Describes Ethereum’s genesis, focusing on Vitalik Buterin’s current and future influence on the project. It contains helpful perspective about several other early Ethereum leaders: Mihai Alisie, Charles Hoskinson, Anthony Di Iorio, Joseph Lubin.
By Research Team
The piece can be downloaded as a PDF or read in its entirety below.
Letter From the Publisher
Ethereum became a worldwide sensation in 2017, capturing headlines around the globe and drawing praise for its promise to become the platform for “Web 3.0.” The price of Ether has enjoyed similarly positive results, exploding from $10 to more than $750 over the course of 2017, opening the collective consciousness to its enormous potential. We consider Ethereum the catalyst that helped public blockchain markets shed the shadow of illicit trade associated with Bitcoin, and spurred the masses to dedicate time and resources that have resulted in significant development of the entire crypto market.
As a result, we believe a deeper look into Ethereum’s platform is warranted. Despite its meteoric rise in popularity, many do not understand the nuances and intricacies of the Ethereum project. The space has moved so quickly that many hesitate to develop an understanding of core fundamentals for fear of missing out on price movements. This has created widely-held, enduring perceptions of Ethereum that may not be true today.
The goal of Strategic Coin’s five part “Chronicles of Ethereum” series is to provide an objective overview of Ethereum. To develop this piece, we solely utilized publicly available information to assess and evaluate the evolution of the platform, its influence over the market, and the conflicts in ideology that have shaped Ethereum to its current form. We begin by describing Ethereum’s founding members and end with our approach to Ether valuation and an assessment of the platform’s long-term viability.
Thank you for reading and we hope you enjoy.
Norman Rothstein – Chairman
Part I: The Lion, the Witch, and the Protocol
- Vitalik the Lion?
- Genesis of Ethereum
- Vitalik’s Evolution as Ethereum’s Leader
- Appendix: Other Ethereum Co-founders
- End Notes
“I went around the world, explored many crypto projects, and finally realised that they were all too concerned about specific applications and not being sufficiently general – hence the birth of Ethereum, which has been taking up my life ever since.” – Vitalik Buterin
We believe understanding the organization behind Ethereum is essential to assess the long-term viability of the project. With the enormous growth the platform has experienced, it can be hard to reconcile that it has yet to turn four years old. Many viewpoints, both supportive and critical, have been established with regard to Ethereum’s development, creating perceptions that continue to linger today.
Beginning with Ethereum’s founder, Vitalik Buterin, we attempt to separate noise from fact, and hope to provide a better understanding of how the Ethereum platform has progressed and evolved over time. As a turing-complete blockchain, Ethereum enabled large-scale adoption of smart contracts – software programs that autonomously execute themselves based on data fed into the network. This allowed for an ecosystem that facilitates reliable and trustless transactions among multiple participants. Ethereum’s smart contract approach made possible the creation of decentralized applications (dApps) – software, marketplaces, and businesses that have the potential to disrupt multiple industries by establishing more trustable, transparent and globally accessible crypto economies. Ultimately, the promise of Ethereum is independence and empowerment for individuals to take ownership of their personal assets – be they ideas, identities, resources, or agreements.
Ironically, the potential offered by decentralization has created mistrust and divisiveness among the participants within the ecosystem itself. Ethereum’s development has gone through harsh growing pains, which culminated in a network split and the creation of multiple competitors. The platform has managed to survive major discontent and security breaches, but some view these as symptoms of an underlying fragility that cannot be overcome. With the following research piece, we explore the actions of Ethereum’s founders to address questions of centralized power, immutability, and leadership, as well as examine the dynamic between Ethereum and its most notable counterpart, Ethereum Classic.
