and documentaries of people responsible for extraordinary things. But Satoshi Nakamoto does not want to be known; all investigations thus far have come up empty handed. What can one say is lost by this anonymity? And, what does this absent biography mean to our narrative on this profound revolution in the nature of trade and trust?
[pullquote]The full extent to which the world is changed by blockchain is not yet realized[/pullquote]
Perhaps surprisingly, the anonymity of the founder(s) is largely irrelevant to orienting oneself on the “how” and “why” of cryptocurrency.
It is important to keep in mind that we have a tendency to view the history of science as punctuated by the inventions and discoveries of geniuses but in fact nearly simultaneous discoveries are common and often inventions that have large consequences are extensively dependent on ideas that are similar and/or prior to them. Similarly, social movements are often over-attributed to charismatic leaders or as reactions to particular events or phenomena, when in fact they are more accurately characterized as the result of many distinct people and causes.
Bitcoin’s forgotten beginnings
Bitcoin was not “out of nowhere”, socially or technologically, in spite of how it may have seemed as such. Rather, there have been several attempts at exchange mechanisms like Bitcoin dating back into at least the 1990s, and preceding social movements and Internet culture to match them. For example, the “cypherpunks”, an activist movement that promotes the development and widespread use of strong cryptography as a means of social and political change, organized in the early 1990s. Cypherpunk philosophy was quite obviously influenced by more longstanding and historical counter-cultures and ideologies, including opposing views of fiat currency, and evidence of illegitimate surveillance. David Chaum’s 1985 paper, Security without Identification: Transaction Systems to Make Big Brother Obsolete, which discussed the prospect and digital means to currency without government, has been characterized as a direct springboard for the cypherpunk movement.
[pullquote]Bitcoin was not “out of nowhere”, socially or technologically, in spite of how it may have seemed as such.[/pullquote]
Reaching a broader audience, the Cypherpunks were an inspiration for popular science fiction writer Neil Stephenson’s 1999 novel Cryptonomicon, which detailed anonymous Internet banking and other cryptographic technologies. And by the turn of the century, several attempts at currencies similar or foundational to Bitcoin, including Wei Dai’s “B-money” and Nick Szabo’s “bit-gold” had been proposed and designed. For those who may be unclear on the technological significance of Bitcoin, what separates it from the rest, is that until its publication no one had yet developed a robust solution to the “double spend problem” (Leslie Lamport’s Byzantine Generals’ Problem), and hence prior designs either relied on a trusted third party (b-money), or were otherwise too vulnerable to gain widespread adoption.
Nevertheless, the advent of Bitcoin, technologically, was very much a gradual and organic phenomenon. This is not to undermine the novelty of the blockchain solution, or its influence on present enthusiasm for a non-Keynesian, post-nation state economy, but to say that with proper contextualization of the white paper, the feeling of needing to know who Nakamoto is and what he/they are about is diminished.
But, one might ask, even if we were to concede that Nakamoto did not have unique or surprising motivations within his/their peer group, aren’t the intentions of the creator(s) still relevant to understanding the dynamics of Bitcoin?
No version 2.0
This is a common intuition of newcomers, and the answer is “No”. Full stop. When Nakamoto uploaded the finished paper to the Internet in November of 2009, the author(s) rendered themselves irrelevant to its future. How is this possible?
First of all, the Bitcoin white paper is a clear, specific, and complete piece of work. From a technical perspective, there is no need to engage with the author(s) for clarification. Modified versions, and layered platforms have and can be built without interacting with the original developer(s). Furthermore, given the decentralized nature of system, the ongoing intentions and/or motivations of the author(s) are irrelevant to its function. This is unprecedented when it comes to currency, and may be the most difficult aspect for newcomers to understand. All prior referents of the concept “currency” were centralized, and/or nation-state bound, meaning that they have been issued and controlled via a central authority who can influence its behavior. In traditional exchange models, one has to care about the ideas, perspectives, and beliefs of the issuers or managers of the currency, like a government, because the issuers/managers always have some hand in how the system will function. They canprint more money, for example, or influence interest rates.
Grasping the Bitcoin concept, of a “diffuse authority” model, or “decentralized trust” model, where the transparent formal properties of the system itself serve the same purpose as a trusted authority, is essential to understanding that further interactions with the author(s) of any cryptocurrency are extraneous to understanding how the network is evolving. Therefore, as we move forward, any and all alterations in the value of Bitcoin, its popularity, and what it means to people, can only be attributed to changing social systems, and users.
Given the above, then, what could one reasonably expect to gain if personal-historical details on the Bitcoin founder(s) are uncovered?
Not surprisingly, many people are still invested in knowing the details of the creator(s), even if they understand the social, historical, and technical context (although there are also many who are very comfortable with the anonymity). Part of the remaining interest can be summed up by “human curiosity”, and of course there is also the expected monetary or social gain that may come from the related journalism. Unfortunately, however, there is also a dark side to the search for Satoshi Nakamoto, one motivated by hegemonic, political discourse.
The subject’s connection to anarchy has already spawned negative moral appraisal, undue psychoanalysis, and resounding rejection from some of the world’s most prominent thinkers. Paul Krugman wrote a New York Times piece entitled “Bitcoin is Evil” where he discusses the state-destructive “agenda” he sees in the design of Bitcoin, and it is a common to interpret Bitcoin as intended to threaten state power and authority. The anarchy connection has been shown to be a prominent motivation in searching for the author(s). Leah McGrath Goodman of Newsweek, for instance, stated that she wanted to clear up whether or not Bitcoin was truly “apolitical”, as the foundation website states (3). Needless to say, if the founder(s) should be discovered, an abundance of popular press would ensue, most certainly seeking to emphasize any esoteric details they could get a hold of – something to pin the novelty and success on towards building compelling and sensational narratives.
It would be foolish not to expect some depictions of the founder(s) as unrelatable or socially lacking, and if it were a single inventor, perhaps even as an anomalous psychopath. Imagine for instance that it was discovered that the author(s) of Bitcoin attended a high-class boarding school. Media responses might be: “Look, they had no tangible way to understand the value of the welfare system, or how the world really works”. And the distortion and simplified narratives wouldn’t end there. We might also expect an exaggeration of the author(s) efficacy in the emergence of cryptocurrency as a convenient means of ostracization, or holding him/them morally responsible for any toll the cryptocurrency movement takes on, or could take on taxation and other centralized currency functions.
In general, due to the anarchy connection, a recasting would likely be in order, and possibly as some kind of idiosyncratic villain so as to alienate natural inclinations one might have to identify with cryptocurrency ideas.
In summary, the missing biography on the author(s) of a hugely disruptive technology may seem like a major loss given human propensity for rich narrative around life altering events. But even though the majority of us were “bewildered” by the Bitcoin concept, it’s important to realize that there is no salient mystery surrounding its creation, and it is safe to say that all of the benefits Bitcoin can provide are in no way hindered by the anonymity of the creator(s). While on the one hand, it would be nice if the mystery were resolved, on the other, due to the anarchist connection, it might very well be preferable that it is not.