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Robert Alice, Set in Stone: Reading Satoshi’s v.0.1.0 (Medium, 2020)

The nature of Bitcoin is such that once version 0.1 was released, the core design was set in stone for the rest of its lifetime.

Satoshi Nakamoto

Private Email correspondence

Replying to Mike Hearn, Sun Apr 12. 10:44:01 PM EST 2008

I appreciate your questions.  I actually did this kind of backwards.  I had to write all the code before I could convince myself that I could solve every problem, then I wrote the paper.

Satoshi Nakamoto

Cryptography Mailing List

Replying to Hal Finney, Sat Nov 8. 20:58:48 EST 2008

Published pseudonymously on October 31st 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto’s whitepaper has taken on a mythic status with the blockchain community. Poured over and scrutinized linguistically and referentially, it has over the course of the last decade become the cornerstone of blockchain’s culture, a foundational document for Bitcoin’s history.

But what of Satoshi’s code? Is that this not the true document? The original text?

The following words situate Satoshi’s founding code as the text of historical importance, drawing parallels between it and major historical or founding documents of civilizations and cultures past. In doing so, questions are raised regarding the nature of digital code as literature, code as a political statement and the ever present question of the digital original and where to locate it.

Though too early to say how Satoshi’s code will affect real and systemic structural change in the world, it undoubtedly has achieved for the first time a glimpse at an alternative model to a global capitalist financial system now over 400 years old. Even in the case of potential failure — this will be a powerful legacy. A decade on, Bitcoin has outlasted perhaps even the expectations of its founder, who wrote in 2008 that Bitcoin could help ‘us’ “win a major battle in the arms race and gain a new territory of freedom for several years”. In its short lifetime to date, Satoshi’s work has made the world begin to reevaluate their relationship to money, re-raising fundamental questions about the very nature of it and most importantly central banks ability (and right) to control it. While the prize for Bitcoin and its offshoots as a community is much larger, this is meaningful enough.

For the first time in centuries, a global monetary system exists outside of the control of the state.

There have been few other inventions in the twenty-first century that rival the transformative potential of Bitcoin or its story. Bitcoin, in this view, is a outlier, not because of its inherent technological innovation (as many notable technologists have commented, much of the technology used has been in place for decades), but because of what it is innovating, and how it went about it. The radically provocative act of making one’s own money — a currency that is largely pseudonymous, difficult to tax, borderless and close to impossible to shut down — presents a major existential and conceptual threat to not just the economic welfare of sovereign nations but their very reason of being. Money is, in short, the one thing we the people are prohibited to innovate. For without a centrally controlled money supply and therefore taxes, the state ceases to function.

Added to its revolutionary potential was its creation myth. The anonymity of Satoshi Nakamoto and Bitcoin’s subsequent rapid growth over the course of the last decade is nothing short of science fiction writ for the real world. In an era of growing state and public surveillance both physically and digitally, Satoshi’s story takes on an order of magnitude. People are not not found anymore. It is not though just anonymity in which Satoshi’s story rebukes many of the established societal foundations of our late capitalist world: a worthy disregard for fame and applause, a total disinterest in wealth, altruism without recognition, the presence of raw unfiltered-yet-disguised genius and it’s inherently anti-establishment guise - it defies societal norms in the most spectacular fashion. A survey of history both modern and ancient finds little parallel to it. Yet while casting aside many societal norms of our time, it resurrects many older cultural narrative structures — that of the unknown or undiscovered genius, the archetype character of masked hero or vigilante, or the parable of David versus Goliath. Little today comes close in stature, it is one of the true contemporary legends of our time.

In the absence of a creator, or in their unknowability, the texts associated with Bitcoin takes on added importance. It is what was left behind. In the absence of portraits, biographies, speeches or lectures, Satoshi’s texts grow in symbolic power, for this is where the trail stops cold.

There are three major repositories of Satoshi’s collected writings — his whitepaper, his source code and his collected writings up to 2010. For all the centrality of Satoshi’s whitepaper, it is but a frontispiece to the code and his collective writings footnotes. Released on SourceForge and the Cryptography Mailing Lists on 9th January 2009, the code behind Bitcoin stretches to 31,000 lines of C++ code. Written by Satoshi over a two year period, it had been debugged by Hal Finney previously to being officially released and followed up by v0.1.3 just 5 days later. Like any code, it was not perfect. Converted to hexadecimal code ,the codebase runs to 12,881,920 digits and in binary, 51,527,680. Like all code, this text is no different, in either guise it is simply semiotic abstractions that convert voltage processes into readable symbols. Indeed, nothing reorders the conception of both originality and documentation importance than the following words by Satoshi Nakamoto:

“I appreciate your questions. I actually did this kind of backwards. I had to write all the code before I could convince myself that I could solve every problem, then I wrote the paper.”

