Crypto portrait: Vitalik Buterin, crypto geek idealist

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

“Does he at least eat breakfast?” » When the American magazine Time made its cover with Vitalik Buterin, embittered internet users could not help but slip in malicious comments. It is true that the pale “prince of crypto”, as Time dubs it, doesn’t seem to breathe form. And yet we all owe a great deal to this alluring, blue-eyed nerd.

Vitalik Buterin is actually the originator of the Ethereum protocol. Become today one of the fundamental building blocks in the world of cryptocurrencies. “If it didn’t become the world computer he talked about at the beginning, perhaps a provocative announcement, this programmable blockchain capable of conditional transactions was really an important innovation.”analyzes Renaud Lifchitz, a French crypto expert.

The creator of the world’s first blockchain in terms of activity, “often described as an alien”, admits his biographer, Laura Shin, in her book The Cryptopians. It is a “walking computer”, sums up one of his relatives, Vlad Zamfir. When Vitalik Buterin poses for photos, we often see him with his arms dangling. Adidas basketball on his feet, the young man of 28 years old dresses in 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, a hundred kilometers from Moscow. But he will not stay long in Russia. At the age of six, when his parents had decided to emigrate to Canada, the child arrived in Toronto. He is not a boy like the others. As Laura Shin tells it, the child is simply gifted. About three or four years old, his grandfather “teaching him the multiplication tables”she remembers.

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

The horror of centralized services

This fertile ground is the blockchain. The young man’s convictions are first revealed with an incident in World of Warcraft. While he is an avid player of this online RPG, an update undermines one of his spells. “I cried myself to sleep that day realizing the horrors that centralized services can bring”he remembers.

Then his father suggested that he take an interest in Bitcoin, this cryptocurrency which precisely wants to create a decentralized financial system. It’s 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”he describes in his first message 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. But in retrospect, it’s arguably the highest paying freelancer in history. The young man earns five bitcoins, so it is equivalent to four dollars, today about 110,000 euros. Immediately used in a T-shirt I use coins » stamped with the bitcoin logo.

“The Goose That Lays Golden Eggs”

But Vitalik Buterin, who later helped found Bitcoin Magazine while helping with cryptocurrency programming, is frustrated by 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 at the end of 2013 in a white paper.


Ethereum // Source: Ethereum Foundation

“This 19-Year-Old Skeleton Boy Hovered Over His Laptop”, enthused journalist Morgen Peck after the Bitcoin conference in Miami in January 2014. A shared enthusiasm. Vitalik Buterin receives a scholarship of 100,000 dollars from the billionaire Peter Thiel. For some of his relatives, he is seen as “the goose that lays the golden egg”recalls computer scientist Gavin Wood, who then originated the Polkadot network.

But the young man imbued with idealism, contributor to open source projects, does not seek assets. In the spring of 2014, a revealing battle pitted it against those who dream of turning Ethereum into a future ATM. Vitalik Buterin will then push the businessmen out. And true to his belief that personal control would be a weakness, he does not keep the keys to the truck. Ethereum, financed by the collection of 31,000 bitcoins, at that time 18 million dollars, switches to a Swiss non-profit foundation.


Vitalik Buterin // Source: Wikimedia Commons

A respected influencer

“He is now only an influencer, although his voice carries a lot”, recalls Renaud Lifchitz. Vitalik Buterin is still followed by four million subscribers on Twitter. One who defines himself as one cuck preservative, a conservative steeped in 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.

Then we’ll call him “Saint Vitalik”like the specialist newsletter The Big Whale? “He is quite a divisive character in the community because he is sometimes quite far from the economic realities of Ethereum”nuance Adli Takkal-Bataille, the chairman of the association Le Cercle du coin.

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

The Bottle of Galadriel

If the Ethereum protocol has become essential, however, the blockchain is still largely imperfect. We can mention the difficult transition, which has been postponed many times, to a much more ecological operation. This “merge” is now promised for September. There have also been painful times, such as this split in the blockchain after a major hack in July 2016.

That’s because, for Vitalik Buterin, Ethereum must first be the launching pad for important societal innovations. Like a universal basic income or a fairer voting system. And be the counterweight to authoritarian governments. He also has that critical on the personal level, the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the mass surveillance of Internet giants.

“Crypto has significant dystopian potential if implemented poorly”, he recalled to Time last spring. Whereas, according to him, it must first be a security. Either, like the Vial of Galadriel, this object cited in the trilogy by Lord of the Rings, “a light for dark places when all the other lights are out.”

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