Russian-Canadian computer programmer and entrepreneur Dmitry Buterin may have introduced his son Vitalik to Bitcoin – the first step in a chain of events that led to the development of the most-used blockchain today, Ethereum, that Vitalik co-founded – but he doesn’t put much store in his place in crypto history.
Dmitry, who often goes by the Russian diminutive, Dima, is a modest and thoughtful man. Now semiretired after a successful career in software engineering, Dima spends his free time reading philosophy and going for walks. He takes pictures of the simple pleasures of nature – frost on a tree limb, the first flowers of spring. And he gets more fulfillment advising early-stage crypto projects, and running the educational company BlockGeeks, than playing Vitalik’s Dad for the media.
This article is excerpted from The Node, CoinDesk's daily roundup of the most pivotal stories in blockchain and crypto news. You can subscribe to get the full newsletter here.
Buterin, like many other true believers in crypto, relishes in complexity. The so-called “world computer,” Ethereum, is at the center of a techno-economic revolution affecting everything from banking to the backbone of the web. But as big as this project is, it will work best if built of smaller, discrete parts.
“Right now, the most creative decentralized projects are designed by techies,” Dima said in a recent interview with The Node. Ethereum’s success, he thinks, is largely due to its design, which makes it easy for anyone to build or use its crypto-powered applications. Likewise, some of the world’s most deranged problems stem from the centralization of power and influence.
Born in the Soviet Union, and later a citizen of Russia and Canada, Dima has been an outspoken critic of authoritarians the world over – including Russian President Vladimir Putin. Long before Putin invaded Ukraine, causing the death of thousands and the displacement of millions, Dima was willing to call the president an “autocrat.” “Corruption has seized the highest levels of the state,” he said recently.
Crypto has emerged, perhaps surprisingly, as a useful lifeline for those impacted directly by the war. Coming up on a month since Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian government has raised over $100 million in various cryptocurrencies for military and civilian needs. Millions more are being routed to charitable efforts, through vehicles like Ukraine DAO (short for decentralized autonomous organization) or direct, on-chain donations.
But crypto may take on an even larger role during and after this crisis. By privileging free-market organization and the decentralization of authority, these novel protocols support new systems that might ensure no one like Putin can gain power again, Dima said. “It feels to me that this whole situation will lead the next big push towards adoption of crypto,” he said. This emphasis on decentralization is why Dima thinks crypto platforms should not join in blanket sanctions of all Russian people.
Decentralization – and the profit-motive – are double-edged swords, however. Last week, Time magazine published the latest in-depth profile of Vitalik, where the Ethereum creator urged the industry to think more critically about the things being built or how the system is used. The most profitable programs – like needless NFTs or dead end DAOs – aren’t always the ones the world needs most, he said. It’s a position Dima agrees with, who said technologists need to focus on “human” problems.
See also: A Possible Russian Crypto Ban and Vitalik's Synthetic Womb | Podcast
Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation covering the Ukrainian war, Jeff Bezos’ yacht and the importance of building tech that empowers people.
Crypto seems to be reckoning its place in global finance. Do you think centralized crypto exchanges or service providers have a moral obligation or political duty to sanction Russian users?
Here's how I think about this: The war in Ukraine is horrible – people are in pain, they are without food and water and hiding in bomb shelters for longer than two week. Right now the top priority for the world is to stop this depravity. People may purge native [Russians], inflict as much pain on Putin and his supporters, hoping this will make them stop. It makes total sense emotionally, right? But in any difficult situation, there will be a lot of knee-jerk reactions.
I want to do everything I can in my power to stop this war. But it doesn't make a lot of sense. The average crypto user who's using some kind of centralized exchange, they’re not likely to be one of Putin’s oligarchs or to benefit from this conflict.
There are many educated people who actively oppose Putin – they’re basically hostages in their own country. Whether they protest or stay silent, cutting them off from access … I think the cure is becoming worse than the disease. But I also totally understand why people call for those kinds of matters.
Similarly for DeFi platforms – these supposedly open financial platforms that in theory can’t levy sanctions. Is this a proving ground for that position?
Very much. Who knows – the skeptics may be right. But it feels to me that this whole situation will lead the next big push towards adoption of crypto. We already see how useful and important it’s been in supporting Ukraine. I have personally donated a chunk of money to a bunch of initiatives. The latest reports show they’ve brought in over $100 million just through crypto – directly, quickly. The layers of bureaucracy have been instantly eliminated and made unnecessary. So that's awesome.
