Satoshi Nakamoto’s greatest creation

The bitcoin founder left behind a fervent community of true believers -- without them the currency couldn't exist

Published January 31, 2015 4:30PM (EST)


Excerpted from "The Age of Cryptocurrency"

On December 12, 2010, the following post appeared on the Bitcoin Forum: “There’s more work to do on DoS [denial of service], but I’m doing a quick build of what I have so far in case it’s needed, before venturing into more complex ideas. The build for this is version 0.3.19.” It would be Satoshi Nakamoto’s last message.

That was it. There wasn’t any good-bye message, no noble speech. He simply stopped writing. The founder kept communicating with some of the software developers who were helping him improve and maintain the bitcoin system, but by April 2011, he’d also sent them his last e-mail. As far as we know, the last one went to Gavin Andresen, a coder based in Amherst, Massachusetts, who’d joined the group a year earlier and on whom Nakamoto had bestowed a leadership role. Much like his final Bitcoin Forum post, indeed like everything else Nakamoto ever wrote, that last e-mail was perfunctory, purposeful, lacking in virtually all sentimentality.

But if the bitcoin founder’s written legacy is a body of dry, utilitarian words, his other big legacy is found in the fervent community of true believers he left in his wake. This passionate group would grow around the ideas that Nakamoto developed and the code he implemented. It is arguably his greatest creation, for, as we’ve argued, a currency cannot exist without a community. In the case of an independent, decentralized currency, with no central authority to impose order on the monetary system, the human bonds that define that community are doubly important.

Age of CryptocurrencyThe markers of this community are found in much more than its members’ willingness to send bitcoins to each other or to collectively mine them and maintain the blockchain ledger. They are embedded in a distinct “bitcoin culture,” a way of talking and thinking and relating to each other and outsiders. The culture is burnished by phenomena similar to those that underpin more established cultures. Just as cultural signifiers such as flags, anthems, and the rousing speeches of founding fathers help people imagine an abstract sense of national identity, so, too, do icons and memes encourage members of this community to self-identify as bitcoiners and as followers of a certain, if ill-defined, belief system. Bitcoin also has its symbols—the bitcoin B being the most ubiquitous, although community members have debated whether it should look like a currency symbol (for example, $) or a marketing logo. Like other cultures, bitcoin also has its art, its music, even its poetry. It has also cultivated larger-than-life personalities who are recognized as “community leaders.”

Tellingly, these personalities are often described as “evangelists.” Similarly religious undertones are everywhere in the language and concepts attached to bitcoin: the Genesis Block label pinned on Nakamoto’s first mined batch of coins; the nickname Bitcoin Jesus given to Roger Ver, now one of the community’s most prominent representatives; the very idea of a “believer”; and the notion that one has an epiphany once the “truth” of bitcoin’s solution is revealed. The most important of these quasi-religious ideas, however, lies in the core cultural building block that Nakamoto himself laid with his mysterious appearance in the world of cryptocurrencies in 2008 and then with his equally mysterious disappearance from it three years later. Whoever he/she/they are, Nakamoto gave bitcoin its creation myth.

The quintessential creation myth is that of Genesis, and look how far that took both Judaism and Christianity. In a far less spiritual vein, marketers have come to realize the power of creation myths and narratives. The notion that a particular business was born out of the brilliant idea of someone working against the odds helps to personalize the product and boost appeal. Such allusions are everywhere in business: Ford Motor’s Model T, Coca-Cola’s secret recipe, Bill Hewlett and Bob Packard’s garage, Steve Jobs and the first Apple computer.

“In business, creation stories reinforce the role of the individual as a societal agent of change and speak to a core audience of customers,” wrote Nicolas Colas, chief market strategist for brokerage ConvergEx, in a research piece reflecting on the importance of the mystery surrounding bitcoin’s founder. “They are the bedrock for what marketers call ‘brand’ and the source waters for Wall Street’s ‘shareholder value.’ ”

Bitcoin’s “brand” is undoubtedly tied to the founder and the mystery surrounding him, her, or it. Homages to Satoshi appear throughout bitcoin culture: the smallest denomination of a bitcoin is called a Satoshi, numerous meetups are held in places dubbed Satoshi Square, various bitcoin businesses have used the founder’s name, including the high-profile gambling site SatoshiDice.

Assuming Nakamoto is a single person, you could argue that as public figure he or she no longer holds human form and has morphed into total myth. No physical person stands in front of us or is available in a YouTube video. Nobody is sitting across the table from Charlie Rose, getting interviewed by the news channels. Nobody to write a book or sign away the movie rights to his story. All we have is the specter of a reclusive genius, and a hint at the godhead of bitcoin.

* * *

Who is Satoshi Nakamoto? Techies, hobby investigators, and journalists have found this tantalizing question impossible to ignore. In pursuing it, they’ve all helped to further burnish bitcoin’s creation myth and to imbue the cultural core of its community with a sense of wonder, genius, and greater purpose.

