Mike Hearn is one of Bitcoin’s most polarizing figures. A member of the elite group of people who can say they worked with creator Satoshi Nakamoto, he has contributed immensely to the community’s development and innovation via his bitcoinj project, which allows for lightweight implementation of Bitcoin Core, and more recently through his decentralized crowdfunding platform Lighthouse.
Despite these accomplishments he has drawn the ire of some community members for allegedly proposing to build censorship mechanisms into TOR and pushing Bitcoin blacklists. He has never shied away from addressing these concerns, frequently chiming in on Reddit discussions and rationalizing the criticisms by writing:
“I’m somewhat notorious in the Bitcoin community for making radical suggestions, like maybe there exists a tradeoff between privacy and abuse. Lots of people in the crypto community passionately hate this idea and (unfortunately) anyone who makes it.”
Indeed, in contrast to a collective mindset amongst the community that can often seem overly-optimistic from afar, Hearn has been a reliable contrarian voice highlighting the problems of a computer program that has come to mean so much to so many. Appearing on the Epicenter Bitcoin podcast in June of this year, he was frank when discussing the state of Bitcoin development saying that it was in a “state of crisis” because progress had ground to a “complete halt.” And in a presentation earlier this year he opened by saying:
“I’ve put many many hours and late nights and long weekends into Bitcoin since I first started working on it in 2010. And, you know, if it ends up solving some people’s problems some of the time, then that’s ok. I don’t perceive a time where Bitcoin will really take over the world. Email, undoubtedly a very successful system, it’s been around for 20 years now, and only new companies run paperless offices. Google runs a paperless office. But most companies never got that far. And, you know, it didn’t kill the post, it didn’t kill lots of things, so Bitcoin is going to be living alongside all these other systems...I find that the most plausible outcome is that Bitcoin ends up with niche appeal.”
I wanted to learn more about this core developer who has helped Bitcoin grow but still holds reservations about its future so I forwarded him a few questions. He was kind enough to respond and you can read the results below.
Cointelegraph: When did you first hear about Bitcoin and how long did it take for you to realize it was something you wanted to dedicate your time to?
Mike Hearn: I first encountered it in April 2009 and started working on it around September 2010.
CT: Earlier this year you had a debate with The Economist regarding Bitcoin’s deflationary nature and the validity of modern inflation statistics. You also once criticized the guidance of western economists saying that their advice leads “from one crisis to another, one bubble to another even bigger one with no end in sight.” Do you think that today’s political leaders are putting too much faith in the assumptions of economists?
MH: Yes, I think so. It wasn't many years ago that politicians like Gordon Brown were saying the era of boom and bust was over. I think these days the biggest problem is the assumption that we must chase growth at any cost, even that of massive amounts of money creation. In earlier decades, politicians finally threw off the assumption that full employment was more important than inflation, and I think we're going to see some kind of eventual political overhaul in which politicians become even more monetarist.
CT: What is Bitcoin’s greatest strength?
MH: Everyone will pick different answers for this. I think its openness is pretty important. You don't have to ask anyone to work with the system.
CT: You’ve spoken glowingly about the Trezor hardware wallet. How important will further advances in specialized hardware be to Bitcoin’s success?
MH: I think hardware like the ATMs and the Trezor are vital for helping solve key problems Bitcoin has like availability and security. But there are non-hardware based mechanisms which are very important too.
CT: You were close to Satoshi and are one of the few people in the world who was able to work on Bitcoin alongside him. Do you think he would be happy with how the technology has evolved to this point?
MH: I wouldn't say I was close to him. We emailed outside of the forums about technical matters, that's all. I honestly don't know what Satoshi would think, I'd love to ask him. I suspect he'd be concerned about mining centralization.
CT: Leaving behind a job at Google to work on Bitcoin seems like a risky move. Did it feel that way when you committed to it? Or were you confident enough in the protocol’s potential to not worry about leaving a secure career?
MH: Yes it is risky, but I felt it was the right choice for multiple reasons. If Bitcoin doesn't work out, I'll do other things.
CT: If this experiment succeeds, what will have the greater impact on the world: Bitcoin’s uses as a money transmitter or the additional applications that can be built on top of the protocol (crowdfunding, p2p investments and currency exchanges, smart property, etc.)?
MH: I have no idea, but Bitcoin has strong competitors in existing markets. I suspect it'll be easier to make progress by focusing on niches and "killer apps" that aren't currently served well. Currently though, without question, the bigger impact is just moving money around.
CT: You recently won funding from Olivier Janssens for your crowdfunding platform Lighthouse. Janssens was inspired to create the bounty out of frustration with the Foundation’s lack of financial support for protocol-related development. Do you agree with his statement that the Foundation’s shortcomings were caused by “the structure and operational tendencies of the organization”? Or is it simply a lack of funds at their disposal?
MH: I think it's both. The Foundation is heavily reliant on corporate donations. People aren't always motivated to donate when they don't feel they have any impact on how the money will be spent. The Foundation is a good thing, but having alternative ways to pool money can't possibly hurt.
CT: You’ve were recently criticized by Amir Taaki, with him saying that you have “consistently and vigorously worked against the interests of the user.” Peter Todd said “Mike plays devil's advocate so frequently and with so much passion he's becoming indistinguishable from the devil himself.” Do you sometimes feel like the Bitcoin community’s whipping boy?
MH: Amir Taaki and Peter Todd are famous for their unusual opinions and extremely aggressive approach to anyone they disagree with, not only me. Luckily the Bitcoin community is far larger and more diverse than you might imagine from reading reddit. The largest/oldest Bitcoin forums were created and are moderated by people who self-identify as anarchists, so not surprisingly they can easily become echo chambers. But the real work is going on outside these forums.
CT: How would you describe yourself in one word?
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