Ethereum creator Vitalik and his father, Dima Buterin, on this ‘morally clarifying moment’ and why there’s more to crypto than money
The creator of Ethereum isn’t worried about the current crypto crash, but he doesn’t like how speculative his creation has become.
He learned about Bitcoin as a teenager from his father, a Russian-born engineer and entrepreneur who moved his family to Canada named Dmitry Buterin.
Vitalik and Dmitry, who is often called Dima, both told Fortune they are used to the volatility by now, but this Father’s Day one of the most prominent father-son duos in DeFi have another message: think of how else crypto could be used.
“Crypto has had ups before, and it has had downs before, and it will have ups and downs again,” Vitalik told Fortune on Wednesday. “The down periods are certainly challenging, though they are also often the periods where the most meaningful projects get nurtured and built.”
Though he was at least recently a billionaire, Vitalik explains money wasn’t ever his focus or motivator. He dislikes the speculative aspects that Ethereum can be used for, and sees more for the network than financial use cases.
Both Vitalik and Dima hope to see more applications outside of finance, while continuing to prioritize improving Ethereum and its technology, they say. Their actions back this up. After Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February, Vitalik and Dima supported the Ukraine DAO, a so-called decentralized autonomous organization raising millions of dollars to support Ukrainians amid the war. Both donated to the DAO and Dima is even on its multisig, or multisignature wallet.
Sometimes Vitalik publishes his ideas for the future of the space on his website—most recently, for example, he shared the thought of soulbound tokens, where a record of an individual’s credentials could be documented on-chain. Other times, he’s written about Ethereum’s highly-anticipated “merge” upgrade, where the network will shift from a proof of work mechanism to proof of stake and dramatically decrease its environmental impact.
In a wide-ranging Q&A, Vitalik and Dima spoke with Fortune about their journey in the space, Ethereum regrets, hopes and likes for the future of the industry, the highly anticipated merge, the collapse of the Terra ecosystem, and more. Though the interview happened in early June, just before the severe crypto sell-off, Vitalik and Dima shared additional comments regarding the state of the market on June 15, which are also shared.
Fortune: Dima, when did you start to notice Vitalik’s interest in numbers?
Dima: He was about three years old. His grandfather [is] a really smart guy, and he was teaching Vitalik math, letters, numbers, and stuff like that.
You know Lego construction blocks? People usually build buildings and other stuff. [Vitalik] really enjoyed building numbers out of them. It was really fascinating to see that. Growing up in the Soviet Union, my access to toys and stuff was very limited. So when Vitalik was growing up, I really was keen to buy him cool toys. I started with Legos because Legos are a pretty cool construction set, and it was really fascinating to see how he was using that in a very different way that I would have.
Vitalik: After I came to Canada, my dad bought me some books for me to learn about programming, and I just started programming. I started making games for myself to play and I definitely remember I found that very interesting and very fun right from the beginning.
Dima, you first introduced Vitalik to Bitcoin, right? What first attracted you to Bitcoin in the first place?
Dima: Well, I have a very curious mind and technology, computers and stuff like that is one of the most fertile areas of human knowledge to explore in terms of human curiosity. So, I had been listening to this podcast. The guy running the podcast, he was a very curious soul, and he was touching upon a lot of different subjects. Then on his podcast, I heard about Bitcoin, and that sounded like it made a lot of sense. He was really good at explaining stuff, and I found that fascinating.
I was happy that Vitalik was [curious]—I mean, he shares that trait of a lot of curiosity as well about a lot of things. So, for me, it was always fun [to say] like, “Oh, I found this interesting thing. Hey Vitalik, check it out. Maybe it will be interesting to you.”
What did you think when Vitalik began to work on building Ethereum?
Dima: One particular thing I do recall is when we were at the house and Vitalik shared with me his white paper, and it was really well written. I was really impressed because frankly, I was not following crypto that closely but … when I read the white paper, it made a lot of sense to me. I think this is one of Vitalik’s talents. He can take something very complicated and explain it in a way that is easy to understand.
Vitalik: In December 2013, I came back to Toronto and my dad was interested in what I was up to and I showed the white paper. He definitely found it very fascinating.
As Ethereum gained more traction, were you surprised as people began to use it? Did you ever anticipate what it’d become?
Vitalik: No. At the beginning, I actually thought that this would just be a small project that we would work on and get done within three or four months, and then after that, I would just go back to university. But in January, I saw that there’s so much interest in the project and that it would clearly take so much longer that I realized finally that I had to basically give up on that plan.
