On the days when Bitcoin crashes, a holiday atmosphere takes over in my corners of the internet. People tweet screengrabs of Reddit fights. It’s always good fun to watch strangers grieve as their digital nonsense nickels melt into slag.
It’s not that I want Bitcoin holders to suffer, really. As a technologist and entrepreneur, I’m sympathetic to and admiring of risk takers. But as a writer, I enjoy the sheer human-condition-revealing sport. I’m happy to watch other people play video games without playing myself. I’ll watch poker, but I’ve never bought a deck of cards—and when I watch football, I keep the official NFL rulebook open on my phone. For whatever reason, I tend to like the rules more than the game. Bitcoin is at some level just a set of rules, defined by software, that has become one of the world’s weirdest games. And people who invest in an unmanageable abstraction, then panic when it underperforms, are very entertaining.
Everyone’s so excited and having such a good time, the sort of time you have right before they invade Paris. Watching the world of initial coin offerings over the past few years has been like watching popcorn pop. Everything rattled around in the hot air for what seemed like forever and then pop! Mastercoin! Ethereum! Bancor! Tezos! Then other kernels started popping, and now we’re eating popcorn for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Blockchain startups visit our software agency and promise to pay in dollars, then add, “There are, however, other ways to get paid.” Everyone is smart and well-funded. And, yes, some blockchain startups (but never, ever the ones that visit us) seem comical—so many graphs! Some are even deliberately so, like Useless Ethereum Token, whose logo is a raised middle finger. “There will be no expectation of gains,” says the UET website. Naturally, buyers have taken on about $300,000 worth.
The people tossed around by the cryptocurrency tempest—their only sin is belief. (Well, and greed.) But here I can only smile warmly and sigh. I know what it’s like to believe.
I loved the web the moment I saw it, first as words on a DEC VT320 command-line terminal and then as many-size text with pictures and bright blue links. You could read things published in Switzerland! Or at MIT! The ageographicality of it all! I was in college when the web happened. I’d already used the internet for email and to download files, but here was something that married my utterly aspirational aspiration to write with my ability to perform repetitive clerical tasks—i.e., to program. No longer would I have to photocopy my own zines; the internet would photocopy them for me.
After college, at night in Brooklyn, I made my own web pages. In the morning I’d wake up, check if anyone had visited my site, then head to my job in Manhattan making web pages for companies. Money poured in—a bit into my bank account and floods of it elsewhere. Options, percentages, deal flow. I worked for a 30-person company that was bought to seed a much larger firm. The new office was on Fifth Avenue, and the new boss was from Microsoft. She brought her small dog.
It was a world of wonder and comedy. The Super Bowl ads were all dot-coms; co-workers were sleeping together; and before pitch meetings, the dog pooped under the vast glass conference table. I went to a Yahoo! party that featured a fake volcano. Manhattan bookstores were displaying Dow 30,000 by 2008: Why It’s Different This Time, not to mention Dow 36,000, and Dow 40,000: Strategies for Profiting From the Greatest Bull Market in History, and Dow 100,000: Fact or Fiction.
Everyone jabbered about initial public offerings, investment, and venture capital, and said “revolutionary” a lot. I knew I was supposed to have an opinion on how the web and the capital markets interacted, but I just wanted to write stuff and put it online. Or to talk about web standards—those documents, crafted by committees at the World Wide Web consortium, that defined the contract between a web browser and a web server, outlining how HTML would work. These standards didn’t define just software, but also culture; this was the raw material of human interaction. I could barely comprehend the new frontiers into which I awoke each morning.
That all of this adds up to money is ridiculous, and we should probably mock it more than we do
I first stumbled upon Bitcoin in 2009 and found it vaguely interesting. I understood it—or rather misunderstood it—as yet another take on micropayments, with a dash of old-school virtual currencies such as Beenz and Flooz, plus some spam-fighting ideas. My math is trash, so the Bitcoin white paper made no sense, but I still tried to mine a few coins, without success. I didn’t like wasting my Mac’s central processing unit cycles on folly, so I shrugged the whole thing off.
There’s no easy way to explain Bitcoin, but let me wave my hands and try: When you go to the ATM at a store and get…