Vitalik Buterin is the Russian-Canadian mastermind behind today’s Ethereum blockchain, a technology that has managed to capture the attention of common citizens and governments alike. Born in 1994, Vitalik is known for his eccentric t-shirts and nerdy, dry sense of humor. He asserts that he first recognized the problem with centralized authorities at the age of 16, with one of his more famous biography references.1
“I happily played World of Warcraft during 2007-2010, but one day Blizzard removed the damage component from my beloved warlock’s Siphon Life spell. I cried myself to sleep, and on that day I realized what horrors centralized services can bring. I soon decided to quit.”
Shortly thereafter, Vitalik’s father introduced him to Bitcoin, a decentralized blockchain technology that promised to mitigate centralized risks related to transaction processing. This concept deeply resonated with Vitalik, who continued to study the subject and eventually co-founded Bitcoin Magazine, a publication that allowed him to spread his passion for decentralized technology.
His motivation was initially grounded in a cynical perception of governments and corporations as centralized authorities. In a 2016 interview, Vitalik suggested that:
“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.’”2
It is clear that Vitalik had an inherent distrust in centralized authorities, which eventually led him to drop out of university and dedicate himself full-time to crypto-related projects. Subsequently, he received the $100,000 Peter Thiel Fellowship for his potential as a business leader without a formal educational degree. In his travels and studies, he noted that many blockchain endeavors were specific in scope, and that there was no existing infrastructure platform and community that enabled scalable development of decentralized blockchain applications.
Toward the end of 2013, Vitalik went on to conceptualize and propose Ethereum, the next generation blockchain infrastructure solution that advances Bitcoin’s ambition to decentralize the global financial system. Despite their rivalry, it seems Ethereum was born out of a grassroots ideology similar to that of Bitcoin’s Satoshi Nakamoto, and Ethereum continues to gain momentum both within the crypto-ecosystem and within the context of broader global economic reform.
Vitalik’s original expectations for Ethereum were limited. In 2013, he recalled planning to, “work on [Ethereum] for a few months, then go back to university,”3 a mindset that manifested itself into early plans to build the platform. He initially envisioned a much simpler system that would execute conditional financial contracts on top of Bitcoin’s protocol, a decision that would have predisposed Ethereum to Bitcoin’s comparatively rudimentary design and inhibited the project’s long-term versatility at the onset of development.
However, during a Bitcoin conference in January 2014, Vitalik realized that there was significant excitement around how his technology could be used to improve the internet-of-things (IOT), democratic voting, identity systems, supply chain processing, and internet infrastructure, among others. In order to make this more complex functionality possible, he created Ethereum on a new blockchain infrastructure altogether, which was first launched in July 2015.4
Vitalik’s metamorphosis from computer scientist to leader of a multi-billion dollar organization forced him into a high-stakes management position, a role for which he admits he was not initially prepared.
“I was surprised about… the various set of logistical issues in setting up the [Ethereum] foundation. When I was thinking of Ethereum I wasn’t really thinking too deeply about a lot of that [organizational] stuff.”5
At only 20 years old, many assumed that Vitalik had neither the mindset nor the experience to manage a major enterprise. However, as the project grows, his decisions seem to increasingly confirm that his leadership style is evolving and his devotion to a truly decentralized power structure remains steadfast. Though he continues to be criticized for his appearance as Ethereum’s own ‘benevolent dictator,’ Vitalik has made real attempts to decentralize more than just the network’s transaction consensus mechanism. For example, he has ensured a decentralized development layer by cultivating independent engineering teams.
“If you look at the actual process that we’ve institutionalized between the Geth, C++, Parity, and Harmony developers for actually taking changes that people on the research team or people in the community have come up with… that is something that is meaningfully decentralized and actually works quite well.” 6
This approach serves a dual purpose. By removing himself from the brunt of the core development work, Vitalik is also reducing the centralized key-man-risk associated with his contributions.
