Adam B. Levine calls “The Age of Cryptocurrency” by Paul Vigna and Michael J. Casey “a very positive book about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency.”
“This is the first book focused on a historical perspective of the first few years of Bitcoin.”
—Adam B. Levine
In episode 182 of the Let’s Talk Bitcoin! (LTB) podcast, Levine speaks with the authors about the book and how they came to write it. Vigna and Casey are reporters with the Wall Street Journal, one of the first mainstream publications to cover digital currencies.
The authors say they began a daily roundup on the topic, called the BitBeat, when they were “pitched more stories than they could possibly cover.” The roundup runs—lately about twice weekly—as a regular part of WSJ’s MoneyBeat blog.
The goal of the book, according to Casey, was to look at the positives and negatives of cryptocurrency technology as both a foundation and a platform. He said:
“It’s hard to deny, and you even get some of the skeptics out there admitting, that the technology is pretty groundbreaking and quite revolutionary.”
The two wanted to “explore all the possibilities of the blockchain and not get locked into a silly debate about whether the currency should be worth ‘this’ or ‘that.’”
Vigna’s perspective in the two years while writing the book went from “this is an interesting, almost quirky story, ... to thinking ‘wow, this is really revolutionary.’” Now he says he doesn’t see it as revolutionary anymore, but “almost as evolutionary, an inevitable next step in how money is handled.”
By the end of writing the book, he says he and Casey “came to see Bitcoin differently.” They wrote a chapter about Bitcoin 2.0, a topic which he now sees after publication as “probably the most important” topic, going “beyond Bitcoin’s utility as a currency.”
Levine points out that “this is the first book focused on a historical perspective of the first few years of Bitcoin.” Before now, authors have focused on writing “the nuts and bolts of ‘what is Bitcoin?’”
Vigna and Casey conducted a lot of book research and many interviews, talking to “as many of the cypherpunks” as they “could get their hands on,” except for the ones who “didn’t like to talk.”
The one person they felt most fortunate to speak with was Hal Finney, said Vigna, whom they talked to before his death in the fall of 2014. They had to go through Finney’s wife because Finney couldn’t speak. The couple gave the authors access to all of Finney’s emails with Satoshi Nakamoto from when they were just starting to set up Bitcoin in early 2009.
The authors want to show that Bitcoin didn’t come “out of thin air,” and that “there’s a history to [digital currency].” Casey says,
“Citibank at some stage in the '90s was trying to make its own digital currency. There was a big move to create the technology that would be there to facilitate e-commerce. The credit cards ultimately won. They figured out a way to do that online and ... at that moment, you get the consolidation of Wall Street with commercial banking. [...] We end up with this ‘too big to fail’ banking model and credit cards online, and it all kind of blows up in 2008—quite fortuitously at the time that Satoshi Nakamoto releases his white papers.”
They talk about all the different groups that came together in order to make Bitcoin what it is today. The “rowdy, anti-establishment utopians,” the “tech for tech’s sake” crowd, the “proverbial suits” of Silicon Valley, and finally those of Wall Street. In the words of Vigna:
“In a very short time, you’ve had extremely different groups of people all get hooked by this thing. And even though they may not agree with each other, they all reinforce each other. ... And then you have people from the outside of it, like Michael and I, journalists. ... We’re not ‘Bitcoiners.’ We’re journalists, trying to tell a story.”
Among these groups, says Casey, lies a tension-filled division of opinion—a “fault line”—between those who prefer centralization and those who prefer decentralization. The hardcore libertarians want nothing to do with centralized authority, while the regulators want to centralize everything. “To make [Bitcoin] work and bring it mainstream,” he says, “will [require] an ongoing negotiation, a conflict resolution process between these different factions.”
The discussion moves on to mining. Casey says some people think that we’re simply moving centralization from one group of people, the banks, and to another group of people, the miners—who themselves are becoming more concentrated and more powerful.
This argument is “somewhat articulate,” he says, but it “fundamentally misunderstands” the aspect of the dynamic that changes the game completely—Bitcoin has a “self-correcting nature.” Casey concedes that mining is a problem and that there have been scams, but “somewhere along the line,” he believes, “the innovative process that has been unleashed is going to resolve this.”
A Washington Post review of the book says that Vigna and Casey, in the “most thorough and readable account of the short life of this controversial currency, ... resist the common temptation to hype their trendy subject.”
While positive, the Post brings the optimism expressed in the LTB podcast down a notch. Author Daniel Gross writes, "Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies aren't really challening the global economic order" (referring to the subtitle of the book). He says:
“[Cryptocurrencies] remain marginal, unstable and little understood, and their spread has done nothing to chip away at the dominance of the Federal Reserve and ... the currencies managed by those enormously powerful central banks attached to enormously powerful governments.”
The Post also quotes less optimistic passages from the book, including the authors’ conclusion that “Bitcoin will end up something less than the stateless, third-party-less utopian dream of its most passionate supporters.” In the end, say the authors, according to Gross, Bitcoin may do no more than force upon the present, inevitably centralized financial system “some much needed competition and discipline.”
The LTB podcast ends with each author reading a chosen section from the book. Vigna tells about an Afghan girl who enrolls in a digital literacy program and studies what women in the country are not allowed to study—the internet, technology, and blogging. She begins her own blog, writing movie reviews for a site that pays its female contributors in Bitcoin. The girl is able to do what few women in Afghanistan are able to do: earn her own income, keep it in her own account, and “learn to stand on her own feet.”
Casey chooses a story about Argentina, where he lived for six years. The country, once the world’s 7th richest, is now ranked near 80th. Corrupt governments have eroded trust in all but paper currency, and Casey must complete a shady backroom deal in order to sell his Argentine apartment and somehow transfer US$280,000 in paper bills to his bank account in the United States.
The moral of Casey’s story is about trust, an aspect of Bitcoin that provides one of its core strengths. The cryptocurrency’s very existence disrupts the foundations on which people have historically built trust. Some find this frightening. Others find it comforting.
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