Bitcoin rose to prominence in the last year, like Donald Trump came to power the year before, with no track record of delivering what it promised – but the similarities do not end there. Trump’s supporters attempted to address political powerlessness by relying on a famous political outsider, even one without technical expertise in running a government. Bitcoin was really an untested and purely technological solution to the excessive power of mistrusted governments: it is supposed to take away their control of information and money, the substance that “makes the world go around”. Both promised to address powerlessness in the political sphere, which we normally rely on to accomplish societal goals, through extraordinary abilities.
Trump’s election made a mockery of both traditional pundits and statistical models that, a few short years earlier, had made those pundits look obsolete. Whereas both humans and statistical models expected the future to look like the past, the population was sick of the past. The belief that American politics was capable of delivering change had persisted through many election cycles, but beliefs are like bridges, they are quite stable until sufficiently strained. In face of past results, Americans put their hopes in somebody who looked, sounded and acted differently than most politicians. Donald Trump combines wealth and media exposure, two election season essentials that act to keep most outsiders away from power. Most importantly, he was such an outsider that he hadn’t had any chance at all to fail voters, yet.
It is often what we don’t know about technology that makes us think it can solve social problem. Like a Rorschach inkblot test – what is seen in unproven tech reflects the perceiver’s inner life. The visions seen by a core group of tech savvy early adopter/investors were the initial driver of Bitcoin’s attention grabbing price rise. They saw, in this nebulous invention of the anonymous legend Satoshi Nakamoto, the possibility to decentralise money and buy anonymously, thereby loosening government control of money and information – two pillars of power. Early investor/adopters’ purchases of Bitcoin brought its price up, appearing to validate the idea that it could be accepted as a currency (though few products are bought with Bitcoin), which in turn, drove imitation of their investment by less technologically informed investors. Bitcoin prices were then driven further upwards by a mix of actual usage (especially on the dark web), news coverage and the desire to get rich.
The mythology of the Hacker subculture from which Bitcoin hails has always shared a lot with superheroes who can individually just do something about a problem that inept bureaucracies, corrupt politicians, or endless discussions cannot. Technology is real life superpower, and the heroic innovator is the closest thing to a real life superhero – as comparisons between Tesla founder Elon Musk and Tony Stark (The fictional industrial who moonlights as “Iron Man”) suggest. The hacker character has more in common with dark contemporary versions of Batman than mild mannered Clark Kent – seemingly more likely to have sat at the back of class and mouthed off as a child, than to have been a teacher’s pet. Establishment-friendly Superman stopped being cool at exactly the same time that Americans lost faith in their political leadership. Bitcoin’s image actually combines both the draw to outsiders that Trump profited from and a desire for technological superpowers to right wrongs.
We are driven to look for super powers when conventional powers fail us. Politics is the conventional way to address the problem of global warming which Musk is supposed to be solving with electric cars. The inability of politics as usual to put strong and bold new leadership into center stage drew many to Trump’s superpower of attracting attention and projecting confidence in an anonymous and intimidatingly complex world. Politics also is the most obvious avenue to address problem of the control of money by a government we don’t trust. Frustration resulted in wild hopes for preliminary and untested, though technically impressive cryptocurrency. New technologies will continue to arise, and we should be asking ourselves more seriously whether they have any more power to solve our political problems, without help from a politically organized population, than our old politicians did.