On September 26 2018, Riccardo Spagni agreed to do an interview for Crypto Insider and talk about his love for Monero and Bitcoin, Spider Man, Star Wars, Legos, his reckless rock n roll lifestyle, and his love for building things as an existential precondition. His involvement in projects like Monero, Goblee, and Tari might have earned him a crypto superstar status, but it’s his genuinely charming sense of humor and candid charisma which truly stands out and makes the conversation enjoyable and easy-going.
After having spent my teenage years reading Rolling Magazine and filling my mind with the fabulous and outrageous stories of rockstars, I’ve decided to follow a similar approach to my journalistic activity. My true inspiration was the very first 1967 issue of the magazine, which featured a special and memorable interview with John Lennon. I’ve wanted to do something similar with one of the nicest and most genuine people in crypto, and the result exceeded my expectations. If Crypto Insider truly is the future of blockchain news and media, then it needs to pay homage to the heroes of this industry, who always push the technological and intellectual boundaries: the cypherpunks and developers as providers rational reporting material outside of the speculative price discussions. To me it’s a great honor to be the first person to conduct such an interview and I hope that many other similar projects will follow.
Below you will find the raw audio recording and the complete transcript of the interview. Enjoy!
Riccardo Spagni: The recording is good to go as far as I can tell… we’re golden, let’s go!
Vlad Costea: Okay! Hello, Mr. Spagni and welcome to the Crypto Insider interview. I’m honored to have you and this is the first time I’m doing this with someone famous, so I’m a bit anxious and nervous.
Riccardo Spagni: I’m not famous, though. So it’s fine.
Vlad Costea: Oh, you have so many followers on Twitter! And I guess everything you write is influential in the space and people talk about it. So that kind of power should come with a lot of responsibility according to the Spider Man principle.
Riccardo Spagni: Well, Twitter followers are a vanity maker so… there’s that.
Vlad Costea: So you agree with Kanye West when he said that you should enjoy social media without all the benefits of having many followers?
Riccardo Spagni: Yes, I hope after this interview that I’ll lose all my followers and then I can go back to saying whatever I want without taking back.
Vlad Costea: Wait, so you’re not already saying what you want?
Riccardo Spagni: No, I am. But sometimes you have to think carefully about what I say… occasionally.
Vlad Costea: Oh, so there comes the responsibility part.
Riccardo Spagni: Right? I’m like the Spider Man of Twitter.
Vlad Costea: Do you think you’re Spider-Man?
Riccardo Spagni: In terms of responsibility, yes. In terms of owning super powers, no.
Vlad Costea: But I guess that… you know, you were just a regular young person and one day you were bit by a spider named Bitcoin and ever since you’ve become very powerful. Your life has changed!
Riccardo Spagni: That’s a fun way of looking at it! That’s a nice take on it …
Vlad Costea: And you have to watch out for all the villains! Some of them used to be your best friends, like Harry. I have no idea who Harry is, but you have to fight against him and his evil father who became the Green Goblin. That’s a nice parallel or analogy.
Riccardo Spagni: I like it. Let’s use that!
Vlad Costea: So you’re like the Spider Man! But I started this interview thinking that people who develop crypto projects and cypherpunks (and I guess that you can consider yourself one) are like the rock stars of crypto and this blockchain industry. And when I think of Monero, it’s like The Rolling Stones to me. You’re like the badass people who just do whatever they want and you came after The Beatles – which obviously is Bitcoin… and you’re not actually following rules, but at the same time you ditched your founder. And you’ve actually grown after you ditched him because he was holding you back – which is also applicable to the Rolling Stones, as Brian Jones was just a blues man who was playing blues songs, and then Mick Jagger and Keith Richards came along and said “You know, we want to write something original”, and the best works came from the time when Brian was gone. Which is also true for Monero!
Riccardo Spagni: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of analogies that work between various industries and crypto. Although, the cryptocurrency space has got an interesting collection of people – from weird and wonderful backgrounds.
