Bitcoin is often likened to the Internet, and arguably for good reason. The currency is a new, permissionless technology, championed by a small group of computer experts that say it will change the world in ways we can’t yet even imagine. That’s just how people talked about the Internet in the early nineties.
However, as with bitcoin, the hype has been accompanied by doom-mongering and naysaying.
Here are seven smart and stupid things people said about the Internet that have relevance for how we think about bitcoin today.
Let’s start with the stupid, because, hey, they are more fun.
1) Newsweek: ‘The Internet won’t change anything’
“The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”
Clifford Stoll’s infamous 1995 Newsweek piece might be the most myopic article ever published. The article, which you can read yourself if you’d like a laugh, takes aim at every potential use for the Internet people had suggested and dismisses it out of hand. Sound familiar?
To his credit, Stoll later, and with good grace, admitted the article was a pile of trash, saying “of my many mistakes, flubs, and howlers, few have been as public as my 1995 howler.”
But he did add something that’s worth keeping in mind when people mindlessly repeat phrases like the dogecoiners’ slogan “straight to the moon”.
“At the time, I was trying to speak against the tide of futuristic commentary on how The Internet Will Solve Our Problems.”
Perhaps, though, the most interesting part of his piece is a reference to there being no trustworthy way of sending money over the Internet. Depending on your opinion of the banking system, you might say it took until 2008 to solve that problem.
2) ‘What is the Internet anyway? … What do you write to it, like mail?’
The video above is an unaired segment from NBC’s ‘Today Show’ in 1994 and exemplifies perfectly the bemusement and confusion people felt towards the Internet.
People didn’t know what it was, what they would use it for, or even how to use it (lots of people still don’t know how to use it, if we’re totally honest).
Bitcoin today is the same, much of the confusion stemming from a focus on mining in initial mainstream discussions of the technology. Instead of being seen as a platform for permissionless innovation, as this Vox video eloquently put it, it’s thought of as a get-rich-quick scheme.
No doubt, most people reading this will have heard some variation of “what is bitcoin anyway? … Do you just make money with your computer?”
3) ‘I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse’
In 1995, the same year Clifford Stoll offered his analysis of the future of the Internet, Robert Metcalfe, who invented Ethernet, declared in an InfoWorld column that the Internet was totally screwed.
To be fair to Metcalfe, he did offer a list of reasons, which ironically includes, in a sense, the non-existence of bitcoin:
˝As if to make up for the shortage of real money to finance Internet commerce, several companies have been trying to mint digital money. They have, however, failed to streamline financial activity – there are now more, not fewer, middlepersons. Therefore, transaction costs, at 50 cents each or more, remain way too high. Without efficient micropayments, there will be little Internet commerce, except, maybe, but probably not, some advertising.˝
Of course, in 1996, the Internet didn’t collapse and, in 1997, Metcalfe, admitting his error, blended a copy of his column and drank it.
4) ‘The Internet, with its open, distributed structure, was designed to withstand a nuclear attack. If it can do that, it can withstand corporate America’
This is less of a stupid prediction than a poignant one, from science writer Barry Shell in 1995. As net neutrality dies in the United States, it seems that the Internet can’t in fact withstand corporate America.
A similar battle for the soul of bitcoin is going on at the moment. With ‘BitLicenses’ being issued in New York, centralized mining continuing to be a threat, and mainstream bitcoin businesses popping up, the idea of bitcoin as a weapon against governments and corporations is fading.
Of course, bitcoin’s proponents have varying motivations. Some see no problem with government regulation, others are at ease with corporate power, while some are continuing to build radical tools to prevent bitcoin becoming tamed.
5) ‘If you change the way you make wealth, you inevitably change the way you make war’
The longer form of futurist Alvin Toffler’s 1993 quote during an interview with Wired basically predicts cyberwarfare, warning people to “think in terms of the very, very smart hacker sitting in Tehran”. Although perhaps today we would think in terms of whole teams of very smart hackers sitting in Beijing.
Although it’s not often heard, some of bitcoin’s proponents, Roger Ver for example, see bitcoin in terms of changing the way government’s make war. That is, taking control of currency away from government (specifically the US government) reduces the amount of money they have to wage war.
“If you change the way you make wealth, you inevitably change the way you make war,” was said in 1993, but it wouldn’t sound out of place in a discussion about bitcoin today.
6) ‘Any future information network will help unhappy people secede, at least mentally, from institutions they do not like, much as the interstate highway system allowed the affluent to flee the cities for the suburbs and exurbs’
Few quotes describe more eloquently the glorious escapism the Internet provides than historian Edward Tenner’s comments in 1994. If you don’t like the circumstances that immediately confront you, the Internet provides a connection to other worlds, ideas and communities.
Bitcoin, as originally envisioned, was escapism of a different sort: escapism from a banking system that had just catastrophically crashed. ‘Be your own bank’, was the clarion call to those unhappy with the current financial system.
Libertarian backers of bitcoin, unhappy with government-controlled money, see it as means of creating a new discussion about the nature of money. For them the idea of digital money, created according to algorithmic rules, forces people to ‘secede mentally’ from the rigid orthodoxy that money must come from government.
7) ‘We have to resist media imperialism – the tendency to colonize, to define new technologies in terms of the old … Redefine, don’t repackage’
Over $250m-worth of venture-capital funding has been thrown at various bitcoin businesses, all of which, if one were to be critical, look entirely the same as the payment and finance companies that came before.
At the extreme end, Circle is upfront about its disguising the bitcoin part of its business as completely as possible from its users.
In 1995, Barry Diller, who is Chairman of Expedia, which recently began accepting bitcoin payments for hotel bookings, warned against using the past as a model for the future when thinking about, and creating products with, new, revolutionary technologies.
“We will fall short if we impose our own familiar business models on the coming convergence. Telephones were not just telegraphs with voice. Computers weren’t just calculators with keyboards. And in the future, no one will call your product ‘magazines with sound and moving pictures.’”
And perhaps bitcoin isn’t just ‘digital cash’.
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