The Bitcoin Jet, Or, How Does Cryptocurrency Go Mainstream?

Comment

Image Credits: Jon Evans (opens in a new window) / Flickr (opens in a new window) under a license.

Jon Evans

Contributor

Jon Evans is the CTO of the engineering consultancy HappyFunCorp; the award-winning author of six novels, one graphic novel, and a book of travel writing; and TechCrunch’s weekend columnist since 2010.

More posts from Jon Evans

DIGITAL CURRENCIES ACCEPTED HERE proclaims the plaque at my local froyo place, emblazoned with the Bitcoin logo: but when I ask how I would pay with Bitcoin, the Australian woman behind the counter shrugs and says, “I think we have a tablet somewhere with instructions on the back? …Nobody’s ever tried to pay me with it.”

Meanwhile, over on CNN, Morgan Spurlock tried to live for a week on Bitcoin, and learns that “while java can be tough to get, drugs, guns, various documents or even a hit man are available to those with the bitcoin.”

Do I sound dismissive? I don’t mean to be. Bitcoin is a big deal. As Michael Casey and Paul Vigna put it, it “is much more than a currency. It is a radically new, decentralized system for managing the way societies exchange value.” It has more than its share of doubters, but to quote Larry Summers: “It seems to me that the people who confidently reject all the innovation here [in new payment and monetary systems] are on the wrong side of history.”

And there’s no denying that cryptocurrencies inspire remarkable passion in people. Bitcoin doesn’t have hobbyists; it has believers and evangelists. Last month I flew in, and flew, the Bitcoin Jet (yes, that’s me in the picture), courtesy of Mark “Fidel” Hale, an engineer who sold a startup to Intuit, used the proceeds to acquire a jet and paint it with the Bitcoin logo, and now — with the aid of “Sticky,” a fellow Bitcoin evangelist, former Thunderbird pilot, and current Southwest captain and precision pilot on California’s Patriots Jet Team — takes it to air shows around America, getting the good Bitcoin word out to hundreds of thousands.

That’s dedication. And people like Hale and Sticky aren’t delusional starry-eyed fantasists; they’re hard-headed pragmatists (pragmatism is endemic among both engineers and pilots, for obvious reasons) who genuinely believe that Bitcoin is the next big revolutionary thing. Go to Bitcoin conferences and you’ll find a similar confidence that the attendees are in on the ground floor of something truly huge, before most of the rest of the world even knows it exists. Bitcoin is frequently compared to the Internet in 1995, and not without reason…

…but the inconvenient reality is that, for the most part, it’s more like a 1995 in which email is still slower and balkier than the post office. Decentralized programmable money may have huge theoretical advantages over our planet’s interlocking Rube Goldberg financial systems, just as renewable power has huge advantages over oil — but renewables don’t just compete with oil; they also compete with the trillions of dollars we’ve poured into oil infrastructure over the last century.

There are a few scenarios where Bitcoin is genuinely transformative today. It has zero competition when it comes to sending money directly to another person, anywhere in the world, with no intermediary organizations at all. Hence the Silk Road and its progeny. Similarly, it’s great for sending money from country to country, as long as you don’t mind extreme volatility.

But to most people, who generally don’t have to deal with merchant accounts and interbank transfers and wire deadlines, who just use their credit and ATM cards and don’t think about how much they’re being gouged by fees and exchange rates, today’s centralized financial systems are generally good enough. What’s more, one massive advantage of centralized systems is that they give you someone to complain to, and/or someone with the authority to reverse charges if that becomes necessary. When a Bitcoin transaction is complete, it is over. That scares a lot of people.

So is Bitcoin doomed to become a niche curiosity, used for remittances and international purchases by the bold, and for illicit goods by the wary? (Large niches, granted, but niches nonetheless.) How and when could it actually enter the day-to-day life of anything more than a small minority of people? What is the Bitcoin killer app?

I don’t know — yet — but I suspect it will emerge from arguably the most remarkable thing about Bitcoin: it’s not just electronic money, it’s programmable money. (Every Bitcoin transaction is actually a fragment of code written in Bitcoin’s scripting language.) It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, though; how will programmable money matter if almost no one is using it outside of a few very clearly delineated use cases?

And so I go back to the very first time I wrote about Bitcoin, almost four years ago, when I argued:

In the developed world, Bitcoin is a non-starter. At best it might eke out an existence as a distributed local currency for hardcore libertarians. …But the developing world is another matter

Like most engineers I got a lot more optimistic about Bitcoin once I understood how technically remarkable it is. In emerging markets, especially those wracked by high inflation, troubled banks, and/or corruption, Bitcoin doesn’t just look interesting; aside from its volatility, it looks like a whole new and far superior ball game. (Many such places have also been where tech infrastructure is weakest, but soon even the poor world will have near-universal smartphone deployment.)

