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At What Price Legitimacy?

Published on August 31st, 2013 by george
By George Ettinger George-Ettinger_avatar_1377130992-128x128Most of us are here because this whole alt-currency thing fascinates us. Whether you're a Bitcoin true believer or just waiting for the next big thing, it's safe to assume everyone in attendance wants to see positive stories of Bitcoin getting mainstream credibility and recognition. Maybe it's for reassurance; to see it well-represented in the media pats us each on the back and tells us we didn't back the wrong horse. Maybe, rather, it's the promise of things to come; that, if Bitcoin can start making waves, society will be open to even bigger and better things. Or hell, nothing's wrong if it's good old vindication! We told all the stuffy bastards of the world Bitcoin would work, and it does! These are good feelings all, but what if we're missing the point? What if there is an expense to this celebrated credibility? There’s a problem in the world of Bitcoin. A problem with deep roots in the community- not a security issue, not some exploit, not the worrisome bloat of the expanding blockchain. The problem is a matter of priorities.   [caption id="attachment_761" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Image credit: Alex Lozupone Although "The Blockchain Is Too Damn High" is a cause that needs a champion...[/caption]   Of Bills and Bars There is a particular story that really illuminated the issue for me. One of the more exciting tidbits of Bitcoin news to come out of this August was the discovery that Bloomberg staff were experimenting with a Bitcoin price ticker. This is not a small feat, and Bloomberg is not a small name. Bitcoin tickers based on the big exchanges already exist, of course, but until now existed only within the vacuum of the cryptocurrency community. Was this the long-awaited connection from traditional finances to Bitcoin finances? Are we finally building a bridge from Bitcoin to the fiscal mainland?   [caption id="attachment_766" align="aligncenter" width="501"]That's a good metaphor, right?  Bridges are always a positive thing. That's a good metaphor, right? Bridges are always a positive thing.[/caption]   The reception has been positive. Some are quick to declare that Bitcoin is now "officially mainstream."  Many seem to agree it is a huge step towards "legitimacy." I'm not here to disagree with them- not at all. What they're saying seems very true. I want to say that there's a much better side to this story, and one we REALLY need to celebrate. In a bit of detail that SourceMedia wisely pointed out, Bloomberg's experiment with Bitcoin tracking has actually categorized it with their "X" prefix, putting it shoulder-to-shoulder with gold, silver, and platinum. Bloomberg perceives Bitcoin having more in common with precious commodities than foreign currencies, opting to list it alongside the venerable metals than a traditional Forex. This is an excellent sign for Bitcoin- not just because influential people in the mainstream are taking notice, and not because it gives the digital currency any particular advantage. This is excellent because people in the mainstream are taking the time to understand how Bitcoin works. This detail, however, went unmentioned by most Bitcoin news outlets. I reached out to LibertyBlitzkreig’s Michael Krieger, a former Commodities Analyst himself, for a bit of context. “The fact Bloomberg is about to put BTC data on the terminals is a huge deal,” he agreed. “[It’s] very psychologically important in a financial world inclined to mock it.” That said, however, he immediately saw the same issue I did. The hype for awareness, acknowledgement, or even a simple nod from the “mainstream” is being given top billing. Nods from companies like Bloomberg are being treated not as stepping stones, but as triumphs in themselves. Steps like what we’re seeing in Bloomberg are “more a symptom of people becoming more interested.” Obviously this starting interest is an important step towards legitimacy, but “not the most important.” What, then, is? “Knowledge is,” Mr. Krieger answered. “I think knowledge about Bitcoin is what matters most.”   Fight For When It’s Right to Party In so many ways, the issue is that simple. Publicity is not credibility. Awareness is not legitimacy. Real legitimacy comes from seeing these figures not just show interest, but show knowledge of why Bitcoin is the way it is! It’s for this reason that we need to stop throwing self-serving celebrations any time a celebrity or organization says something positive about Bitcoin. I greatly appreciate business personality Kevin O’Leary for both his insights and his acerbic charm, and I am plenty enthused that he sees Bitcoin as a tried and tested currency worth investing in. That’s delightful! He also refers to it as a “virtual Barbie” currency, “the same you get from blasting aliens in video games.”  