For all that’s been written about Nakamoto, for everything he (or she or they) has written, for all the snoops who’ve tried to ferret him out, we know astonishingly little about him. He communicated through encrypted channels that have so far proven untraceable. His public writings are completely guarded; at no point does he divulge any personal information; at few moments does he offer anything that appears like an opinion. On occasion, he slips a British spelling into a post, which has led some to assume he’s from the United Kingdom. But the spelling isn’t consistent— which has led some to surmise it’s more than one person writing, and therefore Nakamoto isn’t a person at all but a group. Trying to grasp him through his writing is like trying to catch an eel. A body is there, but nothing to grab on to.

When we journalists come searching for Nakamoto, bitcoiners inevitably tell us to leave this person alone, to respect his or her desire for privacy. This position is ideologically both consistent and inconsistent with the founding principles of the Cypherpunks. That movement’s philosophy valued privacy completely, but also expected that your identity would be sought out, which is why encryption was created in the first place.

It might even be better for bitcoin if Satoshi’s identity is eventually revealed. Initially, the absence of an identifiable founder meant enforcement agents couldn’t find Satoshi and shut down his fledgling project before it gained traction. Now it’s at a different phase. More than six years into bitcoin’s existence, with a global economy having formed around it, the project is looking to undertake the ultimate community-expansion exercise and embrace the wide, all-encompassing “mainstream.” For that exercise, the lack of transparency over bitcoin’s founding is a hindrance. It feeds doubts in the minds of government officials and lawmakers, making friendly regulation that might smooth bitcoin’s development a harder sell for cryptocurrency lobbyists. The same goes for the general public. Coming clean would put to bed conspiracy theories that bitcoin was created by the CIA or the NSA or the IMF, or that the whole thing is an elaborate scam. Nakamoto’s anonymity in bitcoin’s early days may have helped deflect attention away from the leading figure and onto the project, but now that secrecy is itself a distraction. Whereas the initial problem was that early adopters might have mistrusted a founder thought to be pumping his or her own currency, now the problem is that the average joes targeted by bitcoin advocates see the mystery as a reason not to trust it. “Mysterious in the case of money is not so good,” says Jeremy Allaire, founder of bitcoin financial firm Circle.

What’s more, Nakamoto himself has a dilemma. He is believed to be the owner of about 1 million bitcoins, or around $500 million worth at the time of this writing. That’s the estimate that cryptographer Sergio Lerner came up with after analyzing the movements into addresses that he identified for Nakamoto from the Genesis Block and subsequent mining hauls over the two or so years that he was involved in the bitcoin network. Since Lerner identified those addresses, the world has been watching them like a hawk. (Even though their owner can’t be identified, the wallet addresses in which the coins reside can easily be seen, along with all other bitcoin addresses, using tools that track the blockchain.) Now might be the time for Nakamoto to fulfill what private-exchange SecondMarket’s CEO, Barry Silbert, describes as one of his personal “dreams for bitcoin”—that Nakamoto outs himself and makes a high-profile donation of his giant bitcoin holdings to an extremely worthy cause.

Regardless of what transparency on this issue might mean for bitcoin, people will continue hunting for Satoshi Nakamoto. Bitcoiners can protest, but they can’t quash a desire to know. As journalists we perhaps experience this instinct stronger than most, but most people are naturally curious. We see it in our own children, of which we have three between us, all eager to know what their fathers are doing. One of them, a fifth- grade girl, has become intrigued by the bitcoin stories she keeps hearing her dad talking about. “Have you found out who Satoshi is yet, Dad?” she asks from time to time. She seems to view it a bit like that popular children’s video game Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

Since Nakamoto went silent in 2010, dozens of names have been presented as candidates, starting with the obvious ones from the Cypherpunk and cryptography community who’d previously dabbled in cryptocurrency: people such as Wei Dai, Hal Finney, David Chaum, and the odds-on favorite, Nick Szabo, whose writings, the forensics linguists tell us, make a pretty close match to the word and phrase choices of bitcoin’s founder. All, in one forum or another, have denied being Nakamoto.

Other investigators have gone off on interesting but equally fruitless tangents. Writing for The New Yorker, Joshua Davis fixated on some of the British spellings in Nakamoto’s writings and headed to the British Isles to find their author. He zeroed in on Michael Clear, a Dublin-based computer-science student who’d worked for Allied Irish Banks on peer- to-peer technology and who responded to Davis’s inquiries with the enticing line “I’m not Satoshi, but even if I was I wouldn’t tell you.” Davis’s work was inconclusive, but Clear’s comment, which he later said was intended as a harmless joke, meant the Irishman was inundated with e-mails. He has since vehemently denied creating bitcoin and has pleaded with people to leave him alone.

