I had planned to write about the philosophy of Satoshi Nakamoto, based upon his writings. Recently, however, I’ve heard about food fights in the Bitcoin Cash camp((I think Bitcoin Cash is a fine currency from a technical standpoint, but the behavior of its advocates has soured me on it.)), centering on “Satoshi’s Vision.”
One thing I’m certain about is that Satoshi would not want to be the subject of fights.
Hence today’s article. In it I’m going to explain what Satoshi was really all about, what he/she/they hoped would happen with Bitcoin, and how I think Satoshi would react to the continuing development of cryptocurrencies.
What I’m Basing This Upon
Telling the world what did or would go through someone else’s mind is usually a fool’s errand. That’s why I planned to base my original article on specific writings. Given, however, that people are fighting about “Satoshi’s Vision,” I think the errand is worthwhile, and I hope that Satoshi would agree.
And I have a background for this. I became involved with cryptography and digital currencies in 1995 or so, and I followed those developments closely, not only as an observer but as a participant. I was in the same general crowd as Satoshi, and it wasn’t a terribly large crowd.
And so, let’s get to it. What really was Satoshi trying to accomplish, and what did he (I’ll stick with “he” for convenience) see in the future?
Us and Them
I think a first thing to understand is that Satoshi was clearly a cypherpunk… a cryptoanarchist. In an email of January 16, 2009, he shows his cypherpunk identity:
I think there were a lot more people interested in the 90’s, but after more than a decade of failed Trusted Third Party based systems (Digicash, etc), they see it as a lost cause. I hope they can make the distinction that this is the first time I know of that we’re trying a non-trust-based system.
And in another place, he states, “Then strong encryption became available to the masses.” That’s another cypherpunk/cryptoanarchist theme.
As he began to release Bitcoin, he described it as something he and his friends could use to
“win a major battle in the arms race and gain a new territory of freedom for several years.”((Email of 11-07-2008.))
Notice that he sees Bitcoin as part of an ongoing arms race. And that arms race was, and is, between the advocates of cryptography and the advocates of force. Put simply, they have violent men, guns, and legal orders backed by violence. We have cryptography.
The same passage goes on to state, “Governments are good at cutting off the heads of a centrally controlled network like Napster….”
This was the motivation behind Bitcoin: to create a cryptography-based digital currency, one that had no head for governments to cut off… because weapons can’t cut through crypto.
Satoshi was going through the digital gold currency wars as well (roughly 1999–2009), noting that, “one of the e-gold systems already has a form of spam….”((Email of 01-25-2009.))
Reading Satoshi’s emails and posts (and you can find them all thanks to Daniel Krawisz at satoshi.nakamotoinstitute.org), you see a person who is anything but rigid. He has his reasons and expectations, but far more than anything else, he wants this thing to work. He’s happy to consider options, even to change things if they’d work better a different way. And he fully expects the model to change over time. For instance:
When that runs out, the system can support transaction fees if needed.((Email of 01-10-2009.))
Satoshi’s Modest Vision
While Satoshi considered the possibility that Bitcoin would succeed wildly, and to some extent designed for it, he didn’t really expect it. Notice the arms race passage above. Satoshi expected Bitcoin to function for only a certain number of years before the lords of violence found ways to chop it down. And he was deeply concerned that Bitcoin would be attacked before a functional community had been built up:
I make this appeal to WikiLeaks not to try to use Bitcoin. Bitcoin is a small beta community in its infancy. You would not stand to get more than pocket change, and the heat you would bring would likely destroy us at this stage.((Post of 12-05-2010.))
Perhaps Satoshi was being overly cautious, but in those days no one had a clear idea of what Bitcoin was becoming.
Satoshi didn’t write very much, specifically noting that “I’m better with code than with words,” but he wrote enough for us to get a decent image of his motivations and character. And so, I’ll continue my fool’s errand by telling you a few things that I think Satoshi would say in confidence.
Above all, make cryptocurrencies work. Not just for coders, but for technically ordinary people.
Free markets are useful things, and that includes free markets of strategies.
If we don’t keep adapting, we’ll lose the arms race. Our enemies are not static.
Some adaptions won’t be any good, but it’s better to have a mix of good and bad than none.
We have an unexpected chance for long-term success. Don’t slow down!
Amigo, I hope you’d approve (at least more or less) with what I’ve written here. But if not, feel free to correct me.
And either way, thank you.
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