Q&A with Giacomo Zucco
1. For those who don’t know you, who is Giacomo Zucco?
I’m a theoretical physicist as education (degree in 2009), a technology consultant as early “pre-bitcoin” professional experience, a physics teacher in spare time, a libertarian political activist since I was a kid (for some years I have played that role also debating on national television and writing on Italian newspapers, but now I don’t do that anymore). Since 2013 I’ve been a Bitcoin “serial entrepreneur” with other fellow bitcoiners… or better: a “compulsive entrepreneur”. In 2015 I focused a little bit on BHB Network initiative.
2. What are you currently working on and what are your plans for 2018 onward?
I’m currently working on research, consultancy and education with for-profit companies Blockchainlab Switzerland and Bcademy. I’m actively supporting several open source projects with non-profit initiatives BHB Network and TheB. I try to focus on research and education more, lately, because it’s less stressful, intellectually more satisfying, and logistically less disruptive for my recent (and very important) side-project: being a dad.
3. How’d you come across Bitcoin?
As a political activist, Bitcoin started to pop up in a couple of (back then interestingly unrelated!) contexts. In early 2012 I was hanging out (physically as well as online) with some privacy activists and followers of the cypherpunk ideology: some in those circles started to discuss Bitcoin as a privacy compliant and censorship-resistance form of money, mostly in relation with Wikileaks and the Silk Road. At the same time I was also hanging out (physically as well as online) with another group of people (unrelated with the first, often very distant as for style and ideological roots): some gold-bugs, Austrian Economy fans, and sound money advocates, who also started to discuss Bitcoin as inflation-resistant money, as digital gold with inelastic supply and full reserve. Then, in late 2012, I started reading about bitcoin as a “new cool payment technology” in the context of my own work as a payment-focused technology consultant. I started to dig the scientific aspect of it, beyond the political one. I installed a client and started mining with my corporate laptop, but the security guys took it away and wiped it because of the IRC connection.Funny story.
About one year later, in May 2013, I was discussing with my wife the strange way in which Bitcoin was actually connecting seemingly distant and separate aspect of my interests, both personal and professional. She told me to quit my job to focus on Bitcoin full time, since it was the perfect fit for everything I was passionate about. I did. I co-founded and/or helped several small startups. A few did very well. Most of them were a disaster.
4. In your wildest dream, what you think Bitcoin could be capable of achieving?
Becoming the new instance of what gold has been for centuries in human history: sound, hard, private, open, global, politically-neutral, censorship-resistant money. Of course that would pass by a phase in which it would be mostly black/grey market money, and international settlement money, and safe haven against inflation, and tool for permissionless innovation. But it could arrive to a final stage where it actually help destroying monetary policies by central banks, enabling widespread tax avoidance, making national borders less and less relevant in personal and business terms.
5. What is “Bitcoin Maximalism”? Why are you a “Bitcoin maximalist”?
In its pure form, it’s a pejorative term created to mock common sense, technical awareness and economical knowledge. Basically, whoever possess some of the above tends to understand that digital scarcity is economically impossible if the market consider bitcoin clones as “peer-level competitors” of Bitcoin, that recreating the weird and epic “immaculate conception” of Bitcoin is impossible from an opsec as well as from a game theoretical point of view, that money and IT infrastructures are two fields in which at equilibrium “winner takes it all” and markets tend towards convergence and stability, instead of towards competition and evolution, that network effects of Bitcoin in term of financial, hardware and software infrastructure are too huge to overcome already. Many bitcoiners ironically embraced this pejorative term, becoming “proud maximalists”. Lately, the label started to consolidate around other apparently counter-intuitive but logically sound stances about Bitcoin: the fact that controversial changes to Bitcoin are something to avoid, the fact that in some popular narrative spending is overrated and saving underrated (especially for a deflationary asset which is possibly going through a monetization process right now), the fact that a permissionless, regulator-resistant environment needs stricter and higher ethical and technical bars, and that calling out frauds, bad actors, snake-oil and non-sense is more important in this context than in traditional ones.
6. How you became a maximalist?
I become a maximalist in phases. Back in 2013 I was finally very excited about Bitcoin, after struggling with my natural skepticism all the previous year, but I was also excited about completely bogus and nonsensical projects, like NXT, Bitshares, Ripple, Peercoin. I think the greatest part was played by some sort of cognitive “pendulum effect”. When I first discovered Bitcoin, with its very ambitious goals, my initial reaction had been: “this is too good to be true, to complex to work, too difficult to bootstrap, too easy to kill”. When I started to realize that Bitcoin WAS actually working as intended, and was actually pretty hard to kill, and had actually been bootstrapped for real, the cognitive shock/pain had a strange effect on me…I basically inverted my heuristics from “this is impossible” to “this, and everything else like this, is possible”. Thus, my prima facie default position was now always “possibilist”, even before looking into the code, the security model, etc. The first crack in this new disposition was when I started to seriously study the models, discovering that most of the “new ideas” in altcoin space were actually just very old ideas already proposed, studied, discussed and finally discarded because faulty way before Bitcoin itself was born (ie: PoS in Wei Dai’s bmoney, centralized legal entity in eGold, fiat-pegged IOU in Digicash, etc.). The second crack was when I started to try to actually look a little bit at the code (not being a coder myself), finding terrible half-baked copy-paste nightmares, where some Bitcoin-related stuff was still left forgot in the code, with homemade cryptographic primitives, trivial mistake, bad code quality, zero code review. But back than I thought: “ok, these specific altcoins are a mess, but some altcoins in general COULD be a thing, eventually”. Only later I realized the economical reasons that make altcoins as a concept, regardless current implementations, unfeasible in the long run, without exceptions.
