SmokeTooMuch CPU-mined large amounts of bitcoin with an ordinary computer. He has never attended a bitcoin conference and has never sought to become a bitcoin evangelist. His view of bitcoin is strongly political: he hopes bitcoin can break the power of the banks and enable people’s direct engagement in society. Today, he is disappointed that bitcoin’s success is measured by how many merchants are paid in dollars through BitPay. This is the portrait of a faceless man.
There are early adopters who give bitcoin a face. The Roger Vers and Andreas Antonopolouses of the world. They preach bitcoin, show up at bitcoin conferences, invest in bitcoin start-ups and give public interviews.
And then there are the early adopters without a face. Like SmokeTooMuch. He was the first German bitcoiner. He mined thousands of bitcoins and is still enthusiastic about the cryptocurrency. But he doesn’t preach bitcoin, doesn’t show up at conferences, has founded no start-ups and has never given an interview.
You can find his history on bitcointalk. If you surf its very earliest pages, you will find his first post, back in December 2009: ‘Hi, yesterday I stumbled upon this great payment . I read my way through many sites but now I have some questions that couldn’t get answered.’ Later, he posts on the German subforum. Not often, but his posts are suffused with the authority of an early adopter. Once, when he writes that he wants to sell some bitcoins, someone asks if he wants to buy an island.
‘By using drugs I learned early on how repressive the supposedly “free” nations actually are.’
I wrote Smoke a message and asked for an interview. To my pleasure he answered. We exchanged messages for some months. Every message was encrypted; Smoke wants to maintain his privacy. No real name, no place, no age, no occupation, no face.
I asked him about his pseudonym. He answered with amusement that he was smoking cannabis regularly at the time. Smoking weed – or the ostracism and criminal activity this behaviour can entail – certainly shaped his ideology. He is still angry at a state that prohibits a pleasure that doesn’t do any harm to anybody. ‘By using drugs I learned early on how repressive the supposedly “free” nations actually are.’
Smoke is political. Very political. In his view, bitcoin is not about money, but about power, participation and freedom. Beside cannabis, file-sharing has shaped his ideology. He did, like so many others, download music, movies and software with KaZaA and eMule until the state once again interfered and forced those platforms to close. Smoke realized the internet was a battlefield, and he watched with fascination how the decentralised networks won the war. ‘As a teenager I was enthusiastic about how file-sharing moved from central servers to distributed networks and became resistant against censorship.’
Then 9/11 happened, and with it the Patriot Act, Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo, Hartz. Smoke realized ‘what 9/11 and the media has done to society.’ He decided ‘that political progress was no longer possible through traditional means.’ He started to read up on technology that protected him from surveillance, like VPN, Tor, I2P and so on. ‘At this time I regularly Googled terms like “open source”, “decentralised”, “distributed”, “encrypted” and “anonymous”, hoping to find a piece of software that combined these principles into a wonderful gift for humanity.’
‘At this time we just started to create a market and learn what we could do with bitcoin.’
He also found… bitcoin. A few websites later he discovered bitcointalk, where the atmosphere was familial and Satoshi Nakamoto himself answered Smoke’s questions. Smoke felt he had found something big. ‘I was sure I had discovered a tool that enabled me, an information scientist with strong political views, to participate in social progress again.’ The possibilities seemed endless. ‘At this time we just started to create a market and learn what we could do with bitcoin. To be a part of this process was very satisfying.’ Bitcoin, a gift for humanity – and a gift for SmokeTooMuch.
Early miners had a large advantage: they were few and mining was easy. Smoke mined thousands of bitcoins with a single core of a Core2Quad Q9450 (bought for €69, courtesy of Google Shopping). Later, he used an ATI Radeon (no longer available), which he heavily overclocked until it broke. After that he stopped mining.
Altogether Smoke mined with this equipment ‘significantly more’, as he vaguely comments, than 10,000 bitcoins. For a while he owned one percent of all bitcoins in existence. In 2010, Smoke tried to sell 10,000 bitcoins for a total of $50. Nobody wanted to buy – which was, with hindsight, good for Smoke. ‘I was one of the ones who sold bitcoins and bought things with them when the price was less than a dollar. I don’t regret having done this. Someone had to get the ball rolling.’
