Craig Wright Couldn’t Prove He Invented Bitcoin, But He’s Back Anyway
Wright isn't mad, actually he's laughing.
Illustration: Marvin Lau
Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency with a market cap in the billions, is still largely guided by the writings of Satoshi Nakamoto, its pseudonymous inventor. Satoshi first described the system in 2008 and remained anonymous for years, so it was rather extraordinary when, in May of last year, Australian businessman Craig Wright set up a tightly coordinated press tour designed to prove his identity as Satoshi.
If Wright could back up his extraordinary claim, he would become one of the most influential people in the tech industry overnight. He failed.
Wright gained notoriety in 2015 after an anonymous tip led to parallel investigations in Wired and Gizmodo naming him as likely being Satoshi. At the time, Motherboard laid out why the proof was insufficient. The following year, Wright went on a press tour publicly claiming to be Satoshi himself, but that didn't clear away the doubt. He didn't, or couldn't, do the one thing that everyone agreed would prove his claim and which the real Satoshi should be able to do: cryptographically sign the first block of Bitcoin data, created by Satoshi.
As a result, Wright was labeled a fraud or a scammer by many in the Bitcoin community. Just days after he first made the claim public in 2016, he stopped pushing it entirely with a blog post that alluded to some personal issues that prevented him from remaining in the public eye. Or so it seemed.
In the last six months, Wright has returned to the world of Bitcoin with a vengeance. He is the Chief Scientist of a new Bitcoin research company called nChain, which has already filed numerous patents for Bitcoin technology. He tweets with unrestrained contempt for his perceived enemies in Bitcoin. He gives talks at conferences for the online gambling industry while wearing sunglasses indoors.
The one thing Craig Wright hasn't done during his comeback tour is to clarify whether or not he is Satoshi. When I reached Wright on Slack, he played coy, sometimes responding to my questions with smiley face emojis.
For many, this apparently calculated laissez-faire attitude (or less charitably, obfuscation) means that Wright hasn't earned his re-entry into the Bitcoin community.
"That's what fraudsters and scammers do—they want to leave the question open, quote-unquote, to get people thinking that they might be this or that and to take advantage of it," Jimmy Song, a Bitcoin developer and prominent commentator in the community, told me over the phone. "Everything about the guy screams fraud to me."
The origins of the Bitcoin research company where Wright now serves as Chief Scientist, nChain, are tied up with his claim that he is Satoshi Nakamoto.
The idea, in May of last year, was to create a company built around Wright's previously published work and, the London Review of Books reported, sell it to someone with deep pockets as a Bitcoin company with the Satoshi on staff. The Satoshi aspect was "the cornerstone of the commercialization plan," a Wright associate who helped set up the nChain deal told LRB.
Jon Matonis, one of Wright's earliest supporters and the current PR spokesperson for nChain, disputes this. He told me in an interview that this plan was merely the opinion of one investor at the time, and doesn't reflect Wright's intentions.
Regardless, it's clear that the name of Bitcoin's inventor being attached to a Bitcoin company can be seen as providing a market advantage.
Read More: Why Satoshi Nakamoto Matters
After Wright's failed attempt to convince his critics that he invented Bitcoin, nChain—formerly known as nCrypt—was bundled into a suite of about 20 subsidiaries and sold to a Malta-based equity fund in April of 2017 under the name nChain Holdings. The holding company is now primarily composed of nChain Limited, the research arm of the company with an office in London, and nTrust, a digital payments company based in Vancouver, Canada.
The immediate plan, Matonis said, is for nChain to push its research to market through nTrust. First on the docket is a software development kit for Bitcoin applications that, Matonis explained, will make it easy for people to develop Ethereum-like smart contracts on the Bitcoin blockchain.
Despite being the company's chief scientist, Wright doesn't work in the London office, Matonis said. Instead, he splits his time between his home in the UK and speaking at conferences. As for how much input Wright has when it comes to nChain's research, "He will work with the research director, so there's back and forth there in terms of prioritization for certain intellectual property," Matonis said.
It's a good thing that Wright isn't more involved with nChain's research, Matonis added.
"It's actually beneficial for nChain because there's a research team that's not dependant on one person," Matonis said. "Just like the holding company for Disney doesn't depend on Walt Disney or Martha Stewart, you can't just be dependent on one person."