So, at first I thought it would be something pretty small. Then I thought it would be maybe something interesting. The other thing that happened that I totally did not expect is just how big the crypto space got first in 2017 and then in 2021. I think that part of the rapid growth was definitely a big surprise to me.
How do you both feel about the current state of the market? Do you have any concerns, or thoughts on what’s ahead?
Vitalik: Crypto has had ups before, and it has had downs before, and it will have ups and downs again. The down periods are certainly challenging, though they are also often the periods where the most meaningful projects get nurtured and built. I’m confident that the Ethereum ecosystem will continue becoming a more mature and successful blockchain ecosystem that is ready to meet the hopes and dreams that millions of people have for the crypto space over the next decade.
Dima: Life is cyclical. Markets are cyclical. Crypto is very cyclical. I’ve been following crypto stuff for over a decade and it’s been up and it’s been down. It will be up again, it will be down again.
Nothing changes for me in terms of its long-term potential. There is for me, clarity, that … [it] is now entering the era of mass adoption.
It’s never a straight line. It’s not as smooth. Right now, there’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of doubt. There is this war going on in Ukraine. There are other things going on in the world. The Federal Reserve rates— there’s so many things. But humans are resilient. So, we will go through this. We’ll build some more stuff. Ethereum will merge into proof of stake. This is very exciting stuff. Nothing changes for me [in terms of outlook]. There is a bit of short term fear and speculators will be washed out, and, yes, there will be some suffering, unfortunately, and pain, and then life will go on.
People are worried about contagion and systemic risk since the collapse of the Terra ecosystem. Its domino effect has been impactful in the space. Is there a takeaway here that isn’t spoken about enough that is important?
Vitalik: I think in general, the Luna collapse is in some ways one of these important, kind of healthy moments in crypto reminding people that downsides are real. You can’t just build a system and magically pretend that the negative case is never going to happen. You can’t just worry about what the interest rates look like in the short term, you also have to worry about the fat tails, worry about these really exceptional situations. I think that’s insight that’s ultimately going to lead to a more stable crypto ecosystem at the same time.
Also, I think, whenever situations like this happen in the crypto space, it’s one of the other silver linings that, at least in my experience, always happens is this morally clarifying moment where you can see how different people responded and you get a much better view of what their character is and what kind of people they actually are than you do during the good times.
Dima: This was a very traumatic event for a lot of people losing lots of money.
My hope is that we will not be limited to, “Let’s restrict. Let’s forbid. Let’s stop this.” There are all kinds of consequences … and lessons we learn from all of that. [But] the lessons can keep moving us forward versus trying to keep us safe.
To you, what are the upsides of crypto? What are the aspects you’re most passionate about?
Dima: When Russia invaded Ukraine, I was really impressed how well Ukrainians and the crypto community supporting Ukraine organized around this stuff [like with the Ukraine DAO]. They were using crypto very effectively to fundraise, then funnel the funds to a specific city because there was already local infrastructure for people to exchange it to a local currency and then using that money, so that was really cool to see.
I think another aspect of crypto that I’m very passionate about is the ability [for] humans anywhere on Earth with access to [the] internet to get plugged into their world economy. For me, that’s huge. Crypto blockchains are some of the key technologies that people [can use] to make money, get involved in a company, in a DAO, and you can sell your art, do some coding, and stuff like that, everywhere in the world. So for me, I’m very passionate about that aspect … because growing up I was growing up in the Soviet Union, which was very isolated from the rest of the world.
Finally, I have to say that the new organizational structures, the DAOs—I think that there’s still so much to be figured out about how they govern, how they control their resources, do decision making, and other stuff. But for me, this is the future of how humans will be organizing.
Vitalik: I definitely feel the same way.
One thing that I have noticed in my trip to Argentina at the end of last year is that there’s this different attitude to crypto there. Often in the West, sometimes even the proponents view it as this kind of gambling thing for rich people subconsciously. But in places like Argentina, people who live and use it there, to a lot of them, it’s a lifeline. People there sometimes use cryptocurrency to just save their money, sometimes to buy and sell things. There’s projects like Proof Of Humanity that are trying to use crypto to set up a UBI there. There’s projects that are trying to experiment with DAOs and decentralized arbitration and all of these other technologies.
So, I think there really is a lot of this kind of energy in many corners of the world. NFTs are definitely also a good example of that.
Are the get-rich-quick schemes among your least favorite parts of Ethereum? I know that you can’t control how humans use Ethereum, but do you ever feel regret about any of the ways Ethereum is used? How does it feel when you see the not so good use cases?