What’s more:
https://twitter.com/balajis/status/568851502741082112

If and when Bitcoin (or a sidechain successor) succeeds, it will (probably) do so by first supplanting existing financial systems where they’re weakest. So keep a wise eye out for financial crises around the world, and for Bitcoin growth and innovations where things seem worst. It may seem grim and disconcertingly cyberpunk for so remarkable an innovation to grow in shadows and troubled lands, to feast on crime and disaster; but that seems to be the world we live in now.

More TechCrunch

Stack AI’s co-founders, Antoni Rosinol and Bernardo Aceituno, were PhD students at MIT wrapping up their degrees in 2022 just as large language models were becoming more mainstream. ChatGPT would…

Stack AI wants to make it easier to build AI-fueled workflows

Pinecone, the vector database startup founded by Edo Liberty, the former head of Amazon’s AI Labs, has long been at the forefront of helping businesses augment large language models (LLMs)…

Pinecone launches its serverless vector database out of preview

Young geothermal energy wells can be like budding prodigies, each brimming with potential to outshine their peers. But like people, most decline with age. In California, for example, the amount…

Special mud helps XGS Energy get more power out of geothermal wells

The market play is clear from the outset: The $449 headphones are firmly targeted at an audience that would otherwise be purchasing the Bose QC Ultra or Apple AirPods Max.

Sonos finally made some headphones

Adobe says the feature is up to the task, regardless of how complex of a background the object is set against.

Adobe brings Firefly AI-powered Generative Remove to Lightroom

All cars suffer when the mercury drops, but electric vehicles suffer more than most as heaters draw more power and batteries charge more slowly as the liquid electrolyte inside thickens.…

Porsche invests in battery startup South 8 to boost cold-weather EV performance

Scale AI has raised a $1 billion Series F round from a slew of big-name institutional and corporate investors including Amazon and Meta.

Data-labeling startup Scale AI raises $1B as valuation doubles to $13.8B

The new coalition, Tech Against Scams, will work together to find ways to fight back against the tools used by scammers and to better educate the public against financial scams.

Meta, Match, Coinbase and others team up to fight online fraud and crypto scams

It’s a wrap: European Union lawmakers have given the final approval to set up the bloc’s flagship, risk-based regulations for artificial intelligence.

EU Council gives final nod to set up risk-based regulations for AI

London-based fintech Vitesse has closed a $93 million Series C round of funding led by investment giant KKR.

Vitesse, a payments and treasury management platform for insurers, raises $93M to fuel US expansion

Zen Educate, an online marketplace that connects schools with teachers, has raised $37 million in a Series B round of funding. The raise comes amid a growing teacher shortage crisis…

Zen Educate raises $37M and acquires Aquinas Education as it tries to address the teacher shortage

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

A new self-driving truck — manufactured by Volvo and loaded with autonomous vehicle tech developed by Aurora Innovation — could be on public highways as early as this summer.  The…

Aurora and Volvo unveil self-driving truck designed for a driverless future

The European venture capital firm raised its fourth fund as fund as climate tech “comes of age.”

ETF Partners raises €285M for climate startups that will be effective quickly — not 20 years down the road

Copilot, Microsoft’s brand of generative AI, will soon be far more deeply integrated into the Windows 11 experience.

Microsoft wants to make Windows an AI operating system, launches Copilot+ PCs

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. For those who haven’t heard, the first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has been pushed back yet again to no earlier than…

TechCrunch Space: Star(side)liner

When I attended Automate in Chicago a few weeks back, multiple people thanked me for TechCrunch’s semi-regular robotics job report. It’s always edifying to get that feedback in person. While…

These 81 robotics companies are hiring

The top vehicle safety regulator in the U.S. has launched a formal probe into an April crash involving the all-electric VinFast VF8 SUV that claimed the lives of a family…

VinFast crash that killed family of four now under federal investigation

When putting a video portal in a public park in the middle of New York City, some inappropriate behavior will likely occur. The Portal, the vision of Lithuanian artist and…

NYC-Dublin real-time video portal reopens with some fixes to prevent inappropriate behavior

Longtime New York-based seed investor, Contour Venture Partners, is making progress on its latest flagship fund after lowering its target. The firm closed on $42 million, raised from 64 backers,…

Contour Venture Partners, an early investor in Datadog and Movable Ink, lowers the target for its fifth fund

Meta’s Oversight Board has now extended its scope to include the company’s newest platform, Instagram Threads, and has begun hearing cases from Threads.

Meta’s Oversight Board takes its first Threads case

The company says it’s refocusing and prioritizing fewer initiatives that will have the biggest impact on customers and add value to the business.

SeekOut, a recruiting startup last valued at $1.2 billion, lays off 30% of its workforce

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender SoLo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch