'Satoshi' and the Fantasy of Anonymity

The mystery of ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ is among other things an exercise in the ritual way in which anonymity functions online. The ‘Satoshi’ mystery demonstrates how the anonymity of a creator, whether of Bitcoin or anything else, is a feature of the work-- a part of the product. That is, Bitcoin could be Bitcoin without Satoshi, but the story of a mysterious, benevolent Satoshi attracts a set of flattering assumptions fueled by anonymity that enrich Bitcoin as a brand.

The initial way that anonymity benefits a creation is by automatically generating interest, and not just interest as such, but positive, even reverent interest. Anonymity allows for reverence by shrouding the creator in a veil of alluring modesty: who is this person, who has piqued my interest by not declaring their identity? What deity would deign not to take credit for their work? The creator's apparent lack of ego attracts us by its initial appearance of rarity and saintliness, the sense that we are in the presence of an anonymous higher being, who gifts us with something of value without expecting material attention in return. For example, the anonymously published tech fiction Iterating Grace plays on this logic quite literally by announcing itself as a beatific critique handed down from on high by some mysterious holy man, smoothing its acceptance in a tech environment where even the mildest critiques can be received as unbearably harsh.

But maybe most critically, anonymity allows for positive attention by removing the barriers to fantasy about who the creator 'is'. A person with a known identity cannot be fantasized about and fashioned into one's platonic ideal the way that an anonymous creator can. Thus, Satoshi Nakamoto is beloved to the point of godliness-- absent any details, the public filled in their desired identity for Satoshi Nakamoto. 'He' is eccentric, unthreatening via his reticence, but also cool and dark, inhabiting the shadows, happy to be the giver of the gift of untraceable digital currency. The figure of Nakamoto is a synecdoche for his currency: by buying into Bitcoin you are buying a bit of Nakamoto's mystique, his egolessness, his untraceability. 

The theory that Satoshi-contender Craig Wright ultimately doxxed himself is in line with the logic of anonymity as an amplifier of value that never quite becomes the property of the creator. That is, the more successful and beloved Satoshi became, the more the gulf between Satoshi and his creator grew: Satoshi was famous, mythic, obsessed over, while his creator (or hoaxer-- it doesn't really matter, since Craig Wright either imagines himself or desires to imagine himself the creator of Bitcoin) remained, in the tweeted words of journalist Adrian Chen, a "random-ass man in Australia with tax issues". Wright, like any creator eventually desirous of the love his product generates, grew unhappy with a lack of public recognition.

But Wright's dismay at seeing 'his' fantasy identity far outstrip the world's capacity to love him, as well as his audience's dismay at finding out who 'Satoshi' really 'is', is another inevitable phase in the anonymity trajectory. That is, the anonymous identities that creators create, much like zany corporate Twitter brands, are by definition more lovable than any particular individual, due to the way that anonymity enables everyone's individual or collective fantasies about the creator of a work. Anonymity is the absence that creates the possibility of a deified presence. Conversely, if an identified person decides they want to be beloved and mythical, it is harder to do so because a known identity eliminates the narrative potential for the audience to both fantasize about you and "discover who you are". There is nothing for the reader to dream about and then, in a fit of desire to make the fantasy real, to doxx. 

Anonymity, then, is the authorial decision to add valuable mystique to one's creation by packaging it with an alluring, demure, but eventually doxxable figure: someone whose absence of known identity both makes them seem impossibly cool (via fantasy that fills in the mystery with what is desired) and also discoverable, in time. Anonymity becomes a compelling, parallel story to the product story itself-- a mysterious, suspenseful story about when and if the creator's identity, however less beatific than imagined, will be found. 

All this is to say that Bitcoin didn't need 'Satoshi Nakamoto' to succeed, but whomever developed 'Satoshi Nakamoto' knew that by doing so they were adding an automatically lovable face to the Bitcoin brand, even if in doing so they condemned themselves to being Satoshi's perpetually inadequate shadow.


Super excited about having an essay in the upcoming Data Issue of Dis art magazine... will post a link when it launches.

2014 in Writing

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The main thing that motivates me to write in public is having a question about some cultural phenomenon that I want to produce an answer to. This year there were quite a few questions that I used essays to try to resolve, like: why did coffee shops suddenly turn into wood-shops? Why does media keep using the word 'brogrammer'? Why are brands getting so zany on Twitter? What is the connection between the voyeur-forward architecture of social media and the NSA's surveillance programs? Why do tech leaders keep talking about the magical future while ignoring issues in current startup culture? What's going on with Airbnb's new logo/house-sharing nation? Why are wearables so dorky and how will they need to change to be cool? Below is a list of writing I did in 2014 in response to these questions. I'm excited to see what questions I need to figure out in writing in 2015. 

A big ~~<3~~ to everyone who reads my writing.

