Missing Comma: Why Bitcoin’s Survival Doesn’t Hinge On The Existence Of One Person

Bitcoin has had a rough couple of weeks. With the closure and bankruptcy of MtGox and the closure-from-hacking of at least one smaller “bank,” the value of Bitcoin has fluctuated wildly. Predictably, this instability have caused some media outlets to make the exaggerated and premature announcement of the cryptocurrency’s death. But while most in the media are content to talk about Bitcoin the way they’d never talk about the dollar, Newsweek decided they would up the ante and “find” the mysterious creator of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto.

Certain publications, such as Salon, have taken to this story like a pig to mud, claiming a victory for the forces of the State over those scary, evil, unregulated market transactions and their crypto-communo-fascist-libertarian-anarchist-conservative followers. The thinking behind this is shallow, as is generally the case; if you can find and reveal Nakamoto, you now have someone to pin all of Bitcoin’s mistakes to. See also: attaching a leader to Occupy, or pinning the Koch Brothers simultaneously to everything labeled “libertarian” and confusing that with everything labeled “awful, statist and conservative.”

Now that Satoshi Nakamoto has been found, the punditry has someone to blame the Silk Road, MtGox’s failure and Dogecoin on. Except it’s becoming more and more unlikely that Newsweek actually found him.

Here’s the timeline:

On March 6, Leah McGrath Goodman published her cover story for Newsweek – the first print Newsweek cover story since they went online-only in 2012. It details a months-long hunt to find and talk to the man Goodman believes started Bitcoin. At one point, early in the article, she writes,

“It seemed ludicrous that the man credited with inventing Bitcoin – the world’s most wildly successful digital currency, with transactions of nearly $500 million a day at its peak – would retreat to Los Angeles’s San Gabriel foothills, hole up in the family home and leave his estimated $400 million of Bitcoin riches untouched. It seemed similarly implausible that Nakamoto’s first response to my knocking at his door would be to call the cops.”

Goodman found Dorian Nakamoto through an email list she obtained from a company that makes model train parts. They began a correspondence which ceased abruptly the moment she brought up Bitcoin. She then proceeded to contact Nakamoto’s family members, as well as Gavin Andresen, whose own contact with the founder of Bitcoin was limited to code and media angle and ceased when Andresen brought up that he was going to be speaking about Bitcoin to CIA officials.

From Dorian Nakamoto’s family, Goodman discovered a Cal-Poly-trained physicist who loved model trains and who excelled in anything having to do with engineering, computers and math, but who craved privacy and kept secrets; from Andresen, she learned exactly what everyone else has known since Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared in 2011: that he was secretive, that he never talked about his personal life, and that the Bitcoin project was possibly a political statement.

On March 7, Dorian Nakamoto agreed to do an interview – no cops this time – with Ryan Nakashima from the Associated Press. Nakamoto denied any knowledge of Bitcoin until his son contacted him three weeks earlier, saying repeatedly, “I got nothing to do with it.” He was bombarded by press wanting to get in contact with him and eventually announced that he would only talk to one reporter over lunch. During that interview, Nakamoto said he had been misunderstood:

“I’m saying I’m no longer in engineering. That’s it. And even if I was, when we get hired, you have to sign this document, contract saying you will not reveal anything we divulge during and after employment. So that’s what I implied.”

Also on March 7, Newsweek and Leah McGrath Goodman released a statement standing fully behind their cover story:

Ms. Goodman’s research was conducted under the same high editorial and ethical standards that have guided Newsweek for more than 80 years. Newsweek stands strongly behind Ms. Goodman and her article. Ms. Goodman’s reporting was motivated by a search for the truth surrounding a major business story, absent any other agenda. The facts as reported point toward Mr. Nakamoto’s role in the founding of Bitcoin.

Finally on March 7, the P2P Foundation account of Satoshi Nakamoto went live for the first time in years – to debunk the Newsweek article: “I am not Dorian Nakamoto.”

While none of this points to Dorian Nakamoto’s disqualification from the character, nothing so far points conclusively to him being the founder of Bitcoin either.

Since then, a host of ancillary blogs and punditry pieces have been published debating the facts and myths of the Newsweek article. But the crown jewel of them all has to be Salon’s aforementioned sneering, oddly sure of itself anti-libertarian “checkmate” piece, written on March 7, that boldly declares,

“If you invent a multibillion-dollar digital currency explicitly designed to remake the global financial system that gains serious traction, people will want to know who you are. If you mastermind an anarcho-libertarian project to break the hold of governments over money, history will demand answers — and good reporters will find them.”

That Goodman is a good reporter is not up to question here; what is questionable is how good the reporting in this particular instance is. It isn’t just Bitcoin fanatics that have criticized the article – other journalists have questioned it as well. As media critic Jay Rosen said in a column at PressThink:

“Show your work. Don’t tell us how much work went into it. You publish your story, you know it’s going to come under attack, you prepare for battle and when the time is right you release the evidence you have. Instead: ‘Goodman feels that she should be given the respect due a serious and reputable investigative journalist, working for a serious and reputable publication.’ That’s not ‘show your work.’ That’s, ‘You didn’t hear us. We are Newsweek magazine.’ They heard you. They don’t care. And they know that Newsweek sold for $1 a few years ago.”

It bears mentioning that Goodman did not shine a light on the evil anarcho-libertarian funny money conspiracy that Salon would so love to destroy. Read charitably, her article does one thing only: reveals the founder of Bitcoin. So the question of whether there is a plot “to break the hold of governments over money” goes fundamentally unanswered in this case – which, speaking frankly, makes the whole point of that Salon article seem silly.

And that’s really the lesson for today: if you’ve got an ideological agenda, maybe don’t make giant proclamations that your enemies have lost before the battle has begun.

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