🎙 Laura Shin on Solving Ethereum's Greatest Mystery with Her New Book, The Cryptopians
In this week’s episode of The Defiant podcast, we speak to Laura Shin, the former senior editor at Forbes and host of the popular podcast Unchained, about her new book ‘The Cryptopians: Idealism, Greed, Lies, and the Making of the First Big Cryptocurrency ...
In this week’s episode of The Defiant podcast, we speak to Laura Shin, the former senior editor at Forbes and host of the popular podcast Unchained, about her new book ‘The Cryptopians: Idealism, Greed, Lies, and the Making of the First Big Cryptocurrency Craze.’ In Cryptopians, Laura may have solved Ethereum’s biggest mystery; the identity of the DAO hacker. In this interview, she goes into the backstory of how she came up with the most credible suspect to date.
The DAO hack was a story to behold, but was by no means the only theme of ‘The Cryptopians.’ Laura’s book delves deep into the Ethereum story itself and those at the core of the project, making new revelations and delivering an extremely detailed account. She talks about the most surprising discoveries she made. We also discuss her Unchained podcast, and what comes next for her now that her first book is out.
The podcast was led by Camila Russo, and edited by Daniel Flynn and Gary Leuci. Transcript was edited by Samuel Haig.
🎙Listen to the interview in this week’s podcast episode here:
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👀 Only paid subscribers have access to the full interview transcript below.
Cami Russo: All right, here we are with Laura Shin. Laura, welcome to The Defiant Podcast, I'm so thrilled that you could join me!
Laura Shin: I'm thrilled to be here, thanks for having me!
CR:Laura Shin has been covering crypto for longer than most. She was a Forbes editor who then started her own podcast called Unchained, and this week she published The Cryptovians, a book on the history of Ethereum. It’s so amazing to have you here, an Ethereum book writer to an Ethereum book writer — I know exactly how you're feeling.
We'll get into the book obviously, which as I was saying, it was so great — offline I was just telling Laura what an amazing job she did with the book. It's really well done so congratulations first of all.
LS: Thank you. I appreciate that. I really poured a lot into it, so it really means a lot to hear that.
CR: You can really tell. So before we get into the book, let's start at the beginning — how did you start covering crypto?
LS: So I was covering personal finance for Forbes, I had been covering that beat for four years or so, and I was getting a little bit antsy — I just wanted something new. I really do best with a challenge, and I like learning new things, and I was getting to the point where I felt like I already knew all the material, so it just wasn’t fun for me, I was losing interest.
The Forbes editor said ‘hey, we have this idea to do a Forbes Fintech 50 list, do you want to head up the list with another reporter’? So she and I divided the list into categories, and I took the category ‘digital currencies, and then just completely fell down the rabbit hole. So that was how I got started… in 2015, and then the year after is when I started unchained in 2016.
CR: Wow! So you discovered crypto in 2015, and then one year later, you were already leaving Forbes and starting your own crypto dedicated podcast?
LS: No, so I was with Forbes altogether for like five years, but the first four of those years I was a freelancer. So when I started the podcast I was still a freelancer, I was still my own entity. Then what happened was I discovered Bitcoin and blockchain, as it was called in 2015, and I was very obsessed with it immediately.
I think there might have been one time or another where [Forbes] said ‘hey, do you want to come on full-time?’ And I said I'll come on full-time if you let me cover only Bitcoin and blockchain, and they were like ‘no’ because, at that time, not that many people were interested so it just made no sense, and they were like ‘we're not going to do that’. So then I was like ‘okay then, I'm not going to come work for you full-time'.
So then, in 2017, when things started really picking up, I think I was getting other job offers [and] they were like ‘okay, we'll bring you on full-time, and we will let you cover this full-time’. That's why in my bio it says that I was the first mainstream media reporter to only cover crypto, because at that time, I knew like none of the other reporters were only doing that, I was allowed to only [cover crypto].
But yes, when I joined [Forbes] full-time in 2017, I was already doing the podcast. Then… [over] the course of those seven months when I was at Forbes full-time, the downloads were getting so great, and someone who was… doing research on different crypto podcasts for her full-time job said ‘Laura, by the way, you could be making this much money from sponsorships’. I had no idea and was like ‘oh, okay, that's more than I make from my full-time job’. So then I said ’you know what, if that's the case, I will leave Forbes and then it doesn't take me my full week to do the podcast, so I will use the non-podcast time then to work on a book’ — which is what I've been doing for the last four years, because I left Forbes in February 2018, and then it took me… roughly six months to do the proposal. Then it was another maybe six to eight weeks to do the contract, so I didn't officially get the book contract until the fall of 2018.
