Is bitcoin significant to the history of ideas? Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym for bitcoin's presumed inventor or team of inventors, described bitcoin as a peer-to-peer electronic cash system.
To consider an idea historically significant is not to agree with it; both communism, as envisioned by Karl Marx, and the free market, as understood by Adam Smith, were novel philosophical and economic frameworks of indelible consequence.
Aristotle's invention of logical reasoning, itself one of the most impactful ideas in the history of Western thought, dictates that Darwin's theory of natural selection is a valuable idea since Charles Darwin was what venture capitalists call a category builder.
Darwin conceived a new way for us to think about our relationship with life on earth. Darwinism seeks to explain what endures and what gets lost over time. That which propagates lasts. We live through our progeny and ideas live through theirs.
Ultimately, ideas bloom into better ideas if they optimize the well-being of humans. Does cryptocurrency seek to empower us or maximize the well-being of humanity? At this stage of the maturity of cryptocurrency, the idea that Satoshi wrote the famous white paper about in 2008, the answer is "no."
So, is Satoshi the innovator of an idea of importance for the ages?
If Satoshi were an innovator, he or she or they would have disclosed the scientific background of his theories. What were they based on? On whose shoulders was bitcoin standing? An innovator discloses not only the strengths of the theory -- was it theoretically or algorithmically new? -- but also its limitations. In what way was it potentially hazardous to the economy, to the investor, to the environment?
At the very least, if Satoshi were a libertarian in the mold of Friedrich von Hayek -- this being someone who supports the science of property law -- he might have dedicated a sentence or two to how this supposed money could be protected if it was stolen, more effectively than a fiat currency.
An important idea is one whose problems get solved with time and collaboration.
Yet no one has tamed the ills of bitcoin for over 14 years, including bitcoin's lack of adoption for payments in any meaningful way, its inability to serve as a hedge against inflation or as a store of value, its extreme volatility, its exploitation by financial engineers, its concentration of ownership among whale investors who can easily manipulate its price, its use for tax evasion, money laundering, criminal, terrorist and sanction-avoiding activity, and the enormous electricity and electronic waste wrought by bitcoin mining.
Cryptocurrency enthusiasts claim that bitcoin imagined a new way to fashion our relationship with money and financial transactions. Bitcoin evangelists contend that cryptocurrency disintermediates predatory bankers. If any of this were true, then bitcoin could lay claim to being an important idea, or a category killer, like Sir Tim Berners Lee's invention of the World Wide Web in 1989.
In this era of TikTok and Twitter, we are inclined to think an idea is important if it is fit in the modern Darwinian sense if it replicates widely and goes viral. But Darwin was not thinking of fads or fashion, or of animals who had hordes of offspring, all of whom died young. He was thinking of millennial time.
The attributes for which bitcoin went viral were not positively selected for with the passage of time. There was never a real market test for bitcoin's fantastical claims. There was no scientific deliberation process, no peer review, no patent application and no public disputation over its purported novelty.
If Satoshi had submitted his paper to an academic journal, it would have been rejected, not least because its author insisted on anonymity. Was Satoshi in a financial conflict of interest when presenting to the world "a system for electronic transactions without relying on trust?"
At most, Satoshi's paper might have been accepted as a conjecture introducing the only novel aspect of bitcoin that I can deduce as a nonexpert, which is that mining is work and, as work, creates added value, including cybersecurity, for the many decades-old underlying technologies now collectively called blockchain, what some technologists refer to as an append-only database.
If Satoshi had had the tenacity to publish this idea in an academic journal, pending a disclosure of any competing financial interests, it is likely that someone knowledgeable in the field of append-only databases or electronic money systems would have crafted a public rebuttal. Or that experts in the field of environmental science would have pointed out that the putative cybersecurity benefit offered by mining is outweighed by the egregious energy consumption that ensues.
To consider bitcoin to be an important or novel idea is a naturalistic fallacy. Bitcoin is considered important today because some wealthy and self-styled libertarians say it is important, and these people also say that it is unnatural to think otherwise. Aristotle already knew that even highly intelligent people could be seduced by illogical assumptions.
In 2008, the same year that Satoshi claimed to invent a peer-to-peer electronic cash system, new research in messenger RNA technology by Ugur Sahin, Ozlem Tureci and Christoph Huber birthed a German biotechnology company called BioNTech SE.
BioNTech's adaptations of prior mRNA inventions led to vaccines for COVID-19. BioNTech inspired scientists and companies across the world to work on mRNA to combat a range of diseases, including a first promising treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Is mRNA technology more meaningful to the history of ideas than bitcoin? Thanks to the scientific process testing claims with healthy criticism, we know the answer to be "yes."
Neil Seeman is a senior fellow at the Institute for Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto, where he is senior academic adviser to the Investigative Journalism Bureau and a senior fellow at Massey College. He is chairman of RIWI.