Convinced that Davis was caught out by a probable disinformation campaign by the founder—as if Nakamoto’s Britishisms and Times of London reference were planted to throw trackers off the scent—New York University journalism professor Adam Penenberg turned his attention elsewhere. In an article for Fast Company he pointed to three names who’d jointly filed cryptocurrency-relevant encryption patents around the time of bitcoin’s release: Neal King and Charles Bry, who both resided in Germany, and Vladimir Oksman, living in the United States. He got explicit denials from them, including one from King in which he criticized bitcoin for having “no intrinsic value.” Penenberg was undeterred by this and speculated that King’s statement could have been a red herring, but Penenberg’s evidence was circumstantial and inconclusive, and he conceded that.

Next came Ted Nelson, an information theorist famous for coining the term hypertext in the 1960s. In a rambling, videoed monologue in which he adopted faux-British accents to mimic Sherlock Holmes, Nelson declared that the bitcoin inventor was Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki and dared him to deny it. Not only did Mochizuki have the kind of mind capable of devising such a scheme, Nelson said, he also had the suspicious habit of quietly leaving his mathematical discoveries on the Internet for people to find. The mathematician has not publicly responded to Nelson’s challenge, but others have found holes in the argument, pointing out that Mochizuki is not a cryptographer and seems to have no extensive experience writing code.

Then, on March 6, 2014, the U.S. magazine Newsweek relaunched its print edition, and for its cover story it went for a big scoop. “Bitcoin’s Face” was the title, with an artful image of a single person hidden in black, a mask in the form of bitcoin’s B currency symbol being peeled away. Reporter Leah McGrath Goodman declared she’d found Satoshi Nakamoto hiding in plain sight, a Japanese American man living in a suburb of Los Angeles whose name had been Satoshi Nakamoto before he changed it to Dorian Nakamoto. To say the story went viral would be an understatement.

For several hours, Newsweek owned the story, but it was top news everywhere, on cable TV, on Reddit, on Twitter, on the Bitcoin Forum, at newspapers such as our own. Everybody was amazed by this tale, everybody was amazed that Newsweek had flushed out the real Nakamoto. What a scoop! What a coup! Goodman made the rounds on the media circuit, explaining how the magazine had pulled it off. The intense reaction to the story showed just how much pull this Nakamoto myth had in the public eye. Then it got weird.

Dorian Nakamoto eventually emerged—hours after the magazine hit newsstands—to confront the throng of journalists who’d taken up positions on his front lawn. He denied any involvement in bitcoin and did so in such an idiosyncratic way that it suggested he was a poor match for the bitcoin founder’s character profile. He stood next to his front door and promised an exclusive interview to the first reporter to offer him a free lunch. An AP reporter quickly did so and whisked him off in a car to a sushi place. The other reporters followed, with at least one, the Los Angeles Times’ Joe Bel Bruno, live tweeting the “chase” in a scene oddly reminiscent of the infamous O. J. Simpson chase.

Most intriguing was a posting later that day on a relatively obscure online message board owned by the P2P Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to build peer-to-peer applications through cryptography and software tools. The post was made to a thread that dated back to February 12, 2009, which had been dormant for years, a thread started by Satoshi Nakamoto when he was spreading the word on bitcoin. The new message was simple, but it was the first anybody had heard from him in years. It simply said, “I am not Dorian Nakamoto.”

At best the Newsweek report was inconclusive, and at worst, sloppy journalism. Still, the media circus it generated demonstrated how much bitcoin was now inserted into public consciousness and how the Satoshi mystery had energized people’s fascination, a fascination that says a lot more about the people seized by it than about the source of their fascination.

What do we think? Well, bitcoin’s founder almost certainly is not Dorian Nakamoto. What does seem most likely to us is that, at least initially, one person dreamed it up. Seeing as Wei, Szabo, Finney, and Chaum all came up individually with digital-currency systems, it seems reasonable to assume that bitcoin could also be the project of one person. Indeed, most of the elements for a digital currency had already been laid down; in essence, Nakamoto took an existing puzzle, found the few missing pieces, and put it together. We also think it’s quite possible this person came out of the Cypherpunk movement, and that it’s just as possible that upon conceiving of it he or she soon enlisted other Cypherpunks to help with the project. Inconsistencies in the writing style—the occasional insertion of British spellings, for example—lend weight to the idea that a small group was behind it. That would most likely put bitcoin’s founder or founding group somewhere in the San Francisco/Silicon Valley region. That’s about the best we can do for you. Likely one guy, quite possibly a group.

The group idea is enticing to us, partly because a pact like that would give each member plausible deniability, the capacity to say “I am not the founder of bitcoin” when nosy journalists come snooping around. Just as important, though, even if one person did have the original idea of a decentralized, networked currency, its development ultimately had to become a group effort—as we’ve discussed, it needed to grow into a community. Befitting that notion is a saying that you sometimes hear among bitcoiners that addresses the mystery of the founder’s identity. It’s a rallying cry of sorts, and it seems that in the symbiotic relationship between bitcoin and its community, the way the one strengthens the other, it really does explain the reality behind the myth.

“We are all Satoshi.”

Excerpted from "The Age of Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money Are Challenging the Global Economic Order" by Paul Vigna and Michael J. Casey. Copyright © 2015 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

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