“The extent to which I am a single point of failure is probably dropping fairly rapidly. For example, over the last six months we’ve really scaled up our research team. We have a team in Python, that has a fairly high degree of autonomy at this point… If I get run over by a bus tomorrow, I really do believe that they would be able to carry version one of sharding to completion on their own.” 7
Also noteworthy is the hacker community’s unique definition of dictatorship. The title Benevolent Dictator for Life (BDFL) is reserved for an esteemed group of open source software development leaders – typically the figureheads or persons who have the final say in disputes within the community. In this case, the implications of “dictatorship” are very different when compared to the negative connotations commonly associated with dictators in Western society. The nature of open source projects (like Ethereum, for example) inherently implies that “dictatorship” be benevolent and amicable, because major disagreements can lead to forks which separate from the main project and establish new leaders. Though the BDFL view of Vitalik is not shared by everyone, Vitalik is attempting to lay the groundwork for Ethereum by guiding the project to achieve his dream of a truly decentralized, trustless blockchain construct.
Today, the Ethereum project continues to be driven by Vitalik’s ideology and influence over the community. As the figurehead of Ethereum, he can drive important decisions which would otherwise plague the community. However, this decision power has at times led to discontent among the founders and ultimately became the root cause of a major split in the chain (more on this to come in the ‘Response to major events’ section below). Despite these distractions, Vitalik and the rest of the current Ethereum team are actively attempting to implement a robust contingency plan that ensures decentralization in leadership, technical development, consensus mechanisms, and broader governance issues.
While there is still some debate around how the final Ethereum foundation’s governance system will work, Vitalik’s defense of the existing governance system could foreshadow long-term reality.
“I argue that ‘tightly coupled’ on-chain voting is overrated, the status quo of ‘informal governance’ as practiced by Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Ethereum, Zcash and similar systems is much less bad than commonly thought, that people who think that the purpose of blockchains is to completely expunge soft mushy human intuitions and feelings in favor of completely algorithmic governance (emphasis on ‘completely’) are absolutely crazy.”8
Vitalik goes on to suggest that delegated governance systems found on some competing platforms are more dangerous than many people realize. Some alternate blockchains, such as NEO, rely on only a few dozen nodes to make community decisions, and therefore present escalated centralization and manipulation risks. According to Vitalik, this is not the case for Ethereum.
“The actual implementation and release side of the [Ethereum software] cycle really does have a meaningful decentralization that people are looking for already.”
In other words, as his research and development teams continue to expand, it will be harder to implement rogue centralized governance decisions because the technical community already operates via an increasingly decentralized system.
Though Vitalik’s vision started as a direct challenge to governments and corporations, he has recently recanted on some of his previous statements pertaining to large institutions, their intentions, and the value that they offer. In a January 2018 interview with Laura Shin, he stated:
“I do think that they [corporations and governments] have a role, and I do think the smart ones that take the first step to… play with the technology rather than against it can survive and actually benefit from the whole process… [I’ve] stopped viewing large corporations as singular evil behemoths and… I have come to realize that these are very complex institutions that are staffed by real people… As far as governments go… when I visited Taiwan… a member of parliament… seemed excited about using blockchain to improve their democratic systems. So, you know, these things exist.”
This demonstrates a relatively new perspective for Vitalik, who, over the past four years, may have warmed to the idea that centralized institutions could have the desire and influence to scale his vision. We believe this ability to adjust his belief system and increase his awareness within an everchanging landscape is a testament to Vitalik’s broader leadership capabilities.
Vitalik’s evolution as a leader can also be observed through his responses to major events in the Ethereum and crypto ecosystems.
After the infamous June 2016 Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) hack of $60 million in Ether – 14% of circulating value – Vitalik advised that, “DAO token holders and Ethereum users should sit tight and remain calm. Exchanges should feel safe in resuming trading ETH.”9 This response, however, did not immediately quell fears or stop the price of Ether from dropping ~40% in the coming days.
In addition, Vitalik and team made the controversial decision to execute a hard fork, meaning that they convinced a majority of Ethereum community owners to accept a modified blockchain history that erased the stolen Ether transactions. In the process, Vitalik risked jeopardizing the entire community’s faith in one of Ethereum’s key characteristics: immutability of transaction history. The fork resulted in the creation of a separate cryptocurrency, Ethereum Classic, that still exists as of March 2018 and includes the original, unmodified, and uncorrected transaction history.