CR: I see! So you started Unchained in 2016 while you were still at Forbes, and then you left to write the book.
LS: Yeah, but one key point is that since I had started the podcast at Forbes as a freelancer, they actually wrote the contract for me so that I owned it from the beginning, whereas had I been a full-time staffer and I had worked there, then I don't think I would have owned the podcast. So the fact that I started it before, and then later got hired full-time, meant that I already owned it, so when I left I didn't have to negotiate anything because I already owned it.
CR: Oh, that’s amazing. What do you think got you so interested in crypto?
LS: That's such a good question. It's hard to explain, maybe some of it was because I was reporting that fintech 50 list, I was learning all about the flaws in the banking system. All the fintechs were saying ‘these are all the problems with the banking system or the financial system, and these are the problems that we're going to solve’. So when I kind of understood how they're doing it, and then I learned about how Bitcoin worked it was like ‘well this is clearly superior’. It was just mind-blowing to me.
And just like any other crypto person, I just kept learning. When you learn something, it just makes you ask another question, and then you learn that. and then you have to seek out this other answer, and then you just keep going — it kind of never stops. So I think that’s what happened.
CR:Got it, I can definitely relate. So for Cryptopians, what was the origin of the book idea? Was it supposed to be about the founding and history of Ethereum from the start? If so, what prompted that idea?
Documenting the ICO craze of 2017
LS: No, and I still actually feel that the main idea is more how the ICO craze happened, but in order to understand that you have to understand the history of Ethereum because Ethereum was the main platform. So that's why at the end of the book, it kind of branches out a little bit away. Three quarters of… the book is… the history of Ethereum, and then, at the end, it kind of branches out, because really the mania was only that last… 6 to twelve months…
So that's why the book mostly feels like a history of Ethereum… When you came out the other side of the ICO craze, it was just very clear that something historic had happened. And it was totally new and different, and really crazy, so my idea was ‘how do I explain that?’ But in order to explain it, you have to understand the origins of Ethereum, and the history of The DAO, and all that…
The actual bubble itself was only really at the very end, so that's why I think the book mostly feels like a history of Ethereum. But the question I wanted to answer was ‘how did the ICO craze happen?
CR: Yeah, um, I think we both had this similar sensation at the end of 2017, that what just happened like this is insane. I had never experienced anything so crazy and I had been reporting in Argentina, a pretty wild market, but this just felt different.
So were you like, ‘okay, there definitely needs to be a book about this?’
LS: Yeah. Also, some of it was that I've just wanted to write a book for so long, and then just feeling like I had witnessed history. Between those two things, just knowing it was something significant that needed to be recorded for posterity, and then just having that desire — I'd always wanted to write a book and now I could create the time to do that. So yeah, that's how I just decided to do it.
CR:Then what about the process of researching and writing the book itself? What was your methodology? How long did it take to write this book? It was seven years?
LS: If you don't count the proposal then I guess… roughly exactly three years. But if you count the proposal, which maybe it shouldn't count because, frankly, the proposal looks nothing like the book, but yeah, I guess three years. All the final stuff happened in October or November, and I think I signed the contract in October.
One thing that I do know that I did for the contract, was I said that I wanted 18 months to turn in the first draft, rather than just one year — which is, I think, more typical for a first book. I don't know why, I just wanted to give myself that room, maybe because I was nervous. So maybe I just spent a little bit longer reporting, I remember I basically spent a full year reporting and then I… realized ‘oh, okay, I only have six months now to write a full book’. And I was a little bit freaked out.
I don't know if anybody who listens to this has ever used this website called Focus Mate, but basically, it's a website where you just get matched with like a work buddy for a certain period of time, and for some reason, it's very effective for me, it makes me very productive. I used Focus Mate relentlessly to work on the writing because I was like ‘okay, I don't have a lot of time and I have to write a whole book in six months. So I just used it all the time, and just wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and then I finally turned in the full draft six months later.
CR:Okay. So you spent the full year just reporting and then six months writing?
LS: Yeah, but then what happened was the editor wasn't happy with the first draft. And that’s not a good feeling for a writer, right? I was like ‘oh shoot, what if they cancel?’ I was a little bit freaked out, and yet at the same time, I also knew it was going to be okay because I sensed that I at least had good bones in my story, it just needed to be polished.
