They say the best journalists are cautious optimists. Idealists find themselves either unable to see the faults, or they get taken for a ride by their subjects. Cynics, they say, miss stories by being too jaded to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of mankind.
Michael J. Casey and Paul Vigna, the authors of The Age of Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money are Challenging the Global Economic Order, fall into the camp of cautious optimists.
The book is an exercise in journalism, it is written by two reporters who are clearly on the blockchain wagon but who are not certain the revolution is a foregone conclusion.
This attitude makes The Age of Cryptocurrency a fantastic read for anyone remotely interested in the development of blockchain. It mostly conquers the history and political context of Bitcoin but also slowly brings the reader along to a foundational understanding of the underlying technology.
For experts, the book is probably ‘below their level’, but it contains so many nuggets that even blockchain startup Founders might find some useful nuggets of history and cultural context.
What makes The Age of Cryptocurrency a useful book is in large part the result of its release date. Published in 2014, the book hit the shelves after Bitcoin had achieved a certain degree of momentum, but before it exploded into the mainstream in 2017.
The result is the book connects to the original, slightly underground, libertarian-leaning culture that has largely been pushed to the sidelines after cryptocurrencies exploded in the last year.
For the reader, this means they get an advantage of rising above the current media churn, helping them understand the origins of blockchain, and thus see where the road of cryptocurrencies is likely to lead.
One key feature of the book is it is focussed almost entirely on Bitcoin. It touches on other coins like Ripple and Ethereum, but in 2014 these technologies were nascent, so the authors were not entirely sure about the long-term potential of the alt-coins.
For example, when Casey and Vigna analyse the intellectual merits of a centralised vs. a decentralised platform, they briefly discuss the merits of Ripple, but then they quickly move on; and even then, the comparison is made through the lens of Bitcoin.
The Age of Cryptocurrency often spells out cultural, macro-economic and technological hurdles to the ‘great bitcoin financial proliferation’. Then, when they explain why the hurdles are not impenetrable walls, it lands effectively.
Casey and Vigna see the most potential for Bitcoin as an avenue to help the global poor. It is an argument that has been hashed out in many outlets, but they lay out the argument as to why Bitcoin makes it an enticing option for people trying to help the unbanked gain access to the financial system.
Other benefits of Bitcoin include the trillions of dollars it could save within our financial system; which Casey and Vigna brilliantly outline by explaining exactly what happens behind the scenes when somebody buys their morning coffee with a credit card.
Most importantly, the writer’s are clearly believers in the Bitcoin community. For example, one of Bitcoin’s potential pitfalls is the core ideology that decentralisation is better. Yes, it is what the coin is built upon, but there is nothing to suggest it’s actually a correct ethos.
There are a lot of benefits of a centralised financial system — highlighted by the fact that when shit really hits the fan, Bitcoin doesn’t have a regulatory body, and thus no big boss to fix the problem. One of the largest bugs to ever be discovered by the Bitcoin community was essentially fixed by four dudes — two of whom had to do it part-time because they had day jobs.
And yet, because Casey and Vigna believe in the community, they explain why having 10,000 coders constantly tinkering with the product is a far more important trait, and that Bitcoin will have to live with some scary pitfalls but it is better to to maintain its army of experts.
As written in the book: Yes, Bitcoin has its problems, but it also has 10,000 of the best coders in the world working hard to fix the issues. That is why people should believe.
The issue without a real solution
Towards the end of the book, Casey and Vigna bring up a problem that does not seem have a solution: massive disruption to the labour force. Yes, this has always been the push-pull of technology; carriage operators were pushed out by the automobile, chimney sweeps lost their jobs to centralised heating, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
However, if Bitcoin truly takes off the way its evangelists hope, this isn’t a discussion about robots taking jobs, it is complete reconstruction of money.
The current financial system was largely the invented during the renaissance, and hasn’t changed that much at its foundation. While crypto fans point out very real problems with the system, it’s impossible to argue that it has not been a net-positive for humanity.
If do switch to a decentralised financial system, Bitcoin will be upending 600 years of cultural norms, system evolution and technological development. This level of disruption would be tremendous, and could possible be reminiscent of, well, the Renaissance.
This is not to say any of this is bad, but more to recognise exactly what is being proposed.
So again we run into another example as to why this book is valuable; it presents a huge problem, but does so in a way that does not try to hammer in the last nail of the crypto-coffin.
One final takeaway in one sentence
The greatest potential for cryptocurrencies — at least in the next decade — is not in mass adoption by civilians, but rather as a facilitator for B2B transactions.
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