Arto Bendiken leads NEAR’s EVM Engineering Group. While one of the newer members to join the NEAR Team, Arto is a well-known Cypherpunk, Hacker, Software Engineer, Digital Nomad, and early cryptocurrency pioneer. As an exceptionally skilled thinker and builder, Arto has lived a busy life of entrepreneurship, activism, software development, and traveling. The short overview of Arto’s life written below does not do justice to the richness and fine-detail of his experience and deep-seated beliefs: Hopefully it provides a starting point for understanding one of crypto’s household names who has been around since the very beginning.
Climbing Into The Digital Age
Arto started programming in 1993, at the youthful age of eleven, when he built himself a computer from scratch. Little by little he was able to afford all the parts by looking out for good deals at bankruptcy sales, and by selling useful components through the local newspaper in his Finland town. By the time he had completed his computer, Arto had one clear path in mind: gaming, and the new digital worlds of graphics. In his early adolescence he focused on game programming. But as time went on and the internet became more prevalent, he found himself front and center in the first boom-and-bust of the digital world. Not only did this inform Arto about euphoric hype cycles, but it also kickstarted his career as a freelance software developer.
In 1995, when Arto was 15 years old, he found computer programming skills in high demand with an abundance of work opportunities available. Soon after, he moved into his own apartment, took a full-time job and quit traditional schooling for good. Work started with some basic Visual Basic applications for local businesses, and some early web pages here and there. But as the web developed and interest in more sophisticated internet projects increased, Arto packed his bags and hitched a ride to Spain. He was 20 years old.
Learning on the Road: Libertarianism and Digital Gold
Learning to code in Finland in 1993 was not a straightforward process. For one, most houses were not connected to the internet, and the web as we know it today did not exist. That left Arto with books — and the often-frustrating search for quality books between public libraries and universities.
Arto’s journey into software development would be foreign to most programmers today: When he wanted to learn about kernel hacking (on the early Linux kernel), it was months of waiting for a book to arrive from the United States. With no such thing as Stack Overflow, he had to solve every problem he encountered all on his own. There was scarcely any external support available: no “forums” to ask questions, no people to reach out, no YouTube to watch videos, or e-books to download. As Arto puts it: “If you didn’t understand what you were doing, good luck.”
Learning to code on his own was only the beginning of Arto’s personal education: He was and remains an autodidact and avid reader across a number of subject areas including philosophy, science, science fiction, and political theory. Two subject areas stand out in particular:
First is the world of cyberpunk science fiction, and the imaginative yet realistic importance of well-written novels about the future. The most capable authors (like Neil Stephenson or William Gibson) are able to play upon the collective memory of a generation, while appealing to the future wonders or horrors that science may hold.
Second, is the vast literature on libertarianism in general and the philosophy of Ayn Rand in particular. Arto stumbled across a dog-eared copy of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, in a second hand book store in Costa del Sol, Spain when he was twenty-two years old. He had never heard of her, or the book, before. In fact, he wasn’t even so sure why he bought it in the first place. But upon reading it, Arto describes it as “One of the most important books for setting him on his life pathway.” And while it is clear that ‘Ayn Rand divides opinions very clearly on the lines of love and hate,’ he found in Atlas Shrugged a vocalization of a philosophy that would bring him into the world of activism and public engagement: Libertarianism.
“We all have a certain personality type orientation and we are all predisposed to certain ideologies or ways of thinking. When you happen to come across something which matches that or clicks very well, it has a special significance. And for a lot of people that totally doesn’t click. Anyhow, that [book] set me down on a path towards activism. It was only a few years after reading that book and following up on other things that people tend to follow up with, that I considered myself a libertarian and was highly active.”
This context became a driving force for Arto’s experimentation with an early version of digital currency, known at the time as e-gold.
