Marc Hochstein is the managing editor of CoinDesk and the former editor-in-chief of financial industry publication American Banker.
The following opinion piece originally appeared in CoinDesk Weekly, a custom-curated newsletter delivered every Sunday, exclusively to our subscribers.
For all we know, the first cave-dweller to rub two sticks together was a misogynist. Or maybe just a mean person. Even if so, fire is still useful for cooking and warmth.
In other words, the identity or character of the creator has little, if any, bearing on the value of the creation.
That’s why the mainstream media’s obsession a few years ago with unmasking Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous inventor of bitcoin, was so silly. We’ve seen what bitcoin does, we know how it works, the code is public. The focus on its author would be laughable if it weren’t also destructive.
A circus and a distraction
Quite apart from doxxing poor old Dorian Nakamoto and rewarding Craig Wright with the limelight, these circuses distracted public attention from the much more interesting questions about money and society raised by Satoshi’s work and by the projects it inspired.
Questions like: Why did it still take days to transfer money between bank accounts when an unknown geek had demonstrated that value could be zapped across the globe in minutes? Could capital controls still work in the age of the internet (if they ever did) – and if not, is that really a bad thing? And what do you mean, I don’t actually own the stocks in my portfolio?
But far too many people in my profession are less interested in engaging with big ideas than in talking about other people. As President Trump would say: Sad!
Yet, this is one more way bitcoin opens up new vistas. When you spend time exploring the rabbit hole of cryptocurrency, it inevitably gets you thinking about identity – when it’s important, when it isn’t and why.
To be sure, there are times when knowing someone’s identity is helpful, even critical. Businesses often need to know something about their customers to guard against fraud or assess credit risk, for example. Some scam artist has recently been impersonating CoinDesk and sending phishing texts with our name on it to people in the Netherlands – now there’s someone who deserves to be unmasked (along with other consequences).
But there are other times when identity can serve to cloud people’s judgment. And not even the bitcoin community has been immune to this problem.
In a Bitcoin Improvement Proposal (BIP) submitted in March, as the scaling debate was heating up, Chris Stewart, co-founder of SuredBits, described the danger:
“We are seeing the politicization of protocol level changes. The critiques of these changes are slowly moving towards critiques based on who is submitting the BIP – not what it actually contains. This is the worst thing that can happen in a meritocracy.”
To address this, Stewart proposed requiring BIPs to be submitted pseudonymously. “This means a BIP can be proposed and examined based on its technical merits,” he wrote.
And if a developer wanted to claim credit after a BIP was accepted, Stewart included a way for them to cryptographically prove authorship – preempting another Craig Wright-style drama.
In a conversation a few weeks ago, when the Segwit2x fork was still expected to happen and bitcoin tribalism had reached a fever pitch, Stewart gave another reason why technologists might want their ideas to be discussed without attribution.
“I think more people need to be conscious of their online persona – it can have dire consequences,” Stewart told me, citing as an example the recent “swatting” of a prominent bitcoin engineer. “I’m guessing anyone that is a strong persona in this space is getting a lot of harassment.”
So the next time someone asks you who you think Satoshi is, don’t indulge in gossipy parlor games.
Instead, make them think by answering with a question: “Who invented pants?”
Jeans image via Shutterstock