7. What Bitcoin maximalist do different than non-maximalist that will help mass adoption?
I don’t think that maximalists will actually help mass adoption. I think mass adoption, if Bitcoin succeeds ad doing what it’s designed to do, will arrive by its own. Bitcoin maximalists will be in a disposition to better understand, follow and serve this mass adoption, avoiding distractions and wastes of time and energy that will instead consume people trapped in the “crypto” or “blockchain” nonsense-bubble.
8. What are Bitcoin biggest challenges on survivability?
I would say it has to show its resilience versus: social failures (if the market reward bitcoin clones as peers/competitors/substitutes of bitcoin, digital scarcity and predictable supply are dead; if the market accepts takeover and malicious changes on the protocol it becomes pointless, and so on), game-theoretical failures (what if the fungibility of bitcoin breaks down? what if mining incentives long run are broken?), technical failures (what if a major software bug gets introduced, passing scrutiny and peer reviews, and split or halts the network in a way which kills the trust in it?).
9. What is Bitcoin “community” and developers doing wrong?
I don’t think there’s actually any “Bitcoin community”, strictly speaking. The same way there never was a real “gold community” or “Internet community”. Sure, you have early adopters, early builders, early advocates, early researchers. And they interact with each other, they meet up, they discuss, they fight, often they work together. I don’t think early movers in Bitcoin are doing anything particularly wrong. Maybe, being mostly “nerds”, we are sometimes less sensitive about the needs and the expectation of “normies”. But this is, I think, inevitable at this stage. And somehow irrelevant in the long run: if Bitcoin works as intended, people will have to adapt to it, not the other way around. But a better connection, or bridge, between good, easy user experience on one hand, and good, safe technical standards on the other, would help many of us to make some money, I think. Right now the industry is full of the two opposite extremes: good technical products following best practices and high security standards but coming short about UX, or easy and sexy products with terrible security or unsustainable technical choices.
10. What is Bitcoin “community” and developers doing right?
Same proviso than before about the “community” concept. But I really think bitcoiners overall are doing a good job staying focused on the real stuff, as opposed to the “crypto” or “blockchain” folks wasting time and energy on ponzi schemes, snake oil, sci-fi dreams and money grabs.
11. If you were to launch a cryptocurrency what features it will have, why?
It will require a time-travel technology, because the only way it would make sense to “launch a cryptocurrency” would be to do it before 2008, joining Satoshi Nakamoto in his/their quest. I guess it would resemble Bitcoin very closely…maybe it could have some cool privacy and scalability improvement like the MimbleWimble design (very elegant, while probably less safe than the plain Bitcoin one) or Peter Todd’s client-side-validation architecture (very reasonable, while probably less socially scalable and harder to bootstrap than the plain bitcoin one). It would probably start over with Segregated Witness from the start, it would use Schnorr instead of ECDSA, ScriptlessScript plus MAST-like constructs instead of the usual Script. It would not be written in c++!!! If I was the actual developer (scary and very unfortunate scenario) it would probably be written in LISP! But if I was only one of the designers (way better), I would probably have the actual developers working in Rust or something like that. I guess it would have smoother mechanisms for difficulty adjustment and inflation schedule (tricky, but more elegant… I don’t like economical singularities, they are dangerous). If Peter Todd was to come back in time with me, maybe he would be able to convince me to keep a fixed supply, still deflationary but without fixed cap…but I don’t know…he would probably fail to convince me. If the time travel had shocking intelligence-enhancement effects on my, turning me into a genius, I would find a way to make security/usability trade-off parameters like block-size and block-rate dynamic, in a safe and not playable way, and to integrate the potential for trustless 2-way-pegged sidechains since the very beginning. It would use better marketing terminology (as Andreas Antonopoulos explained, almost all Bitcoin terminology is completely wrong from a marketing point of view).
12. What is your take on ICOs?
I’m really skeptical about them. If the “coin” represents a financial security and the offering and the exchange of it is actually permissionless/borderless/regulationless, then it makes economical sense to offer it in a sale to investors, but it’s hard to make such a system really decentralized and censorship resistance, without single point of failure but also with strong guarantees of enforcement of the financial mechanism. If the “coin” represents a financial security but the offering and the exchange of it is completely controlled, regulated, compliant, limited, submitted to KYC/AML, then it makes no sense to use a Bitcoin-like technology: the central database of a legacy stock market would be way better for this use-case, which would not be disruptive at all compared to a regular ICO. If the “coin” doesn’t represents a financial security, then there may not be a censorship/regulation trade-off, but there would be no reason to offer it to investors: its price would not represent the success of some venture, just at best the demand for a collectible.
13. What cryptocurrencies/blockchain projects have a legitimate vision/use case?
Bitcoin and all the cryptocurrencies/blockchain projects built on top of it. Good Bitcoin wallets, decentralized exchanges like Bisq, second layer protocols like the Lightning Network and JoinMarket, the Open timestamps standard, the Liquid Sidechain, R&D stuff like DLC or RGB. I would not dislike to see some decentralized storage project leveraging Lightning Network for payments, or some PGP-WoT reboot leveraging the Bitcoin-derived standards and user habits.
Thankful to Giacomo for his time and insights, an honor for me to share a Q&A with him.
See below some of my favorite videos of Giacomo talking about Bitcoin topics:
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