Gleaner column of 25 October 2017
En route to London a couple of weeks ago I checked the limited offerings on British Airways’s entertainment portal and decided to watch a documentary on Bitcoin, the electronic cash system or digital currency that is currently rocking the foundations of the financial world. It was high time I educated myself on this so-called cryptocurrency I thought, since it’s a word that crops up frequently nowadays.
According to the documentary, as economies all over the world flounder, one currency has been rising—Bitcoin. What is unique about this currency is that it has no links to any bank or banking system and is unregulated by any institution. There are no fees for using it or for buying and selling it. Bitcoins are bought at digital exchanges with real money. The virtual currency is a long string of unique digits, stored in a digital wallet, on your computer or phone.
The rise of Bitcoin can be linked to the decline of economies like Cyprus, whose currency is restricted, or Argentina whose currency is devaluing. In both countries people have turned to Bitcoin as a more reliable financial instrument although its value fluctuates wildly, soaring when Cypriots started exchanging their Euros for Bitcoin and plunging after a cyberattack attempted to interfere with it. “Bitcoins in Argentina” is a documentary “about independence from government-issued currencies, and how bitcoin turns that dream into reality.” No one and no institution controls the value of Bitcoin, it is completely decentralized and moves up and down in direct relation to the demand for it. There are no middlemen and it’s the perfect currency for the unbanked and micro and small businesses.
Created in 2009 Bitcoin bears all the markers of what we now agree is the classic model of a disruptive technology. It is gaining ground rapidly and earning huge profits for those who took the risk of investing in it. There is nothing illegal or shady about it unlike pyramid schemes and other get-rich-quick con games although plenty of shady folk find it a useful way to story their ill-gotten gains. Bitcoin was created using open source software and all agree that its math and cryptography are very sound. In fact not only is it a virtual currency, it is seen by some as the ultimate virtuous currency, unhinged as it is from the architecture of consumer capitalism and foreshadowing the death of money as we know it today.
Right now the exchange rate for a bitcoin is almost US$6000, an all-time high for the world’s first digital currency. This is a steep and sudden rise for in July you could have bought Bitcoin for as little as US$3000. It remains however a risky investment, as the only way to store it is in a digital wallet, which like all things digital is susceptible to being hacked.
It turned out this was an appropriate frame of mind in which to arrive in London. VR or virtual reality is rapidly transforming life in this metropolis. At my host’s house a tantalizing package sat on the table along with a booklet. It was from the Guardian newspaper and it said, “There’s a new world of journalism inside this box,” “while the booklet announced itself as “Your guide to virtual reality.” Inside the box was a pair of cardboard Google glasses that had to be assembled. When finished it looked like those viewfinders of yore through which you could rotate photographic stills and cartoons. “Step inside the story—download our app, assemble the headset and experience Guardian VR,” said the instructions on the box. The newspaper had distributed a number of free headsets to subscribers on October 7.
“Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it.”
Quoting American Sci Fi writer Stanley Weinbaum’s story Pygmalion’s Spectacles, the booklet explained the premise of the new technology. “With Guardian VR, the reader is inside the story, exploring it from a different perspective, and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Unlike many other VR experiments, these pieces are visceral, experiential and impactful.”
So what were some of the VR stories featured? Interestingly, with the story of Agana Barrett and others who died of suffocation in a Constant Spring cell occupying the news again, one feature is called 6 x 9 and allows the viewer to experience the effects of long-time solitary confinement. A story called Limbo allows you to put yourself in the shoes of an asylum seeker arriving in the UK and Arctic 360 offers the viewer an immersive tour of icebergs. The Party takes you into the world of autism via a teenager confronted with a surprise party, “You’ll hear her inner thoughts and experience the sensory overload that leads to a meltdown.”
Between the Guardian VR app and apps like Bus Guru which allowed me to find out exactly when the next bus was due along any road I happened to be on, the visit to London felt like a trip to the future. Will we ever be able to catch up? Oh well, in the meantime, let me at least buy some Bitcoin.