Q&A: Understanding the bitcoin whitepaper with Jameson Lopp
Fifteen years ago, a cypherpunk known as Satoshi Nakamoto shared a whitepaper outlining a peer-to-peer electronic cash system called bitcoin.
He shared the document with a mailing list of fellow cypherpunks on Oct. 31, 2008. Few knew the implications of the whitepaper or the system that would follow, but the bitcoin whitepaper was the dawn of a trustless system and a powerful, decentralized ethos. The age of cryptocurrency had begun.
To fully appreciate the whitepaper, we sat down with Jameson Lopp, Casa co-founder, CTO, and cypherpunk. Lopp first read the whitepaper in 2012 and has devoted his life to furthering the individual empowerment therein. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: There’s some disagreement over what the whitepaper represents. How would you describe the whitepaper to someone who hadn’t read it before?
Jameson: The bitcoin whitepaper was actually written after most of the original code was written. There are some quotes where Satoshi basically said they had to write the code first to convince themselves it would actually work, whereas I think most whitepapers are written before much code or other work is actually done.
Whitepapers are generally a high-level outline explaining how we would like to approach trying to solve a problem. With bitcoin, it was the other way around. So, consider the whitepaper to be Satoshi’s attempt to create a fairly plain English description of the system they had built in 2008.
Q: Why do you think it was important for Satoshi to present the bitcoin project in this way?
Jameson: I think this is how cypherpunks generally worked. They tried to take scientific approaches to solving problems. They were engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists.
Having a somewhat formal description of problems and solutions is the best way to go about doing any sort of peer review, which is one of the fundamental premises of the cypherpunk movement. There was open collaboration of running each other’s code, trying to break it to improve it. Bitcoin was far from the first system to be presented as a cypherpunk project. It was just following the general conventions of what we had already seen over the past 20 years.
Q: How did the whitepaper come to be on your radar?
Jameson: I’m pretty sure it was from a Slashdot article. I definitely heard of bitcoin a few times and dismissed it. It wasn't until probably the third or fourth time that I bothered to look into it and read the whitepaper. It was at that point that I actually began to understand the significance of the system.
Having a computer science degree may have helped a little bit, but I think the whitepaper is written in fairly plain English that even a non-technical person can get a pretty decent grasp after reading it a couple of times. And it's only like eight pages. For those who still find it hard to grasp, I recommend reading this annotated version.
Q: Has your view of the whitepaper changed over time?
Jameson: The only thing that I think has really changed is my view of how little of the system the whitepaper actually describes. It’s far from comprehensive. Bitcoin, as a protocol on a network and a whole ecosystem, has grown far beyond the scope of the experiment that it was in 2008.
There are so many different facets to bitcoin that there's no way they could have all been anticipated or, much less, included in the whitepaper. There were many things – even fundamental things – that are missing from the whitepaper, but I don’t think their omission detracts from the high-level accuracy of describing the major components of the system and the goals.
Q: What do you think is the most important component that was missing from the whitepaper?
Jameson: The whitepaper mainly talks about how the system remains secure against certain types of attacks. It doesn't really discuss the economic aspects of the system. It is really just focused on the high-level technical aspects of how to create a record of transactions and the game theory around your assurances that the records haven't been tampered with.
Q: Specifically, the whitepaper proposes a solution to the double-spending problem. For those who aren't familiar with the double-spending problem, how big of a deal was it at the time? Was it an academic problem or an everyday occurrence?
Jameson: Double spending is a potential problem in almost any payment system, especially any digital payment system where you're not moving a physical asset around. Essentially, it means spending the same money more than once, which, of course, destroys the utility of said money for those receiving payments. It was an academic problem because no one had figured out how to create a system without an authority that could reliably keep track of history. Almost nobody knew what the double-spending problem was because all the existing systems had central authorities that were preventing double spending. I had never heard of it myself until I read the whitepaper.
Q: When you think about bitcoin today and the system described in the whitepaper, what do you think was the greatest change still to come?
Jameson: The whitepaper talks about the longest chain being the correct chain, and actually in the very early days of bitcoin, the code worked that way, where whatever chain had the highest block height was the correct chain.
This is actually completely wrong and broken from a security and game theory perspective. So, the correct chain is actually the heaviest chain or the chain with the most cumulative proof of work.
Q: That’s interesting. So, Satoshi didn’t get everything right at first?
Jameson: Yes, this is actually something I discussed in my essay “Nobody Understands Bitcoin.” I talk about how you can see that even Satoshi’s understanding of bitcoin changed over the several years they were contributing to the project.
Q: Why do you think the whitepaper is still relevant today? Why is it important to share it and have a copy of it 13 years later?
Jameson: This all goes back to A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto. We know that any sufficiently dispersed system cannot be shut down, thus making it robust against the laws of any given jurisdiction. The internet is a global phenomenon that transcends physical borders.
The number of servers hosting the bitcoin whitepaper surged a number of years ago as an active defiance against some copyright claims. While one or two websites took their copy down, the net result was hugely positive in favor of even wider distribution of the whitepaper.
Q: Many people think of Whitepaper Day as bitcoin’s birthday. Would you agree with that assertion?
Jameson: Bitcoin has multiple birthdays. There's obviously the whitepaper release date. Then there's the date of the genesis block (January 3, 2009), but the genesis block was actually minted five days before the network went online and other blocks started being mined. Then, the first actual peer-to-peer transaction didn't happen for another three days.
So, there is no one single birthday. This was an idea that was being worked on for a long time, and it had different milestones.
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