Vlad Costea: Yeah, I agree. If you told me like two years ago that I would end up doing this, I would have said “No, I will go and work for the government or something because I have a degree in political science”. That’s what was expected of me, but I guess this field gives you the kind of freedom that you don’t have anywhere else… and you get to show the establishment what it’s doing wrong, and I guess that’s the moral compass which I appreciate in crypto.
Riccardo Spagni: I definitely agree with that and I think that there’s a lot of people who have been empowered by their involvement with the cryptocurrencies. And what they do with that, I guess is interesting to watch.
Vlad Costea: You put it in very diplomatic terms. You said “It’s interesting to watch”, but didn’t say if it’s either good or bad… or healthy for our democracies or whatever political regimes we’re having. You just said “interesting”.
Riccardo Spagni: Yeah well, some people will use their newfound freedom for good, and some people will use it for selfish reasons. Some people will use it for building stuff, and some people will use it for all three. And it’s not really a judgment call, it’s just… interesting.
Vlad Costea: I know that you lost all of your coins in a boating accident and that’s a very famous story on social media, but I guess as far as I can see you’re doing pretty well financially, and I saw that Steemit post in which you’ve showed your house and your dogs, and all that good stuff that you have. And sometimes I wonder: you’re having a wonderful life, and you have the perfect wife, and you’re basically enjoying the perfect life. However, what makes you wake up in the morning and say “I have to work on this”? And I know that you’re starting a new project for which you’re being nagged for being like an ICO… but I’m giving you the chance to explain and say what drives you to develop in this environment when you could just live off what you’ve done so far.
Riccardo Spagni: So just to clarify, I don’t think that I live the perfect life, but I definitely have a good life. I have an enjoyable life. I think the thing that gets me up in the morning and makes me move forward and continue, drive and want to do things in the space is the fact that there’s genuine scope for this to be impactful on a lot of people’s lives. And I think that it’s something that’s pretty cool. And whether it ends up actually being impactful in other people’s lives in a large way, I don’t know. But I like being part of a bigger picture, I like being part of this world that we’re building of instead the narrow things we’re usually busy with in business. The thing that I’m building is going to have an impact on this narrow slice of society, but with cryptocurrencies it’s going to have an impact on a much larger slice.
Vlad Costea: That’s admirable in a sense, as I can see people on Twitter who have started cryptocurrency projects, and all they do is pump their own bags. So they would present good news, mention that they would get big… and I don’t want to call out people by their names because maybe if this grows as a project I may have them as guests and I don’t want to start anything that I cannot handle because I’m basically a nobody who has less than a BTC in his wallet. But I appreciate that part of developing something and trying to move this industry forwards… And by the way, what do you think about the B Foundation? I guess that’s a big topic.
Riccardo Spagni: Yeah, the sudden influx of foundations… I mean there are four of them that appeared overnight. I don’t fundamentally have a problem with a bunch of people getting together and say “Let’s spin up an organization that is going to help Bitcoin”. I think calling it a foundation is probably a bad idea because of the historical damage that the Bitcoin Foundation did. And it was mostly through ineptitude, not really through malice or because they set out to do harm. But it was all just because everything was so nascent and they didn’t really know what they were doing. And I think these new foundations are definitely coming at things from a more mature perspective. You know, they’ve got at least some background that we’ve built over the past few years. And yet, at the same time, I still don’t know if it’s gonna make a difference overall because let’s face it: Bitcoin works just fine without the Bitcoin Foundation and without any foundation. Also, Bitcoin will be around a lot longer than any of these foundations.
Vlad Costea: Yeah, I agree. And at the same time I know that organizations must have a purpose which has to be achievable and achieved at some point. So I guess the main purpose of any organization is to, at some point, just disappear after it fulfills the goals.
