The Wizard of 'Is'

Thursday 28 July 2016

O’Hagan’s narrative sheds unprecedented light on who Satoshi is - and it depends on the meaning of the word ‘is’.

Back in 1998 after his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton’s statement that ‘There is nothing going on between us’ was met with raised eyebrows, as was his elucidation: ‘It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is’. In a different context, Craig Wright’s claim to be Satoshi Nakamoto lacks nuance. There are and were likely several Satoshis who played different roles, with Wright as one of a diminishing number left alive.


Several people and roles, one identity

Which Satoshi?

Andrew O’Hagan’s extended account of the six months he spent with Wright sheds much light on the apparently botched ‘reveal’ of his identity, as well as leaving much unsaid. The final chapter of the story has yet to be written, but it’s worth asking what we mean by the question ‘Who is Satoshi?’ in the first place.

It’s becoming increasingly accepted that ‘Satoshi’ is or was several people who should share credit for the creation of bitcoin, but they are typically presented as a unified identity. In reality, it’s far more likely that this ‘person’ was a collection of several different roles. These would have had different meaning and significance to those who knew them, communicating via the anonymity of the web and potentially with little visibility of other aspects of his work. For example:

  • The person or group that came up with the original synthesis of ideas that enabled peer-to-peer online money.
  • The author or authors who wrote the Bitcoin White Paper.
  • The developer or developers who wrote the code for the original bitcoin client.
  • The person (or persons) who wrote hundreds of messages on the bitcointalk forum.
  • The person(s) who corresponded privately by email with core developers like Gavin Andresen.
  • The individuals who have access to the keys to early blocks, including the Genesis Block.

It is highly likely that these are not the same person. For example, Satoshi’s writing style in the white paper and on the forum is terse, reserved and precise. It is quite unlike Craig Wright’s prose, which is often rambling and full of minor errors.

O’Hagan explains that Kleiman helped streamline and tidy up the white paper, with Wright claiming the lion's share of credit for the content (accurately or otherwise cannot be known definitively at this point). Similarly, Kleiman was hospitalised at the end of 2010, around the same time that Satoshi became less involved with the forum; he ‘moved on to other things’ in 2011, as he told one developer. Could it be that Kleiman was forum-Satoshi, with a gift for clarity and time to spend online, whilst Wright had more to do with coding the original client?

That chimes with O’Hagan’s instinct and closing question to Wright after the big reveal went wrong. 'What if you were 30 per cent Satoshi. You were there at its formation and you were part of a brilliant group. You coded and you synthesised other people’s work and you shared in the encryption keys. Then, some time in the last year, you upgraded yourself to 80 or 90 per cent. You were already a lot more Satoshi than anybody else has been hitherto, but the deal, in your eyes, required you to be more and in the end you couldn’t carry that off.'

The saga continues, but it feels like it's reaching a denouement. These things have a way of coming into the light, sooner or later.

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