I was excited to read Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency. I had been passively interested in Bitcoin in what feels like the early days, though it was more like 2014. But I didn’t buy any Bitcoin, and I didn’t do any mining. I wasn’t particularly interested in blockchain as a technology, and I certainly wasn’t interested in how it could be applied to other fields.
My interest in Bitcoin was political, philosophical, and abstract. I was interested in the scene of rebellion. I was interested in projects like the Silk Road and Dark Wallet, and the idea of building alternative systems that couldn’t be controlled by a central authority. But for me, these projects were just a series of connected YouTube videos to watch.
I was hoping Digital Cash would give me a mental timeline of Bitcoin’s creation, motivation, and the people involved, but with a focus on the various political side projects that came afterwards. I was expecting a “history.” Instead, Digital Cash was something more like cynical literary essays with historical vignettes on the concept of money.
The target audience of Digital Cash seems even smaller than the title suggests. It seems like there would be a sizeable audience for a book on the history of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. The audience probably shrinks when you focus on the political activists involved. The audience really shrinks when you shift the form of the book itself to be closer to an art project, and remove any material related to anything that happened in the last 10 years.
The first chapter of the book explores the concepts behind an alternative currency invented during the Great Depression by an engineer. The author introduces the concept of a cosmogram, and explains how this currency had been embedded with the values of its creator. I expected the book to subsequently “snap to the present,” but it never did. As the author (Finn Brunton) wrote in his introduction,
With all that in mind: I hope with this book to give you an experience, a whirlwind tour of many different systems of utopian desire, future fantasy, and experimental life, including brief sketches of many of the personalities and practices involved — some of whom may seem wrongheaded, dangerous, and even willfully perverse. The itinerary includes prototype countries and mathematical challenges, a financial system to bring its creator back from the dead, nonconductive liquids, Xanadu hypertext, leaf money, objective values, currency panics, private spaceships, public randomness, American Technocrats in capes, cryptographers in chadors, high-seas autonomous zones, Grace Hopper playing basketball, libertarian silver, geodesic schemes, broken time machines, idea coupons, forged signatures, a wall of lava lamps, and a tank of frozen human heads.
I’m probably in this narrow target audience for Digital Cash. But in this case, I just wanted a straightforward, modern history. Digital Cash was a series of academic examinations that collectively were a work of art. Further, the author didn’t strike me as being sympathetic to any of the people serving as subjects in the chapters of his book. To me, as Digital Cash progresses, it kind of comes across as an academic showing his colleagues a YouTube video of Alex Jones and saying, “Why, have a look at this specimen!”