Late in the day on September 14 and into the early hours of the following morning, Vitalik Buterin and a few dozen crypto developers crowded into an office space in Berlin to flip the switch on the Merge.
There wasn’t a literal switch to flip: Buterin, the 28-year-old Ethereum cofounder who has been active in cryptocurrency since his teens, had long ago envisioned a system that would basically run itself. The crypto research and developer community would agree on what a change looks like, coders would type out a command and time-stamp it, developers on the client side would download these bits of code, and then at the predetermined time, the system would manifest the change by itself—in this case, the Merge. It changed how transactions on the Ethereum blockchain are verified, a much-delayed upgrade that has been hailed as a major moment in crypto land.
That doesn’t make the current landscape of crypto apps, and the blockchain technology they’re built on, any less complex for the average individual. Buterin seems mostly aware of this. In the lead-up to the Merge, he collated some of his earlier essays about crypto into a book titled Proof of Stake: The Making of Ethereum and the Philosophy of Blockchains. Given how quickly crypto technologies are changing, the book already feels slightly outdated, peppered with coins and DAOs that may no longer exist and concluding in an essay from January 2022, just before the crypto market tanked. But the collection serves as a kind of crypto Old Testament, a historical record and first-hand account of a mind-shift toward decentralized networks that inspire a host of lofty promises.
WIRED’s global editorial director, Gideon Lichfield, and senior writer Lauren Goode spoke with Buterin over Zoom about the recently burst crypto bubble, whether decentralized technology can support society-scale decisionmaking, and what next great innovation may follow the Merge. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Gideon Lichfield: So I guess congratulations are due on the Merge. How do you feel it has gone?
Vitalik Buterin: I’m definitely happy, and definitely relieved. This is a transition that the whole Ethereum community has been working towards for the last eight years. Along the way there have been a lot of people—whether from the Bitcoin community, or people skeptical of crypto in general—who have doubted whether or not the Merge, this switch to proof of stake, would happen. We’re very happy to have proven all of them wrong finally.
GL: Just to boil things down really simply, the presumed advantages of proof of stake are that it uses much less energy and has lower barriers to entry, so there’s less risk of centralization. It’s more secure against attacks. But what would you say, in lay terms, are the biggest opportunities that proof of stake opens up?
I think there are a few. One of them is from the economic resources that the ecosystem no longer has to spend on proof of work. All kinds of projects are going to have somewhat more resources than they did before.