Why Satoshi Nakamoto Matters
Bitcoin is a political system, and Satoshi is an absentee head of state.
Image: Flickr/JD Hancock
An Australian man named Craig Wright is currently trying to prove to the world that he is Satoshi Nakamoto, the anonymous creator of bitcoin.
The consensus among experts is that the evidence Wright has provided so far is flatly unconvincing. But discovering Satoshi's true identity, even if it's not Wright after all, would finally put one of modern tech's greatest mysteries to bed. Even to the layperson, the prospect of an anonymous genius being exposed is exciting. But in the bitcoin community, astoundingly, some people just don't care about Wright or Satoshi.
Prominent bitcoin entrepreneur Andreas Antonopoulos posted on Reddit that he declined an offer to assist in verifying Wright's cryptographic proof. Why? Because "bitcoin is a neutral framework of trust that can bring financial empowerment to billions of people," Antonopoulos wrote. "It works because it doesn't depend on any authority. Not even Satoshi's."
However, it's been demonstrated time and again that Satoshi's name, and supposed wishes, exude an aura of power in bitcoin. Power is at the core of politics, and despite protests to the contrary, bitcoin is a social and political system as much as it is technical. Satoshi matters because he or she could decide the very fate of bitcoin.
And despite Wright agreeing with Antonopoulos in a blog post on Tuesday, he is no doubt aware of the opportunity to influence the direction of an entire economic, social, and technical system such as bitcoin.
Code might be one weapon of choice, but this is a political fight. Satoshi's name is also in the arsenal
"I cannot allow the misinformation that has been spread to impact the future of bitcoin and the Blockchain," Wright reportedly said in a statement sent to newsrooms. But before he can weigh in on the future of bitcoin, The Economist reported in its story breaking the news about Wright, "Mr. Wright has to persuade people of his claim."
It's worth noting here that Wright claims he can't spend any of Satoshi's massive trove of bitcoins (believed to be worth just under half a billion dollars), which, if the real Satoshi were to do, could trigger a massive sell-off and destabilize bitcoin's entire economy. Wright says this is because the coins are now owned by a trust, but it could just be that he isn't Satoshi. So, Satoshi's social power is the only avenue open to him.
It's true that the "rules of the game," so to speak, are written into bitcoin's code. Even though Satoshi invented bitcoin, he or she can't just waltz back in and start making changes. But that hasn't stopped folks from invoking Satoshi's supposed intent regarding bitcoin's future when making their own arguments for certain changes.
For example, former bitcoin developer Mike Hearn once used an email he received from Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009 as ammo in a so-called "civil war" in the bitcoin community over a code change that would increase the size of "blocks" of transaction information, thereby letting the network process more transactions more quickly. At stake are two differing visions for bitcoin—as a payment system for the everyday person or a niche financial tool.
Code might be one weapon of choice, but this is a political fight. Satoshi's name is also in the arsenal.
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To critics who believed bitcoin should remain as Satoshi originally coded it—themselves trading on Satoshi's authority—Hearn rebutted by claiming that "Satoshi did [emphasis Hearn's] plan for Bitcoin to compete" with larger and faster payment systems like PayPal and Visa. Amid the furor of debate, others have openly called for Satoshi to swoop in and dictate the proper path forward.
Last year, somebody posing as Satoshi Nakamoto even tried to sway the debate in an email sent to a public mailing list. This email was largely ignored because whoever sent it didn't cryptographically sign it, and so it could have been sent by anybody attempting to further their own interests by claiming to be Satoshi.
Now here is Wright, and with the full support of Gavin Andresen, the bitcoin developer who led the initial charge for larger block sizes, no less.
Crowning Wright as Satoshi Nakamoto would give him a position of unprecedented social power in the bitcoin network. This is not something to be given away lightly, especially for a system that prides itself in going above and beyond traditional financial authorities like banks and regulators.
There's one thing, and one thing only, that Wright could do now to definitively prove that he is Satoshi Nakamoto, and that is to sign a message with the private key from the first bitcoin block ever created: block zero, or the "genesis block." This is the only block in existence that was unquestionably created by Satoshi Nakamoto.
If, for whatever reason, Wright or any other potential claimant to the throne says they are unable to do this—perhaps because they lost the passphrase to the key years ago—then the entire endeavour of searching for Satoshi Nakamoto should be scuttled. The risk posed by giving a potential fraud Satoshi's authority, which they could use to pursue their own interests, is too great.
In the end, maybe the identity of Satoshi really shouldn't matter—at least until it can be proven beyond any shadow of a doubt—but only because whoever he or she is matters so damn much.