Satoshi Nakamoto

Sat Nov 8. 20:58:48 EST 2008

Replying to Hal Finney on the Cryptography Mailing List on 14th November 2008, a few months before the code was released, Satoshi signed his message off with the now iconic works, “I am better with code than I am with words”. In superseding the language of code over his flawless British English as his natural language of choice, Satoshi suggests that the fluency of his writing and the ability to express himself be better accessed through his code. It is here that his code at a textual level takes central ground as the ultimate textual expression of Satoshi’s vision. The source code is the (primary) source.

Indeed, when thinking about the source code and its relationship to its designer, one starts to understand that the two are inseparable, not in the normal hierarchical relationship of coder and code but in the idea of the anonymous coder as code. Viewed this way, Satoshi is less a person, but rather a proxy created to deliver Bitcoin to the world, more the code behind Bitcoin than the individual behind the code. As many across the internet have noted, due to the nature of code as commandment and Bitcoin’s specific open source properties, the identity of Satoshi is almost as irrelevant to the implementation of Bitcoin. This idea of equating code with the mind derives back to the philosophical works on logic by Leibniz and Boole that are the basis of computer engineering today. It is a line that starts with monadism and ends we are led to believe with artificial intelligence, the 19th century logician’s answer to code as god. In his continued anonymity, the source code behind Bitcoin speaks to perhaps ultimately to Roland Barthes’ statements in Death of the Author that -

“a texts unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”

along with a second concept that

“to give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text”.

Much has been written about the politics, aesthetics and semantics of computer code in all its various guises. In her book My Mother was not a Computer, the post-modern literary critic N. Katharine-Hayles compares the three major communication systems of speech, writing and code in order to elucidate their similarities as well as differences by concluding “code has become arguably as important as natural language because it causes things to happen”. Her focus in part is specifically on the C++ code that Satoshi wrote Bitcoin’s source code with, to which she reveals that “ C++ instantiates a profound shift of perspective from…the procedural languages like FORTRAN and BASIC that preceded it. Whereas procedural languages conceptualize the program as a flow of modularized procedures….that function as commands to the machine, object-orientated languages are modeled after natural languages and create syntax that are the equivalent of nouns (that is objects) and verbs (processes in the system design). It is here in the hierarchical “tower of languages” to use Rita Raley’s phrase, that we see Satoshi’s code as something more than executable. Writing in Thinking in C++, Bruce Eckel elegantly observes “a computer is not so much a machine as it is a mind amplification tool and a different kind of expressive medium. As a result, the tools are beginning to look less like machines and more like parts of our minds, and more like other expressive mediums in writing, painting, sculpture…”.

Perhaps the single most expressive element of the code behind Bitcoin is contained near the end of it and is easily missed. 432 digits of binary code washed up in a sea of over 51 million. Converted to ASCII they read the now iconic words, “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks”. A raw battlecry buried in C++. A future call to arms preserved forever in Bitcoin’s first block. By radically inserting the headline of a newspaper article that lambasts that continued bailout of banks following the 2008 crisis, Satoshi Nakamoto makes no aspersions as to what his code has been designed to change in the world. By placing the very source code in not just philosophical but literal opposition to the existing global financial structure, the source code moves further from simply executable code to a text with narrative and emotional lines that carries with it provocative political undertones. And what of emotion? Encoded into the text was trust itself. Pure trust — the belief that Bitcoin has replaced social relations — the trust on which all forms of money depend — with machine code. If it were true that Bitcoin has replaced a Hobbesian monetary system with one that could have been derived from Rousseau, it must follow that the general will has been abstracted from social networks and embedded in computer code.

This idea of Satoshi’s code as a cultural text takes on added importance when one looks at the functions of that text. In a world increasing overtaken by image culture and the ever-growing distrust of digital text and its authorship, blockchain reasserts the validity of text as truth in digital time and space. For this post-truth world, a world where multiple narratives compete for attention, blockchain creates for the first time in human history a trustless and immutable record of, at its heart, text. In the code’s revaluing of text, we are witnessing a revolution to the technology behind the distribution of text not seen since Gutenberg’s printing press. In Artists Rethinking the Blockchain, PWR Studio relates the structure of a “block to the platonic ideal of the book: a squarely defined, eternally immutable, infinitely reproduced unit of information” going onto question, “ a stack of paper can not achieve this ideal, but perhaps a data structure can?”. The course of the last decade has shown this largely to be the case, for in many cases this data structure can be viewed as an innovative publishing format: unconditionally public and eternally permanent.

The last ten years has seen Bitcoin’s blockchain become saturated with a host of fascinating texts, not just the perfectly detailed ledger statements of Bitcoin accounting. Marriage proposals to memorials and beyond but it is the uploading of WikiLeak Cablegate documents along with direction for how to download them that show the revolutionary potential of this textual resource at its most radically political. Uploaded this data as a distributed archive makes it almost impossible for it to be destroyed or closed down. For all the use of the blockchain by those seeking to politicize it, its true value stems from its ability, more banally but evermore critically to record text immutably at a moment in time. Originality, the quality of being the first or true source of information, is Satoshi’s legacy.