Riccardo Spagni: Absolutely! So maybe to some degree it’s like a start-up, right? One of the guiding principles that I hold close to me with start-ups, and I have a few of them, is to usually work yourself out of a job. So in the beginning you’re very heavily involved in doing all the things, but as things progress, as the company grows, as the project grows, or whatever it is… you should be trying to work yourself out of the job so that other people are able to pick up these responsibilities. It can be people that you’ve trained, people who carry the spirit and the values of the company or project that you’ve built. So whilst you may no longer need to be involved in the day to day running of a company, all the energy and the spirit that you put in at the beginning gets continued. And I guess that really is the role that any foundation in the space should be looking to fill. They should be like “We need to solve this X set of problems right now, but beyond that we’re no longer needed. So let’s see how we can solve this set of problems, and then move on with our lives.”
Vlad Costea: I have a question to which I think a lot of people can relate – if you were to discover cryptocurrencies for the first time right now in 2018, and you’re a teenager fresh out of high school, what would you get involved in? Don’t answer with your acquired knowledge and values, but try to think like your 18 year-old self and maybe judge according to the information you had at the time.
Riccardo Spagni: That’s a good question, and I guess that 18 year-old me or 20 year-old me… I was a nerd, technical and that’s what I would be attracted to. So Bitcoin would attract me because that’s where there is great dev and research talent. All the learning and the amount of interesting stuff that’s being done there would definitely attract me. And I guess that more than that, there would be a part of me that takes a look at fringe cryptocurrencies, new things that are largely unknown just to see maybe what’s next. You know, Bitcoin has exploded from a price perspective, it’s gone up so much over a decade, so maybe there is something on the fringe that will do something similar. I would imagine that’s how my brain works, or whatever worked at the time because no twenty year-old doesn’t want to make money or doesn’t want to be successful. So I guess it would be a combination of these two forces: on one hand see what is happening with all the interesting technical stuff, but on the other hand try to find the next big thing.
Vlad Costea: When I first got involved, I bought Ethereum, actually. And I bought the whole “world computer, decentralized application platform and smart contracts medium” hype and to me it seemed so good and promising. I just said to myself “This is the future!”, but as time went by I started to become more disillusioned with their governance and the way they handle the network. And that’s how I started to appreciate Bitcoin: once you get into Ethereum, you discover all these projects which promise better scalability, applications and whatnot. But at the same time, when you have something which is simple and immutable, and which has actually has proven to work… that’s hard to deny. You can just fork off Bitcoin today and change parameters and maybe make it generate blocks every 30 seconds, have bigger blocks, and then say you’re a genius who’s solved the scalability issue. But at the same time you’re not doing anything because you don’t have a network. There’s no security to protect your network, so there’s no future for you in this business. So I guess if you come today and you do that like the creator of Dogecoin did, you’re not going to be successful anymore.
Riccardo Spagni: Yeah, I definitely think that there’s not a lot of value going down that road and making… whatever, 500 gigabyte blocks. As this industry has matured and progressed, there’s definitely a lack of people digging in. A lot of people just touch the surface and think “I know this little piece of this and that’s enough for me to be an engineer who works on blockhain projects”. But there’s so much more, there’s a crazy amount of stuff that they are missing. And there’s not only this piece of information that they need to learn, there’s this whole stack of information beneath it. It’s like learning Darknet or some other high-level language like that and then going “Cool, I’m going to write my own operating system!”. No one would do that because that’s crazy! But that’s what’s happening in the cryptocurrency space right now. It’s like “I have this small amount of information and that’s enough for me to just roll my own cryptocurrency.
Vlad Costea: Yeah, and I guess you can see a lot of bad projects which rely on some kind of mathematics that they did, but that’s not how business works and that’s not how success is achieved – by plagiarizing some code and modifying some parameters. But anyway, I wanted to ask you something which is more light-hearted because you’re already tired and I guess you’ve had a long day already. What do you do for fun when you’re not working for Tari, Monero, or Globee? What kind of books do you read, what kind of music do you listen to?
