Vitalik Buterin is 23, and the technology he invented four years ago is worth more than four billion dollars. He keeps his hair in an easy-maintenance close crop and prefers accessories with cats on them. He speaks quickly and with an authority you wouldn't expect, judging by how he never looks quite sure what to do with his hands.
He's not a household name, but in tech and financial circles, he's a rock star. On Friday night, when the young programmer took the stage to speak in front of a packed auditorium in Toronto—the city that he calls his home base, though he was born in Russia and now lives in Switzerland—suits who are decades his senior pulled out their phones to get a photo of him. It was understandable.
Buterin's invention, Ethereum, can be considered a cousin of bitcoin, which is far more popular, but perhaps not for long—Ethereum is rising. There are significant differences between Ethereum and bitcoin, such as the former's use of self-executing smart contracts, but the largest distinction between the two is the mythologies surrounding their founders.
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Bitcoin was brought into the world in 2008 when an anonymous person (or group) called Satoshi Nakamoto posted a paper describing the protocol to a cryptography mailing list. Then, Nakamoto disappeared. To this day, while bitcoin struggles to find a way to scale up to worldwide adoption, loyalists believe that the protocol should remain as described by Nakamoto in the white paper. Buterin, in contrast, actively guides Ethereum like the code is a living text.
The impression one gets is that if bitcoin is a religion with a dead god who only left the Word behind to guide its adherents, then Ethereum is in its New Testament days. Christ is alive, in the flesh, and he's wearing a unicorn sweater. But Buterin knows this can't last forever. At some point, he will have to give up the mantle, and he's laying the groundwork now.
At the Ethereum hackathon in Toronto over the weekend, hosted by Blockgeeks Lab—which is owned by Buterin's father, investor Dmitry Buterin—this was brought into sharp relief. As I chatted with teams of developers about their projects and thoughts on Buterin, it was clear that many had bought into the cult of his personality. The words "visionary," "genius," and "leader" all came up. One participant called him a benevolent dictator.
Later, when I caught up with Buterin in private, he was acutely aware of his status and the fact that he can't be the sole face of Ethereum forever.
"Practically speaking, I'm a large part of the story for why the platform will get better of the next few years," Buterin said, fidgeting and pushing his fingers through the holes in the food court table where we were seated. He doesn't seem particularly nervous, rather energetic. "My short-term goal is to shift the story to, 'the protocol will succeed because of myself, plus all of these other people who are capable of moving things forward.'"
Buterin is in a curious position. He knows that he—the boy genius, the unlikely leader—is the reason so many are attracted to the Ethereum project. And he travels all over the world to spread its gospel, just like he was doing in Toronto over the weekend. He only makes it home to the city a few weeks out of the year, he told me.
But Buterin's role presents a contradiction, because he told me that his personal philosophy is rooted in the use of economic incentives to galvanize and administrate communities, instead of social action. What's the role of a saviour, if not a social one?
"Maybe two or three years ago, I would have been more sympathetic to the idea that people being nice to each other and helping their neighbours was the lowest common denominator"
Buterin's politics reveal the origins of his belief in economic incentives. When I asked which political writers he's interested in, he listed off the major libertarian thinkers: Mises, Hayek, Friedman, Sowell, Rothbard, Rand. He used to think that the world was a contest between "centralized, evil" politicians and corporations, he explained, and the "good, virtuous" people. But the political tumult of 2016 changed his mind—he now says he has more in common with Angela Merkel than with Trump supporters or militant anti-fascists. He doesn't think everybody's nice anymore; the world is split into "tribes," he said, and the only way to make them work together is with money.
"The way that I view economic incentives is that it is, in a lot of ways, the lowest common denominator," meaning the easiest way to motivate people, Buterin said. "Maybe two or three years ago, I would have been more sympathetic to the idea that people being nice to each other and helping their neighbours was the lowest common denominator, but then I realized that people are willing to do totally mean things to people outside of their tribe."
Thus, Ethereum and its underlying philosophy: so-called "crypto-economics," or the idea is that with math and money, competing and even adversarial interests can be made to find equilibrium, in Buterin's eyes. At the end of the day, money is the "story" that gives people faith in this system.
That's what Buterin says he believes, although it's hard to tell for sure. But his crypto-economic community is also a social enterprise that has placed its collective faith in him, at least for now.
Being the figurehead of a cryptocurrency initiative has its risks. Buterin might be riding high today, but the community could still turn on him. It's happened before—after a long and acrimonious debate about a code change to bitcoin's protocol, for instance, hugely influential developers Gavin Andresen and Mike Hearn were cast as malcontents and ousted from the bitcoin community. Buterin is more bold than they were. He says that if Andresen and Hearn had just made an executive decision and implemented the change right away, bitcoin would be better off. I wonder, is Buterin worried about ending up like them?
"Look, there are people who oppose me on technical matters and half the time I'm right, and sometimes they're right, but if someone opposes me socially, often there are many people who come to my defence," he said. "And that seems like a fairly stable coalition."
He paused and quickly added, as if to correct himself, "But there shouldn't be a coalition around any one person. It should be a coalition around the protocol itself."
So, the boy king is in a bind. He knows that social coalitions, along with his own personality and vision, are catalysts for Ethereum's rise. He believes that math and money should be the arbiters of his community. His solution is as old as time: Every prophet needs disciples.
The Ethereum Foundation, which Buterin founded and which subsidizes protocol development by paying specific developers, has a plan to change this. Buterin is now thinking about grant programs and university partnerships as ways to build up a community of Ethereum developers who can take over more of his role in the future. At that point, he hopes Ethereum will have moved from a rapid development stage—when Buterin's role is most important—to a kind of quiet humming along.
That might happen in five years, he said.
He won't even be 30.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of economist Murray Rothbard.
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