Torturing the ghost

So we probably have our Satoshi. The Economist, GQ, and the BBC have all posted semi-breathless stories on their personal interactions with Craig Steven Wright, an Australian computer scientist and inventor. Dr. Wright was unmasked last year by Wired and Gizmodo who pointed to leaked emails and keys.

Now Wright himself has come forward to claim the mantle of the most mysterious instrument of monetary policy after the Bilderberg Group.

My disclosure: I have a cryptocurrency-based (but not specifically Bitcoin-based) startup and I’ve tried to stay out of the political arguments that wrack the community at regular intervals.

Here are the facts: journalists at the BBC, GQ, and the Economist along with two prominent bitcoin thinkers, Jon Matonis and Gavin Andresen, met Wright who then walked them through proofs of his claim. These proofs included signing and decoding various pieces of text in many early bitcoin transactions and, we are to assume, a clear but unpublished proof that Wright owns Satoshi’s original keys. This is the smoking gun from Andresen:

Part of that time was spent on a careful cryptographic verification of messages signed with keys that only Satoshi should possess. But even before I witnessed the keys signed and then verified on a clean computer that could not have been tampered with, I was reasonably certain I was sitting next to the Father of Bitcoin.

Why did Matonis and Andresen get this access? Because they were present at the creation and they are no longer major contributors to the core code. Wright has a background in theology and his PhD work was on creation myths. He knows a good Road to Emmaus moment when he sees one.

What does this announcement mean? It means Wright no longer wants to sit on the sidelines as his invention, one of the most important improvements to the global financial system, is co-opted by banks. It also means that the original hoard of Satoshi coins – about $400 million worth – is probably going to receive some scrutiny from tax authorities. Finally, it means we have at long last pushed past the endless, useless speculation on the identity of the ghostly Satoshi Nakamoto and into an era when the technology can be used freely by everyone.

Who benefits? Wright, who will now be considered the voice of BTC for big banks and finance.

Cui bono

The Bitcoin ecosystem is quickly turning corporate. The window for non-corporate players is quickly closing and I suspect the same young, dedicated blockchain-heads now populating Reddit will soon have jobs in cubicles. This also means the Wright as the progenitor of the movement will become an important voice in its corporate growth.

The bitcoin community underestimates and misunderstands why the Satoshi story is so interesting to the mainstream. The average person does not care about bitcoin or the blockchain. Its vagaries are as interesting as the money-sending SWIFT system or, more precisely, open source graphics drivers for the Raspberry Pi. There are various striations of nerd-dom and people interested in the Wright story are not the ones doing much real coding. It’s a mystery story, purely and simply, and the sooner it’s solved the sooner we can move on to the next one.

So Wright now has the opportunity to speak as Satoshi at mainstream conferences. His dance card will be full unless someone disproves his claims in the next few days. His consulting income will be considerable and he will be at once reviled and revered by the bitcoin community. I suspect even his tax problems will melt away as soon as the right lawyer finds the right loophole and receives a few million in Satoshi-money.

Any way you slice it, Wright wins.

This paragraph by Jon Matonis is very telling:

The reality of an extraordinary event is rarely what you imagine and I am now pleased to know the creator of the Bitcoin protocol and the author of the Bitcoin white paper, Craig Steven Wright. Bitcoin in itself is a brilliant accomplishment. Dr Wright’s substantial academic works merit further attention. I believe that the scale of his achievement, especially the original design of chaining blocks to achieve Nakamoto consensus, has far-reaching implications for our world beyond just a single vertical industry.

Read that again: “I believe that the scale of his achievement, especially the original design of chaining blocks to achieve Nakamoto consensus, has far-reaching implications for our world beyond just a single vertical industry.” Matonis is writing what we all know: that the blockchain and the Nakamoto consensus are the primary drivers for future growth and that the blockchain cannot exist without Satoshi/Wright’s work. This also puts a new actor into the bitcoin community, one that will quickly and easily steer the mainstream conversation while the rest of the tribe builds for or around his pronouncements.

Bitcoin price hasn’t risen or fallen today. The market has become resistant to noise and unless Wright dumps his entire stash in one fell swoop – a trick that, given the current state of bitcoin, is nigh impossible – there is no evidence that he can move markets.

But the real person who benefits is the person who believes that the mechanisms underlying bitcoin and the problems to which it can be applied are deserving of more mainstream scrutiny and attention than cursory hunts for the Bitcoin founder every few months. Wright has killed Satoshi and replaced him with a very human, very contentious human figure.

The Rock was right

We don’t need to bother Tim Berners-Lee when we have a question about HTML tags. We don’t email Linus Torvalds when we can’t figure out grep. Marc Andreessen, co-creator of Mosaic, isn’t your go-to guy when Firefox crashes (although I’m sure he’d have some Twitter opinions if you asked him.) In short the greatest technological advances in the past two decades have succeeded in spite of having a visible “creator.” Why? Because those creators stepped out of the way or, more precisely, were not important in the growth of those technologies.

Bitcoin is a burgeoning superorganism. Like Linux and the Internet it is self-organizing and “cheap” to manage because so many self-sufficient individuals make up the whole. Superorganisms route around adversity and flow towards places of abundance. Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD and biodiversity expert, writes:

Superorganisms have a special knack for creating abundance within the kinds of landscapes of scarcity that typically exclude other creatures. You’ll find ants thriving in the deserts of Australia, and termites in parched Namibia. Naked mole rats push dirt around Somalia as we speak, and honeybees stay warm through bitter winter freezes as low as -30C (-22F). How do they do it?

They leverage the power of collective intelligence and collaborative innovation. Together, they gather tiny, scattered, squandered scraps that aren’t worth the effort for other animals — splinters of wood, bits of chopped up leaves, specks of pollen, molecules of water, and fertilizer.

The bitcoin community is already finding its own fertilizer. It doesn’t need Satoshi’s BS.

Wright is probably Satoshi. Again, if he isn’t it doesn’t make much difference. The community is self-sustaining and already forming itself into the familiar patterns – the suits are moving in to make some money, the experts are creating consulting services akin to Red Hat, and the community is heaving and cleaving itself into new, FUD-resistant forms. In the end Wright’s admission makes Bitcoin boring again, something the sub-culture definitely needs to be in order to move forward.

The community will claim hacking, lies, and elision. I’m not saying they are wrong but the smart money is on Wright as Satoshi until we have more complete proof. Wright and future Satoshis will be suspect until the true meaning of Satoshi is lost. By that time blockchain will have reached maturity and the uninvolved user will talk about it in tones of boredom – if they talk about it at all.

“The BBC/Economist did their homework. They aren’t Newsweek,” wrote one bitcoin programmer who preferred to remain nameless. “But it doesn’t matter.”