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.