Riccardo Spagni: So, I really enjoy science fiction. I think, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve probably lightened up a bit and I don’t read hard sci-fi as much as I used to. I am a big fan of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, which has gone though some turmoil… but the EU (and by EU I mean the Star Wars Expanded Universe, not the European Union) has gone through this massive turmoil because it’s been built over 30 years. And there are all these books and comics and games and all sorts of stuff! And there’s this amazing site Wookiepedia, and it’s like Wikipedia for Star Wars! They collected all this information and you can go read a character’s history, characters that no one’s ever heard of like Mara Jade… but they’re famous in the Star Wars EU! And you read all these references about where she’s depicted at and where she’s a character in a book, and sometimes it’s about the conflicting things: the character died in one book but appears in another, and now someone has to figure out how to fix that… It was all controlled and governed by LucasFilm. And then suddenly with the new films LucasFilm and George Lucas, I guess, went and pulled the plug! And then they’re like “The only things that are Star Wars right now are the Star Wars films, and we’re gonna have a new universe. And the new Star Wars films are gonna be part of that, and then we’re gonna release new books that don’t have to be guided by the old universe, so we’re just gonna throw all that stuff away.” So now when you go to Wookiepedia and look for Luke Skywalker, you can read the LucasFilm-approved stuff, and there’s a separate tab for the EU and we’re seeing what was written about him in the book for over 30 years. It’s crazy and there’s a whole lot of stuff there that I find really interesting because it’s not sci-fi really, it’s softer sci-fi… but it’s great!
And then I build Lego, I do a lot of Lego building and wait… (leaves for a moment).
Vlad Costea: Wait, so is that a Lambo or is it a Ferrari?
Riccardo Spagni: It’s a Ferrari Testarossa so… there’s a lot of cool stuff that I make and play with like that. This isn’t my design, this is by a guy called Jeroen Ottens who designs the most amazing and very very accurate Lego cars. So he designs a lot of cool stuff and I love his work.
Vlad Costea: That’s incredible! I was just thinking when you were telling the story of the Expended Universe… is there any way that you can have that sort of situation on the blockchain? And maybe have a game like Crypto Kitties but with Star Wars characters and expand upon that, have stories and evolve like an MMO?
Riccardo Spagni: You don’t really need a blockchain for that, but I’m sure there can be a blockchain component to it. I’m very interested in natively digital assets. So sure, you can have characters, they can acquire things over time, and those assets can be issued using a blockchain-like structure or something like that. And they can trade items on open markets. There’s lots of interesting things that I think game designers can do in the future to take advantage of things like a provenance, and bearer assets, and unregulated game item markets and that sort of thing.
Vlad Costea: Okay! So do you think there was any connection between Nicholas, the founder of Monero, and Satoshi?
Riccardo Spagni: So this question comes up from time to time… Probably not, I don’t know. The paper by Nicholas von Saberhagen, whether it’s a person or a group of people, was a little bit critical of Bitcoin or of aspects of Bitcoin. Maybe deservedly so, maybe that there are some things that Satoshi should have made more dynamic than he did, but I can’t imagine someone being that self-critical of something as revolutionary as Bitcoin. So I tend towards them not being the same person or not having any deep connection. Maybe some superficial stuff…
Vlad Costea: If you were to explain Monero to a 10 year-old kid, how would you put it?
Riccardo Spagni: I think this is more about explaining privacy to a 10 year-old kid, and I think at 10 we might be innocent in respect to the world around us and we might generally think that most people are good.
Vlad Costea: I didn’t, I used to get bullied in kindergarten, so no. They would steal my chocolate bars. I was this thin kid who was unnaturally tall for his age. So they would pick on me all the time.
Riccardo Spagni: Oh man, kids are a nightmare like that. I had my fair share of bullying in school. I didn’t have the easiest name, is sort of led itself towards things like “spaghetti” instead of Spagni (Spa-nee) as my surname. Eh, kids will be kids.
Vlad Costea: I don’t see the connection, but anyway… Spagni, spaghetti? Eh.
Riccardo Spagni: But to get back to the story, I think that the way that I would explain Monero to a 10 year-old kid is something on the lines of “Imagine people will want to steal your pocket money and the best way to make sure they won’t steal it is for them not to know how much pocket money you have or even if you have pocket money at all. If you go to school and you’re gonna buy a chocolate bar, then you’re gonna take money and go buy that chocolate bar. But then what if no one knows that you have that money and then there’s no risk of someone stealing it from you? And then leverage that and try to get the kid to understand the need for private money. I guess that the risk of theft is something that we can agree on pretty easily. Especially when we’re young, we’ve lost stuff, and we understand how frustrating it can be if someone stole it from us.
