NOVA: Crypto Decoded premieres on Wednesday 9 November at 9:00 PM on WTTW and will be available for streaming,
Bitcoin, Ethereum, NFTs, blockchain—it can be easy to ignore this cryptocurrency-related jargon as just the short-term obsessions of an eclectic community of tech bros, libertarians, utopian idealists, and eager investors. But what if they are not fads? What if they end up transforming the global financial system, how we interact with governments, the concept of ownership and more? Shouldn’t we try to understand them?
“Crypto is something that almost everyone has heard of — if you’ve seen the Super Bowl, you’ve seen these crypto ads,” says Peter Yost, the producer of the new NOVA Documentary Crypto Decoded“And yet essentially nobody understands it. It’s a gap NOVA wanted to try to address: to explore where crypto came from, how it works, where it is going, and ultimately – perhaps somewhat unusually in the media landscape – to explore it as a technology rather than as a financial speculative instrument. Is this a new technology? And if so, is it a significant and lasting technology?”
Cryptocurrency is notoriously complex, so explaining the underlying technology is difficult – there are as many metaphors to describe it as there are cryptocurrencies. So Yost focused on the basics, believing that recounting the origins of cryptocurrency and the goals of early developers helps illuminate its function. “It came out of cryptography, and that’s why it’s called crypto,” he says. “It’s interesting to see that it came out of the work of a number of cryptographers and early computer scientists who were trying to find ways to keep Big Brother off their backs… With the advent of the Internet, they had concerns about privacy and secrecy in the new computer age.”
Digital and cryptographic money then eventually built on these earlier breakthroughs. The beginning of the cryptocurrency era came around the same time as the 2008 financial crisis, when the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto published a paper that laid out the principles of bitcoin. As befits the founder of a technology that aims to protect privacy, we still don’t know Satoshi’s identity.
Much of the earlier idealism of the underlying technologies has been overtaken by the initial libertarian impulse towards decentralization. “I think it’s not separate from the broader political waves that are sweeping this country, of anti-expert, anti-establishment, anti-establishment,” Yost says. “And I think it’s a lot easier to tear things down than it is to build it up.”
“Personally, I think it’s problematic, naive and reactionary,” he says.
Crypto has also been the subject of rampant speculation and profiteering, with many critics considering it a bubble or a scam. “The problems that unregulated crypto brings are massive and often not discussed by those who are all in,” says Yost. “That’s not to say that there isn’t significant potential and that it isn’t going to make a difference in different ways, but in the real world I think the pendulum is swinging back a little bit.”
“I think people who have blind faith that technology is going to cure things or take care of things — I think the recent history of technology has shown us otherwise,” he says. “I think the question will be how the regulation works [play out] and how does this interact with the real world in ways that actually help people as opposed to just letting things run wild.”
But cryptocurrency is not the only manifestation or use of the blockchain technology, although it is the most visible. Estonia has launched e-Estonia, which moves almost all aspects of interfacing with the government or banks online; everything is protected by blockchain. Such a system means that citizens only have to enter information once; your address, or credit score or income, is then pulled every other time you fill out a form. This also allows foreigners to be digital “residents” and use some Estonian services.
Finn Brunton, a professor and author, suggests i Crypto decoded that we haven’t yet thought of some of the blockchain applications that might be the most transformative and lasting. “If I had to guess, I think over time the most intellectually interesting and perhaps most impactful developments with crypto will not come in the direct currency realm,” Yost says.
Crypto decoded follows an attempt to use cryptocurrency to remove barriers to selling real estate; crypto could enable a more democratic grassroots approach to finance. The documentary examines non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which allow a person to establish ownership of a digital work, regardless of how much it spreads on the internet. (NFTs came out of a digital artist’s realization that he couldn’t truly own any of the work he made online.) Yost also mentions the metaverse as an area where crypto could be important if the metaverse takes off.
And yet, it’s also possible that crypto and blockchain have already had the impact they’re going to, that they won’t become more widespread than a single country (El Salvador) that accepts bitcoin as legal tender. “On the one hand, this technology has actually been around for a while,” Yost says. “A skeptic might say, ‘Where are all the utility cases? It’s been fourteen years [since bitcoin was introduced]It is suspiciously useless, in a certain way of looking at it.
“Others would say, ‘No, it’s such a fundamental revolution that it’s going to take time for these use cases to emerge and for adoption to happen and for it to find its way. I think the jury is out.’