It’s a familiar scene in science fiction movies – the hero is standing in front of a projected computer screen, waving his hands to control the program as though orchestrating a ballet of robots.
That’s how it looked to me when I first saw someone multi-screening. I had never seen anyone with more than one computer before, and here my housemate had not two, but three screens, all with different things on them.
This was to be my first glance at the capabilities of computing technology. My housemate, with his over-shopped desktop background spreading across sixty inches of LCD, told me he once tried to have chat logs open on every one of his screens, two conversations per screen. I wouldn’t feel a similar awe till I discovered poker training videos where they ‘multi-tabled’ – that is, gambled on up to eight different poker tables at a time.
And then I learnt about bitcoins.
It was just something mentioned in passing at a party, but I was intrigued. Bitcoin – an “experimental, decentralised digital currency” – seemed fascinating. Building on the idea of ‘cryptocurrency’, where cryptography is used to securely generate and manage the currency, bitcoin uses computer processing power to create and transfer coins. I interrogated the people at the party, to the point of making them feel awkward (they didn’t accept my friend requests later so I assume that was what I did) but they told me everything they knew. Bitcoin was a burgeoning currency, one that anyone could get into as long as they had a computer to generate the coins.
Being the kind of guy I am I immediately thought of ways I could make money from this new knowledge. I had a computer. My housemates had a computer. Even my mother had a computer! I imagined myself sneaking into their rooms, running ‘scripts’, compiling code and doing whatever other clandestine computations were required. I excitedly added people on Facebook. I sent out emails to my non-nerd friends with titles that sounded like spam: “QUICK GUYS LET’S MAKE MONEY?!” I told myself that I would be like those terrifically foresighted people who bought into Apple in the early nineties; except this time, those people would be me.
Sadly, because I am neither the bull investor nor the bear, but more the A.D.D. squirrel, I put bitcoin aside like the other crackpot ideas I had which involved online gambling or Facebook shares. Much to my chagrin though, this one wasn’t a pot of crack but a pot of gold.
Initially I was just going to buy the coins rather than try to generate them on my second-hand laptop. It was going to be a small investment, probably only around BTC$1,000. In 2009 you could buy about eight hundred bitcoins for one US dollar, but let’s say I bought them later when it was only four bitcoins per US dollar. By late March, 2013, I would have had around US$1,059,000.
Of course, my story isn’t unique. The internet is full of regrets. But there were those who were smart. Or at least lucky. Stories surfaced about people who had mortgaged their houses to buy in, or paid off their debts when cashing out. But there seemed to be an equal number of bitcoin millionaires as there were people who lost everything.
Seeing as bitcoin isn’t yet a stable economy, its value fluctuates massively. With no backing bank or country, value is determined by supply and demand. There were crashes that caused it to lose as much as sixty per cent of its value. In comparison, it’s a bad day if the Australian dollar loses two per cent. The most recent bitcoin crash hit on April 10, when prices fell from US$266 to US$140 per bitcoin.
But, besides sounding like a way to lose even more time/money online, bitcoin is actually a really interesting study in financial markets, as well as the future of money.
Being the kind of guy I am I immediately thought of ways I could make money from this new knowledge. I had a computer. My housemates had a computer. Even my mother had a computer!
It’s not tied to any one country, or even any one place; it doesn’t have a physical representation; and yet it is slowly being accepted as currency, especially online (with WikiLeaks, Reddit and other sites allowing payments to be made through bitcoin) aided by the peer-to-peer ease of transfer.
The finite number of possible bitcoins, as well as the increased difficulty of generating them, means they will continue to have a value as long as there is still interest. And it seems like there will be for quite a while, at least from certain parties, as the nature of bitcoin being decentralised and anonymous means you can also use it to buy illegal things (if you so wish).
While it is still new, bitcoin seems to have all sorts of really cool applications due to the nature of the currency. One I’ve been seeing on Reddit is the ability to thank a user for a comment by writing ‘+bitcointip (value of bitcoin you wish to tip) verify’, allowing the user to receive an instant payment from you.
But with the future of bitcoin unclear and the first major bubble already burst, I for one hope that when robots enslave us, we will be able to buy our freedom with computer-generated currency.
Rafael S. W. is a recent graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He has been published in Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging and Dot Dot Dash. He also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.