When I met the hacker, who we’ll call Brian, he was under house arrest. He’d known the police were after him, but in a tired slip forgot to mask an IP address and was quickly arrested during a dramatic raid. He was wearing a reddish check shirt and beaten-up Adidas trainers and, except for a curfew-enforcing tag bolted to his leg, seemed like a normal and affable young man. It was hard to imagine anyone would want to throw him in prison, even for a night.
This was around ten years ago, a time when smartphones and websites were subjects of unalloyed optimism, when Anonymous and Occupy were exciting anti-establishment voices, and when site-specific audio projects in derelict buildings were the connoisseur’s choice for a second date. I spoke to Brian because he was meeting curious parties in various artistic disciplines while he awaited sentencing. He was interested in the arts, and the arts were equally fascinated by him. I read somewhere that during the 1970s it was fashionable to have a freedom fighter at your cocktail party. Now it had become chic to invite a hacker to your boardroom.
Among stories of meme warfare and the problems with maintaining a watertight pseudonym, Brian told me that the hardware the police had confiscated during the raid included a drive containing a large quantity of Bitcoin. ‘Guess I won’t see that again,’ he said. ‘What’s Bitcoin?’ I asked. Brian gave a cursory explanation of the then-obscure digital currency, how it was powered by an ingenious method (‘proof of work’ being the technical term) to fight back against the internet’s otherwise endemic laziness, the fever dreams of the desk-bound being a nascent source of many social problems, from porn overuse to gamified extremism, and the infinite reproducibility-thus-unseriousness of all that is online being the cause of a looming general global malaise.
*** The Secret Millionaire Inside of Me
I went online that night and ran some searches. I wanted to buy fifty pounds’ worth of Bitcoin as an experiment. In what, in hindsight, was around two clicks short of making the purchase, I became distracted by a viral news story from a Canadian newspaper: ‘Stylish but illegal monkey found roaming Toronto IKEA.’
The following year a crisis in the Cypriot banking system led to an unprecedented outcome. Thousands of people moved their savings into Bitcoin, causing its value to explode and triggering an enormous wave of media coverage. The compelling nature of its back story, a perfect thriller involving an anonymous inventor with unknown motivations, gave the act of talking about it a kind of narcotic quality, which in turn augmented the price. For the first time in history, a currency had become a kind of tourist attraction. If I’d spent the fifty pounds, I’d have quickly been a millionaire.
Despite missing my chance to get rich, it felt attractive to throw some money at it just as a kind of entry fee to the new. Much in the way eating breakfast cereal in 1910 would have seemed as much about being modern as being fed in the morning, buying a small amount of virtual currency is one of the signature experiences available to a person in the early part of the 21st century. No Carthaginian merchant had been able to buy Bitcoin. To explain any of the growing range of non-Bitcoin cryptocurrencies known as ‘altcoins’ to a Neolithic hunter-gatherer would take a long time, needing one to first cover concepts such as money, electricity and online anonymity.
*** Tell Me What To Do
I found myself looking at the browser-based interface of a cryptocurrency exchange called BTC-E, uploaded some funds and began to acquire a few at random, monitoring prices via a small window in the corner of my laptop screen. BTC-E had a users’ forum, which was known by those who used it as the Trollbox. It was always telling you what to do. It was not to be trusted. ‘Namecoin is crashing,’ it would say. ‘Namecoin is not just rising but going to the moon!’ it would declare, a few seconds later. ‘There’s a Novacoin pump in twenty minutes,’ an anonymous individual would post. ‘Novacoin is nothing but a scamcoin,’ a different individual would declare.
The currencies traded in the exchange included Litecoin, Peercoin, Primecoin and Feathercoin. It was the vocabulary of the retail park mattress outlet. Some of them could be bought and sold in return for what the Trollbox called ‘fiat currencies’ – the old money of dollars, euros, roubles. Others could only be traded using Bitcoin. You could buy stuff online with Bitcoin but not very much with the altcoins, not really. All you could do with cryptocurrencies most of the time – all you can still do – was trade them for other currencies. I had entered a closed system, a community of pure exchange.
*** Flirting With Anyone
I didn’t know who anyone in the Trollbox was. This fact combined with its basic interface meant it had a lot in common with the early chatrooms of the internet such as the ‘singles chat,’ ‘dating chat’ or ‘neat roleplay’ boards found on late 1990s web portals such as Yahoo!: flirtation or cybersex communities bringing loners, drunks and scam artists together through the miracle of dial-up. Despite its supposedly capitalistic preoccupations, there was something illicit about the Trollbox as well.
The Trollbox had obsessions. For instance, it was obsessed with China. Someone was always declaring that it would be morning in China soon (‘guys, China is waking up’), at which point Litecoin would definitely go to the moon, or crash. It was obsessed with any information that one altcoin or other had made the tiniest step towards respectability. A washing machine manufacturer mentioned Litecoin in a press release. A pub in Oxford accepted Feathercoin. These rumours boosted the price. It shot up, then it went back down again.
The Trollbox was obsessed with newcomers. It referred to them as ‘noobs.’ It imagined them making errors that catastrophically distorted the true picture, the true price. It was full of advice to noobs, to buy or to sell, to not be a stupid noob. If the value of an altcoin rocketed and then momentarily dropped a bit, this was referred to as a ‘noob trap,’ a moment when inexperienced traders would panic and sell what they had, assuming that they had missed the peak. When the price rose again, the Trollbox would mock the noobs, who it assumed were out there, doing noob things. When the price didn’t rise, the Trollbox would still mock the noobs, who did not sell when they should have sold. It saw them as submissive. It liked to think of how they might be dominated.
