It is today’s news that Julian Assange has been arrested by the British authorities. A blow to freedom, but now let us strive to do a fancy exercise: instead of Assange, imagine that the person arrested was Satoshi Nakamoto. Do you think that Bitcoin would still exist? Ten years ago, a programmer with a made-up name released a white paper describing a new technology with a primary application of private money. The release was rather unorthodox. It didn’t come from an academic department, a central office of a bank, or an official institution. It was released into the commons, and it was followed two months later by the released of the protocol itself.
One of the beautiful aspects of Bitcoin is that the creator is still unknown. “Satoshi Nakamoto” is a pseudonym. Too often with big inventions in history, there are names attached that get an unjust share of the credit, often because their names appear on the patent records. Bitcoin is different. Its technology was given to the world, eschewing both “intellectual property” and commercial paywalls.
But let’s take a step back and look at the past. Some entrepreneurs tried to create a currency independent of the central banks and cross-border. In the 90s those who created Paypal, Peter Tiel and Elon Musk, gave birth to X.com a currency with the following characteristics: borderless and non-inflatable. Their private start-up wanted to solve the long-standing problem of inflation of the US dollar, which since 1913 had lost 97% of its purchasing power. The American government arrived and practically said: “You cannot do so, otherwise we will shut you down.” Project abandoned.
A more stubborn individual instead, Douglas Jackson, created E-gold: a non-traceable digital token that had a gold counterpart and whose audit was entrusted to a Luxembourg company. Individual users were not censurable, but the one who created it did. In fact, Jackson was thrown into jail on charges of being a forger.
Not everyone will remember Second Life, a virtual world, still active today and born in 2003 from an idea by Linden Lab Inc., which allows interaction between users, represented by personalized avatars.
Soon, the purely playful aspect of the system, by means of which the characters could socialize, travel in time and space, left its virtual place with the introduction of the so-called Linden Dollars, convertible both in Euro and in Dollars, with which users, called “residents” in the jargon of the program, could make real trades.
Some people enriched themselves, building and selling consumer goods or professional services in their “second life”. The same virtual currency showed an increase in value: at the time it was coined, 260 Linden Dollars were needed to make 1 Dollar. As Linden Dollars continued to appreciate, people piled them up and could even buy things “forbidden” or without paying taxes. The government went to the society and asks it to stop; society could do nothing but conform.
With Bitcoin things are different, because there is no one to arrest. The government would like to arrest someone… but who? There is no one at the head of Bitcoin and at this point everyone should be arrested. Impossible and extremely expensive. Bitcoin is not censurable, cannot be inflated and cannot be expropriated, and you understand very well that this changes everything. Everything that was centralized has been tried and failed; Bitcoin introduced the unknown of decentralization, the basis of the disruptive side of its invention.
Nakamoto did something great: he renounced fame and the possibility of being rich with his “creature” to avoid being corrupted by fiat laws (think about how some bitcoin original enthusiasts are now supporting the eventual regulation of the same, distorting the original objective). He was the spark that ignited a choral fire. Today his Bitcoin stash would make him billionaire. Those in control of the private keys have access, and the world is watching to see when or if they ever move. They may never. We hope that they will stay where they are and that the identity of Satoshi always remains a mystery.
Genius is individual but no one person contains within himself or herself the intellectual capacity for creating anything truly meaningful from the ground up. That applies to music, products, ideas, and transformative software.
Indeed, in one of his last notes before disappearing, Satoshi wrote: “I wish you wouldn’t keep talking about me as a mysterious shadowy figure, the press just turns that into a pirate currency angle. Maybe instead make it about the open source project and give more credit to your dev contributors; it helps motivate them.”
That’s beautiful and perfect. Satoshi is Satoshi, no more, no less.