Issue four of MONTAG is about Modern Money.
And in its purest sense, there’s nothing more modern than cryptocurrencies: when it comes to paying for stuff, they are somewhere between the bleeding edge, the wild west, and the new normal.
When people think about the future of money, they don’t think of foldin’ money or swipin’ money, tappin’ money, or even a plastic card at all: they think of… nothing.
That’s because cyrptocurrencies like Bitcoin sorta-kinda don’t exist. They feel ephemeral. Yet they’re not. They exist. But you know, they also sort of don’t. And all this yes, but, no but makes tomorrow’s currencies seem out the reach of us, normal, can-I-pay-with-cash-or-card? spenders.
And that’s wrong, because cryptocurrencies are designed to be in our hands, and liberating us from banks, corruption, fraud and, well… banks.
The decentralised nature of cryptocurrency is its strength (transactions are recorded in a permanent audit trail, are viewable by anyone, and no-one controls the ledger) and, to newcomers, its weakness (OMFG what does that even mean, how does it even work, and how do I buy milk with it?)
MONTAG prides itself on its glorious ignorance. And in this article, we’re arguing that you should not feel concerned that Bitcoin et al are utterly bewildering, intangible and infuriating.
Instead, we’re suggesting that this feeling is the default setting for dealing in the Glorious Crypto Future, and that you should embrace it, for the sake of humanity itself.
So here’s MONTAG’s guide to how to be able to tell your friends that you’re “really into Crypto right now” and not be lying, and yet still not really know anything about it.
Don't worry: it's written by someone who knows very little. Come on in, the Crypto’s lovely.
On why the tiny bit you know about cryptocurrency by the end of this admittedly confused article will still leave you more informed (and wealthier) than 99% of people
There are a million breathless articles, forum posts, Twitter feeds, and Facebook groups about every single cryptocoin that try and explain how it works and why you should care. Every metaphor is tortured, every diagram an octopus-orgy of arms and blobs. It’s really hard to find a good, clear description of either Bitcoin (or any other coin) or the blockchain technology behind it.
That’s A Good Thing.
It’s good for the same reason that you don’t hear a good, simple description of how banking works. It’s really, really complex, and the “experts” only truly understand one part of it well, if at all.
Except with Bitcoin, and all the other crypocurrencies, it’s useful to learn something, anything, even if it’s half-true, only semi-correct, or only feels partially understandable, like a German compound word that you can’t translate directly into your own language.
That’s because crypto, while based around a completely transparent system, also means shunning trust itself, to an extent. Scary huh? But think about it: you’ve never seen your “money”. Trust is all that really keeps you from questioning the reality of your hard-earned Euros, Dollars, Pounds or Zloty.
You’ve never touched your money.
It's a number on a payslip, or in an app; a few digits that you transfer to your landlord each month. The coins and paper in your wallet are not money -they’re just something there in lieu of it (go on, read the small print, it’s pretty worrying, frankly).
It’s all rather nothing-y when you think about it. But that’s what money is: a complicated device with everything and nothing at its centre.
The only difference with Crypto is that you’re the bank now. You can’t trust a bank to take care of it. There are no banks: it’s all you. But as 2008’s worldwide simultaneous economic bed-shitting demonstrated, you can’t trust banks anyway. So take the power back!
Of course that also means taking back the risk, the panic and the worry. And that’s a big part of crypto, at least for now. The truth is that if you lose a piece of paper with a convoluted number on it, you lose all your money, forever.
But would you rather (literally) bet your mortgage on keeping a long number safe somewhere, or on some of Wall Street’s finest making a bizarro decision and sending the value of your house tumbling into a void forever?
Close your eyes and jump
Imagine you are naked. And imagine Crypto to be a beautiful, valuable painting that you can access and keep, but only through 100 panes of that mottled glass they use in the windows of toilets. Bear with me. I told you the metaphors were bad.
To get closer to the painting and to see it more clearly, you’re going to have to go through a whole load of these panes of glass. So the ride will be painful, noisy, confusing, bloody, terrifying, and confusing (again) but you’ll feel utterly exhilarated with each leap towards clarity.
Don’t worry about reasons - there are no real reasons in the world of crypto. Just understand that the future is that way - through all those damn panes of glass.
