November 17, 2018

The Prophets of Cryptocurrency

“Not long ago, I was in Montreal for a cryptocurrency conference. My hotel, on the top floor of a big building downtown, had a roof garden with a koi pond. One morning, as I had coffee and a bagel in this garden, I watched a pair of ducks feeding on a mound of pellets that someone had left for them at the pond’s edge. Every few seconds, they dipped their beaks to drink, and, in the process, spilled undigested pellets into the water. A few koi idled there, poking at the surface for the scraps. The longer I watched, the more I wondered if the ducks were deliberately feeding the fish. Was such a thing possible? I asked the breakfast attendant, a ruddy Quebecer. He smiled and said, “No, but it is what I tell the children.”

My mind had been marinating overnight—and for more than a year, really—in the abstrusities of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology on which they are built. Bitcoin and, subsequently, a proliferation of other cryptocurrencies had become an object of global fascination, amid prophecies of societal upheaval and reform, but mainly on the promise of instant wealth. A peer-to-peer money system that cut out banks and governments had made it possible, and fashionable, to get rich by sticking it to the Man.

Some of this stuff I understood; much of it I still did not. If you’re not, say, a computer scientist or a mathematician, the deeper you get into the esoterica of distributed ledgers, consensus algorithms, hash functions, zero-knowledge proofs, byzantine-fault-tolerance theory, and so on—the farther you travel from the familiar terrain of “the legacy world,” where, one blockchain futurist told me, pityingly, I live—the better the chance you have of bumping up against the limits of your intelligence. You grasp, instead, for metaphors.”

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