In 1997 e-gold was exciting. It embodied a libertarian ideal that Arto and many of his friends truly believed in: “You could hold gold balances and you would send that to people for payment without practically any restrictions on the internet overall.” Thousands of crypto-anarchists followed the development of such infrastructure as they thought that it led to freer markets and freer communications. Inspired by the Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, Arto and many other crypto-anarchists of his time really believed that e-gold would change the world, and that they would be allowed to get away with it. It was not obvious that the whole enterprise would get shut down soon after launch, and that the founder would end up with an ankle monitor.
E-gold and the other digital currency projects that Arto worked on over the years were the first-generation protocols of the world of cryptocurrencies that we inhabit today: “All of the tech that we rely on now, whether it is Tor or Bitcoin or any number of communication protocols, comes from these dark ages.” As Arto kept working on these opaque systems, his belief in the fundamentally aggressive and violent nature of the State was crystalizing in front of his eyes; and his interest in finding a truly open and decentralized solution to money encompassed a number of different digital currency projects.
Bitcoin, the Room 77 Bar, and the Early Days of Ethereum
“We would never have Bitcoin if there was not so much State interference….Bitcoin wouldn’t need to exist and the complexity that Bitcoin requires and all of these inefficiencies came about because there was this active adversary — That is, in particular, the US government. They had the biggest interest in seeing these projects fail — that is why Bitcoin exists.”
It’s 2010 and Arto is deep into the Cypherpunk movement. Experimenting with as many digital currency projects as possible was typical among its members. Sharing insights on forums about how to avoid surveillance was also common. In fact, Arto followed so many different digital currency projects during this time that when Bitcoin came along, he noted, “It wasn’t clear that it was going to take over the world.”
Arto could not remember the specifics of how he first stumbled upon Bitcoin, but he remembers it came from a mailing list. At the time, Arto downloaded the reference code and tried mining some Bitcoin. For half a year he kept it on the sidelines without paying too much attention to it before realizing exactly what its significance was. That was the beginning of Arto’s golden era that spiraled into a series of memorable events:
- While sitting in a bar in Costa del Sol having beers with other Bitcoin enthusiasts, Arto recalls the discussions about Mises’s regression theorem, Bitcoin and Austrian School economics. As he says: “What an utter waste of time in retrospect — there were a lot of objections to Bitcoin from an Austrian economics point of view. That is the problem with a lot of us in this space: we are overly focused on theories sometimes, and less on just trying something out.”
- Moving to Berlin — the epicenter of the Bitcoin Universe — in late 2010 and early 2011. Trading Bitcoins locally via #bitcoin-otc on IRC (prior to LocalBitcoins) and arranging meetups for such trades.
- Socializing in the now-famous Room 77 Bar in Berlin, where Arto bought countless burgers and beers and paid with Bitcoin for years (starting when Bitcoin was roughly $10 dollars). It was here where a young Vitalik Buterin asked to interview Arto for Bitcoin Magazine. Arto declined. Crypto-Anarchism was not a public business.
It was also during this time that Arto received an email from a young Ross Ulbricht about creating a private marketplace that would later become known as Silk Road. This particular instance has received special public attention and for this, we asked Arto about his recollection of the event:
Ross was a random noob who reached out to Arto, years before Ross built anything and before Arto had any idea of who he was. Those PGP-signed email messages were then used as evidence (exhibit 270) in the show trial for Ross. (Arto discontinued use of PGP thereafter.) Arto says any of the hundreds of cypherpunks could have given Ross similar advice, but he happened to be the one to whom Ross reached out to. Arto only learned of his inadvertent role in this saga after journalists began contacting him years later.
In the context of Arto’s story, Silk Road was a minor side event in line with his activism work in Europe and the larger crypto-community he socialized with. It compared little to the early days of Bitcoin in the Room 77 Bar, and the years to come in Berlin.
In 2014, Berlin was turning into a boom town for crypto: journalists packed the Room 77 Bar, pilgrims from all over the world visited to pay their respects to the movement that Bitcoin symbolized, and every week there was something cryptocurrency-related to look forward to. A very special group of people had accrued, and now they were talking about a new project called Ethereum.
