In an age of quick reads, veteran journalist Brian Patrick Eha’s book, How Money Got Free: Bitcoin and the Fight for the Future of Finance (Oneworld, 2017) is a splendid slow burn and the definitive early history of the cryptocurrency revolution.
Crypto needs mom.
Lingering without loitering is impossible in the rabbit hole world of cryptocurrency, especially considering how, as of this review, Bitcoin is trading at over two thousand filthy fiat dollars. It has everyone’s attention now. Everyone has a take, an opinion, but precious few can articulate it in any kind of compelling way.
Mr. Eha indeed hangs around early business venture booms and busts just long enough to give Bitcoiners fantastic inside-baseball morsels while helping those new to the anarchic culture feel welcome.
Bitcoin Needs Mom
I get the sense that How Money Got Free was picked up by its publisher for its ability to appeal to mom. That’s right, mom. Crypto needs mom.
Those unfamiliar with Bitcoin are not served by technical accounts from economists. Avoid zealous evangelists are no help either. Both obscure the larger story that Eha captures so well: that Bitcoin is a hinge of human history.
Mr. Eha sends readers globetrotting with them, from Japan to Argentina.
And while Bitcoin may or may not survive in the ultimate shake-out of blockchain commodity money, understanding tomorrow’s world of finance will require an in-depth analysis of late 2008 to our present day. This takes subtle writing in order to appeal to the likes of mom.
Mom needs to be eased into its significance, and this is where Mr. Eha shines.
How Money Got Free features a dozen first Bitcoin adopters whose names are well known to the initiated: Hal Finney, Ross Ulbricht, Roger Ver, Charlie Shrem, Erik Vorhees, Ira Miller, Gavin Andersen, Nic Cary, Barry Silbert, Amir Taaki, Cody Wilson. It is primarily through the lives of these men, many of them quite young, that Mr. Eha weaves four principal arcs that wind up mirroring the ride of Bitcoin itself.
Crypto's Four Horsemen
Mr. Ver is cast as cunning and wise. Mr. Cary is a reluctant public figure, a hustler in the best sense. Mr. Silbert is an early expert investor with an eye toward mainstreaming. Mr. Shrem finds himself caught in webs of dark and light finance as Bitcoin takes shape.
Mr. Eha sends readers globetrotting with them, from Japan to Argentina, anywhere and everywhere a potential blockbuster meeting will take place, a deal can be had, or where relative economic freedom can be experienced. Ideological lines are drawn. Fortunes are lost. Citizenships renounced.
Yet Bitcoin’s price, graphed, is anything but a bubble.
With their personal ups and downs, Bitcoin’s price parallels in sudden skyrockets and perplexing plummets, mirroring and heightening what it means to be a fully invested early adopter. Skeptics abound, and legacy financial institutions unleash their best efforts to kill enthusiasm by dismissing Bitcoin as mere hysteria.
Yet Bitcoin’s price, graphed, is anything but a bubble. In fact, to refer to it as one is to redefine the term. Bitcoin’s chart is upward, ticks down, then back up further. The trend is obvious, and there are no bursts to speak of. Whatever it is, a bubble it ain’t.
Mr. Eha is equally unafraid to paint full-color pictures of these eccentric characters, lovingly and carefully, exposing their sores and bad guesses.
This allows How Money Got Free to discuss double-spending, innovations of end-running trusted third parties, along with anti-fragile concepts such as no single point of failure. He can take mom through Mr. Shrem’s personal struggles as he ascends to Bitcoin stardom, and then slips in a vibrant discussion of why the blockchain is both a money and a payment system.
How Money Got Free is exactly where it needs to be, here and now. Perfect timing. Bitcoin is at another critical juncture, and perspective is needed. Hugely important debates are happening in real time, some claiming the technology can be improved by the developments in what are known as altcoins, cryptocurrencies lifted from the Bitcoin example and altered slightly or majorly to advance user acceptance.
These eerily match when Satoshi Nakamoto pseudonymously answered the Great Recession’s challenge, a perfect timing as well, in an elegant, Watson and Crick-like white paper. Whereas double-helix DNA discovery confirmed Darwinian assumptions and propelled biological sciences ever-onward, Mr. Nakamoto’s twelve steps and mere eight footnotes unbuckled a technology that changes everything, and mom needs to know that. Mr. Eha explains how and why.
Mom will be left with a multifaceted take on a historical moment she might know is happening.
Yet another benefit of reading Mr. Eha is he routinely gets five thousand word essays reprinted or published in mainstream magazines and outlets. This means the story goes on, and the real world cast we came to know so well in this substantial volume are still available to us.
Charlie Shrem reemerges (spoiler alert) from the book on a rebound, trying to grapple with the ever-brave, ever-new world of cryptocurrency. He’s easily the most mom-friendly character of the four, and he just might shed his Rick and Morty countenance for something closer to Rocky Balboa. Stay tuned.
Barry Silbert routinely is tapped to sit on heavy-hitting panels and offers just enough romance to keep outfits like The Economist guessing.
Roger Ver’s crusades and his role as Bitcoin Jesus continue on.
Nic Cary retains his global ambitions, but he’s also vying for mom in the sense he sees Bitcoin and cryptos as something dramatically larger, and he’s betting everything.
Mom will be left with a multifaceted take on a historical moment she might know is happening. How Money Got Free could be an opening for her, my foil, and other newbies to take the plunge, perhaps inviting enough to risk downloading their first smartphone wallet.
This is the universe in which cryptocurrencies will gain scary market share, will become real threats to central banks and institutions who rely utterly on state privilege. When mom becomes her own bank, her own financial minder, experiencing the rush of independence and utility, that’s when the real revolution begins. And I mean it.