Boxing With Shadows: Is Charles Hoskinson His Own Worst Enemy? Boxing With Shadows: Is Charles Hoskinson His Own Worst Enemy?
04.08.2019

I’m fairly sure I first met Charles Hoskinson in Miami in 2014, when I covered the announcement of Ethereum at the North American Bitcoin Conference. I can only say “fairly sure” because at the time, he was one of a shifting circle of interchangeably scruffy and hopeful cofounders of what is now the second-largest blockchain platform. But he has since become quite distinct from his fellow Ethereans—in fact, just a few months after the Miami announcement, he left the project under pressure during a crucial meeting in Zug, Switzerland.

That decision reportedly came down largely to differences about strategy, and Hoskinson went on to pursue his own vision. In the nearly half-decade since splitting with Ethereum, he has founded the blockchain consultancy and research firm IOHK and worked methodically to build Cardano, itself now a top-10 cryptocurrency network driven by big ideas and much-touted academic research.

It’s a level of self-determined success no other Ethereum cofounder has quite matched. Yet Hoskinson remains, despite his past and present successes, something of an outsider to the blockchain community. The root cause is unclear—perhaps there is a persistent taint thanks to his exit from Ethereum, or resentment and suspicion over Cardano’s rise. Whatever the cause, Hoskinson says he has faced cold shoulders from friends and relentless attacks from strangers.

Hoskinson has also earned quite a reputation for misanthropy, egotism, and fragility—and this, it must be said, is at least partly deserved. I’ve always found him pleasant to a fault in person, but his persona online is another story. One particularly infamous moment came in July of 2018, after Hoskinson tried to get in touch with the Metamask team via Twitter. After being publicly advised to “please reach out to support@metamask.io?” Hoskinson fired back: “You’re telling the CEO of iohk, founder of cardano and Ethereum to use the support email?”

The comment triggered too many replies to be worth counting, nearly all sardonically pointing out how out of touch, self-important, and abrasive Hoskinson came off. It turned into an old-fashioned pile-on, complete with custom memes.

At other moments, Hoskinson has picked fights with competing crypto projects; attacked Craig Wright vociferously; and tangled with a few journalists. Of course, those things could be said about many major figures in the cryptosphere—yet somehow, in Hoskinson’s case, they are held up as further proof of his unique, individual unpleasantness. Perhaps Hoskinson’s thin skin has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe his tendency to call out his enemies and detractors has, over the course of years, helped create more of them, who in turn pick apart his latest screed.

All this was on my mind when Hoskinson invited me to meet, five years after our first (maybe) encounter, to discuss an imminent, major upgrade to the Cardano system. We sat down at a posh café near Rockefeller Center, joined by a PR rep; Cardano’s interim media director, Fred Tanaka; and Hoskinson’s assistant, Joshua Miller.

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As we talked about upcoming milestones on Hoskinson’s seemingly lonely march of success, it was hard not to search for hints of the defensiveness and egotism that have flared up in his online scuffles. I found myself scrutinizing his every gesture and intonation, searching for the key to his character. I am not sure what I saw, or even whose eyes I saw it through. Hoskinson is not just friendly and voluble, but truly passionate about his work, and deeply in command of the details. He is also palpably aggrieved, perhaps slightly flinty, and certainly quite proud of himself.

So you tell me: Was I talking to a man, or just the cartoon villain the world has made of him?

*** 

Where are you from? Where is your family from?
Originally, I’m from Hawaii. I grew up on Maui, and then I moved to Colorado before I became a teenager, and I grew up in Colorado for 24 years. I still live in Colorado, right outside of Boulder. I have a horse ranch out there. 50 acres, nice mountain view.

There’s a lot of activity around Cardano in Asia, but you’re still in the United States.
With IOHK, we wanted to build a company that’s kind of like the protocols we work on. We’re intrinsically decentralized. We have about 200 people, and we operate in 16 countries. We try to accommodate people regardless of where they want to live and where they want to work. So we have people all throughout Asia, we have people in Africa, we have people in Europe, Colorado, people throughout the United States.