The Male Gazed (Model View Culture)

Sex and the Startup (Model View Culture)

Speculum of the Other Brogrammer (Katelosse.tv)

Weird Corporate Twitter (The New Inquiry)

Tech Aesthetics (Aeon Magazine)

Facebook for Space? Airbnb's Weird Corporation Nationhood (Katelosse.tv)

What's in a Free Fjallraven Backpack (Katelosse.tv)

The Myth of Magical Futures (Katelosse.tv)

Silicon Valley Has a Fashion Problem (Style.com)

What Reclaimed Wood Meant (Katelosse.tv)

Finally, this essay I wrote in 2013 had many more readers in 2014, so I will include it here:

The Unbearable Whiteness of Breaking Things (Medium)

The Myth of Magical Futures

Despite its (now frequently mocked) claims to meritocracy, Silicon Valley loves its hierarchies. However, because these hierarchies often look somewhat different than old-time corporate ones, they are often opaque to outsiders looking in. My book The Boy Kings is among other things a diagram of hierarchy as it was architected at Facebook in Facebook’s early years, where the closer one was to a Mark-Zuckerberg-when-he-started-Facebook combination of age, race, and gender qualities the higher one was in the hierarchy (a hierarchy that appears not to have changed much given the industry's recently released diversity data). In the past year tech's particular version of hierarchy has been more widely acknowledged and critiqued, and thus we are now in the situation where people as powerful as Peter Thiel are being asked to comment on tech’s diversity and misogyny problems, as in yesterday’s Reddit Ask Me Anything interview with Thiel.

Peter Thiel’s answer to misogyny in tech was that we need more women founders, and this answer struck me as interesting on a number of levels, and also somewhat opaque to someone looking into this world from outside. Why women founders? On the one hand, the possibility that a woman founder would construct the hierarchy at her company differently than Mark Zuckerberg is compelling. On the other, the idea of women founders as a solution to tech misogyny also makes existing male founders and investors unaccountable for misogyny as it exists today. Thiel is saying that he and his funded companies are not responsible for the misogynist environments they themselves have built, and furthermore, that they can’t fix them-- only a woman founder can.

This is a problem, because the misogynist hierarchies that exist in tech today are not mystical outcomes, but very real products of the values of the people involved at the formation of a company, which are investors and founders. Investors and board members in addition to founders influence everything from how much equity goes to individual employees, to perks and play budgets (which often are not evenly distributed across the company), to the construction of departments, their relative importance, and the resources accordingly allocated to them. And not coincidentally the privileged departments, on this model, tend to be those occupied by people who look most like the founder and investors (at Facebook this was product engineering, which dominated other forms of engineering, which dominated non-engineering departments, which tended to have the largest degree of race and gender diversity).

But when Thiel is arguing for more women founders he isn’t just deflecting responsibility from himself and his fellow investors. He is also doing something else that I want to unpack: he is re-inscribing a form of hierarchical thinking that is part of the reason tech is such a mess regarding diversity. That is, when Thiel points to “more women founders” as a solution, he is asking women to become founders in order to possess a status that would allow Thiel to acknowledge women in tech at all. That is, all of the women who are currently working in tech, up and down the employee stack, many at companies that Thiel may be invested in, do not seem in Thiel’s formulation to really exist to him. They do not have a seat at the table. They are not acknowledged as agents of change, or as subjects of discrimination (for example, in the AMA, Thiel cited the Bay Area “housing crisis” as a worse problem than sexism in tech, not knowing that the housing crisis disproportionately affects women and people of color because of the wage discrimination marginalized people face at work).

That is, according to Thiel’s “women founders” logic, he can only imagine women as agents/subjects if they are the founder of a company. And this, in the end, is exactly why and how tech is such a diversity disaster: because there are so many ways powerful people in the industry have of ignoring that marginalized people are working at their companies and are experiencing multiple forms of discrimination right now. This is why many powerful people in tech can only conceive moves to “change” the industry in terms of magical futures like “more women founders” or “getting young girls to code”. The women working in the industry right now are being written off in favor of these magical futures, and as long as this is the case, the now of tech (whether the now is today or twenty years from today) will be unchanged.

This is why you should be skeptical whenever you see powerful men arguing for magical future outcomes in regard to diversity. Instead, ask what they can do right now to affect discrimination in their companies. For example, what are they doing to rectify across the board pay and equity discrepancies between men and women, or white men and people of color? What do their harassment policies look like? Investors like Peter Thiel directly influence these decisions at startups they fund (even if “influence” means “failing to advise founders to avoid discriminatory practices”, which is a form of influence). So when men like Thiel speak of magical futures, we should always be asking them: what are you doing today?

What Tech Offices Say

My new essay on Tech Aesthetics is up at Aeon Magazine.

The tech industry has reimagined the office as a vehicle for conveying workers’ social and professional prestige.
— http://aeon.co/magazine/altered-states/what-tech-offices-tell-us-about-the-future-of-work/