Steve Jobs

Satoshi Nakamoto is the Anti-Steve Jobs

March 7, 2014: 10:51 AM ET

Why are we so fascinated by the man missing from the center of bitcoin? Our need to know reveals a desire for geniuses, leaders -- and authority.

By David Z. Morris


Dorian S. Nakamoto

FORTUNE -- "I am not Dorian S. Nakamoto."

That was the simple message posted from an account on the website of the Peer to Peer Foundation at 10 p.m. ET Thursday. The message was posted from an account under the name "Satoshi Nakamoto."

The pseudonymous creator of the Bitcoin digital currency protocol had previously discussed the development of his invention on this forum, using this account, until he vanished from the world he created. The last prior activity on the account was from Feb. 18, 2009 -- also a discussion about bitcoin. The founder of the Peer to Peer Foundation has stated that the e-mail registered with the account matches previous public emails associated with Satoshi Nakamoto in Bitcoin's original design documents.

MORE: Did Newsweek just validate the Bitcoin conspiracy theory? 

This doesn't necessarily mean much. The account might have been hacked. Or Dorian S. Nakamoto may simply have logged in to spread disinformation in an attempt to deflect the media maelstrom converging around him. But combined with an AP interview in which a sometimes confused Dorian denied his involvement with Bitcoin and serious inconsistencies in the language abilities of the two NakamotosLeah McGrath Goodman's story at least starts to look contestable.

And it doesn't matter a bit.

Whether or not he is in fact Dorian S. Nakamoto, and whatever his motivations, the absence of Satoshi Nakamoto from the huge hype surrounding the virtual money he created has obviously left onlookers not just curious, but slightly manic. A constant stream of speculation and investigation stretching all the way back to 2011 has tried to plug the hole at the center of bitcoin, including attempts by Joshua Davis at the New Yorker, a textual analyst named Skye Grey, and a slew of other amateur and professional investigators. None of the theories have proven out, and Newsweek's scoop may be the next to fall.

But somehow, without its creator, bitcoin soldiers on.

There are many important, sensible reasons we want to know who created bitcoin. Money is based on trust, after all, and an anonymous creator inspires little. Even among bitcoin early adopters, there has been persistent hypothesizing that the bitcoin code could contain secret functions controlled by the anonymous creator -- for example, a killswitch that would disable the entire network.

Except that we know this isn't true, because the bitcoin code is entirely public, and has at this point been reviewed and revised by thousands of programmers across the world. This includes the founders and employees of profitable businesses, who have every motivation to ensure they're on stable ground.

The trust increasing numbers of people place in bitcoin rests on that community, and on that ecosystem. Though shakeouts continue among bitcoin entrepreneurs, its decentralized, open-source development model has made the underlying protocol as trustworthy as any technology controlled by a strong creator -- or more.

MORE: Understanding the Mt. Gox bankruptcy process

But still, people go looking for one person whose identity can stand in for the trustworthiness of an entire system.

Take the most obvious contrast -- Steve Jobs, the most revered tech icon of our era, and Apple (AAPL), the massive company he created. Jobs was obviously supremely gifted and dedicated -- but also well-known as controlling. Jobs pushed his Type A personality to the boundary and was considered a "huge jerk" by some, firing employees in public and tearing into suppliers with expletive-laden tirades.

His ethos lives on in the company he founded (though with less swearing). Apple has created a closed computing ecosystem, allowing it to control user experience from hardware to software -- including denying App store access to iOS programs that don't meet its standards, or just don't project the right image.

But this is about more than whether you can get a sexting app for your iPhone. We don't know what is in the code of Apple's operating systems, because no one but Apple can check it -- and no one but Apple can fix it. This has led not just to security failures, which in today's computing systems are nearly inevitable, but to sometimes long delays in fixing those problems. Despite all this, many users continue to trust Apple, in part because of the image of a steady hand projected for many years by Steve Jobs.

In this way, Apple and Bitcoin are mirror images of each other -- we know almost nothing about Bitcoin's founder, but everything about its substance. We know a lot about Apple's founder, but very little about its code.

MORE: Bitcoin blogger explains Mt. Gox leak

People, for the most part quite distinct groups of people, place their trust in both institutions, for different, even opposite reasons. Some of us simply want technology that works, and we're willing to defer to the people and organizations in charge, even if they don't let us check under the hood. Others want to be able to see things for themselves -- or, even if they're not technically skilled, just like knowing that some disinterested third party could be keeping an eye on things.

The bitcoin community has responded to Newsweek's identifying Dorian S. Nakamoto not with fascination or excitement, but with criticism directed at Goodman, and demands that the public respect Nakamoto's anonymity. The people actively developing Bitcoin aren't spending their time searching for their version of Steve Jobs, or even supporting those who are.

This preference for operating without leaders or even figureheads is reminiscent of nothing so much as the faded Occupy Wall Street protests. Occupy's anarchist ideology is kissing-cousins with the anti-government, anti-bank libertarianism that drove many early bitcoiners. Both are manifestations of growing societal resistance to authority of any kind -- an impulse that also, it must be said, manifests in climate change denialism and foreign and domestic terrorism. On the other hand, the Jobs-Apple model analogizes with authoritarian statism. At extremes, both libertarian and authoritarian impulses are destructive.

In a world where technology defines greater and greater swathes of public life, code and hardware are more than an analog for politics. Our interfaces and devices define a large portion of our interactions with the world. The search for Satoshi Nakamoto, and the clash of cultures it is triggering, gives us an opportunity to think about the kind of leaders we want to design our lives -- and whether we need them at all.

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