You’re on a media tour now. What are you out hoping to get the word out about?
We have two major events. First, Cardano—It’s kind of like the next generation of Ethereum, to me—that’s just about to go through a major upgrade we call Shelley. We’re going from a federated, Ripple-like system to a more open, decentralized bitcoin-like [system], in terms of the consensus algorithm.

And we have a big event coming up called the IOHK Summit, in Miami, April 17 and 18. When you run it decentralized company, it’s a good idea to bring everybody together once a year or so. We’ve done that three times, [but] this is the first time we’ve actually opened up the event and we’ve invite the general public to come out and check it out. Stephen Wolfram is coming, we’ve got Rudy Rucker coming. But we also have some bands coming—Creedence Clearwater Revival and Steve Miller Band are gonna play for us, if you’re a fan of old rock music. Be a fortunate son.

As we’re talking, a waiter asks if we’d like anything other than the cheese plate. Hoskinson quickly waves him off: “No, no no. We’re just doing an interview.” In the moment, he seems brusque—the prickly egotist I’m looking for. When I review the tape, that’s gone. Hoskinson was perfectly polite to the waiter—at least by New York standards.

TheChain: Image

So you’re looking at a major step forward for Cardano. How did we get here?
Cardano started almost like a DARPA project. What we wanted to do, over a five year period from 2015 to 2020, was kind of take a step back and say, what fundamental collection of problems need to be solved so that cryptocurrencies can actually get to a point where they’re useful for the world? Not just a proof of concept, or just some cool thing that nerds like. We identified three key issues: Scalability, interoperability, and sustainability.

And we said, let’s take a step back and do this just like an academic project. Let’s start from first principles, let’s just go work in the university setting, and write papers and do peer-reviewed research. And let’s see how far we can push all of these different dimensions in a five year period, and build a production system from that. And today we’ve written over 40 papers. More than 20 have gone through peer review at major venues like Computer and Communications Security and Eurocrypt.

We started from bedrock. We said, who cares about proof-of-work? Who cares about proof-of-stake? Let’s talk about ledger. What is the blockchain? What makes it secure? Does proof-of-work create a secure blockchain, first, and what security properties does proof-of-work have? So this gave us kind of a target. Then we said, all right, can proof-of-stake replicate those same security properties, whether or not it’s practical?

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And from that we’ve come up with a lot of great protocols. In 2016, we published Ourobouros. And what we showed in that paper is that proof-of-stake can replicate that security properties of proof-of-work. But it wasn’t a practical protocol—it required synchronization and all these things that you wouldn’t have in a real-life cryptocurrency network. Then what we did over a two-and-a-half year period was publish paper after paper . . . that went from impractical to practical. From the synchronous to the semi-synchronous model, and so forth.

Solve one problem after another.
Exactly, because that’s how you do research, you start from a foundation that everyone can agree about. You say, what problem are we trying to actually solve? Can it even be solved? And how do you solve it? You work your way forward.

When Cardano appeared, it kind of seemed to come out of nowhere.
Well, that tells you something about how good I am at marketing, ha.

But yeah, we launched the first release of our system in 2017, as a way of just building a fan base and getting liquidity. We kind of took the space by storm. We released it and they said well, this Cardano thing looks pretty interesting, especially because of the quality of the academic research. And then we had to learn a huge amount. We had to learn about how to get on to exchanges. We had to learn about how to deal with customers and have a help desk. Then when somebody had a bug, how to handle that type of thing. So we spent a whole year getting our heads knocked in.

What we’re running right now, it’s one of the older versions of Ourubouros, that’s less than practical. It’s run like a federation, and there’s a collection of different actors, kind of like how Ripple runs their network.

So it’s permissioned?
Exactly. And it’s moving to a permissionless model, and that’s what Shelley’s all about. Over a period of a few months, the system will go from totally federated to completely decentralized. It gives you timefor the social dynamics to get right, for your software to harden and mature. So you kind of have like training wheels on your bicycle, and over time you can open that up.