And so we did a test run where I did some additional edits. And then my editor loved it and it was good for me because I didn't even feel like I'd done very much. I was like ‘oh, okay, if that's all he wants, that's easy, I can do that. So then I did that, and then during that period I still was doing additional reporting, I can think of certain pieces of information that I did get during that period. And then all The DAO hacker stuff happened even later. So even though technically the writing was supposed to be finishing in that last year, I was still reporting.
CR: So let's get into The DAO hacker. I think that for me, that was the most important part of your book. It's the piece that l wasn't able to get… to be fair I wasn't really doing a lot of research to find that, but it is a major mystery that you were able to solve — it's probably the biggest mystery in crypto, and now we have a credible suspect for who did it. So I'd love to hear the backstory, how did it happen?
Unveiling The DAO hacker
LS: So this is very fascinating. and like most things in crypto, it's kind of crazy.
So as you read in the book, and I don't want to give too many spoilers for people who haven't read it, but um at the time, there were some suspects that were identified. When I picked this up years later I pursued those… leads… here's… why they came under suspicion, here's what their responses were, and then… not saying anything conclusive, but just… following the lead and like finishing out this investigation.
Then, as you probably know, when you are finishing up a book they do what are called three final passes between you and the publishing house…, they do legal, and copy editing, and proofreading, and… whatever they're doing, and then they pass it back to you and then you make changes. So then my fact-checker and I were just making other tweaks, because sometimes in editing they might introduce something that's inaccurate or whatever, so we were tweaking it. And in between the first and the second pass is when Alex Van de Sande — who was involved in rescuing the money, he's a Brazilian Ethereum Foundation person, he initially started as a user experience designer — reached out to me and he said ‘hey, five years ago when The DAO hack happened, the Brazilian federal police opened an investigation into The DAO, and by extension into me because I'm Brazilian’. And [the police] ‘well, he's involved, but could he even be the hacker?’ Alex wanted to commission some kind of report to help exonerate himself, but these reports can be expensive.
So he was thinking [about] who else could use this, and he thought of me because I was still working on my book, and the company that he commissioned a report from Coinfirm, gave him a discount in exchange for credit in my book. So when we got the report, Alex and I were learning all this info from it, and the report basically chronicles the cash-outs that The DAO attacker was doing — meaning they had all this Ethereum Classic, which was the new coin that got created after Ethereum hard-forked, and it wasn't very usable because it was brand new and it was kind of this minority chain, not that many people were interested in the fall of 2016, and still today, not that many people are interested.
So [Ethereum Classic] wasn't something that was very usable and useful to the hacker, so they were trying to convert it to Bitcoin… and the exchange that they were using for this is ShapeShift — which, at that time, didn't take KYC, meaning it didn't take Know-Your-Customer identities and stuff like that. So there were no customer accounts. So it wasn't like I could just try to find somebody at ShapeShift and be like ‘hey, do you know whose account was converting this Ethereum Classic to Bitcoin?’
Instead, the way it worked was that it had a public API, so all the transactions were public…, transparent, and open. So we were mapping the cash-outs onto like… a schedule of the day, and we could see… it was like from 00:000 UTC to 15:00 UTC… that was when the cash-outs tended to happen.
And it was like ‘okay, well where in the world is that morning to night?’ And it was like ‘okay, Asia’, but I had gotten these customer service emails from ShapeShift that The DAO attacker had sent when they were preparing their attack, just because they… converted Bitcoin to Ether and DAO tokens before they did the attack. And at that time, I think they weren't familiar with ShapeShift, so they sent in some customer service emails. Two of them were too short to really say much about their identity, but the third one was just a little bit longer and from reading it I could just feel this person is a fluent English speaker. I just knew it, and I even tested my assumption with other people, and they agreed because it was using short-hand…, it was not just that it was a good English sentence, this shorthand is… another level of fluency. And so it was like ‘okay, fluent English speaker, but these cash-out times were in Asia’.
So then I'm supposed to be turning in my second pass, which at that point, you're supposed to only give the most minimal changes — you're not supposed to make major changes.
CR: Wow, and you had this huge bombshell on your hands!
LS: Yeah, but I didn't have the identity at that point, all I had was clues and I wanted to keep digging.
CR:So did you have the account of who this research firm suspected was The DAO hacker?
LS: No. So then what happened was I had the cash-out times, and I had just this profile — like they're working during Asian hours, and I had to turn in the book. And I really faced this question ‘should I tell them that I have this new information I want to report more?’ But it's not the best time to do this.
