“Does he at least eat breakfast?” » When the American magazine Time made its front page with Vitalik Buterin, embittered Internet users could not help but slip in spiteful comments. It’s true that the pale “prince of crypto”, as Time dubs it, doesn’t seem to breathe form. And yet, we all owe a lot to this elf-faced, blue-eyed geek.
Vitalik Buterin is indeed at the origin of the Ethereum protocol. Be today one of the basic bricks of the world of crypto-currencies. “If it didn’t become the world computer he was talking about at the start, a perhaps provocative announcement, this programmable blockchain capable of making conditional transactions was indeed an important innovation”analyzes Renaud Lifchitz, a French crypto expert.
The creator of the world’s first blockchain, in terms of activity, “is often described as an extraterrestrial”, concedes his biographer, Laura Shin, in her book The Cryptopians. It’s a “walking computer”, summarizes one of his relatives, Vlad Zamfir. When Vitalik Buterin strikes a pose, for the photos, we often see him with his arms dangling. Adidas basketball on his feet, the young man of 28 years dresses in Uniqlo. And he likes to wear t-shirts with unicorns and rainbows.
A gifted child
For Vitalik Buterin, it all started in 1994 in Kolomna, a hundred kilometers from Moscow. But he does not stay long in Russia. At the age of six, his parents having 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 quite simply gifted. Around three or four years old, his grandfather “teaches him the multiplication tables”she recalls.
At the same age, he discovers the computer. Then he tackled his masterpiece, an encyclopedia on rabbits written in Excel and finalized 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 like that”recalls his father, Dmitry. “He was like a seed that had been blown by the wind, struggling to take root, but about to find the right soil to grow and flourish”summarizes Laura Shin.
The horror of centralized services
This favorable soil is the blockchain. The convictions of the young man are revealed first with an incident in World of Warcraft. While he is an avid player of this online role-playing game, an update undermines one of his spells. “I fell asleep crying that day and realized the horrors that centralized services can bring”he recalls.
Then his father suggested he take an interest in Bitcoin, this crypto-currency 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 details in his first message on the BitcoinTalk forum.
This allows him to sign a first article on micro-transactions. At the time, Internet users were ironic about the low remuneration offered. But in retrospect, it’s arguably the highest-paying freelancer in history. The young man earns five bitcoins, then the equivalent of four dollars, today around 110,000 euros. Immediately spent 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 out 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 at the end of 2013 in a white paper.
“This 19-year-old skeletal boy was hovering over his laptop”, enthuses journalist Morgen Peck after the Bitcoin conference in Miami in January 2014. A shared enthusiasm. Vitalik Buterin gets a $100,000 scholarship from billionaire Peter Thiel. For some of his relatives, he is then seen as ” the goose that lays golden eggs “remembers the computer scientist Gavin Wood, then at the origin of the Polkadot network.
But the young man steeped in idealism, contributor to open-source projects, does not seek to fortune. In the spring of 2014, a revealing battle pitted it against those who dream of making Ethereum a future cash machine. 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, financed by the collection of 31,000 bitcoins, at the time 18 million dollars, switches to a Swiss non-profit foundation.
A respected influencer
“He is now only an influencer, even if his voice carries a lot”, recalls Renaud Lifchitz. Vitalik Buterin is still followed by four million subscribers on Twitter. One who defines himself as a cuckservative, 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.
So should we call him « Saint Vitalik »like the specialized newsletter The Big Whale? “He’s a pretty divisive character in the community, because he’s sometimes quite far from the economic realities of Ethereum”nuance Adli Takkal-Bataille, the president of the association Le Cercle du coin.
The Vial of Galadriel
If the Ethereum protocol has become essential, the blockchain is however still largely imperfect. We can cite the laborious transition, 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.
It is 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 has moreover critical on a personal level, the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the mass surveillance of internet giants.
“Crypto has significant dystopian potential if implemented poorly”, he reminded Time last spring. While it must be, according to him, first a security. Either, like the Vial of Galadriel, this object cited in the trilogy of Lord of the Rings, “a light for dark places, when all the other lights have gone out. »