  … but he likes Bitcoin! Let’s cherry-pick that moment when they asked if Bitcoin was a legitimate currency and he replied, “It is.” No, people, no. Stop. He’s right to see the legitimacy in its growing fungibility and popularity. He’s still apparently in the dark in regards to why the cryptography behind Bitcoin makes it unique and durable. So this is a start. This is a place to open further dialogue with him and get more information out there. Bloomberg made a bigger step for Bitcoin than anyone seems to be giving it credit for. Their categorization may not be huge in the sense of the greater commodities market, but it strongly reflects an understanding of how Bitcoin is mined and exchanged. “The categorization next to gold and silver is appropriate,” Michael Krieger added. “The philosophy of those who own all three is similar; a disdain for the current corrupt monetary system and as a means of protection from currency debasement.” It seems like Bloomberg actually has a competent grasp on not only the general mechanics of Bitcoin but the underlying philosophy as well. Then, why did so many news outlets ignore that detail completely? It might not have been the most obvious detail, but at the heart of it, it’s simply because of these broken priorities. The meat-and-potatoes of the story was perceived to be the headline itself, and the delicious combination of “Bloomberg” and “Bitcoin” therein. The details, no matter what nuances they brought to the situation, were treated as a needless bit of icing atop an already meat-and-potato-laden cake. We have to stop celebrating for celebration’s sake. We can’t be so quick to pat ourselves on the back. We can’t throw a party every time any celebrity suggests they like Bitcoin.   [caption id="attachment_768" align="aligncenter" width="384"]Image credit: David Shankbone If Gox can recover from a plunge, so can the Tomatometer for "Jobs," right?[/caption]   Knowing is Half the Hassle There are two primordial facts any sensible cryptocoin enthusiasts reading this should readily agree on. First is the incontrovertible fact that my earlier mixed-metaphor assembly of meat, potatoes, and cake frosting was dubious at best. Second, and more importantly, is the harsh reality that Bitcoin is not very easy to understand. If there’s one thing everybody needs to have a little humility about, it’s that Bitcoin is Too Damn Complicated… and somebody needs to do something about it.   [caption id="attachment_761" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Image credit: Alex Lozupone ...actually… no. No, never mind. Moving on.[/caption]   The barrier to entry for the less tech-savvy can be absolutely brutal. Bitcoin and its mechanisms are innovative but NOT intuitive. My own introduction to Bitcoin was a futile odyssey of news articles within and without the community throughout 2010 and 2011. It was some time later that LTB’s own Adam B. Levine started coaxing more constructive knowledge in my direction. Beginning with the seemingly-non-sequitur tale of the Island of Stone Money, he started turning perfectly normal words like ‘ledger’ into raving absurdities like ‘blockchain.’ The process was not quick. It was not simple. It was arguably not painless. Bitcoin needs to become painless if it is to prosper. Promulgation is a hideous and unwieldy word, but if it weren’t, I would say that promulgation of these ethics is essential. It’s not enough just to celebrate the legitimacy of knowledge in the media- we have to be part of that media. For Bitcoin to go from hobby to movement, it needs to become inclusive. It needs to abandon the technocratic elitism that keeps the word ‘neckbeard’ trending side-by-side with it. We need to find new ways to teach instead of simply publicize.   Academia, Here I Come To teach, we have to separate our struggle against ignorance from our struggles against contempt. We can’t reason with the handful of people out there who are viciously against cryptocoins on all levels. What we must do, and already have some good experience with, is rooting out and correcting misinformation- wherever it’s found. As a community we sprang into action when the Huffington Post ran a poorly-researched piece warning about the dangers of Bitcoin; overnight, the web was lit up with excellent rebuttals. All that vigilance fell aside when O’Leary’s praise of Bitcoin’s legitimacy seemed to negate his assumption that it’s a fantastical video-game play-money. We need to meet criticism with constructive response! We need to meet praise with constructive response! We have to be watchful of good press as well as bad! So long as there are still news sites that use the word “Bitcoin” interchangeably with “Mt. Gox” or “Silk Road” we still have plenty of work to do! Bitcoin’s innovative processes are in need of innovative education. Anyone who has tried explaining Bitcoin to a newcomer knows how laborious it can be. Explaining intangible currency to people who have lived with fiat banknotes their whole lives is like Tim Allen explaining what a TV show is to aliens with no concept of fiction. Just like in the movie GalaxyQuest, the process ultimately becomes a quagmire of incredulity and confusion until you’re all killed by space monsters. The difficulty is uncomfortable and discouraging for people who might otherwise be very interested. We don’t want them giving up out to confusion, or worse, hating it out of exasperation. If we are to keep Bitcoin alive and relevant into the 21st century (unlike Tim Allen,) we need a bigger community emphasis on explanation and techniques. The “Island of Stone Money” I mentioned earlier is a great starting point. A handful of noble redditors have even called attention to the need for a good Simple English Wikipedia entry for Bitcoin. Simple English and pragmatic metaphors are some of the very best tools for getting this information out there. Sharing and refining the right tools for Bitcoin education will make the whole process more painless for people struggling to understand it.   [caption id="attachment_774" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Image credit: Luigi Zanasi Too many people's tools for teaching Bitcoin are more blunt, less effective, and result in gruesome headlines.[/caption]   The Bitcoin Education Project is spearheading the campaign against many of these problems, and has already helped create some excellent resources. The BEP is, perhaps more than any other organization, single-mindedly dedicated to the exact issue I have so repetitively put to page today. That issue, for those of you who skipped straight to the end?  The issue is that legitimacy will come from understanding and education, not publicity and zeal.  Where the Education Project would tell us to “reduce the knowledge barriers to entry for everyday people to enter the Bitcoin world,” my instructions are a bit simpler. Celebrate knowledge. Fight ignorance. True of Bitcoin, and true of life.  
(Disclosure: Let’s Talk Bitcoin! is a BEP Partner and shares some editorial staff with BEP’s fellows.)

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