As I have said many times before, cryptocurrencies in general, and Bitcoin in particular are more about their sociotechnical communities than the technology alone. I have referred to cryptocurrencies as a family, unhappy in its own way, with Bitcoin as the patriarch, and many offspring with serious Oedipal issues.
Any family will have arguments, and boy, does Bitcoin have arguments! The arguments of the Bitcoin community are similar to many other online technology communities (often shallow, illogical, and brutal).
But Bitcoin has one characteristic that stands out: it has hallowed scripture written by a mysterious missing man, whose authority may be cited in current controversies.
Bitcoin has a The foundational document for Bitcoin is The Nakamoto Document , along with other (often inscrutable) messages from “Satoshi Nakamoto”. These writings describe the original Bitcoin, as created in 2009. The Nakamoto Document itself is an eccentric text, part computer science and part libertarian, hard-money manifesto. The text itself is rendered all the stranger by the brilliantly successful anonymity of the author or authors, which seems to add to the authority of his words. We still do not know who “Satoshi Nakamoto” is, he is a mysterious prophet, who may reappear at any moment.
Nakamoto gave both the technical design, set the tone for the cultural narrative, and originated some of the Bitcoin jargon. While Nakamoto did not use the favorite terms “fiat currency” or “transparency” in the 2009 document, he (or she or they) did lay out the conception of “trust” (versus “trustless”), relating these terms to the desire to not rely on a “central authority”.
He also coined the term “mining” to describe the Bitcoin “scratch off lottery” mechanism, saying that his mechanism is “analogous to gold miners expending resources to add gold to circulation” (, p. 4) He understood this in terms of an economic theory based on “incentives”, reflected in comments such as, “He ought to find it more profitable to play by the rules, such rules that favour him with more new coins than everyone else combined, than to undermine the system and the validity of his own wealth.” (, p. 4)
The community that has grown has faced common, if very difficult, challenges that require communal decisions. How can the network be sustained and maintained? How shall the software evolve in face of growth and change?
These arguments are very complex, because they involve assumptions and beliefs about not only technology, but also human behavior and the overall goals for the project. People will marshal logic and evidence, and sometimes emotion and ideology, to convince others.
The Bitcoin community has one more kind of argument that sets them apart from run of the mill software projects: they call on the authority of the writings of Satoshi Nakamoto. (Such an argument from authority is ironic in a community that, on principle, rejects “centralized authority”. For that matter, relying on words from such an opaque source is a strange approach to “transparency”.)
We have seen this is recent arguments about Bitcoin’s scaling problems, AKA the “block size” controversy. Technically, this is a fairly straightforward issue about data structures and bandwidth. The problem has been difficult to deal with because some people have very significant economic interests which cut in different directions. There is no easy answer, so it is not surprising to see hot debate.
But we also see interesting arguments, along the lines of “What would Satoshi Do?” For example, Elliot Olds summarizes aspects of the debate in his Wiki.
In a section intriguingly titled “An increase is part of the social contract” (do libertarians believe in social contracts?), he notes that important leaders (Gavin Andresen and Mike Hearn) refer to writings by Nakamoto that seem to support their own position. E.g., writing in 2015, they (Hearn , Andresen) refer to somewhat inscrutable comments from 2008 and 2010. For example,
“Here’s Satoshi in August 2010:
“It would be nice to keep the blk*.dat files small as long as we can.
The eventual solution will be to not care how big it gets.
But for now, while it’s still small, it’s nice to keep it small so new users can get going faster. When I eventually implement client-only mode, that won’t matter much anymore.”
Satoshi is endorsing the idea of blocks growing very large. He calls it “the” eventual solution. “
Opponents of this approach in turn marshal the authority of Nakamoto. For example, Marshal cites a posting by Nakamoto from 10 December 2010
“Piling every proof-of-work quorum system in the world into one dataset doesn’t scale.”
“Bitcoin users might get increasingly tyrannical about limiting the size of the chain so it’s easy for lots of users and small devices.”
which appear to support his own approach.
During this same period, one faction (Maxwell) expelled the other (Hearn et al) from a major discussion board, on the grounds that their technical approach departed so much from previous practice that it “will create a new altcoin and split the community and blockchain”, i.e., it no longer is really “Bitcoin”, and so may not be discussed.
At this time, “Satoshi” briefly reappeared online, to deliver a hotly disputed message denouncing the Hearn faction (above), for their “very dangerous” approach. He goes on to condemn “this pretender-Bitcoin”, who “claim to be following my original vision, but nothing could be further from the truth.” “These developers are violating the “original vision” they claim to honour.” Ouch!
This message is hotly disputed, and I think it is likely not from the original Satoshi. But the fact that such a forgery was considered relevant tells us a lot: when we lack clear scriptural authority, then we may be motivated to “find” some new texts to support our position.
I note that the individuals mentioned above have themselves at times been treated as revered apostles, whose authority could be used to sway opinion. There have been other heroes, including Marc Andreessen, Wences Casares, and other charismatic true believers. Some have taken great falls, such as Mark Karpeles of Mt Gox.
I think that much of what has been said about Bitcoin is a repetition, with or without attribution, of what others have already said. It would be interesting to map these relationships.
- Nakamoto, Satoshi, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. 2009. http://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf