I have my first specific recollection of being on the internet about 20 years ago this month. I was a senior at Rose Hulman and was hanging out in the computer lab working on a project (on those uber-kewl NeXT machines we had back then). Someone on the NeXT next to me was fiddling with trying to compile some software and asked for my help. I took a look, we tweaked a few things and 30 minutes later Netscape fired up. We weren’t quite sure what to do with it (RTFM was a common phrase – and an uncommon action – back then too). So we looked around the default NCSA site that came up, click on a few links and then went back to work.
Flash forward a few years to 1996 and to my first job, working for a small engineering software company up in Detroit. I worked in product support and the second thing I learned to use besides the products themselves was the home grown support ticket application. A few months into it I somehow got the idea (don’t quite recall why or how) to turn one of the old HP 300s we had sitting around into a webserver. A few weeks later I had the dial up scripts worked out so that it would successfully connect to the internet and reconnect if the connection was dropped. A few weeks more of compiling apache (I think it was apache back then…) and I had a basic web server. Then came the coup de grace: I found a small company (google didn’t exist then so really not sure how I found them) called Web DB based out of Hawaii. They offered some software that let you serve the results of SQL queries into web pages. So of course I connected our support application to our website ans voila – online ticket creation and management in 1996.
In one of the few cases I have ever done something “ahead of its time” that project never really went anywhere. I left the company shortly thereafter and kept my online pursuits mostly as part of my personal life until about 7 (or has it been 8) years ago when I got the opportunity to lead the online team at my company. It’s been a great time – really a chance to work in a field that I find fascinating and that never stops changing.
In that 20 years there have been a number of things that have claimed to be the next phenomena like the internet. I think there may actually finally be one that is worthy of that claim:
bitcoin crypto-currency. I struck out bitcoin and replaced it with its genus because I’m not sure that bitcoin itself will be part of it for the long run (although it has a lot going for it – just like all first movers). I am far more sure that one or many crypto-currencies will not only be with us long term, but it will be as fundamentally transformational in the next 20 years as the internet has been in the last 20 years. And I’m not the only one that thinks so: Marc Andreesen says pretty much the same thing in this video.
I first heard about bitcoin in the summer of 2012. I read what was available and understood a little bit of it. Of course even back then I ran into the nefarious connection between bitcoin and things like silkroad. With not much more thought I got a wallet and bought a few coin – it was cheap enough and interesting enough to do a little. But evidently not interesting enough to keep my attention, since I then promptly forgot all about it. Bitcoin re-entered my consciousness 9 months later with news of the first great price run up. I looked around to find my wallet and wallet keys, checked my balance and its USB value and felt like I had won the Superfecta at Keenland. To be clear, we weren’t talking “quit your job and buy a Ferrari” money, but it was probably my largest percentage and quickest ROI ever. Of course I cashed in, had a few nice dinners, paid a few bills and forgot about it again.
Third time’s a charm I suppose as Bitcoin came onto my radar again this past fall when everyone seemed to be talking about it, mostly because of two newsworthy events: the “capture” of one of the supposed leaders of the silkroad and the skyrocketing price increase (I think the schadenfreude for the guy who bought a pizza a few years earlier for what would have been worth $7 million of bitcoin after the price run up). It was only after these events that I decided to look a bit deeper and try to figure out what is really going on. Why would anyone think a bitcoin was worth more than $1000? Was it just “tulip mania” or was there something really there?
After a few months (I have a day job) of deeper investigation, I have only scratched the surface. I sort of understand how mining works, I know enough to know that the blockchain is really the interesting innovation and I get that its not actually anonymous unless you take a bunch of extra steps. I still have tons more to learn though – and its hard. I think I might finally have some empathy for my boss in that first job in Detroit – I understand why he was looking at me the way he was when I was connecting databases with web servers.
I’m already at 1,000 words here (tl;dr territory for most), so let me end this post quickly with some of the aspects that fascinate me about bitcoin. I have a feeling I will be writing more on each of these in the future…and others I don’t even know or understand yet.
- From a pure technology perspective crypto-currency is fascinating. The internet was all about information and money has always been the most important signaling mechanism. Comment, Like, Links etc are all have some value, but its a little more esoteric than money. I’m also taking what I’ve learned about how the internet ecosystem evolved in the last 20 years and using it to help navigate the waters here – the first lesson is don’t get stuck on one team…no one actually uses Netscape anymore.
- From a liberty and freedom perspective crypto-currency is equally if not more fascinating. Some freedom / liberty types can go on for hours about ending the federal reserve and push their audit the fed agenda. If they’d spend 10% of the time and energy first understanding and then using crypto currency I think they would reach their goal a whole lot sooner.
- Crypto-currency makes you think about value differently. I’ve traveled internationally for 3/4s of my life, so I am used to converting local currency into dollars so I can figure out if something is cheap or expensive relative to what it would cost at home. It seems the hardcore crypto currency users are able to transcend this translation and think purely in the crypto currency. When you are in a foreign country for a trip you know you will only have the foreign currency for a short time. People that start using crypto currencies seem to have feel there is no rush to get back to whatever their local currency might be. They know the math is in their favor for more of the value being stored long term in the crypto currency and the way things are going its only a matter of time before its just as good as a medium of exchange.
- Crypto currency also has some nice symmetry to other topics that have been vying for my attention: permaculture and 3d printing (something that Adam Levine points out on a podcast I just listened to this morning). Permaculture gives us sustainable systems for living – food, water, community, etc. 3D printing gives us the ability to make the things we need close to where we need them and specifically to meet our local requirements. All three of them move power from central authority and place it closer to the individual, where its more likely to be effective and less likely to do harm.
- Lastly crypto currency, when you really start to think about it , leads you to some rather deep philosophical questions about the divide between virtual and real. It seems to me that crypto currency may be the first purely digital item than acts according to all the rules of the real world.
All of that is just scratching the surface. There are still things to learn about metacoins (systems that are setup to have token systems like bitcoin built on top of them that use different algorithms for mining and and proof of title than bitcoin does), script coins (far less interesting derivations of the basic bitcoin approach) and extensions of the bitcoin blockchain to do other jobs – things like Namecoin.
And that’s just the tech. Crypto currency has the potential to fundamentally alter the way that contract works – you have a private, secure, no trust required, public (but normally anonymous) record of a transaction = I gave you this and you gave me that. Sounds like a notary, clerk and a lawyer all rolled into one. It can also change the way small business works. For example, a Farmer that has a CSA sells shares and in return gives their shareholders a portion of their production. By using crypto currency, a farmer could develop a fundamentally different relationship with their customers – one where the customer would buy tokens of the farmer’s own branded currency. Later the customer could spend their tokens on things they specifically wanted when they wanted them, use their shares to “vote” for what to grow next, or even save their shares for future production.
Then there are a few ideas that Mr. Levine pointed out in the Gnostic Media podcast. First, the next wave of developments in crypto currency could fundamentally change the way that things like crowd funding work (and route around the regulation that can be imposed on the funding exchanges). Then there is the idea of the personal IPO – selling stock in yourself (in the form of your own personal crypto currency tokens) in exchange for investment now and then delivering dividends to your token holders from your future earnings.
I could go on, but I won’t (for now). If you’ve never heard of bitcoin / crypto currency, start doing some research. If you’ve heard of it but not really done anything, start doing something – get a wallet or signup for an online account. If you’ve done all the research and are still on the fence, get off of it. Those that have weathered the storms and captured the opportunities created by the internet the best got involved early. That’s just one more way that crypto currency is the first thing that really is the next internet.