If you owned a share of an experimental technology, how much of it would you give up to help that technology grow? Startup founders do this calculus whenever they raise capital. Ten years ago today, a developer named Laszlo Hanyecz did it with bitcoin.
Hanyecz is known as the first person to use bitcoin in a commercial transaction. On May 22, 2010, when bitcoin was a little over a year old, he bought two pizzas for 10,000 BTC. The day is now known as "Bitcoin Pizza Day." With one bitcoin now worth $9,500, this is apparently a joke and Hanyecz's $45 million pizzas are the punchline.
The joke is also a parable, illustrating the competition and interplay between three potential uses of bitcoin. The first is speculation. Bitcoin's nosebleed-inducing decade of upward price movement is what drives CNBC headlines and motivates participation: People see it as a way to get rich. "Bitcoin is a way to harness greed," said Hanyecz in a recent interview from his home in Jacksonville, Fla. It's greed that underpins the delicate balance of incentives that keeps bitcoin running.
Hanyecz understands that balance well, having been a contemporary of bitcoin’s pseudonymous founder, Satoshi Nakamoto (he says they messaged a few times), and an early bitcoin miner who tinkered to mine more efficiently and earn more bitcoin.
"Speculation" is sometimes treated as though it were not a legitimate use. It is, and it has been, an important part of bitcoin's DNA from birth. Even U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has spoken respectfully of bitcoin's role as a "speculative store of value."
The volatility that makes bitcoin attractive to investors also makes it difficult to use as money, or "electronic cash," as the Bitcoin white paper specifies. Hanyecz's solid-gold pizzas show us that if CoinDesk paid me in bitcoin, one of us would likely get rekt.
Or would we? Hanyecz works for apparel brand GORUCK as a developer and, partly because he is internet-famous, the e-commerce company is one of a handful that accepts bitcoin. It's a small volume, about two or three orders per week over the past two years, Hanyecz told me. But it's working out.
"We've just been holding it and we're actually up a significant amount," he said. "We had some people check out at $3,000, we had some people check out at $11,000. The dollar cost averaging people talk about, it works really well."
That doesn't mean bitcoin for everyday purchases is really a thing most businesses can support, although there are projects, like Lightning Pizza, to make it easier for consumers.
"It's common knowledge that anybody who held for four years is in the money," Hanyecz said. "But businesses can't generally afford to just hold for four years and not pay their rent."
Bitcoin as digital gold, or a store of value to accumulate and hold for the long term, has proven more attractive than commerce, as a pair of recent events underscore. First, bitcoin's halving showed in real time bitcoin's inviolable issuance schedule all while central banks test just how much money they can print on demand. Then, on Wednesday, as I was writing down questions for Hanyecz and trying to home-school my kids, someone moved bitcoin that had been sitting in the same place since February 2009.
Hodling is part of what drives the value of bitcoin up, as low velocity can do for any currency. But low velocity can't be the whole story, as Hanyecz realized early on, looking at bitcoin as an experiment.
"It was a really interesting system but nobody's using it," he said. "If nobody's using it, it doesn't matter if I have it all."
As widely known and held as bitcoin may be, it's still an experiment. With hedge fund household names placing long-term bets on its viability as "digital gold," that narrative seems set in stone. In fact, it's malleable, like the metal. Ten years from now, it may seem as absurd as a $45 million pizza.
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