Magical Thinking: Bitcoin Gathers at Disney
ORLANDO—(BTC @ $355.27) The hotel is a tomb of hopeful thinking. Built in the 1980s, the single tower of the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Hotel at Disney World juts up from the Orlando ground as if tectonic forces pushed skyward a sheet of pure, brown stucco. A soundtrack of Mickey Mouse anthems plays around the clock. The carpets are damp. And for a weekend in October, a group of men and women who mean to change the future of civilization were staying there.
The inaugural Coins in the Kingdom conference had been billed as a three-day stretch of "bitcoin partying," but the hotel swimming pool was desolate the evening I arrived. "Baby I Love Your Way" drifted from a speaker as the sun went down, while a handful of immobile guests—none of them bitcoin enthusiasts—loafed nearby. A shirtless man with a large marijuana-leaf tattoo scolded his son.
Bitcoin culture, like Bitcoin, is still an emergent phenomenon. The virtual money, uncontrolled by any government or bank, came to the general public's attention with some notoriety, thanks to the Silk Road, the now-defunct website that employed bitcoin to help you easily buy and sell heroin and other contraband. But any publicity can be good publicity: After Silk Road, the all-but-unregulated new form of money became a tech phenomenon and a currency speculator's dreamscape—the exchange rate for one Bitcoin rose from around $11 in November of 2012 to a peak of more than $1,100 a year later.
It has subsided since, but some proponents say it could go on to $100,000 or a million. Why not a trillion? The enthusiasm had always seemed silly to me—bitcoin was a neat technology concept, but it was hard to see why it should exist. Who really needs a decentralized, deflationary digital currency, other than drug dealers and Reddit recluses?
But the bitcoin people generate their own purpose: The security of the system against forgery relies, in lieu of regulators, on a communal effort called the "blockchain," a distributed ledger system that stores transaction records on the computers of the network of bitcoin users. The blockchain, collaborative and protective, was the technical foundation of this new economic fervor but also, it would soon become clear, a sort of metaphor behind the faith.
I'd flown to Orlando and made my way to the hotel—adjacent to "Downtown Disney," (an outdoor shopping area that resembles what you imagine the nice parts of Pyongyang to be) and quite far from the familiar Disney magic—to see if their bitcoin belief could be contagious. Might bitcoin be not a childish, cultish delusion, but what they held it to be, the next great human invention?
But first there was the emptiness of this other, aging vision of the future: the sprawl of dangerous intersections, poorly laid walkways, and artificial lakes. The hotel did not offer, and never would offer, any indication whatsoever that we were in the state of Florida, or even on Earth, or even alive. It was a solid block of fluorescent-lit corridors and large beige rooms. There were no windows anywhere occupied by the conference.
*** BTC @ $354.95
I was rescued from poolside suicidal ideation by Jeremy Gardner, the 23-year-old head of the College Cryptocurrency Network and the co-organizer of Coins in the Kingdom. Gardner is a recent University of Michigan dropout who'd gained prominence in the internet money community for cashing out his bitcoin holdings at $1,000. A sort of gangly hybrid of Ryan Phillippe and Michael Cera, if they were both debate team captains, he has what seems like infinite enthusiasm. He speaks a lot, and loudly. In his striped polo shirt and cargo shorts, he could have passed for someone walking through Downtown Disney for entirely non-bitcoin reasons.
But unlike everyone else strolling with us past animatronic dinosaurs and kiosks selling Aladdin pins, Gardner thinks about seemingly nothing but bitcoin, at every single hour of every single day. He is wholly dedicated to a very, very particular kind of software, and thinks it's going terrifically: "I'm one of the only people in bitcoin with no enemies," Gardner said, beaming, on our way to a Disney approximation of Italian dinner.
His community is at once filled with both profound enthusiasm, profound trust, and constant paranoia. As far as bitcoin boosters go, Gardner is a moderate—he doesn't see eye-to-eye with anti-statist hyper-libertarians, which he tells me this conference is flush with. But he does see his pet technology in us-versus-them terms. The world is divided between those who "believe in the blockchain" and their foes, of which there are many: banks, politicians, universities, and perhaps above all, Western Union—"motherfucking remittances," Gardner remarked again and again, are a chief evil on the bitcoin moral plane.
There were so many people waiting in line to buy things with dollars, we were ravenous by the time we found an open restaurant. It's not unimaginable that one of Disney's overpriced restaurant simulacra might accept bitcoin someday. Over $180 million in venture capital has flowed into bitcoin-related companies this year alone, backed by A-list boosters like Marc Andreessen and the Winklevoss twins.
