Andreas M. Antonopoulos has a message for bitcoin maximalists: “Power," he told Decrypt during a recent interview, "corrupts.”
Antonopoulos was a featured speaker at ETHDenver last week, where he was busy plugging "Mastering Ethereum"—a new 420-page, two-years-in-the-making tome co-written with Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood—to a packed room full of Ethereum devs.
As the bestselling author of “Mastering Bitcoin,” “The Internet of Value,” and “The Internet of Money,” Antonopoulos’s switch to Ethereum must seem like high treason to those who peg him as a Bitcoin maximalist. Bitcoin even saved him once — in 2015, fans donated to him $1.3 million worth of the currency to help lift him from near-bankruptcy. Is he biting the hand of the Bitcoin that feeds him?
No. He was never a maximalist, he said. Moreover, the whole Bitcoin maximalist credo of establishing Bitcoin as a global reserve currency—think Anthony Pompliano’s “Long Bitcoin, Short the Bankers” rhetoric—is anathema to him.
“The moment Bitcoin becomes the only choice,” he intoned, “the level of corruption and abuse of power that we're going to see in the Bitcoin community is going to require us to build something to disrupt it.” He continued: “If you just replace the power structure of traditional central banking with a power structure of Bitcoin-maximalist-billionaires,” he continued, “that [won’t] change anything.”
Worse still, power compromises. As he’d discussed at length in his two-hour-ish talk at ETHDenver Saturday, the promise and purpose of crypto—in this case Ethereum—is “unstoppable code,” software that cannot be manipulated, co-opted or killed by any singular power. (Bitcoin, meanwhile, is “unstoppable money.”) So, it worried him that a new breed of power brokers had concentrated on the Ethereum network and inserted themselves as central points of failure.
He was thinking in particular of the 2015 Ethereum hard fork, which came as a consequence of a ruinous hack on a decentralized mutual fund, the “DAO.” By reversing the fraudulent transactions and restoring the stolen funds, devs had dangerously shown that they do, in fact, hold a degree of power over the network — a move that Antonopoulos believes could come back to bite them in the courts of a jurisdiction unfriendly to their cause.
“Don't build [decentralized] systems where you have moderating ability,” he beseeched the ETHDenver crowd. “Don't give yourself the power to stop unstoppable code.”
(Antonopoulos had skin in the game during the DAO hack, having invested $15 in it. From day one, he mined Ethereum using Amazon Cloud Service, running both “Geth” and “Parity” mining protocols. He never mined Bitcoin.)
Many didn’t take kindly to Antonopoulos’s exhortations. An immediate criticism was that he had appeared to dismiss the role of the Byzantine systems of “governance” devs have erected, a favorite topic among … everyone involved in Ethereum, essentially. Vlad Zamfir, an Ethereum lead researcher at the event, took Antonopoulos to task on Twitter, predicting that an utterly disintermediated future would produce unstoppable fascism. (Zamfir recently wrote a screed on the topic.)
“Vlad [Zamfir] responded to my talk yesterday, saying that he thinks that unstoppable code becomes fascist, and that I don't think it does,” Antonopoulos told Decrypt. “I do think it does. I think that there will be fascist unstoppable code.”
But, he continued, there will also be “Marxist unstoppable code, and socialist unstoppable code, and left-Libertarian unstoppable code, and happy-go-lucky, hippy unstoppable code, and environmentally unstoppable code, and progressive unstoppable code, and religious unstoppable code.”
He drew a breath. “Every human experience, motivation, doctrine, spiritual, cultural, economic attitude will be captured by unstoppable code and expressed.”
Indeed, it is only this multivariate possibility of expression that will ensure true freedom. Crypto for Antonopoulos isn’t some spurious call for adoption—the favorite of those hoping for an increase in price, or more users for their dapps. When used effectively, he said, it aligns with principles instilled in him since his days growing up in the “shadow of a dictatorship” in Greece in the 1970s: privacy, sovereignty, self determination, human rights, and freedom of speech.
What many comfortable, Western people don’t get, he said, is that there is no “killer app” for Bitcoin, Ethereum or whichever other crypto is de rigeur. In the countries where it’s needed most, it is already doing its job, as a shadow currency, an alternative to oppression, an unstoppable fount of human expression.
“I think it plays that role very, very nicely,” he said. “Now, can it also be the world's reserve currency that central banks invest in? Can it also be the medium of exchange for buying coffee in developed Western nations, where we have alternative options? Can it also be a mechanism for crowd-funding campaigns and things like that? I don't know.”
“It depends,” he continued, “on how badly governments fuck up. A lot of people don't realize that the future of Bitcoin is tied to what happens in traditional currencies. I don't want to see traditional currencies fuck themselves up so badly that we have to seek Bitcoin as the only alternative, because that's going to be enormously damaging.”
It may come as a surprise that Earth’s most prominent crypto advocate doesn’t want to see it become the global reserve currency, and doesn’t even entertain some abstract notion of “adoption.”
Yet to do so, he said, would be to cynically bank on the failure of systems billions rely on.
“I've lived in countries with failed currencies,” he explained. “I've lived in countries with failed banking systems. I've lived in countries with hyperinflation. And I've seen the misery and hardship that causes. So no, that's not a vision of the future I want. I'd rather see fiat survive its own worst instincts, and Bitcoin add a choice for those who want it, rather than Bitcoin being the only choice because everything else has failed.”
He goes further, saying it’s not even worth explaining crypto concepts to our elderly relatives — a regular admonition from adoption-seekers. “Hopefully Grandma doesn't need it,” he said. “I mean, this is the thing. It depends on where Grandma lives. If Grandma lives in Argentina, then yeah. She needs it.”
Leaning in conspiratorially, Antonopoulos added that even he doesn’t live by crypto. You see, his situation isn’t dire enough, the technology isn’t sufficiently used by his own fans, and … fiat is easier. “I take Patreon donations,” he grinned, his eyes gleaming, relishing his own hypocrisy, just a little bit. “I'm using dirty fiat to fund the battle against dirty fiat.”
Is it a battle fought for a specific coin? No. He’s no “Bitcoin maximalist,” nor a “platform maximalist” — a person who believes there will eventually be solely one blockchain to rule them all. The killer app, if there is one, isn’t another money-guzzling Silicon Valley unicorn.
“Whether Bitcoin or Ethereum succeed,” he said, “the underlying concept of open, borderless, neutral, decentralized systems that are censorship-resistant, that is unstoppable. It will succeed. It is succeeding already. What it's doing is giving people choice and freedom.
“It doesn't have to do anything more than that.”