I attended Dominic Frisby’s talk at Brian’s, and Brian asked me to write about what I learned.
The talk did not get far into the technicalities of Bitcoin, which was good for me as I already think I know most of it. Until recently I knew some of it, and two articles by Ken Shirriff completed that picture.
But Dominic is not the quiet, contemplative, theoretical person that I am. When he wants to find something out, he goes out and talks to people. This means he has lots of stories. And so I learnt of his experiences attending a Bitcoin auction under a marquee in a London back-street (the most culturally diverse gathering he has ever attended), talking to wealthy Bitcoin owners who live in squats and are part of the Occupy movement, and exploring the myriad Darknet marketplaces that have sprung up after the demise of Silk Road. He compared Bitcoin now to Rock and Roll in the 50s. People are doing it for fun, with irreverence, but also a sense that it is something big and uncontrollable, and with the same pattern of reaction from authorities: horror gradually giving way to acceptance.
This irreverence is particularly on display with the alternative crypto-currency (or altcoin) Dogecoin, which I think should be pronounced doggy-coin because there is a picture of a dog on its logo, but everyone else pronounced it with the o from go and a soft j. Dogecoin was spun off from Bitcoin as a joke, but is finding uses in micropayments because you can pay tiny amounts with big, psychologically pleasing numbers. I actually mined some Dogecoin the evening before the talk, because I wanted to try out mining and it turns out you can’t mine Bitcoins without specialised hardware, but you can mine altcoins. I currently have 600 Dogecoins worth 40p.
A developer of a Dogecoin smartphone app was in attendance, and he told the story of a Dogecoin fundraiser that managed to send the Jamaican bobsleigh team and Luger Shiva Keshavan from India (who became known as the Underdoge) to the Winter Olympics. We all discussed the usefulness of microtransactions for tipping the authors of interesting blog posts. They might need this when all the newspapers run out of money. Here is my Dogecoin address, by the way, hint hint, I have no shame:
Before the talk I was confused about altcoins, wondering why anyone would make yet another crypto-currency, but now I understand. There was discussion about how Bitcoin might fall, be replaced by something else, and eventually there will be a winner. But the other view in the room, and the one I favour, is of all these currencies co-existing. Partly they will compete, and partly they will serve different functions. For example, there will only ever be 21 million Bitcoins but there will be 5 million new Dogecoins every year forever. It is possible that Bitcoin will be used as a store of value and other currencies will be used for daily spending. Whatever inconvenience this causes can be solved with good software: whoever solves it first will be the new Paypal.
There are lots of problems impeding the mainstream acceptance of Bitcoin, and a sense that people are working on solving all of them. The demise of the exchange Mt.Gox will lead to better security practices such as distributed signatures, ways of auditing banks, and peer to peer exchanges. People who want more safety will get deposit insurance and wallets pegged to fiat currencies. And there is no shortage of convenient payment methods. There is even a Bitcoin vending machine in London.
The other cool thing I did that evening was buy a signed copy of Dominic Frisby’s book Life After The State for 0.03 BTC (he would have accepted less, but the novelty of the transaction made me generous). I’ll be sure to read his Bitcoin book, too.