A comparison of Vitalik’s DAO hack response to his reaction a few months later regarding a series of denial of service (DOS) attacks reveals a more measured, neutral, and less emotive tone.
“Today the network was attacked by a transaction spam attack that repeatedly called the EXTCODESIZE opcode (see trace sample here), thereby creating blocks that take up to ~20-60 seconds to validate due to the ~50,000 disk fetches needed to process the transaction… there was NO consensus failure (ie. network fork) and neither the network nor any client at any point fully halted. The attack has since, as of the time of this writing, mostly halted, and the network has for the time being recovered. The short-term fix is for users, including miners, enterprise users (including exchanges) and individuals to run geth with the flags”10
In this case, he does not instruct Ethereum followers about whether to be anxious, but rather builds his message around constructive advice and factual reporting.
Just over a year later, he responded to the November 2017 Parity freeze that saw the independent third-party cryptocurrency wallet lose an estimated ~$300 million in Ether, around 1% of the total circulating value.11 In this case, Vitalik refrained from commenting altogether, in an attempt to keep the Ethereum project out of the negative limelight.
“I am deliberately refraining from comment on wallet issues, except to express strong support for those working hard on writing simpler, safer wallet contracts or auditing and formally verifying security of existing ones.”12
Again, these responses demonstrate an increasingly robust understanding for how his reactions evoke real change in the Ethereum community, and for how he himself can mitigate certain issues with the appropriate response.
No scenario better displayed the importance of Vitalik’s public communications then when a June 2017 fake news report claimed he had perished in a car accident. Vitalik proved his well being by tweeting a self-portrait with the current ETH block number and the caption, “Another day, another blockchain use case.” Ether prices responded by regaining the 28% losses that had occurred as a result of the story.13
Around the same time of the Parity hack however, Vitalik took to Twitter to congratulate Bitcoin Cash on its successful hard fork, making some in the Ethereum community nervous about future feasibility of additional hard forks.
“I consider Bitcoin’s *failure* to raise block sizes to keep fees reasonable to be a large (non-consensual) change to the ‘original plan,’ which is morally tantamount to a hard fork.”14
This proclamation created additional unease for the Ethereum community because it suggested once again that Vitalik was not afraid of the perennially “dangerous” hard fork in relation to other blockchain challenges such as network latency or high fees. And while there appears to be an observable trend towards more layered, complex leadership and communication from Vitalik, his occasional provocative comment can still raise eyebrows and tensions. As recently as December 2017 he tweeted:
“If all that we accomplish [in the crypto sector] is lambo memes and immature puns about ‘sharting’, then I WILL leave.”
Though he has since clarified that these comments are conditional upon a theoretical and broader failure of Ethereum to make any long-term global impact, perhaps the entire community would benefit from more consistent, tactful messaging from its founder, who turned 24 in January 2018.
Vitalik is key to understanding the state of the ICO market today. Because his vision is driven by a desire to achieve real world impact, the rise in fraudulent Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) has been particularly disheartening and challenging for him.
“Scams are an inevitable part of a new and rapidly evolving economy. Very few people have a good idea on how to judge many of these [ICO] projects… [However] if the Ethereum platform itself starts actively policing what applications are built on it, then that basically kills the idea of censorship resistance way more than anything that happened to the DAO did.”15
Allowing anyone to freely develop on Ethereum’s platform is a reflection of Vitalik’s core principles. Distinguishing itself from many other projects, such as NEO, Ethereum does not restrict anyone from creating dApps. However, with freedom and autonomy comes the responsibility to protect one’s own interests. Eventually, for the platform to survive the community will need to police itself, and the Ethereum Foundation is actively developing the tools needed to accomplish this.
