Nathaniel Popper On TechCrunch’s Trust Disrupted: Bitcoin and the Blockchain

Nathaniel Popper Techcrunch

Known for their coverage of disruptive technology, Techcrunch have this week released the initial episodes of their first series on Bitcoin and blockchain technology, “Truth Disrupted: Bitcoin and the Blockchain” which will feature investors, government officials, and well-known authorities in the space reflecting on the emergence of Bitcoin and examining what’s next for the industry. The series is hosted by Nathaniel Popper, reporter at The New York Times and the author of “Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money” who approached the project as a way of continuing the story of Bitcoin in a visual form.

We were fortunate enough to speak with Nathaniel about the new series and in preparation, returned to Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story. I was immediately reminded of the stark contrast between the industry when the book was written compared to the more mature, but streamlined one of today. Something that Popper cites as a reason for not writing another book when pressed on the possibility of a sequel

“The story since my book ended has largely been a splintering into lots of different factions pursuing very different projects. I enjoyed telling the story of those first years because everyone was largely working on the same project, even when they were disagreeing with each other.”

The first episode of the new series re-explores the history of Bitcoin including its libertarian associations, something which Popper feels is no longer the only reason for people to be interested in Bitcoin

“I think that a lot of the development on Bitcoin is driven by people who are not as political as many of the early aficionados. That is partly because the companies that are surviving and doing well are ones that are willing to work with regulators , but it’s also because a broader array of people have seen the potential in this technology. Politics no longer has to be a major motivation for people getting interested in Bitcoin.”

Within the episode, the subject of Bitcoin V.S. Blockchain is raised with authorities in the space including Gavin Andresen and Vitalik Buterin who both agree that the term is a buzzword, whereas Charley Cooper, Managing Director of R3 explained his belief that distributed ledgers and blockchain technology should move away from the founding principles of Bitcoin and be controlled by known actors in a regulated financial system. When asked if he believed that Bitcoin has a stigma attached to it that hinders adoption from financial institutions, Popper confirmed this was the case and that to his knowledge, no banks were interested in the underlying technology, instead favouring private blockchains

“Yes. In my conversations with banks I hear almost no interest in using or experimenting with Bitcoin itself. For now, they are all working on private blockchains but I think it is possible that those blockchains could interact with public blockchains if any really take off. “

The second episode in the series explores the world of Bitcoin mining, explaining how a hobby once undertaken by enthusiasts has evolved into a “specialised profession”, taking viewers on a tour of a commercial mine in the Szechuan province and offering an insight into the working day of its 15 staff. As explained in the episode, rural China is attractive for Bitcoin mining due to cheap mining hardware and electricity, however, this a cause of concern for those worried about mining centralisation including Dave Carlson, founder of Mega Big Power as well as Popper who believes centralisation contradicts the philosophy of Bitcoin

“Bitcoin was supposed to be a project aimed at decentralising power. In practice, several parts of Bitcoin, such as mining, have tended toward increasing centralization. This certainly seems to go against the basic ideas that initially motivated Bitcoin and it is worth thinking about why this has happened and how it impacts the evolution of the project. “

Concluding our interview, we asked Popper for his thoughts regarding adoption in China, though he believes that interest is mainly from speculators, he acknowledged that mining has created a community of developers and engineers who understand the technology and considers the People’s Bank of China’s interest promising

“So far the public interest in Bitcoin in China has mostly come from speculators placing bets on the price of Bitcoin, not from people interested in the value of the technology. But the work on mining has indeed created a whole bunch of programmers who are intimately familiar with the inner workings of Bitcoin, and that is leading to some interesting results. You are beginning to see some fascinating work on blockchain concepts and Ethereum coming out of China. Perhaps the most interesting news has come from the People’s Bank of China, which has been as aggressive as any central bank in the world in talking about its interest in developing its own digital money using cryptography and consensus algorithms.”

Thanks to Techcrunch and Nathaniel for the interview. The first episode of Truth Disrupted: Bitcoin and the Blockchain can be found here