Bitcoin: Education can make a difference

Every so often, a transformative new technology emerges that has the potential to affect everyone on the planet. But whether the technology's potential is realized or or not depends heavily on public opinion. Positive coverage can encourage people to embrace innovation, while negative stories can make them avoid something new -- or even encourage governments to legislate against it.

We've seen such controversies around issues like stem cell research or genetically modified foods. Some people praise their potential for curing diseases or feeding billions of people. Other people warn that these allegedly unsafe and untested technologies could be hugely damaging. 

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A similarly polarized dynamic has now arisen around Bitcoin, a new technology that has the potential to become a global money for a global economy. Bitcoin combines the advantages of instant online payment (like PayPal) with being a store of value (like gold). At its core is a powerful cryptographic technology called the “blockchain,” which Jeff Garzik, one of the Bitcoin protocol’s core developers, describes as an elegant and unexpected solution to distributed systems: how computers talk to each other, and how to keep them coordinated.

Many people believe that Bitcoin can make our financial system cheaper, faster, and safer. Yet, coverage rarely focuses on these benefits. Instead, stories about money laundering, drug trading, exploded exchanges, and price crashes predominate the news cycle, to the point where many people are inclined to see Bitcoin as an undesirable phenomenon. A recent Reason-Rupe poll shows that although only a small minority (8 percent) of people say that they really understand Bitcoin, the majority (56 percent) want the government to ban it.

So why are some people so positive, and others so negative?

Support for Bitcoin often comes from tech visionaries. Paul Graham, a prominent venture capitalist, refers to Bitcoin as a paradigm shift that is unfortunately “derided as a toy, just like microcomputers.” Entrepreneur Marc Andreessen has written that the potential of Bitcoin today is analogous to personal computers in 1975 and the Internet in 1993. Today, it's the preoccupation of “nerds,” but tomorrow it can change the life of everyone. Indeed, Bitcoin is already starting to become a mainstream phenomenon, with tangible benefits for ordinary people.

Bitcoin's critics commonly mention its role in money laundering and corruption, epitomized by the infamous underground online market Silk Road. But they often fail to mention that any currency can be used for socially undesirable purposes. In theory, Bitcoin is easier to track and regulate than paper cash, so we have legitimate reason to believe that Bitcoin's wide adoption would lead to less criminal activity, not more.

Consider, too, that there are 2.5 billion unbanked people in the world, equivalent to eight times the population of the United States. Just by giving them access to a cell phone and Bitcoin, we have potentially added 2.5 billion people to the global economy. Furthermore, with Bitcoin, people can send money anywhere in the world, without crippling bank fees or fear of government extortion. When we consider that the World Bank expects migrants to send $436 billion in remittances to their home countries this year, the advantages could be enormous.

On top of this, you can now use Bitcoin at an increasing number of retailers. Seemingly every week, a new brand-name retailer is added to the list of merchants who accept Bitcoin, which now includes the likes of Overstock, Expedia, and OkCupid. This makes Bitcoin a credible and desirable currency in the developed world, as well.

In response to the fearmongering and lack of credible information about Bitcoin, I started an educational platform called “Bitcoin Girl” -- but that's really just the start of what we should be doing. If we want to prevent negative public opinion and uninformed legislation from crippling Bitcoin in its infancy, we need to educate the people who understand humans better than computers.

Brockwell is a program officer with the Moving Picture Institute and a policy associate at the NYC Bitcoin Center. Her Bitcoin Girl (BitcoinGirl.org) video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XEthXBHsEac&feature=youtu.be