Instead of using the Ethereum Foundation to regulate ICOs, Vitalik has brainstormed different ways to create self-policing, decentralized ICO processes. In the ‘Interactive Coin Offering’ model, a specially constructed computer program, known as a smart contract, is created on top of the Ethereum platform. This smart contract allows investors to store Ether in the program for potential future investment in a particular Ethereum project. When an investor allocates funds to the smart contract, he or she enters the price and volume at which they are willing to pay for a certain unit of ownership, known as a coin or a token. After the smart contract’s preset funding deadline expires, it will execute an automated auction process whereby the price of a coin is determined by the investors’ aggregated supply and demand data.
If an investor did not offer to pay for a coin at or above the calculated price, his or her money is subsequently returned by the smart contract. Otherwise, the investor’s funds will successfully purchase coins at the clearing price. This model allows many types of investors the ability to participate in ICO fundraising at a customizable price point and in a way that is not unfairly advantageous to Ethereum miners – who have historically used their much faster hardware to take advantage of first-come-first-serve ICO investment opportunities. Below is our visual representation of a sample decentralized ICO scenario.
In Vitalik’s ‘Decentralized Autonomous ICO’ (DAICO) model, investors once again use a smart contract to fund projects with Ether. In this scenario however, the funding can only be accessed by the funded entity if further predefined specifications are met. For example, investors could set a maximum quarterly budget for the funded entity. In extreme cases, investors could even withdraw remaining funds if they do not agree with the way that the company is operating.
Vitalik refers to this format as a mini-DAO because, like the original DAO, it creates a group of investors who pool Ether together in an Ethereum smart contract to fund projects. The key difference is that the DAO was intended to fund many projects on the Ethereum blockchain whereas DAICOs are intended to fund one project. Below is a graphic that Vitalik uses to help explain DAICOs as they compare to the DAO and ICOs, separately:
Vitalik hopes that, if implemented, these systems can cut down on the disruption caused by ICO scams. He draws a stark contrast however, between the type of fraudulent disruption brought about by ICO scams versus the type of innocent disruption brought about by dApps such as CryptoKitties. Despite CryptoKitties exposing latency issues across the entire Ethereum network in December 2017, Vitalik actually praised the application for bringing users to the platform.
“It’s gotten my non-technical family members using Ethereum dApps for the first time. And when you see that, you realize you have something that has mass market potential.”
Despite its dominant position as the second largest cryptocurrency in the market, Ethereum’s progress is still very much tied to its founder’s guidance and leadership. Vitalik has played an integral part through all of Ethereum’s critical phases, and in a very direct way, Ethereum is an extension of his remarkably consistent philanthropic vision. However, as his awareness and maturity grows, he has accepted that not everyone shares his values:
“After watching the way that Bitcoin maximalists treat Ethereum, the way that Bitcoin scaling to beta happened, the way that all of these various scam projects are going, I’ve just realized that, no, it’s definitely… not true that crypto people are better than people anywhere else in the world.”
These realizations remind Vitalik and the broader crypto community that despite exciting hype, blockchain solutions, including Ethereum, are largely unproven. It still remains to be seen whether Vitalik can captain Ethereum towards long-term sustainable adoption. Many view his recent departure from blockchain VC company, Fenbushi Capital as a signal that he has renewed his focus on developing Ethereum and addressing outstanding issues that would daunt many seasoned CEOs. Most importantly, Vitalik recognizes that the Ethereum project is larger than himself. Ultimately, his ability to achieve a decentralized world will be decided by how well he can balance central management of the Ethereum project with its own organic growth.
In our following edition, Part II: “Return to Classic,” we further explore how Vitalik’s vision of decentralization poses challenges when influencing decisions on behalf of the Ethereum community. With the birth of Ethereum Classic, Vitalik experienced first-hand that even communities with very similar ideologies can become fragmented around how to chart the best path forward. Our analysis of both Ethereum and Ethereum Classic will explore the key differences in values that have shaped each project.
