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‘Satoshi, Baby!’

Josh Stupple

Is this Satoshi Nakamoto?

The conference hall of the New York Marriott Marquis was in a fever. Today was the first day of Consensus 2016, the second annual blockchain technology summit. Blockchain is the underlying mechanism for bitcoin, and the conference has been shaken by the possible unmasking of the electronic currency’s mysterious inventor.

The BBC and the Economist published Craig Wright’s claim to be Satoshi Nakamoto early this morning. Wright had been rumoured to be the father of bitcoin since December 2015, but he’d always denied it, until today.

A man in a blue polo shirt sat at a table coding, his fingers flying across the keyboard. Men in grey suits shared their iPhone screens as more information trickled out. Two men with pony-tails high-fived, one of them shouting: ‘Satoshi Baby!’ Half the attendants seemed to be from a banking conglomerate or a professional services network. One speaker told us to 'look to your left, then look to your right – either you or a person sitting next to you works for Deloitte.' The smell of cologne stained the air.

Ryan Selkis, the host of the conference, arrived on stage to the soundtrack from Kill Bill. He was there to introduce the keynote speakers, but he led with this morning’s revelations. ‘I’m not sure Satoshi Nakamoto is actually going to make an appearance … but the door is open!’

But among the excitement, the prevailing feeling was one of careful scepticism. We’ve been here before. There have been a number of claimants to the Satoshi name – all of them debunked or widely discredited.

When I arrived in the green room, key players were climbing over each other to dispute Wright’s claims. Some took issue with his cryptographic evidence, others pointed to his inadequate educational background. Gavin Andresen, the chief scientist at the Bitcoin Foundation, was the lone confident voice: ‘I think he’s the real deal.’ Andresen is one of the few people who have actually met Wright and watched him perform his proof.

Later, at Andresen’s panel on Open Blockchains, the room was packed. He began by addressing rumours that had flooded bitcoin’s internet crawlspaces since this morning. ‘I was not hacked. Those were indeed my words. I still believe Craig Wright is, beyond a reasonable doubt, Satoshi Nakamoto.’ The crowd was unconvinced. Vitalik Buterin, the 22-year-old founder of ethereum, bitcoin’s biggest rival, spoke up: ‘For the sake of controversy, I’ll let you know why I think he’s not Satoshi.’ He got the biggest round of applause of the conference so far.

The truth is, the bitcoin community is not just sceptical of anyone who claims Satoshi’s throne – it is resentful. The mystery of Satoshi and the democratising effect of there being no known founder has long been a central feature of the currency. Garrick Hileman, of the Cambridge Centre of Alterative Finance, is worried about the implications of Wright’s claim. ‘Satoshi as an absentee landlord was useful, it allowed entrepreneurs and innovators to take ground – and that may well be gone now. We’ve seen the old man behind the curtain – he’s no longer the wonderful wizard of bitcoin.’

On the conference floor, I was reminded what this has always been about: money, old and new. Every conversation I had circled toward the millions that the real Satoshi must have access to, and what effect Wright’s claim will have on bitcoin’s market price.

Andrew O’Hagan has had exclusive access to Craig Wright for the last six months. His forthcoming piece in the LRB will look at the myth of Satoshi and the journey of the man who claims to be him.


Comments


  • 4 May 2016 at 12:48pm
    Michael Schuller says:
    I guess I can't really argue for or against the assertion that the bitcoin community as a whole is "resentful" over the idea of Wright claiming to be Satoshi -- I've followed the whole thing from a distance, with a morbid sort of curiosity, since I like neither wild financial speculation nor the libertarian ethos that seems to drive a huge number of proponents of the technology.

    But what can be said with certainty is that Craig Wright has definitely not proven that he is Satoshi, and that the evidence he has given publicly in support of this assertion is sufficiently badly faked that it looks like a deliberate attempt to spread confusion and misinformation. (For a full technical breakdown of how bad his claim is, there is this post, although it assumes some prior knowledge of the basics of keys and signing: http://blog.erratasec.com/2016/05/satoshi-how-craig-wrights-deception.html#.VynmiJ6lilN). Furthermore, proving that he is Satoshi should be trivially easy in a publicly verifiable way (this is, after all, the promise of all public-key cryptography, from bitcoin to secure web browsing).

    Wright's refusal to demonstrate it because he won't "jump through hoops" while also continuing to assert that he was the main, if not the sole, inventor of bitcoin therefore raises the question of not whether he is lying, but why. I won't add to the already extant wild speculation about the point (I don't really care), but it is interesting in light of the kind of frenzy it creates in the media that reports on it. Wright can present a terrible attempt at "proving" he is Satoshi, be roundly dismissed by pretty much anyone with the requisite technical background to understand what is going on, and still the story will be reported as if there is some existing controversy and he might actually be the man in question.

    It makes for a good story, but there's no evidence that it might be the case. (Wright apparently convinced Gavin Andresen that this was the case in a private demo that has not been reproduced, but Andresen has since questioned why Wright's public post didn't reflect the sort of demo he was presented with: https://dankaminsky.com/2016/05/03/the-cryptographically-provable-con-man/).

    I'm hoping Andrew O'Hagan's forthcoming piece is better than the last bitcoin piece the LRB ran, which while not badly written or (too wildly) technically inaccurate, managed to present a terribly confused explanation of cryptography, while also taking a swipe at all computer professionals everywhere by dismissing them as "nerds" (seriously, John Lanchester?). I don't expect journalists to have an expert's grasp of public-key cryptography, which is a niche corner of an already highly technical field that many of us who are programmers by trade don't fully understand. But it would behoove the non-technical journalist interested in these topics to immerse themselves a little more both in the technical aspects of the discussions (they are not as hard to learn as I think most people assume) as well as the cultural and people aspects.

    If that were the case, then perhaps there would be less of a temptation to summarize vast, diverse groups of people and their diverse opinions as a single adjective (whether it be "nerdy" or "resentful") or paint the story of bitcoin as being of more impact than it is. Interesting through the underlying technology is, and potentially influential as it may prove to be in the future, from where I sit it remains an experimental technology adopted, for the most part, by experimenters and fringe enthusiasts (albeit ones who have enough disposable income to speculate about its value wildly). And as the many attempts at "unmasking" the "real" Satoshi Nakamoto demonstrate, it's main contribution to the rest of the culture at large has so far been nothing more than a soap opera with a relatively obscure MacGuffin.

    • 4 May 2016 at 12:58pm
      Michael Schuller says: @ Michael Schuller
      Also, to the explicit statement that Josh makes above, "Wright had been rumoured to be the father of bitcoin since December 2015, but he’d always denied it, until today."

      That's a rather misleading way of putting it. Wright was realized to be a hoax then (https://www.wired.com/2015/12/new-clues-suggest-satoshi-suspect-craig-wright-may-be-a-hoaxer/) and is still a hoax now.

  • 6 May 2016 at 8:16pm
    Vance Maverick says:
    Looks like the teaser for Andrew O'Hagan's piece has been taken down off the main LRB website. Any comment on that?

    • 8 May 2016 at 6:49am
      editor@dailydetox.org says: @ Vance Maverick
      I think it had never been there.

    • 22 May 2016 at 2:53am
      gkchesterton says: @ editor@dailydetox.org
      It was there at one point. But now it's gone, and the piece hasn't appeared either! I think we're missing out on a great piece of writing.