Among the myriad pleasures of the IT industry, blockchain hype is one of the most baffling. The amount of time I have spent sifting through white papers, press releases, and industry bafflegab about this technology was inversely proportional to how impressed I was when I finally discovered what it was (a fancy database, basically). But blockchain is more famous as the technology underpinning Bitcoin, which, while surrounded by plenty of its own bafflegab, is rather more entertaining to read about, given that it recently suffered the third horrendous market crash in its brief history. Into all this walks David Gerard, whose self-published book, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, sets out to answer the lay person’s main question about Bitcoin: ‘what the hell is this bullshit anyway?’ Crisp, witty, and refreshingly clear-sighted, it is the single best thing I have read about the Bitcoin/blockchain racket, even if it occasionally assumes a bit more technical knowledge than is perhaps reasonable.
The book opens with a lurid taster of things to come. A strange world of internet-based money made with “frightening firetrap computers” in which someone called “Pirateat40” starts a glorified Ponzi scheme, and “Aggrieved investors eventually manage to convince the authorities not only that these Internet tokens are worth anything, but that they gave them to some guy on an internet forum calling himself “Pirate””. The overriding question is quite simply “How did we get here?”
From there the book launches into a straightforward account of the technology behind Bitcoin, explaining what these coins actually are:
“If you “have” bitcoins, you don’t actually have them as things on your computer. What you’ve got is a Bitcoin address (like a bank account number) and the key to that address (another number, which works like the PIN to the first number). The Bitcoin address is mentioned in transactions on the blockchain; the key is the unique thing you have that makes your bitcoins yours.”
As well as how they are ‘mined’ (or ‘created’, to us lay persons):
“Unprocessed transactions are broadcast across the Bitcoin network. A miner collects together a block of transactions and the hash of the last known block. They add an arbitrary “nonce” value, then calculate the hash of the resulting block. If that hash satisfies the current difficulty criterion, they have mined a block! This successful block is then broadcast to the network, who can quickly verify the block is valid. The miner gets 12.5 BTC plus the transaction fees. If they failed, they pick another nonce value and try again.
Since it’s all but impossible to pick what data will have a particular hash, guessing what value will give a valid block takes many calculations – as of June 2017 the Bitcoin network was running 5,500,000,000,000,000,000 (5.5×1018, or 5.5 quintillion) hashes per second, or 3.3×1021 (3.3 sextillion) per ten minutes.
The 3.3 sextillion calculations are thrown away, because the only point of all this technical rigmarole is to show that you can waste electricity faster than everyone else.”
Gerard’s coverage of the technical basics is succinct and clear, but as the introduction suggests, the book’s real appeal is its Case Studies. There is a perverse pleasure in reading how the flawed technology of Bitcoin goes horrendously wrong in practice, and Gerard is merciless in his skewering of the technology’s more cultish advocates. As well as the aforementioned Pirateat40, there is the tale of bright-eyed idealist Ross Ulbricht, owner/operator of darknet market the Silk Road (‘darknet’, i.e. illegal goods and services being the primary non-speculation use for Bitcoin). Ulbricht not only ended up ordering hits on people he deemed a threat to his operation, he also kept a written record of this and other transgressions on the laptop that was eventually seized by law enforcement. Gerard notes that “This file is commonly referred to as “mycrimes.txt,” but its actual name was “log.txt””.
Gerard is delightfully sarcastic in his treatment of the strange ideologues of the Bitcoin world, and provides a brief account of their roots in American Libertarianism, Austrian economics and gold standard fetishism. The short form is that “Bitcoin failed… because all of this is based in crank ideas that don’t work.” It’s a fine summation, but Gerard is largely content to leave it at that — the chapter on ‘The Bitcoin Ideology’ is relatively short, and one is left with the feeling that a more in-depth exploration of the overlap between Bitcoin and Austrian economics would be worthwhile in its own right. (A good starting point might be this book’s acknowledged sibling, Neoreaction a Basilisk, which contains an essay on the Austrian school, though does not cover Bitcoin specifically).
But Gerard’s book is a general-audiences primer, not an in-depth history, and as such it’s extremely solid. The style may grate for some readers — Gerard is a former contributor to RationalWiki, and the book’s style owes a fair amount to that site, especially in its eye for slick one-liners. The humour is a needed counter-weight to the self-importance of most Bitcoiners, but at times it can feel a bit Christopher Hitchens. While Gerard takes care to explain the key technical terms (and includes a very good glossary) he also assumes a reader with a baseline level of IT competence, especially when he turns to the ‘respectable’ iteration of Bitcoin hype in the form of business blockchain. As a relative newcomer to the IT industry I confess I ended up googling quite a few terms along the way, but Gerard does a good deal more to keep the reader’s feet on the ground than the average blockchain hype-monger, and the reader is never allowed to get completely lost.
The book’s biggest problem is that it will age fairly quickly. In basing itself so heavily in tales of epic failure, the lack of more recent gaffes is palpable. The book was published too early to document the most recent Bitcoin crash, or the ongoing IBM blockchain hype, or the bizarre spectacle of Kodakcoin. So this review comes with a double recommendation; as well as the book, Gerard also runs an excellent blog version of Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, in which he chronicles both the wacky world of cryptocurrencies and the ongoing efforts of the business community to make blockchain happen (it’s never going to happen).
It’s an idiosyncratic journalistic beat, just as Attack winds up a fairly idiosyncratic book (the final chapter, ‘Case Study: Why you can’t put the music industry on a blockchain’ feels like it’s largely there based on the author’s wider interests, though it does have a spectacular Imogen Heap anecdote). But for all the strangeness of his subject matter, Gerard remains resolutely committed to the common sense aesthetic, and it’s one the world of blockchain sorely needs. While there are probably many more books to be written about the history, technology, and culture behind this stuff, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain is an excellent primer on the foolishness surrounding Bitcoin, and a bracing reminder of just what a bad idea the whole thing was in the first place.