And I did, and yes, they weren't exactly happy, and they were like ‘no, you cannot have more time, we have to send this out to like publish it’. And yet I sent [the information] to Chainalysis, and I was like ‘hey, here are some of the addresses I would love to learn more about where did this money go?’ I didn't know they had that de-mixing capability, and with my article in my book, this was the first time that they publicly disclosed that they have that ability.
And then, after seeing where the money went to the different exchanges — I can't talk about this part too much because obviously, exchanges have privacy policies — but one of my sources was able to get somebody at an exchange to tell them… what happened to the money for one of the accounts where Bitcoin had been deposited after the Wasabi mixing. It was converted to Grin, which is an obscure [privacy]coin, and then it was withdrawn to this Grin node, and the address on it was Grin.toby.ai. And then we… found the IP address that was there, and we saw other Bitcoin lightning nodes at that IP address, and we looked those up on a Bitcoin lightning explorer, and we saw one of those Bitcoin lightning notes was named ‘TenX’. And then when we put TenX [in] and then we saw the CEO is toby.ai…
So then, after that, then I went back and filled in everything else, and then it was good because once we have that name then all the other things fit. He is fluent in English, he lives in Asia. He was very interested in The DAO, he was very familiar with its code. He was calling out what he thought were vulnerabilities in The DAO code. He contacted the creators about that, he wrote blog posts about it…
So when you are finishing up a book, it's many months before it's going to be published, so at that time I was debating [whether I should] reach out to his former co-founder [with whom] they’d had a falling out. But I could see that they technically had been working together at the time of The DAO, and I didn't know if they'd been accomplices, and there's so much lead time that I just thought I [had] created too much of a wildcard.
So I didn't interview him until we went to do the Forbes article, and I did that literally just days before we published, and I literally spent two hours interviewing him trying to figure out whether or not he might have known anything before I finally decided I [was] comfortable enough [to conclude] that he clearly didn't.
But one other bit I wanted to tell you, is that once I had a name, then I went to my publisher and even though before they've been like ‘no, you have to finish this book’, then once I was like ‘okay, we have a name’, then they were like ‘okay, we will [postpone] it’. And we'd actually already pushed the publication date once, but they agreed to push it again.
But the thing is that people might notice when they read it, the section about it is kind of slim in the epilogue. The reason is that I'd already written a little bit on the previous investigation… and they said you cannot write too many more words than what is already there, we're gonna take that out and you're gonna put this in. And the reason is [because of] things like if you add extra pages it changes the dimensions of the book jacket, and there are all kinds of extra downstream effects… There were many reasons why, but in the end, we decided [it would be best] to reveal the news in a news article, and then to also alleviate some of the issues because if we [had] put in the book, [it could have gotten] scooped… [and] also book publishers aren't used to breaking that kind of big news, so they just felt like it's better if an actual news outlet breaks it — so there were a lot of reasons why…, but part of it also was the lateness of when we got this information. So that's the whole story.
CR: That's so interesting. So that's why the actual kind of research and the name and everything is like on the epilogue [and] not the actual DAO chapters?
LS: Exactly. Yeah, because it all came together at the end. And if you compare the epilogue against the Forbes article, there's a lot more in the Forbes article just because I had that room.
CR: I think you mentioned this in the book, but were you able to interview the TenX founder? Or did he never get back to you?
LS: He just sent one email saying ‘your statement and conclusion is factually inaccurate, I can give you more details if you like?’ So I immediately wrote him back saying ‘yes, I would like more details’, but he never responded. And then the same thing with the Forbes article — we sent it to him for fact-checking because the Forbes article has more information. I sent him all of that, and there was no response whatsoever.
CR: So where is the case now? Are there legal actions being taken against him? What's next with this?
LS: I published the information. Whether or not there are any other things going on, I can't really say. But yeah, I would be interested to see. I remember that I did ask a couple of different prosecutors whether or not this was even illegal, and there isn't a consensus view on that, which was kind of interesting. But yea, I feel like I sort of did my part, and then if there's anything else, I guess we'll find out later.
CR: So that's interesting — the [question] of whether this even is illegal? Can you expand on that?
Is code law?
LS: Well it kind of [speaks] to how, right now, there's no regulation and around crypto, or they're trying to figure out what the regulations are. It just really has to do with how new the technology is when you apply these older regulations and laws to a new thing.