That's enough money to create a small industry of people whose sole work is just sort of talking about bitcoin all the time. Bitcoin conferences are sprouting across the country (and globe) fast enough to make you think people actually use bitcoin. Some are geared at educating us cash-users about the advantages of the new way of doing things. But most are just gatherings of people who have agreed on the internet gathering in some conference room to agree more.
Even if bitcoin is still far from the mainstream, the chatter circuit keeps the backers and believers occupied (except when they're defrauding each other through fake conferences, which Gardner said happens quite often). It seems like a lucrative—if not kind of imaginary—career path: With bitcoin expertise, "anyone can get a job," Gardner told me. Was this a job interview? Or even something shy of expertise: "If you know anything about bitcoin, I can get you a job," he repeated, too earnest to be bragging.
Gardner travels constantly, hotel-hopping between bitcoin conferences, gulping Adderall, consulting for extra income, and generally spreading the good news to anyone within earshot. He was inexhaustible, with the bottomless positivity of someone who hasn't read tech coverage over the last year. He and his peers are "changing the world," he insisted. They turning bitcoin into something that will be "bigger than the entire internet."
Bitcoin is galvanizing in the way no other current technology is. In 2014, smartphones are boring. Digital cameras are disappearing. In 2014, bitcoin is where hope and imagination run free.
As we finished our family-sized pasta and whiskeys, I offered to pick up the bill, as a thank-you for rescuing me from sitting alone in an Orlando hotel room. Not a chance. "Trust me," Gardner said, "I think I make more money than you."
*** BTC @ $345.32
"There are those who just want to be left alone, there are those that just won't leave 'em alone! It's no more complicated than that. You think it is, but it's not."
Podcaster Ernie Hancock, who takes credit for Ron Paul's "rEVOLution" campaign logo and once brandished a weapon at an Obama rally, provided Saturday's opening remark before an audience of about 12. If you've ever wondered where the carpet that was removed from your parents house wound up, it appears to be in a Disney conference ballroom now.
Hancock delivered his comments urgently, as if stormtroopers from the Federal Reserve would storm the room at any moment. "What we want to do," he went on, with the lilt of a carny, "is try to make sure that bitcoin develops in such a way that it is supportive of the rights of the individual."
I would hear this again, and again, and again: bitcoin is a weapon for liberty that we dearly need to wield against government. Bitcoin isn't just a way to buy gift cards online, but an act of civil disobedience, a democratization of the global financial system. There's no denying how radical that idea is.
But before we resisted them, we needed to be scared of them.
"Can they?" Hancock asked the audience, invoking every conceivable form of big government malice. "Then they are." It was up to all of us in the uncomfortable chairs to stop this. "If it's technologically possible to advance the interest of those with coercive power, then it will eventually become politically inevitable." The audience nodded along—it starts with regulation, with Wall Street acceptance, and before you know it, a prison state. Or something. If anyone disputed the notion that the very concept of government was just one fat obstacle in the way of unobstructed bullion exchange paradise, they kept quiet.
Hancock was in good company at the Magic Kingdom. Down the orange-tinted hall from his orange-tinted conference room was another chasm of hellish textiles, set up with folding chairs and tables as an exhibitor hall. At one table stood Mark Edge and Carla Mora from the Free State Project, a campaign to get 20,000 people who hate and fear government to move to New Hampshire and live near each other. Carla, asking me if I were "liberty-minded" (the actual word "libertarian" was rarely heard), touted New Hampshire's permissive laws about bar closing times.
I wasn't ready to commit to a new life in a liberty-minded colony, but I was curious what any of this had to do with bitcoin. Orlando was a long way from Manchester.
Edge provided a cheery answer with his radio host's tenor: "Wide [bitcoin] adoption needs to happen to decimate the state." Edge always said the word "state" with finger air-quotes. "The state is the most killing-minded thing," he explained. As a pacifist, he saw bitcoin as his best means to hurt the U.S. government back, by ditching its dollars.
Edge's outlook may have sounded fringe-y, but in this particular magic kingdom, there is no lunatic fringe. Edge isn't a bitcoin outsider: He boasts of his friendship with Gavin Andresen, who was selected as bitcoin's engineering successor by the software's creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, before the latter decided to completely vanish. He's plugged in. He was the rule, and I was the exception. He kept smiling.
Mora still seemed a little put off by my reluctance to move to New Hampshire, but remained enthusiastic about the blockchain: "Bitcoin represents pure freedom," she beamed. It was something untouched by the "tentacles of the state."
