The world of bitcoin is like the Lord Of The Rings without the Hobbits. You’ve got Sauron (Satoshi Nakamoto, who essentially wants freedom from law), Saruman (Ross Ulbricht, the technologist who wants to unleash the currency no matter the cost). They are battled by folks like Boromir (the hapless Mark Karpeles), Aragon (Wences Cesares, the hidden knight) and the elves (Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss). Maybe Charlie Shrem is Gimli but, alas, there is no Gandalf in this tale – no one has died and returned reborn from the clutches of the Balrog (Goldman Sachs).
The fellowship, led by Cesares, has to scale Mt. Gox to wrest control of the financial Middle Earth from Sauron and bring peace and prosperity back to the Shire (Wall Street). That’s basically what Nathaniel Popper’s new book Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money is about: “There And Back Again” for the anarchocryptofiscalists.
This rollicking analogy almost perfectly describes Popper’s book. It’s a tale told quickly and well and each chapter follows, chronologically, a month in the life of bitcoin. Popper’s research is primarily gathered via IRC chat rooms an forums and he interviews all the major players. He tells their tales by turns, bringing Satoshi to the fore in one chapter and then the Winklevoss twins in the next. The tale of bitcoin has not yet sunk into legend and almost all of the major players are vibrant and real. His chapters on the Silk Road’s Ulbricht, told in an almost watercolor-like prose, paints the picture of a good kid gone bad. You almost feel sorry for him until you realize how blasé he was about sending “execution orders” that were never carried out.
The story, in short, is about acceptance. Popper paints the bitcoin picture as gray with a rosy future. By focusing on the later entrants in the space – Cesares primarily – he shows the currency’s attempts at legitimacy in the eyes of regulators and banks. Each story is similar. A small company is born, it grows like topsy, and then gets shut down by the government or a bank. It’s enough to make you scream until Popper quotes Cesares who said of Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, “I think whatever Jamie does or doesn’t do [about Bitcoin] will be as relevant as what the Postmaster General did or didn’t do about email.”
This book is a great primer on bitcoin and it gives you a quick rundown of all the major players. It is a very human book – rarely does Popper get bogged down in technical terms – and it makes it clear that Bitcoin is a boon more for business and less a technoutopianist super-currency. As you watch the price rise to stratospheric heights and then fall swiftly to a steady plateau you can almost feel the urgency of this new digital gold rush and you’re forced to marvel at men and women who made fortunes betting on bits. The language can be clunky at times (Popper notes the sexual attractiveness of the early bitcoin nerds a few too many times for some reason) but on the whole it is a readable adventure story about a battle that’s just beginning.