Let me present a thought experiment: Imagine you are a dissident fighting for democracy in Venezuela. The government controls access to financial services through state institutions. Those loyal to the regime have access to the nation’s scant resources. Dissidents like yourself are locked out. The government monitors your every move, tracking what financial transactions you are allowed to make and chasing your footprints (both digital and physical) everywhere. What can you do? How can you survive and continue to speak out?
And what if the government also manipulates the national currency, printing money and playing with its value, trying –– like Nero declaring war against Neptune –– to wage war against economics itself? Can that be called stable? How can a company or family plan for the future when the basic block of saving, spending, and investment is subject to the whims and abuses of a malign ruler?
But this is not merely a thought experiment. This is real life, for both dissidents and ordinary people all around the world. One answer to this problem is cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. For countless people around the world, in an age of ever greater control and surveillance, crypto means freedom.
I realize this may sound like an edge case, and specific to my advocacy as the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation. But most new technology first finds such fringe applications before becoming broadly understood and utilized in the mainstream. Early adopters take on risk, encounter challenges, and pave the way for the rest.
That’s where cryptocurrency is today, and we are lucky to have a book like Decrypting Money to help us move into the next phase. Placing Bitcoin in the historical context of all currency—back to seashells!—is similar to the comparisons of the internet to the printing press.
I’ve always been obsessed with new tech, from my matches against chess supercomputers to lecturing about how AI will become augmented intelligence by making us smarter. Exploration has been one of my core values my whole life, even before chess. From tracing the paths of the great explorers on a globe with my father to taking on new challenges in my personal and professional lives, exploring is learning. Exploring means taking the road less traveled, often bumpy and lacking proper signage. It changes the way we think and, if we share our explorations, also changes the world around us.
So I was an eager audience when I met Marco Streng in spring 2019, recognizing him as a fellow explorer. I’m also a natural skeptic, however, so his passion for the subject of cryptocurrency wasn’t enough to convince me. It was his desire to look beyond the hype of the moment, all the speculation and the myths, to present coherent plans and prospects for “internet money” in the near and distant future.
This wasn’t only my habit of always looking a dozen moves ahead. My motto has always been to think big and be optimistic—but always have a plan. The authors of this book take context and planning seriously, realizing that this foundation is even more important than cool tech and social buzz when the goal is to change the world. And what could be a bigger change than reshaping the entire global economic relationship with money, from megabanks to food cart vendors, from dissidents to presidents?
I spend much of my time today thinking and writing about the intersection of rights and technology. Free speech in the internet age, for example, along with data ownership, privacy, and cybersecurity. In every case, tech has created endless possibilities, including new threats and exploits, just like nearly every new technology throughout history.
Cryptocurrency is no exception, so it’s critical to have a broader understanding of what it is and what it is not—and what it will one day be. Usually we speak of the past with certainty, the present with confidence, and the future with doubt. With Bitcoin it is quite different. Its origin was unspectacular and its creator is still mysterious. Its present is ferociously debated, with extremes of curse and blessing. This is a status reserved only for the most powerful influences—again I refer to the printing press and the internet. As I often point out about artificial intelligence, our tech is agnostic, neither good nor evil. It’s how we use it.
But Bitcoin’s future, there I am convinced. It IS the future, one where we will look back at our current bills, coins, and central banking standards the way we look back at those seashells today. I’m not sure I’ll live to see it, although I hope I will, because it will indicate that so many other positive transformations in personal freedom and societal change have come to pass. Cryptocurrency isn’t only on the cutting edge of technology, but also of human rights and the relationships between government, private enterprise, and individuals. As such, its success is a bellwether for human progress.
My gratitude to the authors for illuminating my path on this bumpy and exciting road, and I’m sure you will enjoy the ride as well. Just turn the page.
Chairman, Human Rights Foundation
Chairman, Renew Democracy Initiative
13th World Chess Champion
New York City
The origin of this book stems from our individual stories of how we first encountered bitcoin. We would have almost certainly never met each other without bitcoin, and none of us could have imagined how life-changing bitcoin would be for us. Between 2011 and 2013, we all separately and in rather different ways were introduced to, learned about and became involved with this cryptocurrency. Marco Krohn’s summary of his earliest experiences with bitcoin moves from initial skepticism to a changed perspective on economics, the nature of money, and tremendous business opportunities.
Marco first learned about virtual currency one afternoon in the summer of 2011 from what he was expecting to be the least interesting article in a computer magazine. That day, he read that a mysterious, anonymous figure had invented internet money and that anyone with adequate computer skills could generate more. He had a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, a job in the banking industry, and an opinion: The idea was crazy. It couldn’t work.
This was, he remembered the next day, the same opinion he’d had when he first heard about Wikipedia. Somewhat humbled by the recollection, he gave bitcoin a deeper look, and fell right down the rabbit hole. The more he understood, the more intrigued he became. The core principles, while not immediately obvious, were fundamentally solid, and the implications profound. The idea was crazy—like vaccination and heliocentricity had been. Eleven years and the founding of one of the world’s largest bitcoin mining companies later, he is even more convinced that this new form of money will be as significant as the microprocessor to individual, commercial, and world economies.
He gave up his banking job and, with a few friends, soon had a server farm set up and running in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A single cavernous room full of graphic cards and computers with constellations of blinking lights, it looked (and sounded) like a spaceship—and friends reacted to it in much the same way. Over and over, Marco and his partners found themselves explaining their futuristic, noisy warehouse was “printing money.” And almost every time, people wanted in.
In the beginning the bitcoin community was small, full of people who had similar experiences and stories about how they discovered bitcoin. Anthony Jefferies, Marco Streng, Zoran Balkic, and Marco Krohn met in these early days, and were thrilled about bitcoin’s potentially wide-reaching implications.
That desire, they came to see, went well beyond their extended circle. A keen and growing population was interested in bitcoin. People had a tantalizing sense of fortunes being made on just the other side of some obscure information barrier and were frustrated that they didn’t understand what it did or how to participate.
In the same way that the power of personal computing needed a graphic interface to make it accessible to laypeople, bitcoin (or more generally “cryptocurrency”) needs an intermediary. Here, the necessary layer between humans and technology is informational rather than visual. People need a conceptual handhold on what cryptocurrency is and how it operates before they can interact with it effectively. However, unlike computers, which few people had experience with even fifty years ago, money is a tool we are confident everyone reading already uses regularly. Unfortunately, familiarity isn’t the same as understanding. In fact, it can get in the way.
Money is an incredibly useful abstraction that has evolved with human culture from shells on beaches to chips on cards, with each iteration improving if not perfecting it. Cryptocurrency exacts an intellectual and conceptual toll, asking an ante of intelligence and imagination of its participants.
If you ask the average person what money is, many will say it’s the bills in their wallets. When we first heard about bitcoin, our level of understanding wasn’t much more sophisticated, although we have degrees in mathematics, engineering, or worked in a bank!! We could understand and marvel at the math and coding behind bitcoin, but not until we learned more about the history, functions, and properties of money did we fully appreciate the true genius of bitcoin or recognize how profound and far-reaching its consequences could be.