She was new to the bitcoin community ("the community" or "the space" for short), but the group zeal had taken her already. It was pervasive, even in the ugliest of conference rooms: "There are so many people starting companies… it's a beautiful thing."
Edge stepped out briefly with a skinny, rough-bearded young man from central casting, and they returned with a large Dominos pizza. "This was 27 fucking dollars," the skinny companion announced. The Disney Dominos did not accept bitcoin, but he offered to sell me a slice for five dollars' worth of coin.
I hadn't brought any, and didn't plan to buy, so I'd have to choose from one of the other available options: room service, a cantina by the pool, or a $25 buffet for children that included visits from costumed characters.
*** BTC @ $333.11
The exhibitor's room was uncomfortably big, with more people sitting and waiting to talk about bitcoin than there were pre-registered pairs of ears. Some of the tables had been temporarily abandoned, leaving behind only scattered business cards and crumpled QR codes. But the tone was genial, that of a high school reunion (if you attended high school inside a subreddit and spent the intervening years growing hateful of the government instead of getting fat).
Men in Bitcoin shirts, some sporting Mickey ears, shook hands with internet friends. Children were herded toward a "Kids Room" with "blockchain-inspired activities," though one seven-year-old named Alexander idled by the table where his father was selling bitcoin-logo mugs. For a conference centered around money, very little of it seemed to be changing hands. I asked Alexander what he liked about bitcoin, and he just shrugged back: "I dunno, I just like it." Alexander didn't yet fear the tentacles of the state.
Fear was everywhere else. In another conference room session, Brian Soveryn, the self-described "baddest boy in the blockchain," railed against CFL light bulbs (forced upon us by regulators), warned against radio chips in door knobs, and deemed the U.S. government "unfit to exist." The reasoning behind all of this was never much more substantial than Alexander's explanation of why he likes bitcoin.
There was nothing to do between the panels, which all ran late. There was no way to leave the hotel complex without a car, which I didn't have. Even the shuttles drove you further into Disney occupied territory. When I'd run out of people to talk to, I took the elevator up to my room and looked out the window and wondered what the view looked like before roller coasters and resorts peeked above the tree line.
*** BTC @ $325.95
A few hours later came the day's keynote address, delivered before a crowd of literally dozens of people. Andreas Antonopoulos (Twitter bio: "Security guy, entrepreneur, coder, hacker, pundit, humanist, pacifist.") delivered another refrain of minor paranoia and galaxy-eyed encouragement.
"Welcome," he began. "We're all crazy." The room filled with hoots of approval. The moral of the day was to ignore bitcoin's many skeptics, for "history vindicates the people who take a chance." It all started to feel less like an alternative-currency conference and more like self-help.
Antonopoulos began with an analogy: Once upon a time, governments feared the automobile, and tried to clamp down on its use (not mentioned: the tens of thousands of people who died gruesome deaths before safety glass and seat-belt laws were forced on us by government tendrils). Even electricity had its skeptics, callow souls who thought indoor wiring would burn down homes (not mentioned: electrical fires).
Every technology has its doubters, Antonopoulos argued. Bitcoin has doubters. Ergo, bitcoin (or something like it) would be as widespread as electricity in the near future.
"Be comfortable in [your] position," he urged, "in the position of the weirdo, of the outsider." More applause. "Let them laugh at you." Nods all around. Bitcoin believers were rhetorically perched on the shoulders of Tesla, and Curie, and Edison. "You're not taught that every single person in the history of technology was ridiculed," Antonopoulos exclaimed (not mentioned: the ones who've deserved it).
At his side and serving as a sort of personal moderator and hype man was anarcho-capitalist celebrity Jeffrey Tucker. Tucker was an odd sight in a room full of people in bitcoin shirts and cargo shorts: impeccably dressed, with a fey demeanor and theatrical voice verging on stage accent. Reports from the 2008 presidential campaign fingered Tucker as the author behind Ron Paul's notoriously homophobic and racist newsletters, a charge on which he's demurred.
In the Horizon ballroom, Tucker dazzled: He decried bitcoin critics as "Luddites," praised the robber baron mansions of Newport (monuments to "early adopters"), urged us to browse rare coin shops ("an authentic part of the social order, a symbol of an age that's gone by"), and of course, denounced the federal hand. "The regulatory books are stuffed so full of hundred years of crufty laws," he said.