Arto remembers the origins of Ethereum clearly: everyone pretty much met in Room 77 — the restaurant at the end of capitalism — amidst fond memories of burgers and beers. And while Arto did not really get into Ethereum until a few years later, he does remember their early organizing days:
“When ETH started to get organized as an organization, they hired a bunch of my friends and offered me a position a bunch of times.”
Arto, however, had been working on his own cloud database startup for quite some time, and was comfortable ignoring offers from crypto startups. Crypto was a social and personal activity, outside of commercial business. After all, he had been a serial entrepreneur for more than a decade right as the internet was kicking off: crypto was late to the game, but that didn’t mean that Arto didn’t enjoy the culture:
“Oftentimes I would hang out at the ETH headquarters with my friends working there and got to hear a little bit about their plans and whatnot.”
NEAR Protocol: The Start of Something New
“I haven’t worked for anyone else in over 20 years. The last time I was an employee I was 18 and quit very soon after I turned 18.”
Arto describes NEAR as a third-generation blockchain. “Bitcoin is the first generation. Ethereum is the second generation. And now we have the entrance of various third-generation blockchains which might finally take crypto to someplace serious with all of the problems that plague it right now.”
Arto discovered NEAR in the summer of 2020. Arto’s latest startup had been put on ice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This left him with some time to do a survey of the crypto landscape. NEAR stood out above the rest. What he saw in NEAR resonated with his engineering values: a competent team that was actually executing well and shipping code into the world, and also a team that didn’t cut corners on the fundamentals of the system they were building.
“As soon as I started to read about all of the features that make NEAR, NEAR, I attended some hackathons and found that it actually worked pretty well.”
He started to prototype some ideas and projects for his startup on top of NEAR and they all went very smoothly. That prompted Arto to do some bounties for NEAR, which was an opportunity to cut his teeth with the protocol itself while getting rewarded at the same time. At this point, NEAR’s Peter DePaulo pulled Arto to the side and suggested hiring him. They agreed that Arto would be retained in a contract capacity and eventually offered him the lead on NEAR’s EVM team.
“Up until this point in my life- — pre-Ethereum — I had started companies serially. Until NEAR made an offer that I could not refuse.”
Standing in the Present, Looking Towards the Future
It’s now early 2021. Since the time Arto started to program, since his early days in Costa del Sol reading Atlas Shrugged, the world has changed fantastically. As Arto recalls, back in the day, “Our cadre was highly idealistic and we believed that these weary giants of the industrial world — the governments — wouldn’t be able to bring things down to the extent that they actually have. We’ve had a bit of a reality check on that.”
As he sees it, building an Open Web that takes privacy seriously and allows users to maintain ownership of their data, money, and identity, is one of the most important projects to be working on. It comes at a time when mass censorship and deplatforming is becoming more prevalent. And Arto is not optimistic the trend is heading in a positive direction.
On a high level, Arto believes that fragmentation and partitioning are key geopolitical themes around the world right now:
“China is getting into their own operating system development, and into microchip development. Russia is testing cutting off their domestic internet from the rest of the world. The partitions are going up and they are growing. Once upon a time this seemed unthinkable to a lot of us. Nonetheless it is coming to pass.”
In the West, it seems to Arto that many have simply ceded their freedom of speech and privacy, for simple dopamine hits on social media or to block out views we don’t agree with:
“Once we gave up on those free speech ideals, it was downhill from there. It is very easy to laud someone censoring speech that you don’t agree with. That is the test to a commitment to an ideal like free speech: will you censor the people you hate or not. In terms of the historical example it would be a good idea to not censor the people you hate.”
Last but not least, Arto left some advice for younger generations looking to find their way in a world that is guaranteed to be entirely different from that of their parents:
“Don’t just automatically accept the proposed values and Zeitgeist that you find yourself in — whether it concerns religion or politics or the values proposed to you.There has never been a greater time to question everything than now….The voices that might be worth listening to are not going to be found soon enough on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. You will have to dig deeper to find them.”