Vlad Costea: That’s a good explanation! I would actually make a parallel with chocolates and say “Don’t think about cryptocurrencies, this is your chocolate and you want to enjoy it and have a big chunk of it for most of the time. Sometimes you want to eat it, which is like spending it, or sometimes you want to keep it in the fridge but you don’t want other kids to know that it’s stored in there because they would be tempted to eat from it.
Riccardo Spagni: I think that’s a good way to explain, I like that.
Vlad Costea: I don’t think kids understand money, but they have something which is valuable to them. Something which they cherish like toys and sweets… And okay, I should get to more serious questions and I should wrap it up at some point. When you went to conferences, which I guess is a big part of your life, and you’re having this rock star lifestyle which involves going on tour with your projects, was there any moment at any point of your experience when you just saw something and you said to yourself “No way, this is not happening. I don’t believe it!”. Have you seen anything amazing or just plain stupid?
Riccardo Spagni: When I go to conferences, I don’t think there’s much rockstar happening. I think there’s a general respect amongst people that have been in the space for a while and it’s good to see friends… and then meet new people! I think there’s been a lot of interesting stuff that I’ve seen, I think probably the one thing that sticks with me as being really crazy is just the number of bizarre decision that people have taken for the sake of marketing. I think back to 2016 or 2015, when the North-American Bitcoin conference in Miami took place. DASH had a booth there and had this booth babe and she was dressed like… she was almost wearing nothing. Organizers went to her and asked her to put something on because she was dressed so skimpily. I mean booth babes in general are kind of eck, but in that instance in particular what does it have to do with your cryptocurrency? Does she have any information that she can share? Or is she just there because you think that the virtually gratuitous sex will somehow sell your product? You probably should sell on its merits, not because you have a booth babe. And that’s happened over and over again with the DASH party at the strip club which was earlier this year… stuff like this happens over and over again, people don’t learn their lesson. It’s not the way to do things, we can be better and we can do better than that.
Vlad Costea: Was there not a similar issue with Bitcoin Cash?
Riccardo Spagni: Yeah, they had the boat party or whatever. You know, at this point in time I’ve almost stopped following it because it’s so absurd. It’s the sort of stuff that I can’t imagine at a tech conference. Not to say that this is purely tech, but is the image of gratuitous partying what we want to create? Or are we trying to promote the image that we’re changing the world? And I’m not seeing much of the latter.
Vlad Costea: I think also the Lambo culture and everything that they depict on the news, with kids who got very rich… I have no idea why they bought Bitcoin early on, maybe to buy drugs on Silk Road. Yet somehow they forgot to use it and in a few years they became millionaires. I think they look for the sensational aspect and something that people would watch on television and say “That’s outrageous!”… maybe they just want to generate controversy because that’s what sells at the end of the day. But there are lots of very articulate people, and the more you watch good conference speeches, the more you realize that there’s a long-term plan in this space. When I first bought Ethereum, the price dropped for a few months and I was just panicking thinking to myself “Oh, I’m so doomed! This is the end of it, I think I bought too late and I got caught into this Ponzi”. And the more I read and the more I got into the technology, I realized that actually people have a plan and even though the market reacts according to maybe the irrational feelings of people at one point in time, there’s actually a roadmap and there’s enough of a reason to stay, remain involved in the industry. Maybe financially it’s a bad idea sometimes, maybe that it’s a bad idea to buy Bitcoin at 15000 and face a bear market through which you faithfully HODL, and maybe that it’s tough to hold on as you watch the price plummets. You have no certainty that the price will return to the top as quickly as you would expect it to, but at the same time it makes sense to stay involved and HODL. I’m not sure if you agree with me.