However many bitcoins Smoke might still hold today, the cryptocurrency was a gift for him. It gave him financial independence, made paying for his IT studies easy, and gave him the freedom to decide what he should do and how much he would work. He has the freedom to spend more of his time on things that are more important than money and a career.
What are these things? He doesn’t want to say. When he makes excuses for a long delay before answering, he always explains with ‘projects’, without going into details.
‘You used to be ok, but since you got rich you’ve become an asshole.’
Smoke needed two years ‘to REALLY understand bitcoin.’ He started the German subforum of bitcointalk, answered questions by newbies and invested his bitcoins in software projects. He spent 292 bitcoins on the Namecoin project, but never did learn if that money was used. He also tried to spend 500 bitcoins on the Chaos Computer Clubs, but his email was never answered.
In the early days Smoke gave away bitcoins to his friends. ‘Certainly I raved about bitcoin. But my friends weren’t interested, so I stopped talking about it.’ With hindsight, says Smoke, he would have been more careful who he told about his bitcoins. ’Sooner or later you lose control of who knows about it.’ Maybe some people he didn’t really know asked Smoke if he would give them ‘a few bitcoins’ during the great bubble 2013.
Smoke likes to talk about his passion for bitcoin, but he doesn’t like to give numbers. ‘One reason is security. I don’t believe I have enough bitcoins to get ransomed or kidnapped. But people have been killed for smaller sums.’ Another reason is that knowing about someone else’s wealth often alters the perceptions about that person. ‘And suddenly they say: “You used to be ok, but since you got rich you’ve become an asshole.”’
‘In a repressive system you can only act freely under the umbrella of anonymity.’
Since the beginning of bitcoin, Smoke has separated his real name from his bitcoin identity. ‘In the early days the future legal position of bitcoin was far from clear. Such a disruptive technology could easily have been banned. This was the main reason for the separation.’ Smoke never presented himself as a bitcoin evangelist and he has never attended a bitcoin conference. ‘For me, bitcoin always was an “underground” thing. Also, I’m not a person that seeks the limelight or wants to communicate excessively with other people.’
However, he spent much time in the community. He hoped that bitcoin would initiate some kind of change – that it would enable grassroots participation and break the domination of the established system. Partly, thinks Smoke, this has come about. ‘A practical example for the progress of society are the darknet markets. They help to disempower the drug cartels and stimulate the self-confidence of consumers, who no longer have to meet shady people to buy expensive drugs of questionable quality.’
Crucial elements are anonymity and the lack of a middleman. ‘In a repressive system you can only act freely under the umbrella of anonymity. And without a middleman you can be sure the vendor really receives his money.’ Smoke thinks that in the medium-term bitcoin will end the war against drugs and bring about complete legalisation.
Bitcoin doesn’t need mainstream success
However, Smoke is deflated now. Maybe even disappointed. ‘In the beginning I thought, bitcoin might be the magical patch you stick on a broken world and everything will be better. Now I don’t believe this any more.’ Smoke engages less in the community, ‘less and less, the more I see the impact of negative aspects, such as the centralization of mining, but also, that the community seems to measure the success of bitcoin by the number of merchants who accept dollars via BitPay, or by the number of millions that investors have given to some start-up. For me these things don’t sound like bitcoin. We still haven’t broken the power of bankers or denuded states of the instrument of inflation.’
Smoke regards bitcoin as a multi-tool that, he says grudgingly, is used by different people for different purposes. ‘So today you don’t fight against the financial system or repressions of the state over the best method to buy a coffee.’ And if you give centralized processors the same power that previously the banks had, it doesn’t matter, because it helps bitcoin reach the mainstream.
In Smoke’s view bitcoin doesn’t need to celebrate mainstream success to be a durable currency. ‘This was bitcoin from the very beginning.’ He wishes a return to principles like decentralization. All users should keep control of their private keys, and projects like OpenBazaar and DarkWallet should enjoy more support.
‘Furthermore we have to free ourselves from the idea that the success of BitPay or Coinbase reflects the success of bitcoin itself. The merchants using them to process payments don’t care about bitcoin.’ However, the most important aspect of decentralization is not to ‘let the large and powerful dictate how you use bitcoin,’ he concludes.