The Trader here asked me to be a guest columnist and, I guess, I haven't been a very good one. We've all -- everyone in this community -- got so many projects going on, sometimes it's hard to focus. The entrepreneurs I've met in the last six months since I started working with Bitcoin are, by far, the most dynamic and multi-talented people I've come across in the last 15 years of IT work. Not to mention scrappy and ambitious. There's not a single merchant, blogger or far-seeing engineer I know, working with this stuff, who doesn't have at least two projects already launched and another half-dozen in the oven. We make the people at hacker news look lazy. We're not bathing in Paul Graham's questionable and reflected glory; we're just trying to make a fortune. And I like that.
There's a good reason for it too, I think. Not for the last 15 years have we had a similar dynamic, where a new technology opened up with no restraints and no prior art, to expose a vast landscape of entrepreneurial options for anyone who could see. Look at the businesses spawned so far by Bitcoin's existence; this is an astonishing array of original work, going in every direction, and built around one thing -- the freedom to build and sell whatever you want again. Just like it was at the beginning of the web. Suddenly, again, people with a great idea have no bar to entry and no limits on what can be accomplished if they're smart enough to adopt the technology first. The last time it happened, I was a teenage dropout, building some of the first big e-commerce sites up on Green Street in San Francisco. Now I'm an entrepreneur, just as inexperienced as my unfortunate former bosses were. But I did learn a few things in the last decade.
As the web progressed from being a pond to an ocean, it became more and more important to launch big. It became increasingly difficult for someone with a great idea and some basic HTML skills to launch, market and maintain something that could turn into an immensely popular, infinitely scalable website. The rise and fall of Web VC 1.0, 1996-99, and version 2 which is still dying a slow, hideous death, showed not just how gullible is a young, technically inept business grad in his late twenties, but how money is the origin of prior restraint. What the VCs were feeding off of was the fearlessness of hackers who'd figured out how to do something no one else had done, with whatever they had to work with at the time; and who didn't give a damn what the business model was or who sponsored it, as long as the software worked and the idea was cool.
More than anything else that's constrained the web since 1998 have been the business models which came into focus as being the only ones that were sustainable. These were ad-driven, subscription-driven and sales-driven. In some cases, gambling-driven, but they were largely shut down or regulated to a subsistence level by 2005. The one notably absent business model was the micropayment; brilliant, tried and mostly abandoned, it was the victim of the greed of the payment processors, and the existing power structures that came to superimpose themselves on the web. The web: a thing they hadn't created and added no value to, which had fallen into their laps and by excessive regulation and corrupt gerrymandering was now their largest market. The costs imposed by the card companies and existing mega-corporations became an overriding constraint, a brake against new ideas and investment, and with the likes of UIGEA and now SOPA, a death-blow to the hacker in his basement with a nickel and a great idea.
We had our little algae bloom; nothing we had or built back then -- Zmodem, WWIV, the Well, Lycos, AltaVista, Napster, Nutella -- is still around now. You could forgive a 17-year-old with a smartphone for not even knowing what any of those things are, and yet every technology she uses springs from them, only now it's mediated by the exact same corporate bastards we were trying to destroy.
Our mistake then was that we worked for those bastards; they paid our bills. And we took mediocrity and a paycheck over absolute liberty.
Will Bitcoin rescue us from this? Will it fall prey to the same forces? I don't know, except to say that what we're seeing emerge here is -- at best -- a self-financed TAZ, a temporary autonomous zone -- for the first time since I was a kid. When Mao said politics comes from the barrel of a gun, he wasn't making a suggestion; he was stating a fact. Ayn Rand said basically the same thing. It's a fair observation about sovereignty that it flows from force. Finally, with Bitcoin, we've caught up with addressing the root of what we're actually dealing with on the other side.
What does it mean to undermine sovereignty? How far can you build a structure that permits wild, incredible creativity and growth before the totalitarians, vote-riggers and general-no-goodniks of the world use guns and knives to smother it in its cradle?
If the web is a clue, then only soft power can be used against something so dispersed and powerful. And yet they've done a good enough job with that. It's the biggest question facing Bitcoin today, and it's the reason we're not seeing a $30 exchange rate.
But it doesn't matter. What matters is that we were here, in this time and place, making it happen. There isn't a single business model that can't be done better with Bitcoin; and the incredible thing is, it's still there for the taking. Want to start a site selling insurance? Omaha steaks? A better social media model? You can still make it in your basement and, if it's any good, you'll be the first one to ever launch that site with no transaction costs. If anything, it makes the original web revolution look tepid. I doubt I'll ever see anything like it again in my lifetime... and I want it to succeed. The ideas and dreams that come to me on a daily basis are fantastic and, finally, realizable. I only want to have enough time to invest in and pursue all of them, while the energy and the intelligence is still there, concentrated so much in one place.
Every time, every place has its dreamers. They're the people who change the world. The question is whether they live in the right time, and the right place, to be recognized for their genius and to let them thrive; or whether they can make it happen for themselves against the odds. Do we have those qualities? I don't know, but Bitcoin seems to have brought these people together in one place. I'm privileged to know them, to do business with them, and to learn from them. The naysayers don't realize what they're missing. Let's hope that when they do, it won't have been reduced to a corporate sludge like it was by the time they got their first iPhone.