Let me explain my reaction to the news that a programmer in San Francisco has around $ 220m in bitcoin, but can’t remember the password. According to the New York Times, Stefan Thomas has only two other guesses to access the keys to a digital wallet containing his fortune. Otherwise it loses the lot.
I think there was a brief moment when I found it to be very funny. Then I found it too painful to think about. Now I have reached a state of acceptance.
This is the kind of Sliding Doors a moment we all fear – what if we never met our partner, what if we took that plane, what (in my case) if I slipped a jump from a shelf into a pool rocks. Life could have been so different.
Accidents happen, especially to bitcoin investors. It is estimated that 20 per cent of digital money is stuck – for example, by people who can’t remember how to access it. I thought these guys were against the right to be forgotten?
Wisely, a colleague at the Financial Times wrote the password to his bitcoin, which is now worth a few thousand pounds. Unfortunately he wrote it down wrong. As long as he doesn’t write things down wrong in the FT, he’ll be fine. But other forgetful bitcoiners will rub their heads against their Tesla prospectuses, because the dollar value of their currency has more than tripled in the past year. A Welsh IT worker claims to have benched a laptop with £ 230m of bitcoin, and has spent eight years asking the council for permission to search its landfill site.
There are serious implications for bitcoin, which wants to be a store of value, but clearly over-emphasizes the storage part. Remember this is the most environmentally damaging currency, with a larger carbon footprint than Sri Lanka, due to the computing power required to create each ticket. If Silicon Valley wanted to pollute the world by creating nothing of usable value, it should have copied a cash plan for Northern Ireland ash.
There are wider lessons for digital evangelists. Internet liberals predict that people will thrive when guardrails are thrown away and automated systems replace inefficient human beings.
But what if humans are quite useful? Walk in beaten with his empty hand to a bank branch, and the tellers will find a way to reconnect you with your overdraft. Although, even if you could identify the mysterious founder of bitcoin Satoshi Nakamoto, he couldn’t help you access your digital wallet. For a species that forgets things, that’s sub-optimal.
The other lesson is about genius. Silicon Valley loves genius, often cited by how early they invested in X or how many employees they were in Y. But maybe the people who invested early in Facebook were not geniuses – they were lucky in alone. The people who become viral stars may not be the funniest or the best singers.
Password-amnesiac Mr Thomas got his 7,002 bitcoin for making video – a task millions of people could have done. It could be worth as much as Ed Sheeran or become the internet version of the Fifth Beatle. But he wouldn’t say much about his ability or contribution to society.
“If you can make one heap of all your gains / And risk it at one go of hit-and-miss / And lose, and start again on your beginnings / And never breathe a word about your loss. . . , ”Wrote Rudyard Kipling. No one can really follow that advice. No one can handle victory and disaster all the same, though luck often decides who we finish with.
All we can do is pity those people who never made their fortune, never fell in love, and became ill. Surely four years of Donald Trump has taught America that wealth does not correlate with moral status. If bitcoin teaches Silicon Valley the importance of luck, then it may have created real value after all.