CoinDesk asked cypherpunk legend Timothy May, author of the “Crypto Anarchist Manifesto,” to write his thoughts on the bitcoin white paper on its 10th anniversary. What he sent back was a sprawling 30-page evisceration of a technology industry he feels is untethered from reality.
The original message is presented here as a fictional Q&A for clarity. The message remains otherwise unchanged. Read more in our White Paper Reflections series.
CoinDesk: Now that bitcoin has entered the history books, how do you feel the white paper fits in the pantheon of financial cryptography advances?
Tim: First, I’ll say I’ve been following, with some interest, some amusement and a lot of frustration for the past 10 years, the public situation with bitcoin and all of the related variants.
In the pantheon, it deserves a front-rank place, perhaps the most important development since the invention of double-entry book-keeping.
I can’t speak for what Satoshi intended, but I sure don’t think it involved bitcoin exchanges that have draconian rules about KYC, AML, passports, freezes on accounts and laws about reporting “suspicious activity” to the local secret police. There’s a real possibility that all the noise about “governance,” “regulation” and “blockchain” will effectively create a surveillance state, a dossier society.
I think Satoshi would barf. Or at least work on a replacement for bitcoin as he first described it in 2008-2009. I cannot give a ringing endorsement to where we are, or generate a puff-piece about the great things already done.
Sure, bitcoin and its variants – a couple of forks and many altcoin variants – more or less work the way it was originally intended. Bitcoin can be bought or mined, can be sent in various fast ways, small fees paid and recipients get bitcoin and it can be sold in tens of minutes, sometimes even faster.
No permission is needed for this, no centralized agents, not even any trust amongst the parties. And bitcoin can be acquired and then saved for many years.
But this tsunami that swept the financial world has also left a lot of confusion and carnage behind. Detritus of the knowledge-quake, failed experiments, Schumpeter’s “creative destructionism.” It’s not really ready for primetime. Would anyone expect their mother to “download the latest client from Github, compile on one of these platforms, use the Terminal to reset these parameters?”
What I see is losses of hundred of millions in some programming screw-ups, thefts, frauds, initial coin offerings (ICOs) based on flaky ideas, flaky programming and too few talented people to pull off ambitious plans.
Sorry if this ruins the narrative, but I think the narrative is fucked. Satoshi did a brilliant thing, but the story is far from over. She/he/it even acknowledged this, that the bitcoin version in 2008 was not some final answer received from the gods..
CoinDesk: Do you think others in the cypherpunk community share your views? What do you think is creating interest in the industry, or killing it off?
Tim: Frankly, the newness in the Satoshi white paper (and then the early uses for things like Silk Road) is what drew many to the bitcoin world. If the project had been about a “regulatory-compliant,” “banking-friendly” thing, then interest would’ve been small. (In fact, there were some yawn-inducing electronic transfer projects going back a long time. “SET,” for Secure Electronic Transfer, was one such mind-numbingly-boring projects.)
It had no interesting innovations and was 99 percent legalese. Cypherpunks ignored it.
It’s true that some of us were there when things in the “financial cryptography” arena really started to get rolling. Except for some of the work by David Chaum, Stu Haber, Scott Stornetta, and a few others, most academic cryptographers were mainly focused on the mathematics of cryptology: their gaze had not turned much toward the “financial” aspects.
This has of course changed in the past decade. Tens of thousands of people, at least, have flocked into bitcoin, blockchain, with major conferences nearly every week. Probably most people are interested in the “Bitcoin Era,” starting roughly around 2008-2010, but with some important history leading up to it.
History is a natural way people understand things… it tells a story, a linear narrative.
(Read more at CoinDesk.com)