But there can be questions about the nature of the new thing — does it really fit with what the old law is being applied? It's the same thing with tokens and securities — some people say ‘this is just a totally new thing so securities laws don't apply’, but there are other people who are like ‘no, this is this is a security’... There haven't been enough cases… to kind of figure it out.
So I have a podcast. We're recording this before my next episode goes out, which is going to come out on March 1st, and in it, I have some of the people who worked on The DAO on the show. Interestingly one of them
In the time of The DAO hack, the phrase ‘code is law’ — people were discussing that a lot and some people were asking is it really law? Is it not? And one of The DAO creators… really was like ‘I really disagree with the idea that my code would become law’. He was like ‘no, I really wouldn't want that’. And they disagreed a little bit, so that was interesting.
I don't necessarily feel like, even in the crypto community, that there's a consensus. I do think that when it comes to The DAO, regardless of these technical issues of what are the exact laws and does this or that apply, I do feel like anybody would recognize what happened there as a theft, just in a common-sense instinctual way. So in that regard, it's more like if kids are playing on the playground and one of them steals another kid's ball, is that like illegal? No, but it's a theft. So I think people would recognize that that's what happened here with The DAO hack.
CR: I think the argument here is that taking the kids in the playground, imagine that the kids were playing a game that was super complex and that one of them figured out some loophole in the rules of the game that allowed them to steal the ball. So I think that's kind of the question here, like ‘okay, he was able to steal the ball — but he followed the rules of the game, even though he found a loophole. So I think that's what is tricky about this, it's not so straightforward. I can see both sides of the argument, but it's what makes this so fascinating.
LS: Yeah, kind of the exact analogy, or not analogy but scenario, that was used… in the book… I quoted some social media thing where people were arguing about this on Reddit or something, and someone [sarcastically] wrote ‘okay, so the guy who's stolen my car knows more about wiring than I did, therefore there's no theft.’ So yeah, it’s a tough question.
CS: Yeah. The other implication that I thought was interesting, was how Chainalisys was able to unmix bitcoin transactions. I think that was one of the issues that shocked the crypto community the most.
Just for background for those listening, there are things called crypto and Bitcoin mixers where you're able to send a transaction, and these services kind of mix addresses up so that the transaction that comes out the other side can’t be traced back to the original sender. This is used, not always, for illegal and illegitimate reasons, [but are also] sometimes used just because people want to maintain their privacy on these public open blockchains.
But now, if suddenly you know that these mixers can be unmixed, it opens a question of ‘okay, where do we stand with privacy on Bitcoin and on other public blockchains?’
LS: Yeah, I had the same reaction. I wrote a little kind of side-blog post when I released the news and said ‘oh, I bet anybody who's used Wasabi in the last however many years now is just like uh-oh, especially if they were using it for illicit purposes’, so it's definitely a question.
You’ve probably heard of Secret Network, which is private by default, and I do wonder if, in the long term, something like that will be used more? And yet at the same time… Bitcoin and Ethereum have so much market dominance and the network effect is Important. So I wonder how a shift like that would happen… We may just end up with public blockchains and other forms of privacy, I'm not sure. But yeah, I definitely feel like it's a huge revelation.
CR:For sure. Then going to other aspects of your book, there was a lot of very in-depth reporting like everyone involved with Ethereum’s story. What besides The DAO hack, were some of the most surprising discoveries that you made?
LS: Oh god, there were so many! I mean, when I went to write the book, I didn't know even a fraction of what ended up being in it. I don't want to give too much away, but there definitely was a surprising little nugget about The DAO which people will learn about. Just a little subplot with someone not previously known to be in crypto, but I will have him on my show to talk about this, who kind of used The DAO to his advantage — that was very fascinating.
Then the whole Poloniex story I didn't know. They were quite secretive, I never spoke to them or anything, they didn't talk to me for the book. And then the whole saga with Ming Chan, the former executive director of the Ethereum Foundation. I had kind of heard over the years just like a few things here and there, but not anywhere near as much as what eventually I was able to put in the book. So there were things like that. A lot of the interpersonal stuff between like Gavin [Woold] and Jeff [Wilcke] I didn't know you know. I didn't even really know Jeff, even barely knew Gavin really.
I'm trying to think of some of the other things. I guess the Consensys story was kind of already known here and there because there were already a bunch of articles in that direction, so that might not be as surprising to people. But yeah, there were a lot of things.
