Planning to store a fortune on the Internet is not a trivial matter…
The lead theme in this issue of American Consequences is cryptocurrency.
But if we desire to put ourselves into various exotic positions with cryptocurrency, we’d better first get a grasp on the body of knowledge beneath the exoticism – which is computer connectivity…
Otherwise, we’ll be like the joke a former chief economist for the New York Stock Exchange told me:
An economist is a fellow who knows a thousand ways to make love and doesn’t have a girlfriend.
For years, computers were an interesting invention. Useful for such things as decoding secret messages when Nazis got Enigma machines and solving math problems that start with, “If a train leaves Pittsburg for Chicago going 40 mph and another train leaves Chicago for Pittsburg going 50 mph…”
But, really, who cared? I wasn’t headed to either Pittsburg or Chicago.
For the first forty-some years of their existence, computers were mostly a cross between a gigantic adding machine and a high-speed filing cabinet. They were hardly life-changing.
The most significant interaction with a computer that I remember from those days had to do with the computer punch cards used for college course registrations. Step on one of those with a golf shoe and you could find yourself assigned to a class in advanced astrophysics instead of “Rocks for Jocks.”
The more interesting invention was connecting all those computers – the Internet.
Whether the Internet was a good invention… Well, no invention or innovation is intrinsically good or bad. When cavemen discovered fire, the first thing they probably used it for was to cook – each other.
I go back and forth on the virtues of the Internet. Sometimes, I am awed by my instantaneous access to enormous troves of important information. What was the name of the child actor who played Jerry Mathers’ pudgy best friend, Larry, on Leave It to Beaver?
Other times, I wonder whose idea was it to put every idiot in the world in touch with every other idiot?
(By the way, Larry was played by Robert “Rusty” Stevens.)
The Internet presents a variety of problems, some inherent, some external. And all the problems also pertain to questions about cryptocurrencies.
The Internet is a vulnerable system. Its integrity cannot be assured. This is not because of genius hackers or careless users. The vulnerability is more a matter of the “Infinite Monkey Theorem.” An infinite number of moneys hitting keys on a keyboard for an infinite amount of time will inevitably write the complete works of Shakespeare, not to mention crack your password (name of first pet plus high school locker combination).
People connected to the Internet now number 3.2 billion. And estimates of how much time they spend on the Internet per day range as high as 10 hours. Thus, in just one “Infinite Monkey Year,” you get 3.2 billion times 365 times 10, which may not equal infinity but it’s a big enough number to get the Infinite Monkey Theorem moving.
Then there’s the vulnerable system behind the vulnerable system – the electrical grid upon which computer technology depends.
I understand something about electricity. I understand I often don’t have any at my house.
I live in a remote part of New England, up a big hill, way out at the very end of the power line. And anything will cause my power to go out – ice, snow, wind, rain, autumn leaves, a suicidal squirrel. You name it, and the O’Rourkes (and their computers) go dark.
I’m not blaming the electric company – even though the recorded message on their power-outage hotline does say “See you next summer!”
I understand the problems faced in creating a reliable electric grid.
And I understand the problems faced in generating electricity – because of all the time I spend trying to start my generator.
For some government-regulatory reason I do not understand, the only gasoline I can get for my generator contains at least 10% ethanol. In minus-20-degree New England weather, the alcohol turns gasoline into a frozen daiquiri.
Giving daiquiris to my generator’s little engine does not make it happy. Or, possibly, giving daiquiris to the little engine makes it too happy. Every time I yank the starter cord I’m feeding the engine booze. Then it goes to sleep.
Besides the primary and secondary vulnerabilities of the Internet, there’s the fact that the thing itself was created by people utterly ignorant of all free-market principles. This is not conducive to best practices in the field of cryptocurrency.
The Internet began as a collaboration between the military and academia – two institutions that are good at spending money but which have never turned a profit. In fact, their missions are to be perfectly unprofitable. Breaking things and killing people in one case and turning young minds to mush in the other.
True, a lot of commerce is conducted on the Internet, but it’s a marketplace without fundamental market principles.
For 40 years, I was a writer. Now I’m a “content provider.” And the foundational ethic of the Internet is that “content is free.”
Which leads to an inherent triviality in what’s on the Internet and a feckless attitude toward how the Internet is operated.
Planning to store a fortune on the Internet is not a trivial and feckless matter. People do not take the Internet as seriously as they should…
With what excitement and anticipation did people once say, “There’s a machine for that.” With what apathy and indifference do people now say, “There’s an app for that.”
Here are some of the things that computer connectivity famously does…
Google searches so filled with cinders and slag that looking for the factual is like sifting through the ashes of the Great Library of Alexandria.
GPS giving us directions in the manner of a New Hampshire Yankee farmer leaning on a fence rail and chewing a blade of hay. “Go on down to where old Maude Frick used to live and then turn right at the place where the barn burned down in 1958.”
If Taxi Driver gets remade, it won’t star Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster. It will star Elizabeth Warren in a driverless Uber.
As for driverless cars, what’s next, eaterless meals?
Computer connectivity has also given us the means to binge-watch TV, which is as delightful as having the means to binge-eat kale. All while wearing ear buds – a sort of reverse hearing aid that blocks out anything worth listening to. The millennial generation’s motto is “Huh?”
Meanwhile, the iPhone blocks out any sort of real-life event worth looking at. Imagine a person from even 15 years ago being told that what the future holds is humanity looking at its phone all day.
Amazon has transformed shopping from a pleasurable excursion and happy social interaction into something more like going into the outhouse with a Sears catalogue to browse and use as Charmin.
Internet price comparisons also take the sharp, eye-for-a-bargain intelligence out of shopping. But that’s OK. We don’t need real intelligence. We have artificial intelligence – everywhere.
My toaster has a brain. What a way to kick off a gloomy Monday morning – being outsmarted by a toaster.
Then I work from home rather than an office. Instead of hanging out at the watercooler gossiping, flirting with coworkers, and making sports bets, I’m overwhelmed by Big Data flooding my personal communication devices.
And if I go somewhere else to work, I come home to a “smart house.” It was bad enough when the house contained nothing but the kids getting smart with me. Now they’ve got the thermostat, the burglar alarm, and the toaster on their side.
To take an example of triviality from my own field… the computer network is a handy device for writers. But does it improve the quality of what gets written?
• When words had to be carved in stone, we got the Ten Commandments.
• When we had to make our own ink and chase a goose around the yard to get a quill (and before the Infinite Monkey Theorem was developed), we got William Shakespeare.
• When the fountain pen was invented, we got Henry James.
• When the typewriter came along, we got Jack Kerouac.
• And with the Internet we get – the President of the United States on Twitter.
When it comes to cryptocurrency and computer connectivity, be sure that “progress” doesn’t do to your money what it has done to literature.