I remember the Internet in 1991. I had a Panix account, a venerable and awesome Internet Service Provider in the New York City area. I would fire up my 1200 baud modem and connect to an incredible world dominated by Telnet, Gopher, Wais, and Usenet. I stumbled upon LambaMoo and was blown away that a community of people were actively speaking and engaging with each other over this nascent Internet. It was fascinating, weird, felt a little bit dangerous and seedy, like a secret society. The technology was interesting, with tremendous potential, but had yet to be commercially exploited, and frankly nobody outside academia or the military really understood it.
Then the modern web was born. October 13, 1994 was the day Netscape was released, and it completely changed the way people used the Internet. Sure, the web had been developed several years before, and early web browsers existed already like NCSA Mosaic, but Netscape changed the game. Suddenly, it wasn’t difficult to use the Internet. A few clicks and you were on line. A few more clicks and you were spiraling down a never ending series of pages loosely strung together all over the net. There was an addictive quality to the experience despite the fact that by modern standards it looked absolutely terrible. Browsing those early pages now is an adventure in frustration, but by the standards of the day it was transcendent.
That was a pivotal moment in the story of the Internet. A weird government science project-turned commercial. A strange and forbidding world became accessible. Almost three billion people use the network now. It is deeply ingrained in the working and personal lives of individuals the world over. It is almost hard to imagine not having the Internet. It is a surrogate teacher, a way of staying instantly connected to everyone and everything that is important in our every day lives. It has uprooted and completely supplanted entire industries, and made obsolete ways of doing business that were deeply entrenched. It has changed humanity in ways that we are still trying to understand, and the pace of that change is accelerating dramatically.
Then there was Bitcoin. For the first time in human history two people can exchange value over distance, without knowing each other, and without trusting either party or intermediaries. For the first time I can pass information to someone else over an insecure network and expect them to get it. I can facilitate transactions that cannot be subverted or duplicated. I can refer to a ledger that cannot be altered, that records that this transaction took place, and I can leverage computers to programatically create and manage these transactions. Bitcoin is difficult. It is hard to understand. It is hard to use. It is confusing to normal people. It is confusing to abnormal people. These same people were confused in 1994 when Netscape came out, because they lacked vision, they lacked imagination.
Bitcoin hasn’t had its Netscape moment. It took almost twenty five years for the Internet to have its time to shine, and Bitcoin is only five years old. What a five years it has been. A technology has literally been dropped into society that could fundamentally reshape the way business is done. Think of Bitcoin as like an IP address for people. A way of transferring value and receiving money from every single person on the planet, directly. The traditional banking sector can’t even begin to provide services to billions of people who live on just dollars a day because of the friction involved in moving money across and between countries. Now the friction is gone.
But its more than that. In fact, describing Bitcoin as a way of transferring money is kind of like saying the Internet is a way to send E-Mail. It completely misses the point, it lacks imagination. Bitcoin has a market capitalization of almost seven billion dollars at the time of this writing, but more importantly represents hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial investment meant to sustain the network. Quietly a new network has been forming, a network that adds Trust to the Internet. Bitcoin is an all-access pass to trusted communications and all of the services that entails. Why stop at transferring value? Why can’t we move contracts between people or organizations? Why can’t we have intelligent agents that manage our day to day finances? How can we codify the rules of industry to decrease cost, to automate the tedium of life, to make things more convenient, faster, better.
So we have not only a frictionless mechanism for delivering value, but the machinery to build much greater things. The point is that we haven’t even begun to see the types of technology we can build on this network, and that the applications we do have are more akin to Telnet than the WWW. In the early nineties it was difficult to envision what the Internet would become. It required both prescience and arrogance to believe that it would penetrate the fabric of society as deeply as it has. At the risk of being both, trust networks built on digital currency are going to change our world just as fundamentally. We are going to bake them into the protocols that underly modern commerce. We are going to integrate them into human labor and automated agents. We are going to build something that has never existed before and will benefit us all in ways that we cannot possibly begin to imagine.