Brass tacks: Ourouborous. You look at bitcoin, [it] uses more energy than the country of Ecuador, seven transactions per second. It’s really an old system. You look at our protocol, we have about 30 times the throughput and about 30 times the transaction volume. Transactions can be settled 12 times faster, and we’re 100 times more decentralized.

Wait100 times more decentralized? How can you predict that?
We built into the system an incentive for the system to kind of tend towards 1,000 stake pools. You get optimal rewards when you have 1,000 pools. And when you have more than that you actually start seeing a decline in the amount of rewards inside the system. We had a famous game theorist named Elias Koutsoupias write a paper that showed that the system will tend towards that type of configuration.

What about the “scalability” portion of the agenda?
We designed Ourobouros for sharding. First generation is just, let’s get it right, let’s get it decentralized. And the next generation, we call it Ourobouros Hydra, is basically built to allow the system to grow faster as you gain more stake pools. So instead of the same pools replicating and doing the same work in a very linear way, you can run many [processes] in parallel—you have different stake pools processing different transactions. This is the advantage of these three and a half years of research. We not only know how to do this, it turns out, it’s actually very easy to do with the model that we have.

And then there is, I presume, some sort of coordination at a higher level, so everybody’s on the same page.
Right. Reconciliation occurs at some point, but you get certainty of finality and certainty of no double spend.

As far as markets and applications, Cardano seems pretty focused on payments.
We often call Cardano a financial operating system for those who don’t have one. So we have a huge push towards the developing world. We really think that cryptocurrency adoption and use are going to be best for the 3 billion people who are unbanked, and they really aren’t well integrated into the global economy. Over the next 10 to 20 years, those people are going to be banked. But they have no consumer preferences at the moment. They’re not loyal to JP Morgan Chase, they don’t know “What’s in your wallet?” means yet. But they’re going to have digital identity and digital payments. They’re going to be transacting on their phone, and their whole digital life is going to revolve around next generation finance.

We really think that cryptocurrency adoption and use are going to be best for the 3 billion people who are unbanked.

So we have offices in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and we have people in Uganda. We’re trying to get our technology to work for the poorest people. And we try to get it to work offline, off-chain. Actually, I’ve got something really cool to show you. Josh, show him the Tangem card.

“Yeah,” replies Josh, as he presents what looks like a silver credit cardan unmarked prototype that will be branded when it goes into production. It is the first and only time anyone else at the table participates in the interview.

We partnered with this company called Tangem, which makes these super low-cost [hardware wallets]. They’re kind of like Ledgers, but they only cost 30 cents to manufacture. The private keys are on the card, and you can use it over NFC.

Hoskinson waves the card under his phone, which instantly displays a cryptocurrency wallet interface, and a small balance.

So this is a full cryptocurrency wallet, but the private key stays on the card. And the thing is, this is not just a wallet, this is a digital identity. This is supply chain attestation. This is a geo-stamping device. And when you transact with this, you can transact offline. You’re basically handing someone a $20 bill, you’re just moving information from one device to the other, just like you have dollar bills in your pocket. And we’re building Cardano to support these types of things.

There are a lot of projects trying to do some version of financial inclusion. On a long horizon, do you feel like this is a winner-take-all competition?
No, that’s why I think interoperability is so important. You’ll remember the maximalism days, when people said bitcoin’s the only one, that everything else is an altcoin, screw these things? We now live in an internet of value, an internet of blockchain. It’s less about who’s going to win, what standard is going to win. It’s much more important to move between different standards. In ten years, we’re going to have universal wallets. You’re going to go to Starbucks, and you’re going to buy that coffee, and you’re going to buy it with whatever you want.

So I don’t worry so much about whether Ethereum is going to win or Ripple’s going to win or Stellar is going to win or Cardano is going to win. I worry a lot more about, let’s get the experience right, the infrastructure right, so that it works for the consumer.

