At the opening keynote of the Schelling Point ETHDenver mini-conference on Thursday, Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin signaled his ongoing transition to a role as a public intellectual, announcing a forthcoming book and lecturing on developmental theories in different technological fields.

In a talk titled “The e-theory-um blockchain,” Buterin discussed the intellectual underpinnings that drive blockchain development.

Touching on a 2019 lecture from Peter Thiel that argued “crypto is libertarian, AI [artificial intelligence] is communist,” Buterin argued that the dichotomy is “oversimplified” but can be used as a rubric for discussing what drives crypto’s ongoing progress.

Instead of discussing the technology on its hypothetical political properties, the focus could instead be on the “intellectual properties” of the tech, he argued: in this case, the difference between what he categorized as “theory” and “empiricism.”

The talk was inspired by a recent Twitter thread from the 28-year-old developer, which riffed on an emerging meme pitting “wordcels” against “shape rotators” – loosely, terms for different types of cognitive proficiencies, with wordcels favoring theory and language and shape rotators embracing empiricism and math.

In the talk, Buterin argued that while crypto development is driven by mathematical and social theories, tech fields like AI instead rely on empirical testing.

Innovations such as private-key cryptography, for instance, didn’t result from taking AI agents and modeling attack vectors over and over; instead, it arose from creating hard mathematical theories to generate security guarantees, Buterin said.

Theory is often viewed with suspicion, he said, because the math-based guarantees can turn out to be wrong and therefore catastrophic; a consensus mechanism failing could wipe the value from a blockchain completely.

“Crypto, specifically, because of its decentralization, is decidedly on the theory side,” Buterin concluded, arguing that emergent technology that impacts social structures, such as crypto, could nonetheless benefit from theory-based development.

As he was exiting the stage the technologist also announced a book: “Vitalik Buterin: Proof of Stake,” a collection of essays.

In recent years Vitalik has stepped away from active development of Ethereum, but has been a prolific writer, addressing topics such as cross-chain interoperability and the need for artificial wombs, among other topics.

The book will be published on September 13, 2022 by independent publisher Seven Stories Press, a Seven Stories representative told CoinDesk.


The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups. As part of their compensation, certain CoinDesk employees, including editorial employees, may receive exposure to DCG equity in the form of stock appreciation rights, which vest over a multi-year period. CoinDesk journalists are not allowed to purchase stock outright in DCG.

Read More