Riccardo Spagni: Something I’ve observed across the board is that there are definitely people who have made a little bit of money, their expenses have increased because they’ve changed their lifestyle, and now they can’t afford to maintain that lifestyle on their salary. And that’s sort of problematic and I feel like sort of slapping them to ask “What were you thinking?”. But that speaks volumes to me about maybe not just the HODL culture as a way of doing things, but just generally being like “Save your money, maybe just don’t spend it all at once and definitely don’t spend it so quickly that you stretch beyond your means.”
Vlad Costea: Do you have any political opinions in regards to how much liberty you should have and to which extent the state should get involved?
Riccardo Spagni: My only real political leaning is that I think mankind is particularly bad at governing itself. We’ve demonstrated that over a very, very long time over centuries and I don’t think any of the existing forms of government are perfect and I think we continuously prove that we’re bad at governing ourselves. I’m not even talking about governing ourselves on a governmental level, we’re bad even at a much smaller scale.
Vlad Costea: Like our own lives.
Riccardo Spagni: Yeah, my favorite thing is like getting a bunch of volunteers together. And living in South Africa, I work with a lot of volunteer organizations and groups of volunteers. You have 20 people volunteering and they’re here to do neighborhood watch, they volunteer for anti-rhino poaching… whatever it is, they have a common goal in mind: they love rhinos, they hate rhino poachers, so they’re volunteering with anti-rhino poaching guys. Everything’s cool until someone gets put in charge. Everything falls apart. But it’s not sustainable to not have anyone that’s put in charge, and then we all agree that we don’t like that one person who’s in charge. Okay, cool – so let’s have a committee! Then the committee doesn’t decide exactly what I want so I’m rage-quitting. We’re just so bad at it! And if we can’t even do it on the small scale, what makes us think we can do it on the big scale? And then here we are.
Vlad Costea: I agree with you, and to some extent I think you’ve described some of what I’ve read from Michel Foucault’s treaty on self-governance. It’s a formal book, but it’s actually a transcribed lecture from his class at Sorbonne or College de France. But he had these speeches about self-governance and how we should take care of our lives. And a lot of people got into this business of motivational speeches after being influenced by Michel Foucault.
Riccardo Spagni: Well, I learned something new to day!
Vlad Costea: So have I from you! So I guess it was a healthy trade.
Riccardo Spagni: Yeah.
Vlad Costea: I have two more questions and that’s it. And I’ll try to make them short. Do you think that there is any project of yours that you can look at and say “This is my masterpiece and this is what I want to be remembered for?”
Riccardo Spagni: Not maybe any particular project, I think it would be nice if one day I am remembered as being a good leader to my staff in my businesses. And my wife’s vegan and works out all the time and you know, she will outlive me by multiple decades… and I hope that when I’m gone she will remember me as a good husband who was kind to our dogs.
Vlad Costea: I’m also a vegetarian and I can sympathize, but you’re just assuming that you’re going to die young which is very rock n roll if you ask me. So we’re back to the initial theme.
Riccardo Spagni: Live fast, die young!
Vlad Costea: Okay, so it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
Riccardo Spagni: You know, I just wanna be that candle flickering in the wind, man!
Vlad Costea: “Candle in the Wind”, that’s another good song. Okay, so the last question is: do you see yourself retiring at some point or are you just the masochistic type who wants to code until his dying breath?
Riccardo Spagni: So you know, I’m in my 30s and I still play with Lego. That should tell you that I like building things. So I don’t think I’m gonna stop building things, that’s where I’m gonna go and that’s what I’m gonna do forever on one level or another. Building things doesn’t need to be building companies, it can involve organizations and helping people in other ways. But yeah, I’m always gonna be a builder, I don’t think I can stop being a builder, or at least stop the desire to be a builder.
Vlad Costea: So at the end of the day you do it for yourself and not for the impact it has on the society and the others around you?
Riccardo Spagni: Yeah, it’s partially selfish. I like building things.
Vlad Costea: Yeah, I can relate to that because I like to write. I can get paid for it, I can just do it for fun… good or bad, I just do it.
Riccardo Spagni: I think we do the stuff that drives us, and that’s the best way to live.