Some assorted advice I ignored on my journey buying Crypto, and then later learnt the hard way
• Cynicism is a type of currency too: Essential advice from my MONTAG colleague Kathryn, quoting a running joke on Reddit’s many crypto forums: “The best day to buy Bitcoin is two years ago, the second best time is today.” This is always true.
• Your perception of money-related panic and fear will mutate in relation to your investment: A tech-savvy friend lazily bought a small amount Bitcoin back in 2012 without really thinking too much about what to do with it.
The surprise in this story is not that he then lost the Bitcoin (there are a million stories about that too, and expect to read plenty of clickbait horror stories in the Daily Mail in the coming years) but that when, five years later, he found it on the USB drive he left it on, as he realised it was now worth a small fortune, the excitement was wholly tempered by the wild reverse-Sehnsucht panic of Oh-my-God-but-what-if-I’d-lost-it-and-then-later-remembered-about-it-oh-god-oh-god. Fortunately you can buy whisky with Bitcoin, and he calmed down.
• Everyone’s story is: “if only I’d invested earlier, I’d be so much richer now.” Stop right there, friend: this is the point of Bitcoin. Its price can only go up. So stop worrying and keep drinking the Crypto Flavor-Aid.
• The idea of value itself is fluid and changing so who cares about those spikes and troughs: One of the earliest transactions using Bitcoin was when someone paid 20 Bitcoin for a pair of alpaca socks*. Go to any Bitcoin exchange and check how much 20 Bitcoin would cost in fiat currency today: it’d be the same as a car.
But the socks were a great bargain at the time. So why even think about the equivalent fiat currency fee?
*or something; like any new online community, the Alpaca Socks story is a kind of self-replicating myth: it can mean whatever you want and can be told however you like, with any intended moral you like.
• When your friend who knows better says, “buy it now,” just do it: Yes, your investment may go down (and probably will.) You may lose it all. You may become incredibly wealthy. But that’s all in the short term: a crypto-enabled future is inevitable and anything you are left with, post-disaster, post-triumph, post-confusion, is going to be incredibly useful. Except Dogecoin. Poor Dogecoin.
• You are the bank. So be the bank. Buying crypto is easy: you go to an exchange like Coinbase, pay them money and they give you sweet, sweet cryptocoins in return.
But storing it is still confusing, despite many determined best efforts. So it’s easiest just to leave the coins on the exchange: a number on the screen that constantly changes in value. The excitement!
But here’s the point: if you keep your coins on an exchange you don’t own your own money.
Put it anywhere else, and you own it. Keep them on the exchange, and you’re kind of still keeping a foot in the old way of using money, and crypto is all about going big, or going home, sunshine!
Losses, mistakes, panic, confusion compounded by more confusion, and desperate searches for that piece of paper with a random 128-character code on to unlock your utterly ethereal crypto-wallet for your utterly ethereal crypto-coins is what our crypto future is all about, baby!
• Buy a physical wallet to store your coins. Just do it: they look like a USB stick and cost ten times as much, and no, they don’t “store” your money (it doesn’t exist, remember, dummy!), but… well, put it this way - this writer slept better after buying one, and he doesn’t even really know why or how that is the case, but knows that it’s true.
• HODL: if you don’t know what HODL means, don’t worry, it’s just another one of those in-jokes that you’ll learn to love, believe in and clutch close to your chest like a comfort blanket on those days when your coin of choice’s value graph suddenly decides to investigate what life would be like it if it hung around near the bottom of the y-axis for a while.
HODL sort-of means “hold” (as in, stop worrying and hold onto your investment) and sort of means Hold On for Dear Life (as in “I’m just going to HODL for a while and stop checking Coinbase every five minutes”). But of course, in the world of Crypto, it can mean whatever you want.
• Bullish BS: If anyone involved even tangentially in finance asks about your crypto-strategy, just glance around as if you have something very important to relay and keep quietly repeating that you are “Bullish on Crypto.” People will raise eyebrows and nod sagely.
Yes, but you never told me how I’d buy milk with it!
You know how you buy milk now with a contactless debit card? Boringly, it’ll be like that. Except you’ll load some Bitcoin (or Litecoin, or zCoin, or Ripple, or…) onto an app on your phone and tap that instead.
And that’s it. Maybe you’ll be paid in Bitcoin (or…), or maybe you’ll need to buy it, a bit like a pre-paid debit card. But you’ll be able to buy your cow-juice, don’t worry.