*** The Whale
The Trollbox also liked to think of itself being dominated. The opposite of a noob was (and still is, in the subreddits and Twitter threads where these conversations persist, though lacking the low-fi intimacy of the Trollbox) a ‘whale.’ A whale is a major player with huge amounts of money, enough to manipulate the price of a currency single-handedly. The Trollbox was infatuated with them. It believed they made a plaything of the noobs, and tried to explain to them how best to avoid this. The Trollbox often avoided a given coin for weeks, believing it to be entirely in the thrall of the whales. Users talked of the whales as if they were in touch with one another somehow, Greek gods looming over the great chessboard of humanity: immortal, muscular, probably naked.
The most feared and the most public of the whales was called Fontas. He vanished after being mentioned in the New York Times. His last words were: ‘Goodbye Trollbox. No more pumps. All accounts wiped. Authorities found me. I got fontased.’ Fontas was master of the pump and dump, another Trollbox obsession. To pump is to artificially inflate the value of something, through bluster and hype, before selling it on at a big profit. In the stock market, it is illegal. But it was very easy back then to inflate the value of an altcoin. Using a Twitter account, Fontas would announce that one of the altcoins would be pumped at a given time – 8 p.m. UCT on a Thursday, for example. The hype in the Trollbox would build and build. Users would try to profit from the situation by claiming to have access to Fontas’ inner circle, that it would definitely be this coin or that coin. In anticipation, all the coins would rise in value. Then, at the allotted time, Fontas would reveal the actual identity of the altcoin being pumped. Within seconds its value would rise by as much as 100%.
It was, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy. It worked because everyone scrambled to buy and then quickly sell on to the next sucker. Almost instantly, the altcoin would fall back to its original value or lower. Those who mistimed their escape would be left – to use a phrase popular in the Trollbox – holding the bag. Presumably, Fontas bought huge numbers of his chosen altcoin before each announcement, and emerged, wherever he sat, with an enormous profit at the bag holders’ expense. But who can feel that sorry for the bag holders? Like the roulette player at the casino, they knew the risks.
As for me, I sat, hypnotised, buying Feathercoin, selling Litecoin, for two, maybe two-and-a-half weeks before getting bored and moving on. I had ended up with exactly the same amount of money I had started with. Not long afterwards BTC-E was shut down by some crime agency or other, meaning the small amounts of crypto-change I’d left in my account were now lost for good.
When the town of Battle Creek in Michigan became ground zero for the breakfast cereal boom in the early 20th century it was flooded with investors looking to cash in on the vast profits now extractable from hitherto unsexy commodities such as corn and wheat. Unscrupulous operators launched countless fake cereals solely to wring cash from fortune hunters: a far cry from the dream of pioneers such as John Harvey Kellogg who hoped diet reform would be the key to reducing America’s masturbatory urges.
*** Bloodless Yearning
It is easier to create a real cryptocurrency than a fake one. Our generation’s speculation bubble is exactly predicated on an embrace of spuriousness, which is to say: the fake cereals are the point, this time. Among the 15,000 or so currencies released since my time as a casual trader are Dogecoin (based on a dog meme and created as a joke, then bought en masse as a joke, and now the foundation of several real fortunes), Hullcoin (minted by and for the British city of Hull) and EROTICA (created, according to its blurb, to ‘facilitate collaborations between adult industry stars and contemporary artists’). But whatever the stated reasons for launching them, those reasons are only appearance, never substance. The product is its marketing, which is also the means of purchase, and nothing is anything, and the dollar value is the expression of a pure yet strangely bloodless form of yearning.
‘People will always choose more money over more sex,’ wrote Douglas Coupland. True enough, though the obvious riposte might be that money is, ultimately, a proxy for sex. Cryptocurrency romance, for example, is a thriving subgenre of romance fiction, from Bitcoin Billionaire’s Babysitter (2017) by Flora Ferrari to Bitcoin Bimbo (2015) by B. J. Slippy. Scenarios these novels introduce to the otherwise formulaic world of wealth fantasy often involve scenes of overnight affluence and the ethical glow of a love interest who wasn’t even aware of their galactic-grade fortune, or at the very least didn’t screw anyone over to acquire it.
In Sara Forbes’ series Bitcoin Billionaires, of which Bitcoin Billionaire’s Babysitter is not in fact part, the protagonists are those aforementioned whales, holders of enough Bitcoin to manipulate the way the market moves, which they do in an attempt to improve the world somewhat. Imaginary tycoons of a non-existent resource: perfect heart-throbs for an unreal century.
The odd thing, for me, about these mostly self-published stories is how they present the crypto-enabled rich as tux-wearing, sex-having human beings. I’ve never stopped thinking of them as merely the ghosts feared by the same backlit names that once commanded me to do this, do that, in a flat space that was about, but also beyond, the trappings of wealth as normally envisioned. ‘Don’t go outside,’ wrote a Trollbox user named Savaz. ‘The Earth lost its atmosphere many years ago. Just been trading crypto since.’ I suppose I’d quite like to be rich, but I’d rather live in an improving world.