It all started as a nine-page White Paper, written by a shadowy techno-nerd named Satoshi Nakamoto, designed to both democratize finance and depoliticize money. Bitcoin, so thus was the paper’s topic, quickly became the object of distrust by the establishment, and of adulation by cyber punks devoted to anarchy, and to one small businessman looking to avoid banking fees on credit card sales of his beer. Of course, the whole Bitcoin phenomenon didn’t stop there. Filmmaker Torsten Hoffmann’s lively, cinematic page-turner of a documentary, CRYPTOPIA: BITCOIN, BLOCKCHAINS AND THE FUTURE OF THE INTERNET, takes us on a rollicking journey through the history of Bitcoin: its detractors, its disciples, and its philosophers. It even explains the concept of the blockchain such that it is not only clear (thank you animations), it’s positively compelling. And that’s before it takes us to a jaw-dropping twist dependent upon understanding that concept.
It’s not the first time that Hoffman has ventured into the roiling world of cryptocurrency. Five years ago, his BITCOIN: THE END OF MONEY AS WE KNOW IT, examined the rise of currency as an alternative to bartering, and then what happened when the dark side of human nature gets its metaphoric hands on financial institutions. By transitioning to a peer-to-peer system of asset exchange, i.e. cryptocurrency, it seemed that they money-grubbers and scam artists had been shut out. Picking up where BITCOIN left off, Hoffman discovers that human nature is a formidable force, and the ills that afflicted the old system have taken root in the new.
Distressing, sure but Hoffman, a genial imp with an infectious enthusiasm for the topic, and its cognoscenti to whom he introduces us, sees a larger, somewhat more optimistic pattern in play. From the avuncular Oxford economist who breaks down tech revolutions with a stunningly lucid précis, to the billionaire who claims to have more money than Britain (and to be the real Nakamoto), to the tech whizzes who took the idea of cryptocurrency and created their own permutations of it while talking smack about one another, the characters are enormously entertaining. Hoffman even notes to one of them (over a chessboard) that he would be the perfect Bond villain. And he’s right.
Hoffman is equally entertaining. When he takes us into the bowels of a secure facility deep under a mountain (how very Bond-ian), you get the sense that, yes, it’s interesting to see where the actual Bitcoin data is stored far from prying eyes, hackers, and the World Wide Web, but the carefully contained glee that Hoffman is so obvious experiencing says that his being able to be there in person was the actual object of the exercise. And who can blame him?
As with his earlier film, Hoffman’s real topic is that ci-mentioned human nature, as well as the essential ingenuity of the human species as expressed though its adaptations of technological advances. The implications of Bitcoin, a nine-page paper on disrupting the status quo and doing more than democratizing just money, are far-reaching and surprising, even if big business co-opting the sexy new buzzword “blockchain” isn’t.
I have only one caveat about CRYPTOPIA: BITCOIN, BLOCKCHAINS AND THE FUTURE OF THE INTERNET. The shots of Hoffman quaffing beer with the small businessman that punctuate the film will make you want to quaff one yourself. Though, watching the birth of a new era where established infrastructures give way to uncharted territory, and trust becomes an obsolete by-product of advances in technology and nascent Bond villains abound, it might not be a bad idea to have one on hand while viewing. Speaking of which, the film, in true peer-to-peer fashion, is available to watch directly from the filmmaker here. Cryptocurrencies not currently accepted.