I first heard about Bitcoin — the mysterious cryptocurrency established in 2008 in order to purchase drugs on the dark web — around 2012, when a friend told me that a dude we’d known in college had made $100,000 off Bitcoin then blown it all on a backpacking trip in Europe. He was really into video games and 4Chan, so he seemed like the exact type of person who would randomly get rich off of some meme. Therefore, I very quickly forgot about Bitcoin, because it was very clearly not going to stick around.
But it did. After years of being sort of a joke to everyone but libertarian internet people and college students, Bitcoin transcended its shady origins to become A Thing. The word “blockchain” slithered into our culture, becoming one of those terms that we all collectively agree to pretend to understand but actually don’t. The price of Bitcoin went up, from a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand, and then people who hadn’t sold their Bitcoin suddenly became legitimately rich. And because America has turned into that Mr. Show sketch where it’s automatically assumed you’re a genius if you have a lot of money, we all had to listen to whatever they had to say, even if all they wanted to talk about was creating a Bitcoin-only city in the desert ruled by robots or how Bitcoin will be very convenient once everyone lives on the moon.
Bitcoin is a cool idea in the abstract. It’s imaginary money that lives on the internet. It was created in response to the banking crisis that led to the financial crisis and therefore is meant to explicitly exist outside of government control, which seems pretty neat when someone like Donald Trump is in charge of your government. Its value is derived from its users’ shared belief that it’s just as good as regular money, which gestures towards the type of collective action we’d need to make the world a better place.
The price of Bitcoin goes up and down a bunch, which means if you buy a tiny little bit of it you’re constantly riding a roller coaster, albeit one that mainly goes down very fast. For a moment, it was a new idea, and new ideas are inherently hard to come by. New ideas are often quite fun, as well — they offer opportunities to experiment, to waste time, to reframe your thinking about entire structures. They stop being fun, however, once people figure out ways to exploit them and gain an advantage not in some hypothetical future world but in our current one.
Last year, the cryptocurrency surged in value for several months, hitting a high-water mark of approximately $17,000. I distinctly remember one particularly insane Bitcoin day from that period, when a friend and I met up to do some work together only to have our hypothetically productive afternoon shattered by frantic instant messages from his brother, a finance professional who joyfully updated us as his one Bitcoin gained $3,000 in value in just a few hours.
The potential for dizzying profits begat both a media frenzy and, more importantly, an influx of opportunists, whose bad ideas have systematically sunk any chance ever of Bitcoin being a fun novelty ever again. And when I say “bad ideas,” I don’t mean the impractical pipe dreams like creating Bitcoin-based utopias in the desert or proposing that we structure our nonexistent moon economy around cryptocurrency. I mean things like former Mighty Ducks star turned crypto-evangelist Brock Pierce leading a band of Bitcoin millionaires on a mission to colonize Puerto Rico with an alarming degree of success, or how the company Blockstream currently has five satellites orbiting the earth, “providing anyone in the world with the opportunity to use Bitcoin,” as its website gloats. If we ignore this theory that Bitcoin was given to us by aliens (another crazy and therefore fun idea), do you know how much bullshit we have in space already? Way, way too much. A Republican congressman from Ohio wants to create a cryptocurrency to fund Trump’s long-threatened border wall. Oh, and it turns out that prominent members the alt-right, as well as out-and-out neo-Nazis, love Bitcoin because unlike GoFundMe or PayPal, its decentralized nature means supporters can fund those causes without getting kicked off its payment network. While Bitcoin is certainly nifty to play around with and comes in handy if you’re a budding psychonaut trying to order psychedelic research chemicals from Canada, the main people who take advantage of Bitcoin’s unique functionality seem to by and large only trying to use it for evil or profit (which is also evil).
There is a bunch of infrastructure that now exists around Bitcoin. There are a million other cryptocurrencies, plus a bunch of apps and services and incubators that piggyback off of Bitcoin and those other cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin is by no means too big to fail, but it’s the exact right size for its probable failure to kind of suck for a bunch of people who bet the farm on it.
As a general rule, things that are practical tend to be neither cool nor fun. This handy-dandy heuristic also provides some insight into why, as Bitcoin became more well-known, as more stuff sprung up around it, and as cryptocurrency in general became a “space” for “innovation,” Bitcoin itself went down the drain. It’s currently worth around $3,500 per coin, which is $1,000 less than the current electricity cost of mining one on your computer. (Disclosure: I own about $50 worth of Bitcoin because I am dumb as shit.)
Maybe the thing that comes after Bitcoin will be more boring but more useful, and its creators will figure out how to structure it in a way that helps to uplift marginalized people who could use a new way to interact with money without providing opportunities for scammers, assholes, and people who are already rich to profit off of it. Maybe the thing that comes after Bitcoin will be so weird and abstract that it helps someone out there come up with an idea to destroy capitalism and replace it with something better. Maybe nothing will come after Bitcoin, and humanity will focus its collective efforts onto something more productive. But probably not.