One thing that I also feel ended up being great that I could include in the book, which I again didn't expect, was I also barely knew Vitalik, and to see kind of by the end how he had changed so much — he had grown a lot as a person, and so by the end, I suddenly realized ‘oh, this is like a coming of age story for Vitalik’, which I didn't know when I went to write it. So that was kind of like another aspect that just came across in the book, and yeah, it just was a surprise to me.
CR: Yeah, the whole Vitalik storyline was really great. I also kind of saw that change in him — from being someone who is more subject to manipulation from others, to someone who is able to stand his own ground and has a group of friends who are actually his friends, and not using him for something else. I thought that was really well done.
So now that the book is out, first of all, how do you feel? And second, given all of these things that you uncovered, what have been some of the initial reactions?
The community reacts to The Cryptopians
LS: Something that was so nice and gratifying was the day that we released The DAO attacker news, which was the same day my book came out, it was just pretty much all positive from the Ethereum community — which was so nice.
In the previous weeks, we'd had Buzzfeed report on the creators of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, and they got a lot of pushback for that — nobody pushed back on me. Well, not nobody, somebody kept saying I should have told law enforcement, but it's not my job to do that. It's a little bit like ‘that's not what I do’.
But anyway, I just felt like people were tweeting at me that I was the [greatest of all time] which was so nice, multiple people tweeted that at me, Honestly, for the crypto people to compliment a journalist like that, that was really nice. And since the book has come out, people have been tweeting that they're loving it, and people should read it, and stuff like that, which is great. And some people have sent me private messages, just being like ‘wow, your explanation of The DAO attack was amazing. There were coders who were like ‘I learned stuff reading your technical descriptions’, this person in particular was like ‘I could understand everything and I learned a lot from reading that’, so that was great.
And in general, it's really been positive and it just makes me feel good, like I spend all these years of my life on this thing and you know what, people are enjoying it. So that feels good.
CR: Amazing! Were you terrified of the backlash? Because I was. Before publishing The Infinite Machine, I was like ‘oh my god, is everyone gonna come after me?’ But then seeing how people just support and rally behind you is amazing. I’m wondering if you were super nervous leading up to it? Or just emotionally, how was the lead-up, and then today?
LS: Um, yeah I was a little bit in the sense that the presentation is like ‘Ethereum, warts and all’ or like ‘Ethereum/ICOs, warts and all.’ And it was not universally positive, there's definitely a lot of negative things in the book, and I kind of thought ‘okay, so who's the natural audience?’ Because you would think it would be Ethereum people, but there are definitely certain things in here that Ethereum people maybe aren't going to be super excited to see in the book.
But honestly, the reception I've gotten so far is actually really positive. So then I was like ‘oh, okay, so maybe they just like that the story is accurate. Like Christoph Jentzsch was one of the creators of The DAO, he said that for all the parts that he knows, that my story was totally accurate.
And there's a funny thing, I worked with this fact-checker to just make sure everything was really buttoned up, and there's this one scene where it centers around one person, and they did not speak to me for the book. And I think what I did was I tried to imagine myself as them in that scenario, and I wrote one sentence maybe explaining their mental state, but it was really my imagination. My fact-checker was like ‘I don't see anything about this, where did you get that?’ And I was like ‘oh right, I just kind of imagined that up,’ and it’s like literally the only sentence where he was like ‘you didn't get this from anywhere’, and I was like ‘you're right, I didn't’.
But everything came from other people. I do know that one of the people maybe feels like their portrait is maybe a little bit less flattering, and said something like ‘oh, I have a gripe against them’. Some people told me that's what they said, but everything came from the people they've worked with, none of it came from me — I definitely didn't know all of that stuff. So they can say that, but it came from other people, that's how I did the book. So if they have issues with other people then I guess they're going to find out about it, but they already knew from the fact-checking, so nobody should be surprised by anything in the book.
CR: Yeah, I think that's how these nonfiction books should be. You do your reporting and you just state the facts — you write what you know, what can be verified. And that way whatever issues anyone has, it's not issues with you as the author, it's issues with your sources. I think that's what my takeaway was with The Infinite Machine as well. I just reported the facts and what I found and yeah, I think people really value it.
So for those reading the book, The Cryptopians, what do you think that teams, founders, and projects building crypto today can learn about how Ethereum was built?
Key takeaways for crypto founders
LS: Oh wow. Well, I think some of the takeaways probably would be how personalities and politics can affect the development of these things. Which I actually think is really important, because I think maybe that shows that process can be a really good way to eliminate that factor. Like if there are strong, clear processes, and those are set up in a way to ensure a good outcome, then it can reduce the influence of these like wild-card personalities.
