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Bending to the Future: A Review of Crypto Shrugged
How does that old Sam Cooke song go . . . . Don’t know much about cryptocurrency? I confess that prior to reading J. Lee Porter and Ed Teja’s 2018 novel Crypto Shrugged, I’d never given much thought to bitcoins or blockchains or anything having to do with digital currency. As someone without much real money, I never saw the need to contemplate what I perceived to be the imaginary stuff. It pops into the news now and then and my eyes glaze over. I don’t even like playing Monopoly. But bitcoins and the like are as “real” as any other form of money, which has always depended on the agreement between at least two parties that this paper or that coin (even if it is gold) is worth something. Value can fluctuate or even collapse in a flash, as it’s essentially a matter of faith. Picture those wheelbarrows full of Deutschmarks during the Great Depression, all for a loaf of bread and half a rotten schnitzel, and the similar tales about Confederate dollars at the end of the U.S. Civil War. What if the entire planet mutually decided at this moment that the Japanese yen or a Swiss franc no longer had any value? Without that critical element of trust and respect, it would just be ultra-fancy high-end toilet paper.
In the age of global capitalism and vast international computer networks, where most transactions occur digitally, it would make sense that national currencies are in line to become effectively obsolete, a relic of the past. Never has cash been so unnecessary, as those of you reading this on the Internet know (hi . . . are we paypals yet?). This could be seen as the dawn of a new era, but in many ways it is now. I am well aware that most if not all my wealth exists solely in bank computers and nowhere else. That’s not going to fill too many wheelbarrows if the system goes haywire. It’s a system based on trust, elaborate code and interfacing that I don’t understand, and 1s that could quickly turn into 0s.
Porter and Teja’s novel, basically the coder’s equivalent of a spy thriller, shows what’s at stake if the inevitable digital currency of the future is centralized and not open source—that is, instead of being part of the public record, if it’s controlled by governments, international bodies like the World Bank or IMF, or worse yet, elitist cabals of Illuminati-like one-percenters (or more aptly, the one percent of that one percent). Picture C. Montgomery Burns in the shadows saying excellent and smacking his lips as he takes a tiny slice of every transaction and collects the personal information of every user. E-pennies quickly become millions of digital dollars and the universal database compiled from the transactions can be used for all sorts of nefarious ends. Diabolical algorithmic fingers crawl through our purchase histories, social media accounts. Again, it’s a future that is in many ways already here. Big Brother doesn’t need to google you; he is Google . . . and Facebook and Netflix and Twitter, and on and on.
Standing in resistance to this, if not in plain sight, are the true heroes of Crypto Shrugged, so-called Bitpat anarchists—anonymous “digital nomads” intent not to undermine cryptocurrency but to ensure that it can be functional without being vulnerable, and that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. As the title suggests, the anarchist spirit behind this is mainly in the tradition of economic libertarianism and Ayn Rand, updated to the realities of the 21st century. If the fearless consumers and investors of our Internet world did want to create a purely cloud-based monetary system, why should the government be allowed to tread upon that? It’s the free market ideal applied to currency itself. Obviously, though, nations and corporations have a strong interest in preserving what Porter and Teja call the “statist quo” of the “money racket,” thuggishly infringing upon what they believe to be the rights of citizen consumers, and in labeling bitpat freedom fighters as dangerous, destabilizing terrorists. (The USA Patriot Act, which was mostly used to silence anti-corporate voices and round up environmental activists and is still partially in effect, is a clear inspiration for this side of the story.) Wyatt and Rashimi, two of the primary figures in the Tanzania e-currency project that is at the center of it all, come to see the bitpat light, but it remains to be seen whether they will live to fight and debug another day.
Crypto Shrugged is not a great novel, but it has a compelling plot with real suspense and a few twists that would make for an excellent screenplay. Conspiracy, murder, intrigue, seduction, deceit, betrayal, exotic locales, fake passports, prison escapes, island-hopping private jets, it’s all there. While the characters, regardless of their race or gender, are more like caricatures with few moments of depth either in speech or thought, it’s in a way that we’d expect from a popcorn movie. John Le Carré and Robert Ludlum write in this same bare bones “action genre” style. I personally didn’t need the sex scenes and their rather crude portrayal of both men and women as little more than heartless sexual omnivores, but those do help the average reader endure the less lively technical sections about software, administrative protocol, and global economics, and it’s a breezy read all in all. I’m sure a cryptocurrency thriller is already in the works at some Hollywood studio or another, linked to Tom Cruise or Tom Hiddleston or Tommy Lee Jones (probably not Tommy Tune). It could very well be this one.
The future might be now, but you might have to wait just a little while longer before being able to pay for Crypto Shrugged on Amazon with bitcoins or e-Amazonian Prime pesos (primos?). But it won’t be as long as one might think. In the meantime, who knows what’s going on with those geeky programmers behind closed doors and their greedy, power-hungry overlords. Something digital this way comes.
—Reviewed by RG