Book Review: “Digital Gold” by Nathaniel Popper

Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper

Nathaniel Popper writes for the NYT, and this book is a piece of long form journalism. He focuses on the stories of the people involved in the Bitcoin “community”, focusing on their motivations and relationships. Based on journalistic research and lots of personal interviews, the result is relatively light on technical discussion (which there are plenty of elsewhere) and very heavy on the insides of business development.

As such, Popper makes a valuable contribution to understanding the sociotechnical phenomenon that is Bitcoin. There are many events and arguments that made little sense to normal people in the real world, but can be understood from the motivations and characters of the people involved.

In fact, many things make so much more sense when filled out with the details Popper gives us. For instance, I’ve never groked Xapo at all, but Popper does a nice job of tracing where it came from and what it is trying to do. I still don’t really need the service, but at least I get the point of it now.

One big weakness in the book is Popper’s Bitcoin-centric bias. (I’m pretty sure this reflects the attitudes of people he talked to.) He barely considers the broader picture of cryptocurrencies, especially the extended family of alt-coins. He appears to have drunk the cool-ade, and believe that Bitcoin is the only cryptocurrency. Of course, that isn’t true.

Through Popper’s journalistic/historical treatment, the book gives us some insight into the various sub-communities surrounding Bitcoin. We see the technologists, represented by Gavin Andresen and his colleagues. We see the libertarian, “blow up the government” guys, such as Roger Vers and Erik Vorhees, and the VC crowd including Marc Andreessen and the Wikievoss twins.. We also see the bumbling, ramshackle early “innovators”, including Jeb McCaleb, We see the different enthusiasms in Argentina, led by Wences Casarea and in China, represented by the Lee brothers. We also see the blatent misbehavior and criminality of Mark Karpeles, David Shrem, and Ross Ulbricht.

Popper chooses to tell the story of this community through the eyes of these “great men” (and yes, they are all men). “The community” to him means these big shots who gather at (and invite him to) their posh private resorts. The only exception to this patter is the brief mention of the programmers who contributed so much (for little, if any, repayment) to the open source core software. I’m pretty sure that these acknowledgements came via Gavin Andresen, who is a straight up guy, and not interested in being the poster child.

I must say that the emphasis on the business activities got very old. Aside from the fawning treatment Popper gives these privileged men (the only women in the story are government people or girlfriends), it is just plain boring to read about their self-centered and self-important dealings. The more money you have, the more important your opinion in this book. And so on. It’s worse than wrong, it boring.

In addition to this “great men” history, Popper tries to impose a narrative arc on what is an organic and chaotic set of events. If you knew nothing but what appears in this book, you would be under the impression that Bitcoin was progressing, apparently naturally, from an infantile libertarian, “hobbyist” project, through an adolescent “fringe users” (such as drugs and gambling), to adulthood in the financial elite. He also perceives a “Silicon Valley versus Wall Street” contest, which is part of the larger New York versus California contest that is so salient to New Yorkers, if not to the rest of us. He has difficulty fitting the Chinese and Argentinian stories into this picture, as well as the rest of real life.

Popper is correct that there are many “narratives” built around Bitcoin, and they are inconsistent, incompatible, and even in conflict. Throw in competing alternative cryptocurrencies and other technologies, and you have a very complex sociotechnical story.

As I have said before, many of these “cultural narratives” have incorporated cryptocurrency into their own, already existing stories. They each tell a story about Bitcoin (or an alternative cryptocurrency), and invite people to enact a role in this participatory theater. For example, the libertarian secessionists are invited to mint money and operate an economy without banks. Bitcoin trading invites everyone to play the game of (international) currency arbitrage. And so on.

These narratives exist and persist at the same time, but there is no “arc of history” here. That is a journalistic bias, and bad history. It will also lead you badly astray if you thin you know where cryptocurrency is headed based on this notion: cryptocurrency is heading in many directions at once, driven by technical, political, economic, and social factors

In this respect, cryptocurrency is an ambiguous Rorschach test, upon which people project their own hopes and anxieties. This is, in fact, the most interesting thing about Bitcoin. Note that this is definitely not a case of “technological determinism”, in fact, quite the opposite!

Altogether, this book is an important contribution, but should not be read in isolation.


 

  1. Popper, Nathaniel, Digital Gold: Bitcoin And The Inside Story of The Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money, New York, HarperCollins, 2015.
  2. McGrath, Robert, You Shall Not Crucify The Internet On This Cross of Bitcoin, in Very Much Wow. 2014: Albuquerque. p. 34-37. http://issuu.com/verymuchwow/docs/vmw3/35?e=11558635/8421855

 

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