But does Matonis believe that Wright is Satoshi? "I do," he said. But he was quick to distance his personal view from the company's.
nChain has no official position on Wright's identity as Satoshi, Matonis said. "And they probably won't, because they can't replicate his proof."
He continued: "Craig is toeing a thin line, and he knows he is."
On Twitter, Wright's purple prose takes on a sermon-like tone. His handle is "ProfFaustus," an apparent reference to a play in which a man sells his soul to the Devil and is damned by his own pride. He has 280 characters and makes full use of them, pontificating on everything from Bitcoin to political theory.
Wright's main preoccupation online, though, seems to be opinionating and attempting to exert influence, specifically within Bitcoin's current debate about how to scale the system so that it can handle more traffic.
A group of users recently split off from Bitcoin proper to create its own cryptocurrency called Bitcoin Cash, which increased the size of the "blocks" that contain transaction data. The original Bitcoin is choosing to keep its blocks the same size. Wright is firmly on the side of Bitcoin Cash, and advocates ferociously for it on Twitter and at conferences.
He's made some famous friends among the Bitcoin Cash boosters, most notably Roger Ver.
"Anyone who is opposed to Bitcoin Cash is opposed to the original vision for Bitcoin"
Ver is a prominent investor who was once popularly known as "Bitcoin Jesus" for how forcefully he advocated for the cryptocurrency. These days, though, Ver is a bit of a persona non grata in some circles for his full-throated support for Bitcoin Cash. He's also appeared in public with Wright, and they're united in their evangelism.
"Satoshi or not, the things Craig Wright is saying are exactly the things that caused me to sign up for Bitcoin in the first place," Ver told me in an email. "They are also the the things that led to its success."
But does Ver think that Wright, with his reputation as it is, might actually hurt the Bitcoin Cash project?
"I think his involvement with nChain has been extremely helpful," Ver wrote. "nChain is a substantial organization with lots of very smart people working there." And, he added, "Anyone who is opposed to Bitcoin Cash is opposed to the original vision for Bitcoin."
There's a good deal of this "with us or against us" rhetoric on both sides of the Bitcoin Cash-Bitcoin debate. With billions of dollars in investments potentially on the line, things are understandably heated. It's for this reason that it's tough to shake the feeling that people on both sides of the aisle are taking what they can get in terms of public support, even if it comes from Wright.
"I'm really puzzled over how they've embraced him because it takes away from their credibility in my mind," Song, the Bitcoin developer, told me over the phone. "Maybe they want him to be Satoshi so they can have the moral upper hand, and they're willing to believe that—I'm not really sure."
Craig Wright isn't an easy man to get ahold of. He does not like to do interviews. I might not either, if I had the experience that he did last May—being publicly scrutinized and then roundly lampooned.
Regardless, when I caught up with Wright over the official Bitcoin Slack channel, he was more talkative. But that's not to say he was forthcoming.
"So, you want me to self-incriminate"
Talking to Craig Wright (in the medium of text, at least) is a deeply frustrating experience. He writes in a vaguely aphoristic style, making clear suggestions and then immediately backing off, and is prone to answering pointed questions with a smiley face emoji.
If people say that you're a fraud for claiming to be Satoshi Nakamoto, but you maintain that you're not a fraud, are you still saying that you're Satoshi?
Smiley face. "So, you want me to self-incriminate."
Not at all. I'm just asking a question that many people have.
"HI, I am Satoshi, I built a system that would result in my being shot and dragged away, in that order… Let them ask. I like where we are."
As in killed, literally?
"If you had control of 5 billion USD and in a couple years that was 50 to 100 billion USD… And it could be moved easily? Do the maths."
Why weren't you as concerned about this when you previously claimed to be Satoshi in public?
In our conversation, Wright was adamant that it does not matter whether or not he is Satoshi, because nChain is not looking for investors. (Be that as it may, the company will one day have a product that it will want to make money on.) The entire question, to him, is irrelevant. It's only important, he told me, to pay attention to the tech when it comes out.
But it's not irrelevant, because the media spokesperson for his company told me in an on-the-record interview that he personally believes Wright is Satoshi, even if the company doesn't officially have a position on the question. It's not irrelevant because the majority of the Bitcoin community looks upon Wright and nChain with deep suspicion precisely because that question remains open. Does he have any interest in clearing the air, for marketing or legal purposes?
One gets the impression that Wright might actually save himself a headache or two if he just came clean one way or the other.
But he won't. He just won't.
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