Crypto-portrait: Vitalik Buterin, the idealist crypto geek

Or how Vitalik Buterin, a talented Russian-Canadian, revolutionized cryptocurrencies after an accident in World of Warcraft.

“Does he at least have breakfast?” “ When American Time magazine made its front page with Vitalik Buterin, bitter Internet users couldn’t help but squeeze in spiteful comments. It is true that the pale “prince of cryptocurrencies”, as Time calls it, does not seem to breathe form. Still, we all owe a lot to this elf-faced, blue-eyed nerd.

Vitalik Buterin is in fact at the origin of the Ethereum protocol. Be one of the building blocks of the cryptocurrency world today. “If it hadn’t become the world computer he spoke of at the beginning, perhaps a provocative announcement, this programmable blockchain capable of conducting conditional transactions was really an important innovation”analyzes Renaud Lifchitz, a French cryptocurrency expert.

The creator of the world’s first blockchain, in terms of business, “Is often described as an extraterrestrial”, admits her biographer, Laura Shin, in her book The Cryptopians. He’s a “walking computer”, sums up one of his relatives, Vlad Zamfir. When Vitalik Buterin poses for photos of him, we often see him with his arms dangling. Adidas basketball on his feet, the 28-year-old wears Uniqlo. And he likes to wear t-shirts with unicorns and rainbows.

Vitalik Buterin. // Source: Wikimedia Commons

A gifted child

For Vitalik Buterin it all started in 1994 in Kolomna, one hundred kilometers from Moscow. But he doesn’t stay long in Russia. At the age of six, having his parents decided to emigrate to Canada, the boy arrived in Toronto. He is not a boy like the others. As Laura Shin recounts, the child is simply gifted. Around three or four years old, his grandfather “Teaches him the times tables”remember.

At the same age, he discovers the computer. Then he tackled his masterpiece, an encyclopedia on rabbits written in Excel and completed at the age of seven. He is also, up to his nine years, a loner who speaks little. “It worried me, until I realized it was so”remembers his father, Dmitry. “It was like a seed carried by the wind, struggling to take root, but about to find the right soil to grow and flourish”sums up Laura Shin.

The horror of centralized services

This favorable ground is the blockchain. The young man’s beliefs are revealed first with an accident in World of Warcraft. Although he is an avid player of this online RPG, an update undermines one of his spells. “I fell asleep crying that day and realized the horrors that centralized services can bring”remember.

Then his father suggested that he take an interest in Bitcoin, this cryptocurrency that really wants to create a decentralized financial system. It is love at first sight. The student is so passionate that he offers to write articles for a new publication, Bitcoin Weekly. “I could write about social taboos related to money”explains in his first post on the BitcoinTalk forum.

This allows him to sign a first article on microtransactions. At the time, internet users were ironic about the low remuneration offered. But in retrospect, he is probably the highest paid freelancer in history. The young man earns five bitcoins, therefore the equivalent of four dollars, today around 110,000 euros. Immediately spent on a shirt I use coins stamped with the bitcoin logo.

“The goose that lays the golden eggs”

But Vitalik Buterin, who later helped found Bitcoin Magazine by helping with cryptocurrency programming, is frustrated with Bitcoin’s limitations. He dreams of a blockchain that will go even further. It will be Ethereum. The project caused a sensation after a first confidential presentation in late 2013 in a white paper.

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Ethereum // Source: Ethereum Foundation

“This skeletal 19-year-old boy was hovering over his laptop”enthuses journalist Morgen Peck after the Bitcoin conference held in Miami in January 2014. A shared enthusiasm. Vitalik Buterin receives a $ 100,000 scholarship from billionaire Peter Thiel. For some of his relatives, he is then seen as “the goose with golden eggs”recalls the computer scientist Gavin Wood, then at the origin of the Polkadot network.

But the young man steeped in idealism, collaborator of open source projects, does not try to do it fortune. In the spring of 2014, a revealing battle pitted her against those who dream of making Ethereum a future ATM. Vitalik Buterin will then push the businessmen out. And true to his belief that personal governance would be a weakness, he doesn’t keep the keys to the truck. Ethereum, funded by the collection of 31,000 bitcoins, at the time 18 million dollars, goes to a Swiss non-profit foundation.

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Vitalik Buterin // Source: Wikimedia Commons

A respected influencer

“Now he’s just an influencer, even if his voice brings a lot”, recalls Renaud Lifchitz. Vitalik Buterin is still followed by four million subscribers on Twitter. He who defines himself a cuckservative, a conservative imbued with liberal ideas, is also a generous philanthropist. He thus contributed to the legal defense of Julian Assange and helped in the fight against Covid-19 in India.

So we should call him “San Vitalik”like the specialized newsletter The Big Whale? “He is a rather divisive character in the community, because he is sometimes quite far from the economic realities of Ethereum”shade Adli Takkal-Bataille, the president of the Le Cercle du coin association.

Vitalik Buterina 2
A portrait of Vitalik Buterin. By Dmitry Shustov // Source: Flickr

Galadriel’s vial

While the Ethereum protocol has become essential, the blockchain is still largely imperfect. We can mention the laborious transition, postponed several times, to a much more ecological operation. This “unite” is now promised for September. There have also been painful moments, like this split in the blockchain after a major hack in July 2016.

It is because for Vitalik Buterin, Ethereum must first and foremost be the springboard for important social innovations. Like a universal basic income or a fairer voting system. And be the counterweight to authoritarian governments. It also has critic on a personal level, the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the mass surveillance of Internet giants.

“Crypto has significant dystopian potential when implemented poorly”, he reminded Time last spring. While it must be, according to him, first of all a security. Or, like Galadriel’s vial, this object mentioned in the trilogy of Lord of the Rings, “A light for dark places, when all the other lights have gone out. “

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