Not long ago, I was in Montreal for a cryptocurrency conference. My hotel, on the top floor of a big building downtown, had a roof garden with a koi pond. One morning, as I had coffee and a bagel in this garden, I watched a pair of ducks feeding on a mound of pellets that someone had left for them at the pond’s edge. Every few seconds, they dipped their beaks to drink, and, in the process, spilled undigested pellets into the water. A few koi idled there, poking at the surface for the scraps. The longer I watched, the more I wondered if the ducks were deliberately feeding the fish. Was such a thing possible? I asked the breakfast attendant, a ruddy Quebecer. He smiled and said, “No, but it is what I tell the children.”
My mind had been marinating overnight—and for more than a year, really—in the abstrusities of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology on which they are built. Bitcoin and, subsequently, a proliferation of other cryptocurrencies had become an object of global fascination, amid prophecies of societal upheaval and reform, but mainly on the promise of instant wealth. A peer-to-peer money system that cut out banks and governments had made it possible, and fashionable, to get rich by sticking it to the Man.
Some of this stuff I understood; much of it I still did not. If you’re not, say, a computer scientist or a mathematician, the deeper you get into the esoterica of distributed ledgers, consensus algorithms, hash functions, zero-knowledge proofs, byzantine-fault-tolerance theory, and so on—the farther you travel from the familiar terrain of “the legacy world,” where, one blockchain futurist told me, pityingly, I live—the better the chance you have of bumping up against the limits of your intelligence. You grasp, instead, for metaphors.
Blockchain talk makes a whiteboard of the brain. You’re always erasing, starting over, as analogies present themselves. So, Montreal bagel in hand, I considered the ducks and the carp. Let the pellets be a cryptocurrency—koicoin, say. Would the ducks then be currency miners? Every altcoin—the catchall for cryptocurrencies other than bitcoin, the majority of which are eventually classified as shitcoin—has its own community of enthusiasts and kvetchers, so perhaps the koi were this one’s. The koicommunity. The breakfast attendant who had put out the pellets: he’d be our koicoin Satoshi—as in Satoshi Nakamoto体育投注平台, the pseudonymous and still unidentified creator of Bitcoin. Yes, the koicoin protocol was strong, and the incentives appeared to be well aligned, but the project didn’t really pass muster in terms of immutability, decentralization, and privacy. Koicoin was shitcoin.
体育投注平台A few hours later, I was at lunch in a conference room in another hotel, with a table of crypto wizards, a few of them among the most respected devs in the space. (Devs are developers, and even legacy worlders must surrender after a while and ditch the scare quotes around “the space,” when referring to the cryptosphere.) Four of these devs were researchers associated with Ethereum, the open-source blockchain platform. Ethereum is not itself a cryptocurrency; to operate on Ethereum, you have to use the cryptocurrency ether, which, like bitcoin, you can buy or sell. (Among cryptocurrencies, ether’s market capitalization is second only to bitcoin’s.) The devs were specimens of an itinerant coder élite, engaged, wherever they turn up and to the exclusion of pretty much everything else, in the ongoing construction of an alternate global financial and computational infrastructure: a new way of handling money or identity, a system they describe as a better, decentralized version of the World Wide Web—a Web 3.0—more in keeping with the Internet’s early utopian promise than with the invidious, monopolistic hellscape it has become. They want to seize back the tubes, and the data—our lives—from Facebook, Google, and the new oligarchs of Silicon Valley.
One of them, Vlad Zamfir, a twenty-eight-year-old Romanian-born mathematician who grew up in Ottawa and dropped out of the University of Guelph, was scribbling equations on an electronic tablet called a reMarkable pad. He narrated as he scrawled. The others at the table leaned in toward him, in a way that recalled Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.” To the two or three people at the table who were clearly incapable of following along, he said, earnestly, “Sorry to alienate you with my math.” Zamfir is the lead developer of one strand of Casper, an ongoing software upgrade designed to make Ethereum scale better and work more securely—an undertaking thought to be vital to its viability and survival. “It’s shitty technology,” Zamfir, whose Twitter bio reads “absurdist, troll,” told a journalist two years ago.
体育投注平台Zamfir was showing the others some rough equations he’d worked out to address one of the thousands of riddles that need to be solved. This particular effort was an attempt (jargon alert) to optimize the incentive structure for proof-of-stake validation—that is, how best to get enough people and machines to participate in a computing operation essential to the functioning of the entire system. “We’re trying to do game theory here,” Zamfir said. The others pointed out what they thought might be flaws. “It doesn’t seem reasonable,” Zamfir said. “But the math works out.” This summarized much of what I’d encountered in crypto.
To his right sat Vitalik Buterin, Ethereum’s founder and semi-reluctant philosopher king. Buterin, who is twenty-four, occasionally glanced at Zamfir’s formulas but mostly looked into the middle distance with a melancholic empty stare, sometimes typing out messages and tweets on his phone with one finger. He was a quick study, and also he pretty much already knew what Zamfir had come up with, and to his thinking the work wasn’t quite there. “When the models are getting overcomplicated, it’s probably good to have more time to try to simplify them,” he told me later, with what I took to be generous understatement.
Buterin had been working, simultaneously, on another version of Casper. So he and Zamfir were both collaborating and competing with each other. There seemed to be no ego or bitterness—in their appraisal of each other’s work, in person, or on social media, where so much of the conversation takes place, in full view. Their assessments were Spockian, and cutting only to the Kirks among us.
They had first met before a conference in Toronto in 2014. Zamfir was amazed by Buterin, whom he called a “walking computer,” and he joined Ethereum as a researcher soon after. Now good friends who meet up mostly at conferences and workshops, they had greeted each other the day before in the hotel lobby with a fervent embrace, like summer campers back for another year, before quick-walking to a quiet corner to start in on the incentive-structure-for-proof-of-stake-validation talk. Whenever and wherever Buterin and Zamfir convene, people gather around—eavesdropping, hoping for scraps of insight. The two are used to this and pay little heed. There were no secrets, only problems and solutions, and the satisfaction that comes from proceeding from one toward the other.
体育投注平台The first time I heard the word “Ethereum” was in April, 2017. A hedge-fund manager, at a benefit in Manhattan, was telling me that he’d made more money buying and selling ether and other cryptocurrencies in the past year than he’d ever made at his old hedge fund. This was a significant claim, since the fund had made him a billionaire. He was using words I’d never heard before. He mentioned bitcoin, too, which I’d certainly heard a lot about but, like most people my age, didn’t really understand. I’d idly hoped I might be just old enough to make it to my deathbed without having to get up to speed.
As the year wore on, that dream faded. The surge in the price of bitcoin, and of other cryptocurrencies, which proliferated amid a craze for initial coin offerings (I.C.O.s), prompted a commensurate explosion in the number of stories and conversations about this new kind of money and, sometimes more to the point, about the blockchain technology behind it—this either revolutionary or needlessly laborious way of keeping track of transactions and data. It seemed as if language had been randomized. I started hearing those words—the ones I’d never heard before—an awful lot: “trustless,” “sharding,” “flippening.” Explaining blockchain became a genre unto itself.