Imgage from bitcoin.com
This week, scrolling through Bitcoin Twitter, I came across a CoinDesk article titled “Bitcoin has Lost its way: Here’s how to return to Crypto’s Subversive Roots.” This rubbed me the wrong way, but it was nothing new. I’d heard the same complaint many times: That Bitcoin has abandoned its roots in favor of becoming mainstream. This time, however, I clicked the link, and read my first CoinDesk article.
The author opens with an interesting write-up of her career path, including a dive into Ethereum and the Syrian Civil War, before supporting her thesis at the very end. She outlined how Ethereum developers opted for compliance and institutional appeal rather than cypherpunk, crypto-anarchist values. In fact, I read the entire article waiting for her to discuss Bitcoin. All of the conferences the author attended were Ethereum-focused. All of the developer decisions she cited were about Ethereum. All of her examples and critiques were leveled at Ethereum or “crypto,” and yet the headline read “Bitcoin has lost its way.” Only one line in the entire article actually criticizes Bitcoin:
“While crypto-anarchist in origin, bitcoin has lost its way. Rather than empowering black markets, it has allied with state and corporate interests”- Rachel-Rose O’Leary
This is when I decided to write a full response and not just a tweet. But I won’t spend the rest of this article attacking the author. With the benefit of the doubt, she simply conflated bitcoin and crypto, an all-too-common mistake.
But, the headline still matters. It still bothers me. And that’s because the headline isn’t simply conflating the terms bitcoin and crypto. It’s conflating Bitcoin and the majority of visible Bitcoiners. It also perpetuates the inaccurate conception of Bitcoin as a political and majoritarian system, like most of our legacy systems, where the dominant narrative is the only one that matters.
First, Bitcoin is not Bitcoin Twitter. It’s a code base with the functionality of peer-to-peer electronic cash payments. So, while most of Bitcoin Twitter talks about price, the source code never once mentions price. When MicroStrategy’s announcement is all the rage, and “institutions are coming” (Soon™), Bitcoin’s source code, the ability of anyone to transact privately, globally, and in a censorship-resistant way, has not changed. In fact, many of the most important Bitcoiners barely participate on Twitter or Reddit. One prominent Bitcoiner complained awhile back about Bitcoin Twitter’s loss of principles, and he may well have been right. But he was explicitly discussing Bitcoin Twitter, not Bitcoin the cryptocurrency.
That brings me to my next point: Bitcoin is decisively different from the political, majoritarian systems that dominate our lives. These legacy systems — elections, sports, laws, corporations, history — are winner-take-all. They are controlled by either a single narrative or a duopoly: the party in power and the opposition. If you don’t control the narrative in politics, you lose. Your ability to act is destroyed, and someone else’s reality supersedes yours. If you score fewer points than your opponent in sports, you’re eliminated.
Bitcoin shatters this paradigm. One user’s use case and narrative have no detrimental effects on another’s. For MicroStrategy, Bitcoin is a Store of Value. For Samourai fans, it is money for the streets, and for still others, it is a tool for privacy, day-trading, cheap transactions, or defunding governments. All of these narratives peacefully coexist and are supported by the Bitcoin codebase regardless of their popularity among the Bitcoin community. Being surrounded by winner-take-all systems, many think that Bitcoin’s dominant narrative hinders other use cases. This is not so.
The Cypherpunks were a group of people who coalesced around ideals (privacy, crypto-anarchy, etc.) and methods (encryption, remailers, digital cash). However, they did not believe everyone needed to understand Elliptic Curve Cryptography, self-hosting servers, or Digital Signatures. They were more concerned with ensuring freedom was possible for those who wanted it; not forcing freedom upon everyone.
“Bitcoin is for enemies” — Pierre Rochard
This ethos is perfectly alive within Bitcoin, although not so among altcoins. Privacy through CoinJoins and the Lightning Network is possible for those who desire it. Mining is an open system, with no built-in barriers to entry. And despite the best efforts of the New York Agreement, Bitcoin did not bend to corporate interests and change its structure to accommodate a particular narrative to the detriment of others. The fact that a majority of bitcoin users don’t care about absolute privacy, crypto-anarchy, or even block size doesn’t matter. Bitcoin enables those who do care.
In that way, Bitcoin’s cypherpunk ethos is healthier than ever. We see this health in the form of the myriad projects being built on top of Bitcoin, including the author’s own Dark Renaissance wallet. Projects like Wasabi, Samourai, Bisq, Spectre, and BTCPayServer are all realizing the cypherpunk ideal for those who care, while those who don’t care can happily buy G-BTC, use Coinbase, or go 100x long on BitMex. A cypherpunk ethos does not require all participants to adhere to the same beliefs. The fact that many Bitcoiners have widely differing and even conflicting beliefs does not harm Bitcoin at all. It is one of Bitcoin’s strengths.