Vitalik: Yeah, I mean, a lot of the financial speculation stuff I think is totally not interesting. I think, to be fair, sometimes it does get tied pretty close together with things that are good—like with NFTs, for example, I know there are a lot of these artists in all sorts of far corners around the world that are getting this chance to participate in a global economy that they otherwise can’t, but then at the same time, there are rich people selling $3 million monkeys to other rich people.
I think the other thing is, it is an open system. and ultimately what that means is, you don’t have this fine-grain control over who can use it for what and who can’t. There are things that you can do, and we should do. We should actively support a lot of applications that reflect our values better, but ultimately, there does come a point where, if you believe in the freedom thing at all, you have to trust people.
Dima: Humans are very lonely and we’re seeking love and acceptance by others. It’s like, “I got this Lambo. I’ve got this [Bored] Ape. I have this much money.” Really, it’s about hoping. Inside of us, we think, “Oh, I suck, but if I show the world that I have all these cool things, maybe finally people will love me and get human connection.”
Vitalik, I saw you recently asked your Twitter followers to share what they disagree with you most on. What provoked that?
Vitalik: I was curious. I just wanted to get an understanding of the places where different groups of peoples’ opinions are different from mine and give a safe space to the people who are my fans and might be afraid of expressing disagreement with me. It was an interesting experiment. I think some of the answers were definitely interesting.
Vitalik: I don’t think there was a big takeaway. There were a lot of small takeaways.
There [were] some disagreements on life extension. A couple people complained about my fashion style.
There were some people that were saying I shouldn’t participate in politics, or I should participate in politics less. There are other people who actually say, “No, you should actually not strive for neutrality that much and you should be willing to be more openly political when you believe in something.”
You can’t satisfy everyone.
Would you ever donate to political organizations or parties?
Vitalik: I think the challenge in donating to political parties is that politics is this very complex and very chaotic system. It’s so easy to have an effect that’s just totally different from the effects that you intended to have. I just don’t know enough specifically about how the machine of U.S. politics works internally.
My take, so far, is that I’m going to focus on other paths for the moment, which I think has been going well so far.
A lot of people also reacted with disagreement to your post on soulbound tokens. What did you think of the response?
Vitalik: Definitely a lot of good, interesting discussion, and also a lot of people who kind of misunderstood the concept. But that’s fine. I think that’s something we have to work around, because it just happens no matter what you talk about.
One interesting dynamic I saw, where I do think people kind of misinterpreted things a bit, is that I noticed people have this tendency to want to frame debates as being between two prepackaged solutions, where you either talk about all the benefits and all the costs of one particular prepackaged solution versus another one. My preferred style of debating isn’t that. My preferred style of debating is: Let’s break it down issue by issue.
I think there’s always many, much more than two options. And in the soulbound tokens discussion, people imagined into existence this thing called soulbound tokens, even though soulbound tokens is not a thing. It’s just a collection of ideas in a PDF document.
Sometimes doing things on-chain is good. Sometimes doing things off-chain is good. We should figure out which is which and in what case, and work on making the best possible solution.
Dima: One of the areas of blockchain tech that is not yet well explored is all kinds of reputation systems and I think that we will see lots more happening in that area. Soulbound tokens is pretty much, as Vitalik has described, a collection of thoughts and ideas. [It’s] not like, “Oh, here’s the approach.” We’re way too early to talk about the specific approaches. For me, it’s fascinating. Let’s keep exploring this.
Shifting gears a bit to the highly anticipated merge. Why is proof of stake a better mechanism?
Vitalik: I think switching to proof of stake has a number of benefits.
I think the environmental one, just generally, making the Ethereum ecosystem consume a much lower amount of resources is a really good and really important one. Also, proof of stake can increase the safety of the system. It makes it more expensive to attack. It makes it easier to recover from an attack, which is something people don’t think about. It’s more censorship resistant, like miners are easier to detect and easier to shut down than just computers that are running validator nodes. So, it actually has this whole list of different advantages.
The goal of switching it to proof of stake I think—I feel like it was a definite plan in Ethereum since maybe around the end 2014. I think since the beginning of 2014, it was described as a possibility, if we discovered an algorithm that we’re happy about. But near the end of 2014, I think we got to the point where we had enough confidence in that information, and we were ready to start developing.
Dima: The huge reduction in energy consumption is obviously a huge deal, and of course, the safety of the network. I’m firmly convinced based on all of the research that I have seen that this is a good thing. This is really important for the network.
