Book in Brief: ‘Digital Gold’

I just finished Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money by Nathaniel Popper.

I’ve been fascinated with Bitcoin since I first heard about it during a discussion group at a conference in 2010.  Only recently have I begun digging deeper into the tech side (as much as my non-tech brain allows) and some of the stories and personalities behind it.

Digital Gold is not primarily about the tech or ideology or economics of Bitcoin, but the stories of the earliest enthusiasts.

The Good

The book introduces at least a few dozen individuals in the early Bitcoin scene, from the earliest programmers to more recent big-name investors.  It also provides a timeline of events along with Bitcoin’s price history, and makes the eight years of Bitcoin feel like a grand century-long epoch.  It’s a relatively easy, quick read with pretty decent layman’s descriptions of some of the tech behind cryptocurrency.

The Bad

There are several elementary attempts at subtle “gotcha’s” baked into the book, which reveal a sort of childlike worldview about the nature of order and the value of violence-backed authority.  The author laughably implies that the libertarian Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht was only able to build the site only thanks to his education at the government subsidized University of Texas.  He also implies that there is some kind of hypocrisy in Bitcoin investor Roger Ver choosing to live in Japan, since Ver is libertarian and Japanese culture is orderly and steeped in tradition.

Conflation of libertarianism with a desire for disorder, or the assumption that emergent norms and traditions are less orderly than what Mises called the “planned chaos” of government reveal a fairly low-level of sophistication when it comes to understanding how society works.  This worldview surfaced several times, with passing comments about the potential dangers of money without a single authority to regulate it (despite the obviousness of anarchy dominating the history of money, language, law, and culture), and a willingness to worry about criminal acts committed with cryptography, but less concern about far more massive and obvious evils built into the foundation of governments and carried out daily by regulators seeking to shut down Bitcoin business.

The story carries itself and the slight deference to authoritarian outlooks was only rarely bad enough to be distracting, but it definitely tainted the book at times with a condescending tone that would have been better avoided.

The Verdict

If you already know Bitcoin, probably not a lot of new stuff here.  If you are interested in understanding the currency itself, I’d start first with What’s the Big Deal About Bitcoin by Steve Patterson.  But if you’ve heard bits and pieces of the personal stories and want to get a timeline of the players in the history of crypto, it’s worth a read.  However, if you only have an hour, the Netflix documentary Banking on Bitcoin covers an abbreviated version of the same story arc and many of the same people.