Obviously a substantial portion of what you do is focused on individual users. What is your stance as a platform, and what have you done, on the issue of privacy?
Privacy is a very difficult topic. We have a huge need for it, because we’re moving towards an algorithm-run world, and a data-run world. China has social credit, it’s very dystopian. Everybody’s getting a number stamped on their forehead—1.2 billion people are going to live in a world where their citizen score is gamified, and if it gets too low, they become pariahs. So it is a human right that we have systems that can guarantee freedom of association, economic freedom, as well as just freedom of thought. Cryptocurrencies are a part of that conversation.

Cardano, like bitcoin, is a pseudonymous system. Whether we want to keep pushing that envelope and go into the Zcash realm or the Monero realm, that’s an open conversation. Because the problem is that the more privacy you put into the system, the less market access you have for the system . . . the harder it is for that system to get global adoption. So we’re going to keep it at bitcoin level for now.

How decentralized do you see the process of upgrading and even research and proposals and development being for Cardano five years from now? Do you foresee a decentralized funding system?
Yes, we intend on having a Dash-like Treasury inside the system. Obviously much better, and based on first principles, but the same concept. You have ballots and you have voters and people approve [funding proposals].

Governance is about engaging [investors], and instead of having a conversation about “When Moon?” or HODL or whatever, let’s have a conversation about funding proposals. Just by doing that, it makes for a much richer ecosystem. You don’t have these bombs, like Segwit or block size, where suddenly out of the ether, some external party comes in and says, “This is the vision! This is the roadmap!” And then everyone just fights each other over Reddit.

So decentralized governance is one of the pillars of the project. We think it’s the single most important long-term thing, but it’s also the single hardest part. Because we’ve built scalable systems as humans—Google’s big, Microsoft’s big. We’ve built interoperable systems—we have Bluetooth, we have WiFi. But we’ve never built a decentralized governance system at scale.

What’s the role of yourself and the other Cardano companies and agencies, once you move further along that road?
We’re like an IBM to the Linux Foundation. Linux is huge. It’s decentralized. But there is no one company in the Linux ecosystem that owns the show. IBM powerful, but Google is as well, because of Android. There are over 800 different companies [contributing to Linux], and everybody has a voice. And that’s going to be the same for us. IOHK will be a prominent voice, and we’ll fight for what we believe in. But there will be hundreds of other people there as well.

So I wanted to ask some advice. I’m starting to get a tiny amount of visibility on Twitter, and being exposed to just the tiniest taste of social media conflict. What is your general philosophy on social engagement, and especially the inevitable negativity that comes with that?
It’s hard. I have 107,000 followers on Twitter, you know, so I get the brunt of it. Where it gets really challenging is when the social elements enter the physical, real world. I was at dinner yesterday, and somebody recognized me there. I took a picture with them. I was in Melbourne in Australia. I was walking through the airport, somebody recognized me. I flew to London, Heathrow Airport, and the passport control officer, I was walking up just about to take my passport out, and he said “Welcome to London, Mr. Hoskinson.” He had ADA [Cardano’s token].

I have to point out, you had your own moment of recognizing somebody in an airport a couple of days ago.

Craig Wright, yeah. Social media is a positive thing in that it brings people together. But on the other side, there is a dehumanization that occurs, a lack of empathy that occurs. And sometimes people deserve it—in my view, Craig Wright does.

And other times, people just simply don’t deserve it. Like, Vitalik gets hammered a lot. I’ve met him. I’ve worked with him. I know we disagree very strongly about certain things, but I don’t think he’s a bad guy. And I don’t think he deserves to be labeled, you know, an evil human being, or someone who supports child molesters or other things.

It’s amazing to me the despicable and disgusting things that people say about me and about others. So the challenge is to get the upside, without allowing the toxicity to get to you.

I’ve become extremely quick to just block people.
And I started doing that too, or muting people at the very least. Some people say things like, the reason ADA collapsed is you’ve sold all your ADA. Well, that’s provably false: We published the address, and in five seconds of Google searching, you can just go to a blockchain explorer and see that none of that has moved.