Another thing… is that security is really important, that it's a very difficult thing to predict. Obviously, right now, we're still seeing that with DeFi with all the hacks and everything, but people should still probably treat this as somewhat experimental and have an awareness that if you're a builder, that you're dealing with people's money, and that they might lose it because of something that you did. Or that if you're a user, that when you use this, you use it in a way where your approach is that it's more experimental and you're aware that it could be risky. I mean, there are so many things.
And then I guess this whole thing about what happened with The DAO hack, and then how the fork ended up creating Ethereum Classic — I mentioned in the book that the developers were a little bit in their own world and kind of didn't have an awareness about the wider crypto world. So probably having an awareness of how the whole ecosystem functions, and not just your part of it, probably is also helpful. But yeah, those would probably be my main takeaways.
CR: So much of the Ethereum history is shaped by the dynamics of its founders. There was so much conflict and tension with the founders early on, and like you said, politics and those relationships really end up influencing how the project is built.
Thinking about how different the crypto and Ethereum ecosystem is now versus when Ethereum first started, so many projects have governance, or have anonymous founders, or have these very flat structures — it seems just so different from when Ethereum started out, where there were some clear founders, there was a Swiss foundation. It was very chaotic, but there was still some hierarchy to it. In the end, I don't know if it was good or bad for Ethereum in the long run.
Just as an exercise... if [Ethereum] had started out as a DAO with governance tokens, do you think that would have prevented some of the drama that happened in the early days?
Would tokenized governance have changed Ethereum’s growth?
LS: Oh my gosh, what a question! It's so hard to say because that was just such a different time. I mean, what's weird about the question is that so much of the governance stuff now is built on Ethereum, so it's like how could you build Ethereum before?
CR: It's true. Yeah, I guess I wonder if structuring a startup in the way that Ethereum did versus the way that startups are structured today with the decentralized tools that they have [now], it's just an interesting thought process for me to see how differently Ethereum itself started versus how projects built on Ethereum are being structured today.
It's completely different. I don't know what's better to be honest, because these DAO structures — I think that it's a great experiment, but I think it's too early to see whether they are yielding the best results. I don't know if it's the most efficient way to structure a company, to have these flat structures and token governance, versus like how Ethereum was structured with clear founders, each of them had their role. Like Gavin, Jeff, and Vitalik were the more like technical pieces of the founders, and then Anthony [di Iorio] and Joe [Lubin] were more on the business side, and they had their clear roles — I don't know which is better.
But yeah, it's I guess it's too speculative, but I just think it's so interesting how much this space has changed because of Ethereum itself, right?
LS: Yeah, I mean, one thing that's kind of fascinating about this question is I'm just realizing that if they'd had token governance in the beginning, then it would have ended up totally different because Anthony and Joe would have had more weight than they actually had because they were the ones with the money. And what ended up actually happening was that Gavin, Vitalik, and Jeff had the power, but they wouldn't have had the money if it had been token-based governance. So I actually think we could say that the thought experiment would be that Ethereum would have worked out very differently, and actually, unfortunately, I don't know if it would have succeeded then.
CR: That's such a great point! That's so interesting. You're right, because Joe probably had the biggest stake, Anthony did as well. Maybe Vitalik had a sort of veto there, because he probably had the biggest stake of all, maybe after Joe, at that point in Ethereum history.
LS: But I'm talking about even before they got their Ether allocation. I'm talking about before the network launched, like in 2014, before they had any Ether allocation. And at that point, Vitalik didn't have money.
CR:So if we're thinking Joe and Anthony had the most capital to buy whatever governance token was ruling this DAO, then yeah, then maybe they would have succeeded and they would have been the Ethereum founders — that's wild! It makes you think, I don't know if token governance is the best way.
LS: Yeah, that is wild. But then I don't think Ethereum would have succeeded the way it did.
CR: Okay, now for the final part of the interview, I really want to learn more about Unchained. So we touched on it a little at the start of the interview, you've been running this podcast since 2016. It was probably the first crypto-focused podcast, I don't know who else was doing these interviews.
Launching a pioneering crypto podcast
LS: No, Epicenter was around before then, and so was Let's Talk Bitcoin… but this was the first one that was probably more accessible to a non-tech or non-developer audience.
CR: And it wasn't purely Bitcoin-focused, well, Epicenter wasn't either. But definitely one of the first. So where is Unchained today?
