March 20, 2018
by Sharon Moran
I’m always amazed at the number of people entering the cryptocurrency space lacking an awareness of how bitcoin got started. With the increased interest in initial coin offerings over the last year, newcomers to cryptocurrency likely get a specific impression of digital assets that are shaped by their limited frame of reference based on what they observe as they’re becoming familiarized with a concept that’s new to them, particularly if they don’t intentionally seek out additional information. The world of ICOs and the creation of cryptocurrency through this newly-emerged funding strategy is a very different process than what occurred in the early days of bitcoin.
What surprises me is the number of people who mistakenly assume bitcoin began in a similar way to newly created alt coins. Following one ICO (intentionally not mentioned) in recent months that encountered problems upon launch due to a DDOS attack, some online comments looked similar to this, “When bitcoin had its ICO, bitcoin’s President ran into technical issues too.” There are so many inaccuracies within that single statement, but unfortunately, it represents a more common assumption investors make, people who are just beginning to invest in the cryptocurrency space now.
Free as in Freedom
Bitcoin (the system) that includes the blockchain and the associated currency (bitcoin) began as an OPEN SOURCE project. The open source movement is a subset of the free software movement. “Free” as in software users have the right to view the source code for software products they’re using, “free” as in freely distributed, not “free” as in no cost, although often free software is, in fact, free to use.
Open Source Software and Consumer Benefits
One thing builds upon another incrementally. Before we had free operating systems, there were two ways to install an operating system on a personal computer: users had to pay for a license or steal a license. The cost of a license created an unnecessary barrier of entry, particularly for people who wanted a home computer. Once a free operating system option existed, open source developers were able to move on to creating and perfecting free equivalent alternatives for other popular software programs such as word processing (Open Office), image manipulation products (GIMP), and databases (Mysql).
In the 90s, a lot of developers were involved (and needed) to be involved in the Linux project in order to get it to a production-ready state. Once Linux got to a certain threshold, it freed up the time of developers to move on to other projects, including even the creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds who put a lot of energy into his second creation of Git, the version control system that powers Github. As one product gets replaced, there’s a perpetual cycle where developers can shape the future and move on to the next product.
Open Source Bridges the Corporate Divide
At some point corporations began slowly embracing open source initiatives. In his book, The Philosophy of Open Source, Henrik Ingo highlighted that it was reading Eric Raymond’s, The Cathedral and the Bazaar that ended up convincing managers at Netscape to release the web browser as open source. Years later, Microsoft partly embraced the open source model too.
Decades-Old Movement Enables Decentralized, Digital Currency
The free software movement’s roots date back as far as the 1970s. Without the free software movement, there wouldn’t be an open source movement. Without the open source movement, we likely would not have bitcoin (and subsequent alternative currencies). If the bitcoin source code wasn’t freely available (on Sourceforge in 2009, and now Github), it’s not likely that any individuals would even trust that the blockchain was not (or could not be) tampered with. (quantum computers notwithstanding)
Open source software is a remarkably amazing thing. Facebook is a good example of what the use of open source tools can accomplish. Before Mark Zuckerberg used PHP to build Facebook, no one considered PHP a serious enough language to be able to build a massive enterprise-type application. Currently, Facebook has over 1 billion users, the start of which was initially all enabled by PHP.
Think of how much Facebook would pale in comparison to what it is now if the Winklevoss twins were running the show: the Winklevoss twins who essentially admitted that they were not interested in investing in blockchain technology companies but wanted to make as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time.
It’s why articles like this one in The New York Times by Nellie Bowles titled Women in Cryptocurrencies Push Back Against ‘Blockchain Bros’ partly miss the point by micro focusing on the wrong things. Whether there is or isn’t a gender divide in the cryptocurrency space is a small subset of a larger issue: the knowledge divide that exists, and that divide represents a sadly large gap in knowledge of the history of digital currencies that predate bitcoin and the history of the public key cryptography discovery that was necessary for solving the Byzantine General’s problem (which we’ll discuss in an upcoming article). A knowledge gap about how bitcoin came to be. The one unintended benefit of Bowles’ NYT article is that it brings awareness to the “blockchain bros” culture and will probably make it much easier for the SEC to target their efforts of cracking down on pump-and-dump schemes involving initial coin offerings.
Satoshi Nakamoto wrote the original bitcoin software, and he made it publicly available. Anyone with an internet connection and a home computer in 2009 (and home computers were plentiful by 2009) could have downloaded the software or even submitted modifications to the software, and anyone could have run a bitcoin node and began generating bitcoins. In fact, Satoshi, in a message to the Cryptography Mailing List on January 8, 2009, politely almost begged people to run a node, “If you can keep a node running that accepts incoming connections, you’ll really be helping the network a lot.” Help it out, indeed. The start of bitcoin was extremely inclusive, in spirit with the open source software movement of which it is a part. TO BE CONTINUED