If this is the crowning achievement of Bitcoin, what of its founding text? How do we go about locating that? The question of the digital original — so masterfully solved by Satoshi’s code — still applies in part to the single text that preceded it.

The historic documents of the past are largely bound by one thing — their physicality. In this, and especially when confronted with the words of ancient, obscured languages, the act of looking takes on the quality of ritual. The object, largely indecipherable, holds immense symbolic power. Much like digital code, texts such as the Gilgamesh Tablet or the Rosetta Stone with their cuneiform or hieroglyphic scripts present symbolic stores of history in their illegibility to all but the very few able to decipher them. In their physicality, these documents-as-objects are bound not just by their presence but their uniqueness. Like precious stones, the geology of time offers us up only rare fragments of the past. Their aura, being site-specific in their singular existence in time and space, is fetishized and commodified because of it. It is their originality that grants them their power for in our communion with them, we communion physically with the past. This notion of the object as relic and the compounding value of age is harder to locate in digital media with its Darwinian iterativism, indeed many would question if it needs to be located at all. And yet Bitcoin is in its very nature an archive of history, and blockchain a reassertion of the value of history within the digital realm.

For all Walter Benjamin’s optimism in the severing of the quasi-mystical aura from the original in the wake of digital reproduction, there is an aura to be found in Satoshi’s code, or as art critic David Joselit writes in After Art, “in place of aura, there is buzz”. In searching for the digital original, we find a number of versions in a number of places — as always decentralized in their plurality. The first of these locations is, much like the documents of old, is physical — for v0.1.0 exists in its original on Satoshi’s hard drive. As Bitcoin wiki suggests, “There might have been also (private) earlier client code before 0.1.0 available only to Satoshi Nakamoto”. Though perhaps obvious to suggest but computational memory is physical and in its physicality we can locate an original, however unknown to us. It’s exists. At worse, it existed. For there was once an original hard drive and processor. In thinking of the physicality of code, it is perhaps equally obvious, yet somehow radical, to contend that code is like everything else, hand made. Regardless of its digital media, it is a fundamentally physical process, a fact all too often forgotten. To code, we move our hands. They are a prime-mover in the process. Our interaction with the code is equally as physical as the boundaries within which it is contained.

As photographer Trevor Paglen has shown in his photographs of underwater internet cables, our digital world is physically limited and globally networked in much the same way as our oil lines are. In this, our code exists in time and space, not just at the level of subatomic particles in our silicon hardware, but in the all-too-often-unseen physicality of our digital experience. It existence is just hidden further from view. And however far abstracted we are from these mechanics of computing, it is essential to bear in mind the memories of those WRENS at Bletchley Park’s Hut 8 who manually worked the bombes that led to the state of computing today. In this, Satoshi’s code was built by hand, and on the back of other hands. The physicality of the process locates its creation in time and space in much the same way as the scribes and engravers of the historical documents of old.

Yet its physicality is only one way to locate the digital original. The code itself is original, not in its ingenuity, but in the raw composite of its compiled files. No two sets of code compiled through different computers are the same. As the philosopher Andrew Feenberg writes, “machines are comparable to texts because they too inscribe a story — a prescribed series of events which the user initiates and undergoes”. In the case of compiled code, this is only heightened. Uploaded by Satoshi, the compiled code is the closest thing we have to a digital fingerprint, a link — however much a tightrope walk — to Satoshi’s physical world. For compiled files are intrinsically unique, they bear the marks of their maker’s tools. The code as received by the world on the binary level reflects the precise compiler used by Satoshi, but not just this, Satoshi’s hardware and his system architecture. In this, v0.1.0 presents a form of computational handwriting — a graphological portrait.

The compiling of code also lends it other interesting properties. It is not just rendered inherently unique by the process of compiling it is also rendered historic. Source code only becomes source code after the fact. Compiling is running and running is executing. The form of the code, in binary or hexadecimal, therefore is a historical trace or output — a record of the buzz to take the term from Joselit again. Joselit in his reevaluation of Walter Benjamin’s aura goes further to suggest that instead of the object of old “witnessing history, [in the digital world] they constitute its very currency”. This currency is the act of movement, the electronic buzz of code-as-action. Its binary or hexadecimal output is the historical record of this process and presents an important distinction between Satoshi’s C++ code and the compiled code that lies at the heart of Portraits of a Mind — the distinction between the legible and executed states of code and the later inherently historic structure.

This trace back from the code to Satoshi’s hardware can also be carried forward into the Genesis Block, and in doing so we can construct a literal trace through our code between Satoshi’s hardware and Block 1 (note the earliest versions of Bitcoin did not have a Block 0). Hardcoded into the software, the Genesis Block and its politicized text acts as the final bridge between Satoshi and Bitcoin today. It is here that future, present and past collide, chained together. A lineage in which all paths lead back to v0.1.0.