The content was the same as every diatribe, but the air was tinglier. This man didn't speak like he'd skulked out of an internet message board, but with Hollywood confidence. He wore a bow tie. He used large words, and gestured artfully with his hands.
Even so, the stock talking points were numbing. The government will clamp you if you give it a chance, so trust in this esoteric internet technology. Our enemy: Wall Street, the state, the White House. Our ally: the blockchain. Oppressor and liberator. Regulation and liberty. Them, and us.
I'd never seen the bitcoin community as monetary Manichaeism, but now it was the only way it made sense. How else could what is essentially a group of software enthusiasts act like they're attending the next Vatican Council? The blockchain, basically a fancy ledgerbook of wire transfers, was one thing in which these families could feel absolutely secure. Bitcoin was safety.
Why else travel to Orlando, this cartoon swamp? The government could come for their guns, or their land, or their light bulbs, but it couldn't seize the blockchain. No matter that the blockchain, at present, wasn't capable of doing very much other than serving as a symbol of personal liberty at a conference in Florida.
The conference dispersed for dinner, reconvened for a charity poker tournament (with a bitcoin purse, of course) and slept. There was a wedding the next morning.
*** BTC @ $315.12
I love weddings but dislike the happiness of strangers, so I was ambivalent about the union of David and Joyce, who were to perform the first "blockchain wedding" in history. If you'd told me I would come close to tears at a bitcoin wedding inside a Disney convention center I'd spent the better part of two days inside, I'd have assumed you were speaking to me through a malarial fever.
Yet here we all were, a room of smiling strangers, dressed for a trip to Dave & Busters, seated in neat hotel rows. "Is it bad luck on your wedding day if you get a stuck block?" cracked one guest to another. I didn't quite get the joke.
The bride's parents were watching the ceremony from the Philippines via Skype, the groom's mother next to them, all the way from Brooklyn. They clapped and cried, and I wondered how you'd explain this to your parents and thought how much they'd have to love you not to mind. Jeffrey Tucker officiated with a grandiloquent speech on human volition, beauty, love, and entrepreneurship. Bless his laissez faire heart, he did indeed find a way to compare the union two people to a bitcoin transaction: "Through entrepreneurship, and enterprise, there is also love."
[There was a video here]
But who needed metaphors? They tied the knot with an actual money transfer—David transferred himself 3.5 bitcoins (around $1,300 in criminal statist fiat money) through an adjacent crypto-ATM. The transfer was accompanied by a commemorative marriage memo, so that a statement of their love was repeated across the world, transferred from peer to peer across the whole blockchain.
There was no marriage certificate for the IRS to trample. When the symbolic transfer was complete and pressed into the immutable cyber-ledger, the couple received a printer receipt from the ATM. Say what you will about this modern marriage, but that's more than most couples ever get.
In sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, and "because the blockchain is forever." We were all jubilant. We ate slices of a custom-ordered wedding cake shaped like a bitcoin ATM, bright orange and red velvet. The bride tossed a bouquet. I gave David a strong put-'er-here-pal handshake, not even thinking that I didn't know his last name. "I wanted to give her something special," he told me. The ceremony was the gift. The bride was beautiful.
All the tone-deaf Reddit posting and speculative greed on Twitter, all the arrogance and triviality of "the bitcoin community" seemed to dwindle beside the family in the Philippines crying tears of joy. For a small part of the day, the presiding sentiment wasn't fear. The bitcoin community, such that it was in the Magic Kingdom that afternoon, felt like a community, not simply an opt-out from the rest of the world. It felt like a church.
Faith in the blockchain hadn't amounted to much beyond a mini-bubble of venture capital and a lot of startup confidence, but in the aftermath of the wedding, it was unimpeachable. A hyperactive child stomped down the aisle as the cake crowd dwindled, shouting "I'M SATOSHI NAKAMOTO! I INVENTED BITCOIN!" over and over, to the delight of every guest. If bitcoin amounts to nothing more than a strange mid-decade fad and cautionary lesson for future MBA classes, at least it made a group of people happy for a couple hours.
I decided I'd have some sort of breakdown if I stayed in Orlando through the evening, so I switched my ticket home to an earlier flight and paid a surcharge of U.S. dollars. It worked perfectly. By the time I would reach Orlando International Airport, the price of one bitcoin would have sunk to around $296—the lowest in almost a year.
"The next step is we need a couple of these," the groom told me as I headed out, gesturing to the children of the coin.
"Can't do that with the blockchain yet!" I replied. How else do you talk about unborn children with a stranger at the end of his virtual-currency-themed wedding?
"We're working on it," he said.