I met Vitalik Buterin for the first time in Miami, during a Bitcoin conference in 2014. I had been invited by a Bitcoiner I knew in New York to stay at a beach house with a team of developers who were working on the next big thing, a technology called Ethereum.
I was told it would blow Bitcoin out of the water. Buterin and about a dozen programmers were sharing the house, using it as a headquarters for crafting their ideas. But it had become an after-hours grease trap for other conference-goers as well.
This was during Bitcoin’s brief Wolf of Wall Street phase when the price was up around $800. Three months earlier—when the price was even higher—the U.S. Senate had held hearings to confront some of the regulatory anxieties borne from the cryptocurrency scene. The proceedings had gone bizarrely well. And so, early adopters had arrived in Miami flush with cash and high on a spate of good news.
I remember waking up the first morning of the conference. I had fallen asleep the night before while most everyone was still awake, bedding down with a couch pillow in some back hallway of the house, earplugs in, hoodie cinched. When I walked into the living room I found it empty of people, but blinking and whirring with technology. Extension cords snaked across the floor, looping around empty beer bottles and the legs of a whiteboard that was tagged with equations and diagrams. I tried and failed to find an outlet for my phone.
Buterin was the only person awake. He was sitting outside in a deck chair, working intensely. I didn’t bother him, and he didn’t say hello. But, I remember the impression he made on me at the time. This skeletal, 19-year-old boy, who was all limbs and joints, was hovering above his laptop like a preying mantis, delivering it nimble, lethal blows at an incredible speed.
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Buterin, it turned out, was the reason everyone was there in the first place. Two months earlier, he had published a whitepaper describing an impossibly ambitious technology, one that looked beyond Bitcoin’s mission of enabling unstoppable, unmediated digital payments, and envisioned a platform for autonomous software of all kinds.
That vision has since become a rallying cry for a whole army of developers, whose involvement in the space amounts to a technological crusade for increased access, transparency, and accountability—all of which are fundamental features of any open, decentralized blockchain architecture. Their goal is to create a new economy in which anyone can participate on their own terms.
In Miami, Buterin’s army was small, but already keenly aware of the importance of beatifying its leader. Joseph Lubin, one of the developers staying at the house, and one of the few people who seemed to understand Ethereum enough to decipher its potential, told me in an endearing, paternal tone that Buterin was a genius alien that had arrived on this planet to deliver the sacrosanct gift of decentralization. Nearby, Buterin was shuffling around on the grass, looking down at the ground, muttering to himself in preparation for a talk he would give to the Bitcoin elite the next day.
Over the last two years, as Ethereum has evolved from concept to code, so too has the mystery surrounding Buterin. The resounding chorus of the people working on Ethereum is that he is to be admired and adored, and they are more than willing to contribute to Buterin’s colorful, often hilarious hagiography. I’ve been told by various people that Buterin learned to speak fluent Mandarin in just a few months, that he’s an autistic wunderkind, that all of his worldly possessions fit into one suitcase, that he once ate an entire lemon without removing the rind, that he’s an android powered by the Ethereum network.
Even those who have worked closely with Buterin seem mystified by him, as though this person is meant to be observed but not really understood.
“I saw him on the commuter train and he was wearing mismatched Hello Kitty socks,” Michael Perklin, the head of security at the Canadian blockchain consulting firm Ledger Labs, who has known Buterin since 2012, told me. “And this is the person building the infrastructure that is challenging the power structures of the most important financial institutions out there.”
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A few weeks ago I met Buterin again, this time at a blockchain conference in New York. As we sat at a dining table in the Marriott Marquis, he told me how he had learned about Bitcoin in 2011 from his father, who has a small software startup of his own.
Bitcoin was then two years old, Buterin was 17, and not many other people his age, and therefore in his social sphere, had any idea what cryptocurrencies were. At first he dismissed the idea, regarding a currency with no intrinsic value as doomed to fail. But then he happened upon it a second time.
Buterin won’t commit to a full explanation of why he became interested in Bitcoin on the second go around. He had recently quit playing World of Warcraft, and perhaps he was just looking for the next obsession to take its place, he says. But he does admit to having a dualistic worldview that faulted centralized powers with many of society’s sins.
“I had a much more cartoon mentality,” he says as he squeezes a lemon wedge into his green tea, then begins looping the string on the teabag incessantly around the handle of his mug. “I saw everything to do with either government regulation or corporate control as just being plain evil. And I assumed that people in those institutions were kind of like Mr. Burns, sitting behind their desks saying, ‘Excellent. How can I screw a thousand people over this time.’”
In this way, his worldview was harmonious with the vast majority of Bitcoin early adopters who fully expected the technology to operate as a stealthy foil for the status quo. And though he says he has substantially updated his binary assessment of good and evil, Buterin is still motivated by a conviction that the powerful have far too much power.
“I think a large part of the consequence is necessarily going to be disempowering some of these centralized players to some extent,” he says. “Because ultimately power is a zero sum game. And if you talk about empowering the little guy, as much as you want to couch it in flowery terminology that makes it sound fluffy and good, you are necessarily disempowering the big guy. And personally I say screw the big guy. They have enough money already.”
After researching Bitcoin, Buterin wanted to get his hands on some so he could formally join this new, experimental economy, but he had neither the cash to buy them, nor the computing power necessary to mine them himself. Instead he searched the online Bitcoin forums until he found someone who was willing to pay him in bitcoin for contributing to a blog. Every post earned him 5 bitcoins.
Buterin’s pieces caught the attention of Mihai Alisie, a Bitcoin enthusiast in Romania. The two began corresponding and eventually, in late 2011, they co-founded Bitcoin Magazine. Buterin took on the position of head writer as a side project, while simultaneously taking five advanced courses at the University of Waterloo and holding down another part-time job as a research assistant for the cryptographer Ian Goldberg, who in 2004 co-built the Off-the-Record Messaging protocol that is now widely used to encrypt instant messages.
Writing alone in his bedroom, Buterin established himself as an indispensable voice of authority with a great talent for untangling and explaining the technicalities of blockchain-based cryptocurrencies.
Solitude is not a lifestyle that Buterin has chosen, but it’s one with which he’s well acquainted. In third grade, he was placed in a program for the gifted, sundering him abruptly from his friends. In the new program, he began to realize that his particular talents — a natural proclivity for math and programming, an early interest in economics, and an ability to add three digit numbers in his head twice as fast as the average human being — set him apart as an oddity.
When people met up after school, they didn’t invite Buterin, and it took him a long time to even find out that extracurricular social events were a thing that happened. “I remember knowing, for a while, for a long time, that I was kind of abnormal in some sense,” he says. “When I was in grade five or six, I just remember quite a lot of people were always talking about me like I was some kind of math genius. And there were just so many moments when I realized, like okay, why can’t I just be like some normal person and go have a 75% average like everyone else.”
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