As the Ethereum Foundation grew so did its team. During the course of the past few years most of the co-founders of Ethereum have left the foundation for other related projects. As we dig deeper, we begin to understand the influence that Ethereum’s founders have had on major developments within the crypto market to date.
Charles Hoskinson is one of the most influential personalities within the Ethereum ecosystem. A former consultant, Hoskinson left his career to start an online school called the “Bitcoin Education Project”, a venture which introduced him to Vitalik Buterin. As their relationship developed, Hoskinson increasingly bought in to Ethereum’s concept, eventually providing the impetus for him to join forces with Vitalik. However, differences in ideology led him to leave the Ethereum Foundation in June 2014.
Hoskinson wanted to take venture capital money and create a for-profit entity with a formal governance structure. In contrast, Vitalik wanted to keep Ethereum as a non-profit organization with an open-source, decentralized governance structure. Hoskinson went on to found Input Output Hong Kong (IOHK) – an engineering company that builds cryptocurrencies and blockchains for governments and corporations – ultimately setting the stage for him to become a key figure in the development of Ethereum Classic, and subsequently, Cardano.
Lubin came across Ethereum in January 2014 when he received a copy of Vitalik Buterin’s Ethereum white paper. In 2015, he started Consensus Systems (ConsenSys) – a software foundry focused on developing decentralized software services and applications to operate on the Ethereum platform. Though ConsenSys is completely independent from the Ethereum Foundation, it is the largest proponent of the Ethereum ecosystem, helping new businesses build on the blockchain and develop end user tools to be used primarily on Ethereum.
The company helps with anything from development and fundraising to joint venture partnerships. Lubin has been instrumental in leveraging his experience with Ethereum to bring people onto the network and accelerate mainstream adoption with businesses.
Dr. Gavin Wood
Wood is the co-founder and former Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Ethereum. In April 2014, Vitalik and Wood published the Ethereum yellow paper, which outlined the technical specifications of the Ethereum Virtual Machine, a project intended to help Ethereum avoid denial of service attacks. In August 2014, Wood proposed Solidity, a programming language for smart contracts. He left Ethereum in January 2016 to found Parity Technologies, which released the Parity Bitcoin technology stack. He is currently the Chairman and CTO of Parity Technologies.
Parity is a top Ethereum Client, second to go-Ethereum. Parity contributes to Ethereum’s ultimate goal, making it easier to verify that the protocol stays unambiguous, keeping everyone on the network honest, and encouraging new innovations. Parity claims to be “the fastest and lightest” Ethereum client.
Anthony Di Iorio
Di Iorio met Vitalik Butern in 2012 when he started a Toronto Bitcoin Meetup group. Using his capital from previous ventures, he funded Ethereum’s development and legal counsel. Since then, Di Iorio has gone on to fund many new ventures – most notably, he created one of the most popular cryptocurrency wallets, Jaxx.
Jaxx stores a variety of cryptocurrencies, and offers a feature to transfer funds between currencies within the wallet, helping to lower the barrier to entry for blockchain technology. Di Iorio’s work indirectly strengthens Ethereum’s user base and appeal to the general public.
Mihai Alisie created Bitcoin Magazine alongside Vitalik Buterin. Alisie was heavily involved in the Ethereum Foundation and Ethereum Switzerland until 2015, after which he began working on Akasha, a project developed within the Ethereum World Computer. Akasha aims to build a censorship resistant network and a file system that prevents the loss of published content – the nodes across the inter-planetary file system (IPFS) network saves all data shared by the users.
Akasha functions like the Medium blog website in the sense that anyone can post, repost, or vote for written entries that are published on the Ethereum network. Alisie is no longer on the core Ethereum team, however his use of the network shows he is still invested in the project.
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 Buterin, Vitalik, and Laura Shin
 Buterin, Vitalik, and Laura Shin
 Buterin, Vitalik, and Laura Shin
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8 November 2017, 12:08 AM. Tweet.
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 Buterin, Vitalik, and Laura Shin
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