Monday, December 7, 2015

Book Review: Digital Gold

Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money
Nathaniel Popper
Economics, computers

Some people have a stereotypical idea of what constitutes a Bitcoin zealot in their minds. Some people, indeed, probably imagine:
  • Technical brilliance combined with Asperger's syndrome or the like
  • Thin, worryingly intense men with beady eyes
  • Parents' basements
  • Orthodox Libertarians waving their copies of Mao's Little Red Book Atlas Shrugged in quasi-religious fervor
  • Scammers, fast-talkers, Machiavellians, suck-ups, and narcissists generally
Some people are, broadly speaking, correct. No one person in Digital Gold incorporates all of the stereotype, but even so a certain ... composite portrait ... emerges. (Two other facts are worth noting: 100% of the actors are male, and 98% of them seem to be jerks. One of the few exceptions lives in my home town, for what that's worth.)

Also, there are a lot of them. That's one of Digital Gold's main weaknesses. There are just too many characters, and they tend to drift into and out of the story, making it hard to remember who's who. A cast of characters, right up-front, would have been helpful; a timeline would not have come amiss. As it is, the book is a bit herky-jerky. The pieces are fine, and might stand on their own as newspaper articles, but as a whole it's a bit slice-of-life-ish.

This is, in part, because Nathaniel Popper chose to concentrate on the people rather than on the technology. I understand why.  I imagine that there are relatively few readers who will abandon the book because it's short on eye-watering engineering detail. That doesn't mean I don't miss it, though. There's only a short and shallow technical appendix, which isn't nearly enough.

Still, it's a pretty enjoyable read. The conclusion is a bit of a downer: the idealists go up against the System, and the System wins. But, as with the large and shifting cast, that's real life for you.

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