Book Review: Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper

Book Review: Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper

“[Bitcoin] is either going to change everything, or nothing.”
– Barry Silbert at a Goldman Sachs conference.

‘Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money’ by New York Times reporter Nathaniel Popper is a non-fiction book covering the engrossing history of Bitcoin. Shortlisted as a finalist for the 2015 Financial Times Business Book of the Year Award, the book takes the reader on a journey from the very dawn of Satoshi Nakamoto’s “Bitcoin White Paper” to what it is today.

Popper first starts off by tracing the history of Bitcoin back to the Cypherpunk movement in the 1990s. Prior to Satoshi Nakamoto’s release of the “Bitcoin White Paper”, Cypherpunks – heavily influenced by libertarian ideas – have been attempting to create a new digital currency that was outside the reach of governments and banks, but to no avail. The prevailing issue was that there was no clean way to prevent duplication of digital money. On 31 October 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto solved this issue by introducing blockchain technology. In explaining the complicated technology behind Bitcoin, Popper does an excellent job of simplifying hard-to-understand technical concepts for readers to understand.

Popper highlights the practical uses of Bitcoin in a politically unstable economy like Argentina. Despite the volatility of Bitcoin’s prices, Argentinians see Bitcoin as a better store of wealth as compared to the deflating local currency. This is because the exchange rate for the US dollar is placed artificially high by the Argentine government in order to prevent their own currencies from depreciating further. In Argentina, where its citizens had come to distrust the government’s currency management, Bitcoin served as a way of protecting hard-earned funds from government interference. This lines up with the original libertarian ideology of freedom from the dominance of governmental monetary policies.

However, the fundamental libertarian question is this: can free markets exist without the threat of authorities? Popper captures the sinister side of Bitcoin through Silk Road – the infamous online black marketplace where people could engage in illegal transactions involving illicit drugs, weapons, and services such as murders-for-hire under the shroud of anonymity provided by Bitcoin. Although Silk Road was eventually shut down by the US authorities and its creator jailed, its notoriety has no doubt left a bad impression in the minds of many who viewed cryptocurrencies as a vehicle for crime.

Popper also neatly encapsulates the ultimate irony of Bitcoin trading. As Bitcoin grew, it was slowly revealed that demand exists for trading exchanges that would allow the buying and selling of Bitcoins without having any understanding of the code themselves. This eventually led to the Bitcoin trading market being littered with intermediaries that extract their own commission, essentially creating an oligopoly – a deeply ironical twist, considering that the libertarian ethos that presided over Bitcoin’s birth was to “eliminate middlemen” and remove frictional costs from the financial system. The irony of cryptocurrencies was once again addressed at the end of the book, when Popper reveals the growing desire in much of the Bitcoin community for sensible government regulation of cryptocurrencies. After all, Bitcoin was designed to decentralise these traditional structures of power, embodied by the banks and monetary authorities. It appears that although Bitcoin originated from libertarian ideologies, its eventual impact is likely to be different from what its creators hoped.

Whilst the book reads like a thriller, the narrative was at times unnecessarily detailed. It was hard for me to keep track of all the characters, though accurate representation of the real-life people involved in the history of Bitcoin might be necessary for a non-fiction book.

Furthermore, what the book does not touch upon is the fact that Bitcoin mining is a deeply energy intensive process. As the algorithm is designed such that Bitcoin becomes increasingly harder to mine, Popper fails to mention that more electricity is also required of the computers mining them. According to researchers at Cambridge University, annual emissions tied to the electricity required to mine Bitcoins are equal to that spewed by all of Argentina.[1] The environmental consumption of mining Bitcoin is arguably an important factor when considering whether Bitcoin is an efficient way to conduct transactions.

For a non-fiction book, Digital Gold was quite the page-turner – with enticing cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter that make readers eager to learn more. Whether you consider Bitcoin to be the greatest invention since the Internet, or you consider it as a speculative token of no intrinsic value, Digital Gold is a great book for anyone interested in understanding its history – 4/5 stars.

References


[1] Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index (CBECI). Retrieved 29 April 2021, from https://cbeci.org/