But they say all kinds of things. They say that I’m going to leave the project in two months or three months. When I went on vacation, somebody put out a rumor that I died. They say these things just to influence the price. And then other people just say you’re a scammer, you’re horrible. We have one guy named ChicoCrypto running around saying just really terrible stuff. [The Chico Crypto YouTube channel has reported on topics including IOHK’s ICO and what it calls Hoskinon’s “beefs” with both Dan Larimer and the Ethereum team, while speculating quite freely about Hoskinson’s motives.]

Do you feel like it takes a lot of your energy at this point?
It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of energy. But it does have an emotional toll and a psychological toll. No matter who you are, you can be Jordan Peterson or Sam Harris or Joe Rogan. It just . . . what bothers you is, why do these people think the way they think? And you have to take a step back and say, these are normal people. They’re not demons. They don’t come from hell, they’re not any different from you and me. But for some reason, they’ve developed super strong opinions about things, and say I’m an evil person, or I’ve done something wrong.

You’re a better man than me. My mindset is, nope, that person is not a person, so I’m going to get them out of here.
Right, right, and it’s so hard. Do that at the scale of 107,000 people.

On the other hand, some of the people I’ve met are awesome. And it really cheers you up, especially when you’re down. They say, hey, who cares about the market? Who cares about this event? We believe in you, we fight for you, we think that this thing is great. And you get to know them, you get to become friends with them. And no matter where you go, you always have someone there to cheer you on. And that’s the good part of it. Some people do care. Some people are nice.

It’s hard to believe, but we’re five years on from the Ethereum announcement. How do you feel about Ethereum, looking back?

I truly do understand what Nixon said after he resigned. He said, “Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” And I’ve really internalized that. The last five years have had everything from just truly amazing accomplishments, like a $30 billion market cap for Cardano—we were worth more than SpaceX at one point, it was really just crazy. I run a company with 200 people in 16 countries, and we’ve created state of the art, cutting-edge technology.

And that’s the highest peak. And then the bottom of the valley is, being pushed out of Ethereum, dealing with the inhumanity—people saying that I have no technical skills, that I’m a sociopath, I don’t know how to lead, don’t know how to manage, I can’t write software, I’m incompetent. Being disinvited to things, six months of nobody returning phone calls.

Just before our conversation, he had encountered—or perhaps created—more of the conflict that constantly besets him.

I’ve been through it all, yet I’m still here and still tough and life goes on. I think, five years into it, I’ve gained a profound appreciation that the sun comes up tomorrow. Whether you’re a CEO or a little guy with nothing, you’re never out. You can always come back and go do something else.

And all the big challenges, like how do we get adoption of this technology in the developing world? They’re solvable. They might take time, but it’s inevitable. We’ll get there. Five years into it, I’m still as passionate as I was before. I’ve got a slightly thicker skin, I got some scars on my body. Some people love me, some people really hate me, and public sentiment has set a little bit.

But I haven’t lost my passion. I love every minute of it. I love what I do.

***

I turned off my recorder, prepared for a bit of casual banter after Hoskinson’s impassioned finale. But within seconds, he was staring at his phone, checking Twitter, as if I had disappeared from his consciousness without a trace. It’s a compulsion I can all too easily relate too—but also a snub that’s impossible not to notice.

Later, I found that there may have been some urgency to Hoskinson’s Twitter check-in. Just before our conversation, he had encountered—or perhaps created—more of the conflict that constantly besets him. Moments before a scheduled interview with Yahoo! Finance, he had been bumped in favor of a discussion of the Lyft IPO. This sort of thing is common in the media world, but Hoskinson would complain about the incident on Twitter for two days, bemoaning “two hours wasted,” and calling Yahoo! Finance “not a professional operation.”

Inevitably, a comparison was drawn to Hoskinson’s past protestations of mistreatment.

Incredibly, Hoskinson himself shared this attack with his own followers, likely reminding many of an incident they’d completely forgotten, and opining that his critic must have eaten “lead paint chips.” Without litigating the details of his various spats, this is not a man gifted at de-escalation, or even self-effacement. Could Charles Hoskinson have accomplished quite as much if his Twitter finger were a bit less itchy? Could he have accomplished more?

The world may never know.