We may now know who Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin, is. According to Newsweek, he’s a reclusive 64-year old Japanese man who lives in Temple City, California. And Satoshi Nakamoto is his real name. (He has reportedly denied being involved with Bitcoin.)
Newsweek portrays Nakamoto as secretive, reclusive and a little paranoid. And certainly the awkward scene when Leah McGrath Goodman confronted Nakamoto in his driveway suggests that the man is genuinely uninterested in seeking the spotlight.
But Nakamoto’s decision to disappear from public view just as Bitcoin was taking off wasn’t just a reflection of his eccentric personality. It was essential to getting the currency to take off.
Fiat curencies like Bitcoin are fundamentally built on faith. People treat a currency as valuable because they expect others to consider it valuable. And for a decentralized currency like Bitcoin, that faith depends on a belief that the rules of the currency will be stable over time.
For example, it’s generally reported as a fact that there will never be more than 21 million bitcoins. But that “fact” is just a social convention. There will never be more than 21 million Bitcoins because the Bitcoin community has agreed to a set of rules that doesn’t allow more than 21 million Bitcoins to be created. In principle, those rules could be changed. Bitcoin’s success depends on people having confidence that the rules won’t be changed in a way that will destroy the value of their holdings.
This means that a strong leader would have been a liability in Bitcoin’s early years. As Bitcoin’s creator, Satoshi Nakamoto would have had a unique ability to change the rules of the game and get the Bitcoin community to accept the changes—Nakamoto’s version of the Bitcoin software was Bitcoin by definition. As long as he was around, people would worry that he could make future changes that would destroy the value of their investments.
Disappearing in early 2011 helped to remove that potential impediment to Bitcoin’s growth. Gavin Andresen, Nakamoto’s successor as the leader of the Bitcoin project, is a smart and capable programmer. But he’ll never have the stature within the Bitcoin community that Nakamoto did. If Andressen tried to make dramatic, potentially harmful changes to Bitcoin, he’d face a lot of resistance from the rest of the Bitcoin community.
The lack of an official Bitcoin leader has also been an asset in the regulatory arena. A key argument for Bitcoin is that no one owns the Bitcoin network, which means there’s no way to regulate it. Had Nakamoto’s identity been known a year ago, he might have been dragged before Congress to testify at last fall’s hearings on the future of Bitcoin. Nakamoto might have faced pressure from regulators to change Bitcoin to make it easier to regulate. But with Nakamoto out of the picture, the leaders of the Bitcoin community could truthfully say that no one had the authority to change Bitcoin’s rules. That forced policymakers to accept the system the way it was and develop policies to accommodate it.
If the man Newsweek identified today proves to be the real Satoshi Nakamoto, the question is whether he’s been away from the project long enough that Bitcoin will continue to be seen as truly outside anyone’s control. I think the answer is probably yes. There’s now a significant community of Bitcoin developers who have grown used to managing the currency without Nakamoto’s input. They probably wouldn’t defer to him the way they would have in 2011. But just to be on the safe side, it would be smart for Nakamoto not to rejoin the Bitcoin development community any time soon.