The price of bitcoin is skyrocketing. In the past month it’s increased in value by 95 percent, hitting an all time high of $2,400. This inspires a very important question: What should I do with my very small amount of bitcoins that has suddenly become a nice bit of money?
Okay, it’s not that much, stop begging. My .03 bitcoins that I purchased for about $20 online out of boredom are now worth $75. That’s about 7.8 Chipotle burritos here in New York. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and I love Chipotle. (Plus, I’m told there may be ethics issues around owning bitcoin as a reporter.) But there is some unexplainable force that is making me second-guess taking a trip down to my local bitcoin ATM and receiving my week’s worth of burritos. It’s the idea that Bitcoin could, for whatever reason, continue to increase at the same pace. What if, in just a couple months from now, my spare Bitcoins could be quantified not in terms of tasty and reasonable priced Mexican food, but in terms of rent payments?
Nobody is really sure why Bitcoin keeps rising. Is it the uncertainty around the economy driven by an erratic US president? Is it driven by strategic investments from big players including investors in China and Japan? Is it that “takes bitcoin” is now a category on Yelp, or that Russian regulators likened it to a sort of beneficial bacterium? Or is it being manipulated by some conspiracy of hackers using a “dark pool”? I don’t know, and I don’t care. This guessing game has been going on since bitcoin started to get mainstream news coverage in 2011, and if anyone says they know what’s driving its machinations, they have their heads up their butts.
Thanks to my low impulse control, general desire for money, and fear of an unexpected crash, I took the plunge and went to the nearest bitcoin ATM in Manhattan. My experience there illustrates how, in 2017, eight-and-a-half years after the infamous Satoshi Nakamoto white paper announcing a decentralized, semi-anonymous currency that would subvert oppressive governments and greedy middlemen, the experience of doing any transaction in bitcoin is still extremely broken.
When I arrived, I realized the ATM was actually inside a small real estate office. “I guess the owner is really into bitcoin,” one of the agents explained to me.
I’ve used a Bitcoin ATM once before, at the Bitcoin Center on Wall Street, and it was a truly miserable experience. I inserted cash into a unusally large machine, hoping to receive bitcoin, but the machine crashed halfway through my transaction, keeping my cash inside. I took down the number of one of the attendants, and a couple days later someone who appeared to work at the Bitcoin center personally sent me bitcoin.
That was more than two years ago. I figured the experience of using a Bitcoin ATM might have become a little more seamless. I was, of course, wrong. Magic internet money used by hackers and nerds is never going to be simple.
“I guess the owner is really into bitcoin.”
This time I was trying to get sweet green paper out of the machine. This required me to scan a QR code and send my bitcoins into the abyss. I was able to successfully drain my wallet of all the bitcoin I owned and then… nothing. The machine reverted to the start screen.
Just like last time, I called the number printed on the wall, and an apologetic man named Nick said he would come to the real estate office to give me cash. The ATM runs out of receipt paper sometimes, he explained, and I need a receipt to get my cash. He told me he would be there in an hour, so I waited outside, resigned to stand there until I was made whole. Twenty minutes later, one of his employees appeared with a crumpled $100 bill. I gave him $20 out of my wallet to make up the difference, plus, I guess, $5 for the inconvenience, and I was on my way. Technology is amazing!
Bitcoin may very well surge to astronomical highs, but if changing it to something I can actually buy burritos with is always going to be that difficult, I’d rather not bother.