In 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto penned the white paper that unleashed bitcoin to the world, titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” It was a serious document. It had rigor. Like an academic study that you’d find in a scholarly journal, it featured thoughtful commentary, crisp prose, and mathematical equations that were something of a proof of work for proof-of-work.
More white papers would follow. Thousands more. Since the gold standard set by Nakamoto, every crypto project that wants to be taken seriously—or just make lots of money—has needed a white paper. They matter. In the ICO boom of 2017, potential investors pored through these documents, hunting for clues on whether a project would go to the moon or get rekt. And even post-ICO-boom, white papers are still necessary.
So who writes these things?
Academics. People like Alex Norta, Ph.D.
Based in Estonia, Norta is a professor at the Tallin University of Technology, and he’s also a white paper writer. (Not unrelated: It’s impossible to say “white paper writer” five times quickly, and it’s nearly impossible to say it one time slowly.)
Norta has been into smart contracts since before they were cool. Over a decade ago—before bitcoin—his research into business information systems focused on, well, smart contracts. “But no one called them that at the time,” he says now. For years he toiled away in academia, virtually unnoticed, writing dense and technical papers like “eContractual Choreography-Language Properties Towards Cross-Organizational Business Collaboration.” Snappy marketing isn’t his really thing, and there’s a reason you haven’t heard of the acronym ECLPTCOBC.
Then Ethereum happened.
Starting in 2015, Norta began giving speeches about smart contracts—suddenly people were listening—in the blockchain community. In late 2016, he was approached by Qtum, a China-based, proof-of-stake-based blockchain company, to write their white paper. They paid him in bitcoin. A few months later Qtum raised $35 million in an ICO. (They’re now the 30th largest crypto project based on market cap.) Other crypto companies noticed. “I then got flooded with requests,” says Norta. He wrote more. First he worked on his own, and then he set up a consulting group, NortaPartners, to lighten the load.
I met Norta at a crypto meet-up in Belgrade, where he was asked to give a spontaneous presentation about his work. I later caught up with him over Skype, where he peels back the curtain on how the white paper sausage is made, why these documents are more than just marketing pamphlets, and why we should all become anarchists.
When you saw that Qtum raised $35 million in an ICO, did you feel that you were underpaid?
Yes! [Laughs.] I’m not a business guy—I come from an academic community—so it wasn’t my idea to make oodles of money out of this blockchain stuff.
How do you make sure your clients aren’t scams?
We have an onboarding process. We go through a procedure where we check the business model, and we check the background of each team member. We try to make sure they’re sincere. This onboarding takes some time, and we charge for it.
A couple of thousand Euros. This is non-refundable. The outcome might be that we reject them, and they don’t get the money back. Very quickly, the scammers drop off.
What percentage of the requests you get are scams?
Hmm.…I would say that around a third are either silly or scammers, and the rest are people with good intentions.
What’s the craziest thing someone brought to you?
I had teams come to me and say, “Hey, we have this white paper, and we just want to put your name on it. Can we throw a big pile of money to you?!” And I’ll say, no way. I’ll ask to see their white paper, and it’s horrific. I tell them, “there’s no way in hell you’ll get my name on this crap.”
How many have you written?
Eight or nine. They’re a lot of work…
How long do they take?
The fastest I’ve done is a few weeks, and they can take up to six months. I’d say two months, on average.
Describe the process.
The first phase is all about the philosophy. We’re prototyping the paper by using mind-mapping. Specifically, I’m using the models of Trivium and Quadrivium.
Okay, I don’t really follow that.
Trivium and Quadrivium are classical models of thinking that go back to Socrates and Aristotle. This is the logic I apply in prototyping. We do a mind-map of the project’s idea, and this takes about a week. Then I work to build the logic of functional and non-functional quality requirements. I work on the architecture. And only then does the technology come into play. That’s the dirty little secret—the technology only comes in at the very end. Before that, it’s all philosophy.
[Laughs.] For white papers, you really have to be scholarly trained, so you know how to properly write the systems and the procedures. I follow the same processes that I do in my own academic research. If you haven’t gone through Ph.D. training, it’s tough.
So if I’m evaluating a white paper of a potential blockchain project, to help see if it’s legit, I should make sure the author has a Ph.D?
[He thinks, maybe a little uncomfortable with the question.] It depends where the Ph.D. comes from, and from what field. Publishing research papers is tough, tough work. So I don’t claim you absolutely need to have a Ph.D to pull this off—Vitalik Buterin, for example, did not—but I can assure you it helps.
How much do you need to know about the industry, or technology, of the white paper you’re working on?
The tricky part is that I’m confronted with totally alien cases—totally new stuff I’ve never thought about before—and then I have to move from zero to 100 in record time. I need to harvest their [the project team’s] domain knowledge. They’ve spent a lot of time thinking about things, but they don’t have the techniques, and processes, to establish a coherent line of reasoning. And I have the processes and techniques, but not the domain knowledge. So we compliment each other.
What’s your biggest challenge?
It’s always the people. Some teams are super smart, but I have other cases where the team is really clumsy, and they have no scholarly background. One of these teams [later] turned the white paper into a Mickey Mouse book…super colorful with many strange figures.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about white papers?
People who think that these white papers are marketing pamphlets. They think that there’s no scholarly training, and they don’t understand the hard thinking that goes into this.
How does the bear market and the ICO slowdown affect all of this?
There’s a bit of a shakeout, but I don’t think ICOs will go away. I still have all kinds of project requests, but now they’re transforming into other types of funding [models]. What’s coming in now are STOs [Security Token Offerings]. ICOs will not go away. They will pick up again, but we need an enormous quality increase. Things will have to become much more professional. I still think they’re very exciting.
Why are you such an ICO optimist?
It’s a totally free market way of funding. Free market funding is so badly needed. Before this, we just had the military industrial complex nonsense, and I’m including the banks in that. The blockchain is bringing back free market capitalism. (And for me personally, I use the money to fund my academic research.) But I’m an anarchist, so you can say I’m biased.
You describe yourself as an anarchist? Literally?
Yes. I’m an anarchist. Now, you have to understand what that means, as governments have totally distorted the meaning of anarchy. Anarchy is based on two very simple principles: Volunteerism and non-initiation of force. So the thugs with hoodies that smash cars and windows and burn everything down—I’m sorry, that’s not an anarchist. That’s just a thug.
So what does anarchy mean to you?
If you know Greek—rom Greek, an means “without,” and arkhos means “king,” so an plus arkhos means, simply, “without a ruler.” It doesn’t mean without rules. The process of creating the rules is based on the principles of volunteerism and non-initiation of force. It’s very simple. But of course the governments don’t want you to know that; they want you to think an anarchist is someone who burns the cars and scares the grandmas.
How do you distinguish anarchism from libertarianism?
An-archon means “no king or ruler.” It doesn’t mean “no rules.” If you’re libertarian, it means you still have a ruler, like a government, but it needs to be small and minimalistic. But that never works out. Libertarianism is a scam. Although it’s better than Collectivism—being a conservative or a lefty, or whatever.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy Alex Norta.