With sanctions, life is quickly becoming very hard in Russia for many people whether they support Putin or not. We have to be careful in how we deal with that. I'm sure we will see attempts in Russia, by the government or industries, to go around sanctions using crypto. It's inevitable. For me, the question is how do we support these people while destroying this crazy autocratic regime. Crypto is a great instrument to do that.
See also: Ukraine Fundraisers Bring Out the Best, and Worst, in Crypto | The Node
Corruption has seized the highest levels of the state, and is even seen in places abroad where Russian oligarchs have bought foreign politicians. So even if [crypto] is used by governments, institutions and oligarchs, it's a wonderful way to introduce transparency. Trying to stop little transactions is futile and likely not directed towards the right people. But it reasonably becomes much easier for us to understand huge flows of money if Russian [institutions] use crypto to evade sanctions. And we can figure out a way to deal with that.
The deputy minister of digital transformation in Ukraine said crypto is more “convenient” than traditional crowdsourcing means. Are you thinking about alternative ways to deploy crypto beyond simple, on-chain crowdsourcing?
I think it's already happening. There's Ukraine DAO – I have, and I believe Vitalik has donated money. We will see more and more of that. But DAOs are still quite inefficient. The way they are structured is very organic. Right now we're in emergency mode, and when you're in emergency mode, creating a DAO, figuring out its mission, delegating decision making and stuff like that takes time. So in the short term it’s easier to pursue less complicated methods.
But I'm pretty sure we’ll see impactful [experiments]. For example, I've seen a database that people are using to document the war crimes that Russia has committed in Ukraine. Volunteers are submitting pictures. Implementing a DAO structure on that might become feasible longer-term, so that contributors can maybe get paid. Maybe there could be some kind of reputation system that helps verification or streamline fact-checking.
Are you 100% focused on crypto, and where do you think the biggest opportunity is for entrepreneurs in crypto right now?
I am, if you will, semi-retired. I'm still involved in a bunch of things and doing some angel investments and mentoring and coaching and have this company I co-founded. Like 95% of what I'm involved in is improving crypto because it is the most interesting, most exciting space. It's a new wave of technology.
In terms of opportunity, I think Web 3 is entering the era of mass adoption. We found all those weaknesses and problems with centralized platforms and are now building solutions. It’ll be important to maintain focus on what is really foundationally important, the decentralized aspects of those systems.
When I look at something like Solana – it’s a wonderful short-term solution. It’s efficient, cheaper, blah, blah, blah, but I am not impressed with the way they are for decentralization, so it's of no interest to me. But it gets to the other opportunity in crypto: good user experience.
Right now, the most creative decentralized projects, you know, are designed by techies. We need to start thinking about that. Even if you look at crypto wallets, most are very generic. You can hold your crypto, your NFTs. But as an NFT collector, I would actually love to have a dedicated, features-specific wallet. Or maybe I'm more of an investor, so it's more about day-to-day transactions. So figuring out the user journey – what people want to do – without pushing technology in their face is where the potential is. Designing systems that are user friendly, and also address huge societal issues – like censorship and spam.
Considering that crypto is always embedded in legal and cultural systems that can make it infeasible to use crypto – even if you can still transact on-chain – is it a fool's errand to try to attempt to bring “digital money” into real life?
No, I don't think it's a fool's errand at all. I think it's a very viable effort. For smart people in technology, it's very common to end up being over focused on technology – how sophisticated, how wonderful, how complicated this is! – and not think through those “last mile” problems. The human aspects – censorship resistance and whatnot – can change the features of Bitcoin. There are solutions for the biggest problems being developed.
What we see in those protests in Canada or the situation in Ukraine: It's really a moment of showing the weaknesses of our current centralized systems. We learned to trust these big centralized systems like: “Hey, Facebook, store my data, hey, bank, store my money, hey, Twitter, store my past.” Now we see that they're misusing their power. They're censoring us, selling our data to advertisers, printing money and all that.
This process that started with Bitcoin, with keeping our own money, is not easy. People learn quickly that if they lose their phone and don't backup their seed phrase, nobody is there to help. This is a really hard wake-up call. So we have to be careful, but there is no doubt there is a transition happening before our eyes that is solving real, human problems.
It's really a wonderful time for all of us to people who are already involved in the decentralized movements to help other people learn more about self-sovereignty, new organizations – all that. This Web 3 crypto bubble is finally enveloping the whole world.
I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about Vitalik. Do you remember his first word?
No idea. You know, he actually started verbalizing later. He was actually much better with writing – he mastered verbalization later in his childhood. Actually, when he was, I think, four, we gave him our old IBM PC, and he was using Excel. He quickly learned to type numbers into cells and play with formulas. So, numbers were kind of his first language, if you will.
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