On failing to understand bitcoins

I admit it, I’m confused about bitcoins.

Actually, now that I think about it, my failure to comprehend what is for me aptly called “cryptocurrency” is only the latest in a lifelong history of failure to understand technology.

I’ve driven a car since I was 16, and I still don’t really understand that either. I mean I remember learning early on about explosions in cylinders making pistons go up and down (and that getting translated somehow to round and round). But despite that learning, I never could really grasp, in the sense of imagine, how they could go 3, 4, 5000 rpms.

I would as a youth flap my arms as fast as I could in an attempt to identify with those rpms, but just made it harder to understand in the sense of imagine. (I’ve actually done better with airplanes. In dreams about flying I the flapping feels more like swimming through thick air. I identify a bit with great blue herons laboring to get airborne. (Hummingbirds of course are as unimaginable as pistons.) Call this failure to understand the internal combustion engine a failure of imagination to transcend its anchor in the body of which it is a part.

I understand I’m not the only pre-millennial perplexed with bitcoins, whose value has been going crazy recently. What’s it all about, Alfie? (as I say to myself when confused).

I’ve had my son, a digitally steeped millennial, who owns part of a bitcoin, try to explain it to me. I’ve tried to be patient as he lays it out. I furrow my brow in concentration. But the explanation just doesn’t take. It could of course be an aging brain, but I prefer to think that not understanding bitcoins is a result of being stuck in what’s being called the Human Era, now that , as cutting edge Silicon Valley types are saying, bricks-and-mortar brains (metaphors are so confusing these days) are being replaced by A.I.

Somewhere along the line in my youth I got stuck on the idea that paper money works because, although worthless in itself, it is tied to something of real value, such as gold. If need be, you could actually take it to Fort Knox in Kentucky and they would hand you some gold.

And as for why the gold was worth what it was worth: because it’s pretty and scarce. Something like that. That’s at least the logic I remember from my early life, “In God we trust” presiding over that logic.

But here comes bitcoin not backed by gold–or a government that says it’s backed by gold–or anything else. Valuable just because it says so.

My son explained that many high powered computers are kept going night and day doing computer-type work creating value by some sort of analogy with miners digging gold. But Ben, I would say, those miners are digging something of inherent value. The computer stuff sounds like make-work.

He just shook his head at my Human Era hopelessness.

As close as I can get is that bitcoins are like that Leonardo painting determined in a recent auction to be worth 450 million bucks, a price that seems unrelated to any actual capacity for pleasure.

I get, sort of, that maybe with bitcoins it’s all market, no intrinsic value at all (and that maybe the idea that there is something of inherent value, is naïve). Maybe, the way it’s going, the bitcoin will in the forseeable future also be worth 450 million.Why not?

But stuck as I am with the comforting (and no doubt fallacious) idea of my gold in Fort Knox, I am troubled by such bubble-thinking, to switch to that cautionary metaphor. I have a feeling bitcoin, along with 450 million dollar paintings, is what’s wrong with the world. With the Human Era world, anyway.


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