LS: So I do two shows a week, and the Tuesday show is an hour-long interview — sort of like what we're doing now, and I'll either interview a project, or maybe two founders, or I will tackle a topic, and then it will be kind of two different guests who don't work together, and then they have different viewpoints.
And then for the Friday show, it's a shorter show — it's an interview but it tends to be more on the news, not always, but generally. So whatever the big news is that week, I'll try to get an interview either with someone working on it or someone who can comment on it, and we do that for 20 minutes, and then at the end, I do what's called a ‘weekly news recap’ — where I just write up a brief summary of all the other big news stories the week, and then I just read them like a newscaster and just make a little recording of myself, and we attach that at the end of the episode. That actually came about because I do a survey every year and my listeners requested that, and then the next year I said ‘does this work for you?’ And they said yes, so now we still do it. And in the last survey, because there is so much news now in crypto, I did ask them ‘should I increase the frequency?’ But surprisingly they like it once a week and they don't feel the need to have it more than that. So that's pretty much it. We also do a newsletter that goes out Monday through Friday.
And then I myself have been doing additional things with a Facebook newsletter called Bulletin that I do, and we have a premium subscription on that, and then I also write for media. So there's kind of a lot right now, but that's mainly an overview of the podcast.
CR: Amazing! What are your plans with the podcast going forward? Are you looking to just continue growing it? What's your long-term vision with it?
LS: So I will probably continue the two shows the way that they. I am kind of looking at other things that might happen with that, but I'm not quite ready to talk about them, so people should just stay tuned for announcements when I'm ready to announce those things.
One last thing I didn't mention with the premium subscription, is that we finally launched a Discord group. I had wanted to launch a chat group for years, but while I was working on the book I just didn't want to get that going because… you never know with those things, it could turn into a whole can of worms. So I just [decided to] wait a little bit and [until] I could take a few things off my plate. So we just launched that, so it'll be nice to have more reactions from the community and get more feedback in that regard on a real-time basis, rather than just when I do my surveys, or on Twitter, or whatever. But yeah, there's more coming, I’m just not ready to announce.
What’s next for Laura Shin?
CR:Awesome. And then more broadly, is your full focus after the book going to be on Unchained, or do you have other projects on your plate?
LS: Yeah, I have other projects — again, stay tuned.
But one thing I will say is that I had so much fun writing the book, I just loved it. It definitely was the most fun I've ever had professionally, I just really want to do it again. So even back in October and November when we finally wrapped everything, I emailed my agent right away and I was like ‘oh, so I want to do another book, what do you think of these ideas?’ And he was like whoa, you literally haven't even published this one yet, we need to just wait, and if people liked my book, they should definitely know that I will be doing another one at some point, and hopefully, I can make an announcement about that whenever I'm ready. But I definitely plan to again.
Honestly, the truth is that this mix for me was really good because I'm naturally an extrovert — so I love doing the podcast for that reason — but then also as a creative person, you need alone time to write, and report, and whatever. So having that blend of like the podcast and then the book, it was just a really good mix of how to break up my week, and how to have my social time, and then the creative stuff — so I liked that my life was like, and so if I could kind of keep something similar going for the foreseeable future, that would be really ideal for me. Frankly, I personally would just like to do something very similar and have the same kind of mix of things going on in my life.
CR: Nice. So with this second book, do you already have a proposal? Or is it in the idea stage? Or did you already sign a deal?
LS: Did not sign a deal. That's why I can't announce anything, and… it's just very nascent — let's just put it that way.
But as I said before, I loved doing the book, and so even back in the fall, when I finished, I was already thinking [about] what's going to be next. So yes, I'm working on stuff, but I'm not really ready to say because I don't really know.
CR: Nice, well I can't wait to hear what this is. And then finally to wrap up, I'd like to know, Laura, what makes you defiant?
LS: What makes me defiant? Probably the fact that I really only like to work for myself. I have worked for other companies before, and when I was younger I just kept quitting them after not very long, and my parents were like ‘what are you doing?’ But now that it's all worked out they're like ‘oh, it's okay’, they don't care anymore. But that probably is it, for whatever reason I just really like working for myself, and I've always been like that.
CR: Well it's really worked out. This was amazing, I really loved hearing about the whole process and the amazing research you did to find The DAO Hacker, and the book in general. Again, I really enjoyed it, really recommend it. Congrats again, and thanks so much for joining me.
LS: Thanks for having me. I enjoyed the conversation, thank you so much!