On the human side of things, I’m really excited to see this coming to fruition because I have seen how much effort has gone into this.
But with proof of stake, [it] is not like, “We have arrived. This is the final perfect technology.” At some point, [proof of stake] probably will be superseded, who knows when. But, this is inevitable.
Do you have any concerns about the merge, like regarding Lido Finance and risk of centralization? Is that among the top things that you think about post-merge?
Vitalik: Yeah. I mean, I’m definitely worried. I think it is one of the bigger issues that we’re thinking about when trying to figure out how to change proof of stake in the long term. But I also think it’s important to not overly catastrophize the issue, because that is what a lot of people do.
Even with Lido, for example. Lido has about a third [of staked Ether deposits on the Beacon chain]. First of all, if you have a third, you can’t revert the chain or whatever. There’s some things that you can do. But realistically, the worst that you could do is make finality stop happening for about a day or so, which is inconvenient, but it’s not that terrible. So, that’s one thing.
Another thing is that Lido is not a single actor. I think they have something like 21 delegates and nodes that are running these validators that are inside of Lido, and there’s a lot of good decentralization between them. It’s not like there’s one warehouse, and if you send a team of heavily armed men in ski masks into that building and kidnap some people, you can take out all of Lido. You have to go to like 21 different locations, and some of them, I’m not even sure we know where they are. So, there is a big difference between Lido and centralized staking platforms and even centralized mining pools.
Even things as they are today, I think, are quite manageable, and it’s still a healthy, decentralized proof of stake system. But at the same time, I think we in the Ethereum community, we do set very high standards for ourselves, and an even higher level of decentralization is definitely something that we’re actively trying to shoot for.
Reflecting on the space as a whole, do you think the good outweighs the bad?
Vitalik: I’d say it does.
I think the loudest applications of crypto are, in reality, far from the most common ones. There are definitely people trading $3 million monkeys. There’s definitely things getting hacked for $20 million once in a while. All of that stuff is real. But the more common stuff that I think crypto does is not that—and not even the positive applications, like [those] activists said that are using crypto to protect themselves—but just stuff like random people around the world who are now finding it easier to just move money internationally and have businesses that collaborate across borders or store their savings and so forth. People who do them do them quietly, but it’s also very real.
Dima: When we try to evaluate anything as good and bad, it’s very complicated. The crypto space is so many different things, projects and people and whatnot. Anything and everything has all kinds of eternal and unlimited consequences. There’s all of this awesome stuff—and speculation, and scams, and deceit, and everything. This is life.
To wrap up, how do you see the space, or even just Ethereum, evolving for the better?
Vitalik: I think one of the important things, obviously, is continuing to improve Ethereum, the technology.
So, switching to proof of stake, making it a more energy efficient and secure system; adding some scalability improvements, like sharding and roll ups, which are going to make a serious dent in the transaction fees that people have to pay; and finally, make the ecosystem be cheap enough that regular people can play around with it—just a lot of work to make the blockchain ecosystem more secure, more user friendly, [and] easier for many different kinds of people to participate in. I’m really hoping [to] bring back some of that positive experimental energy that we had back in the 2015, 2016 days.
Also, I’m excited to see all of the different kinds of applications that we’re seeing, especially things outside of finance, really growing. I do think that DAOs can be this amazing improvement to how many people can collaborate and form organizations and work together. That is something that does require a lot of trial and error, and figuring out what kinds of DAO mechanisms actually make sense. But it’s something that people are doing that there is a lot of progress in. I think that we’re going to see even more amazing experiments and successes in the future.
Aside from DAOs, and the whole Ethereum identity and soulbound tokens thing I think could be fascinating, seeing applications built on top of the Proof of Attendance protocol or Proof Of Humanity and these kinds of things—I think there’s a lot of these really amazing things happening inside the Ethereum ecosystem, and it’s only going to get even better.
Dima, do you have any words of wisdom for parents this Father’s Day?
Dima: Being a parent is one of the biggest challenges for humans. Besides Vitalik, I have two daughters. They’re younger, and supporting another human growing is such a wonderful and challenging aspect of being human. There’s so much growth and so much difficulty in that. I want to wish a Happy Father’s Day to all of the parents.
Whatever you do, you will mess up in some ways. We’re all trying to create the best future for kids, but the future holds so much promise and unknown. At the end of the day, it’s not about our idea of the future, but it’s about how we can be more in the present as parents, how we can be more loving and present with our kids and support as much as we can. So, I wanted to celebrate the whole concept of parenthood.
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