Digital Gold: Bitcoin and Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money by Nathaniel Popper

An entertaining, informative, non-technical, character-driven narrative and introduction to Bitcoin. 

Popper recounts the origins of Bitcoin: it was an attempt by fringe, anarchist-libertarian online communities (the Cypherpunks) to create a currency that decentralizes the power held by state monetary institutions and allows individual privacy against centralized governments and large corporations in financial transactions–a reconceptualization of money. Members in these communities tried for over a decade to look for a solution, until in 2008 the enigmatic Satoshi Nakamoto came up with a solution in the form of blockchain technology, a decentralized, communally held database of financial transactions.

In Bitcoin’s early days, people got involved due to their political ideals and the promise that the technology held for the future: Bitcoin grew slowly through fringe online communities. Once it became mainstream, Bitcoin lost these ideals, it became appropriated by and subsumed under the organizations and institutions that it was originally dreamed up to resist, and the founding communities were pushed aside by Silicon Valley and to a lesser extent, Wall Street. (Although it was used in different ways in different contexts; in Argentina, due to an unstable currency and state manipulation of currency exchange rates, Bitcoin functioned as an alternative currency that displaced state authority.)

Popper writes a very character-centered narrative, as if the story of Bitcoin could be written through the activities of a handful of men. For example, he writes on page 265 that “Collins and Patrick shared a similar genial sensibility and a dry sense of humor, and they fell into an easy relationship”–could Bitcoin have gone in a completely different direction if they did not have a dry sense of humor? (This was when the American government thought of Bitcoin as a menacing technology for black market activities; Collins and Patrick represented a sympathetic government official and a lawyer advocating for Bitcoin, respective.) Popper seems to suggest from this narratorial technique that Bitcoin could have went in a completely different direction if were not for these individual decisions. Earlier on Bitcoin’s history (when it was still being discussed by the Cypherpunks) this might have been true; while I am critical it makes the narrative entertaining nonetheless.

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