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Title: The Bitcoin Jet, Or, How Does Cryptocurrency Go Mainstream?

Author: Jon Evans

Postdate: 2015-02-21
DIGITAL CURRENCIES ACCEPTED HERE proclaims the plaque at my local froyo place, e
mblazoned with the Bitcoin logo: but when I ask how I would pay with Bitcoin, th
e Australian woman behind the counter shrugs and says, I think we have a tablet
somewhere with instructions on the back? Nobodys ever tried to pay me with it.
Meanwhile, over on CNN, Morgan Spurlock tried to live for a week on Bitcoin, and
learns that while java can be tough to get, drugs, guns, various documents or e
ven a hit man are available to those with the bitcoin. Do I sound dismissive? I
dont mean to be. Bitcoin is a big deal. As Michael Casey and Paul Vigna put it,
it is much more than a currency. It is a radically new, decentralized system fo
r managing the way societies exchange value. It has more than its share of doubt
ers, but to quote Larry Summers: It seems to me that the people who confidently
reject all the innovation here [in new payment and monetary systems] are on the
wrong side of history. And theres no denying that cryptocurrencies inspire rema
rkable passion in people. Bitcoin doesnt have hobbyists; it has believers and ev
angelists. Last month I flew in, and flew, the Bitcoin Jet (yes, thats me in the
picture), courtesy of Mark Fidel Hale, an engineer who sold a startup to Intuit
, used the proceeds to acquire a jet and paint it with the Bitcoin logo, and now
with the aid of Sticky, a fellow Bitcoin evangelist, former Thunderbird pilot,
and current Southwest captain and precision pilot on Californias Patriots Jet Te
am takes it to air shows around America, getting the good Bitcoin word out to hu
ndreds of thousands. Thats dedication. And people like Hale and Sticky arent de
lusional starry-eyed fantasists; theyre hard-headed pragmatists (pragmatism is e
ndemic among both engineers and pilots, for obvious reasons) who genuinely belie
ve that Bitcoin is the next big revolutionary thing. Go to Bitcoin conferences a
nd youll find a similar confidence that the attendees are in on the ground floor
of something truly huge, before most of the rest of the world even knows it exi
sts. Bitcoin is frequently compared to the Internet in 1995, and not without rea
son but the inconvenient reality is that, for the most part, its more like a 19
95 in which email is still slower and balkier than the post office. Decentralize
d programmable money may have huge theoretical advantages over our planets inter
locking Rube Goldberg financial systems, just as renewable power has huge advant
ages over oil but renewables dont just compete with oil; they also compete with
the trillions of dollars weve poured into oil infrastructure over the last centu
ry. There are a few scenarios where Bitcoin is genuinely transformative today.
It has zero competition when it comes to sending money directly to another perso
n, anywhere in the world, with no intermediary organizations at all. Hence the S
ilk Road and its progeny. Similarly, its great for sending money from country to
country, as long as you dont mind extreme volatility. But to most people, who
generally dont have to deal with merchant accounts and interbank transfers and w
ire deadlines, who just use their credit and ATM cards and dont think about how
much theyre being gouged by fees and exchange rates, todays centralized financia
l systems are generally good enough. Whats more, one massive advantage of centra
lized systems is that they give you someone to complain to, and/or someone with
the authority to reverse charges if that becomes necessary. When a Bitcoin trans
action is complete, it is over. That scares a lot of people. So is Bitcoin doom
ed to become a niche curiosity, used for remittances and international purchases
by the bold, and for illicit goods by the wary? (Large niches, granted, but nic
hes nonetheless.) How and when could it actually enter the day-to-day life of an
ything more than a small minority of people? What is the Bitcoin killer app? I
dont know yet but I suspect it will emerge from arguably the most remarkable thi
ng about Bitcoin: its not just electronic money, its programmable money. (Every
Bitcoin transaction is actually a fragment of code written in Bitcoins scripting
language.) Its a chicken-and-egg problem, though; how will programmable money m
atter if almost no one is using it outside of a few very clearly delineated use
cases? And so I go back to the very first time I wrote about Bitcoin, almost fo
ur years ago, when I argued: In the developed world, Bitcoin is a non-starter.
At best it might eke out an existence as a distributed local currency for hardco

re libertarians. But the developing world is another matter Like most engineers
I got a lot more optimistic about Bitcoin once I understood how technically rem
arkable it is. In emerging markets, especially those wracked by high inflation,
troubled banks, and/or corruption, Bitcoin doesnt just look interesting; aside f
rom its volatility, it looks like a whole new and far superior ball game. (Many
such places have also been where tech infrastructure is weakest, but soon even t
he poor world will have near-universal smartphone deployment.) Whats more: Gre
ece"s new finance minister was already thinking about a variant of Bitcoin
as a national currency one year ago. Balaji S. Srinivasa
n (@balajis) February 20, 2015 If and when Bitcoin (or a sidechain successor) s
ucceeds, it will (probably) do so by first supplanting existing financial system
s where theyre weakest. So keep a wise eye out for financial crises around the w
orld, and for Bitcoin growth and innovations where things seem worst. It may see
m grim and disconcertingly cyberpunk for so remarkable an innovation to grow in
shadows and troubled lands, to feast on crime and disaster; but that seems to be
the world we live in now. Featured Image: Jon Evans /Flickr