Ideas of a Bitcoin user on open source development

BY Giovanni Daniele Starita

PhD Student

University of Perugia (the name in Italian is Università degli Studi di Perugia)

In 2018, I spent a few weeks researching Bitcoin usage in Rovereto. It is a small city in Trentino, a region in northern Italy, and it is known as a “Bitcoin Valley”, a term used to describe a place densely populated by commercial activities accepting Bitcoin for daily purchases. At that time, according to the local company providing Bitcoin payments[1], 45 commercial activities existed in Trentino accepting Bitcoin.

My theoretical research started with a focus on the cypher-punk movement[2]. Nonetheless, as I dwelled in Rovereto, developing an ethnographic record of my meetings with Bitcoin users, I focused on their attitudes towards technology (or techno-expectations). The following is a brief account of one of the most insightful meetings I had in relation to techno-expectations.

Marco is one of the first Bitcoin users I interviewed thoroughly. More importantly, he is not just a Bitcoin user. As many others I met in Rovereto, he is deeply involved in working to spread Bitcoin usage. He has a deep knowledge of the technical side of Bitcoin’s functioning. As I went back to my notes, there was one recurring theme: open source development. In fact, one of the sentences Marco opened with was[3]:

“(…) for me the fact that Bitcoin is developed through open-source code is fundamental, and one of the main reasons that made me interested in it.”

The importance Marco confers to the open-source movement in the creation of Bitcoin was not a surprise for me: the roots of the cypher-punk movement can be found to be among online communities of coders participating to similar open source projects. Their intent is to create freely accessible software that can also be improved by anyone willing to do it without an economic incentive.

Marco: “Open-source is not only important on a principle level, because it denies the right of a company or a single coder to claim intellectual property rights on the technology itself, but also because open-source programming enables the creation of a global, constantly developing coding environment. It should not be a surprise, if you ask me, that Bitcoin is one of the mostly advanced software technologies available to the public today (…) the fact that its value is solely dependent on the individuals participating to the network, (… ) the fact that no one can actually control or own the Bitcoin network, these are all things that if there was a Bitcoin company controlling the network, would have never happened. Those are all characteristics that according to the public narrative were implemented in Bitcoin because of its cypher-punk, or crypto-anarchic, roots, but I am not the first to suggest that they are strictly linked with its open-source development.”

What struck my attention was that Marco made a mentality out of this development model. A mindset that makes him approach things from a different perspective. He told me that the structure of open source projects gave him an excitement that he struggled to find for closed source technologies. As Marco himself described it, working on open source technologies consisted in:

“Thousands of small professionals working together for the achievement of a common goal, a goal that is not property of anyone, because it is freely accessible to everyone.”

This is the mindset that brings some software engineers together to work on open source projects with a wide scope and long-term perspective. They seek projects aimed at creating technological tools based on principles that are radically different from and incompatible with those present in the commercial software world.

The topic of techno-optimism, as expressed here by Marco’s words, became a focus of my research. I compared it with the techno-expectations of the baby boomer generation as recollected by David Graeber in “The utopia of rules” (2015). Graeber described this techno-optimism as a passive feeling, originating from the new possibilities enabled by technology in the previous decades. From trains and planes enabling fast, long-distance travelling, to medicine radically lengthening life expectancy. The individuals described by Graeber waited for similar wonders to take place during their lifetime, often without considering taking part in their development. However, baby boomers became increasingly techno-disappointed, as no similar wonders emerged during their adult lives.

These expectations differed from those expressed by Marco and other users I interviewed in Rovereto. Marco was motivated by Bitcoin’s open infrastructure to be optimistic towards its spread, and to help fulfil his optimistic expectations with his direct action. This is what I defined as participative techno-optimism: optimistic hopes about future technological advances that push people to cooperate with each other and act.

The connotation of this participative techno-optimism and its analysis as a proactive element rather than one that creates alienation and disillusion should be considered by future researchers. Such a notion may be relevant for many software technologies that are currently emerging. Digital platforms such as Open Access academic journals or hubs for bloggers and writers are examples of the fact that digital networks are increasingly relying on the aggregated impact of individual content creation.

[1] The website can be consulted here.

[2] One of the most famous cypherpunk activists is Julian Assange, creator of WikiLeaks. A manifesto of their ideas can be found here.

[3] All the interviews took place in Italian and have been translated by the author with the intent of representing the flow of the oral conversation as accurately as possible.