I’m a bitcoin skeptic. After watching director Darcy Weir’s The Bitcoin Field Guide: Understanding Crypto Currency, I remain a crypto skeptic but with a better understanding of why I feel that way. To Weir’s credit, I’d credit that as a positive review of this feature-length deep dive into the multitude of mythologies built up around the idea of alternative digital currencies. It’s a substantial look at both the mechanics and culture of cryptocurrency and the (largely male) amateur investors who have made and lost fortunes in a world with which few will ever engage. Where I previously thought crypto was a dorky underground hobby for libertarians and desperate poor folks, I now feel more aware of the sheer breadth of different cultish approaches to bitcoin and its various offspring. I’d never invest, but I have to admit: It’s kind of fascinating on a social level.
One of the most common refrains I’ve seen both online and in Bitcoin Field Guide is that the unregulated nature of the blockchain (a digital technology essentially operating as a public ledger) means you and you alone control your investments. Supposedly this makes them safer than actual federal bank investments backed by the U.S. dollar. Of course, most bitcoin value is measured by its ability to be converted into a corresponding amount of universally recognized fiat currency, but, for whatever reason, its supporters continue touting it as a new mode of exchange that will break governmental and regulatory strangleholds on financial value. It’s all very complicated, you see, because in the end very little of it makes much sense to the layman — whose money, frankly, makes the economy at large move and whose investments in these coins give them “worth.”
I feel like I’m rambling perhaps because when reviewing my notes on the film, I realize I still don’t quite understand the appeal of cryptocurrency. There are a lot of big ideas thrown around to justify investment in an idea that only has value as long as rich backers hold large amounts of information in their “wallets.” There is also a lot of large talk about the way fiat currency isn’t “backed” by anything, and thus you should YOLO your savings into bitcoin. Disregard the fact that the U.S. dollar is backed by the global belief in its value, of course, and that bitcoin is only useful in real-world transactions as long as you can convert it into a currency most stores actually accept.
I’m losing focus again. I just cannot comprehend the appeal of using the digital equivalent of Monopoly tokens unless you’re trying to buy and sell contraband around the world.
“It’s like those ads that promise working from home … but real,” one interview subject promises, referencing the classic multi-level marketing ads as seen on daytime TV. I have friends who tried to sell my family Cutco knives back in high school. I have friends who tried the LuLaRoe thing. I have friends who try to sell energy powders or whatever. My friends who tried to seriously invest in bitcoin have lost a lot more money and have a lot less to show for it, although they’re admittedly less pushy about trying to get me to invest in it.
Speaking of loss: At the time it was made in 2021, Bitcoin Field Guide referenced such online personalities as Dogecoin Millionaire (who is not a millionaire by any stretch of the imagination at this point) and “stable coins” like Terra (which crashed and lost investors billions of dollars a few weeks ago). The film acknowledges the unstable nature of cryptocurrency and even opens with a disclaimer against viewers taking it as financial advice. It seems, though, you really have to be either very rich, very dumb or very lucky to make anything remotely worthwhile out of investing in these coins. Most importantly, though, you have to believe in it.
Proponents spend a lot of time talking about how the world economy is imaginary, built on the belief that a dollar holds value and nothing more. It’s not wrong to say a dollar bill is a symbol given value by belief and backed by our government; it is wrong to suggest you can create such a system out of thin air and a completely unintelligible set of instructions for operation. Nothing about using cryptocurrency is simple. Wallets are convoluted and glitchy; passwords are long and arduous; mining requires a tremendous amount of time and money; your investments are subject to hacking and frustration. The idea that bitcoins are not affected by broader economic turmoil is demonstrably false, and even if they were, where do you want to be financially in a depression — holding a $100 bill or an iPhone app that says you have 50 Fartcoins as long as you remember a 15-word passcode?
I’m being unfair to Weir by venting. As it stands, Bitcoin Field Guide is a successful documentary about bitcoin, even if it’s largely industry fluff. It moves at a fast clip, features interesting interviews and mostly serves as a reminder to everyday audiences that this stuff is all a cult based around impenetrably frustrating technology and fantasy play by people who either have enough money not to mind losing or those whom proponents have convinced to gamble everything on the collective dream of fast wealth. It’s a casino and not much more, but I’m thankful a professional documentary exists that so thoroughly describes the product in as simple terms as possible.