Are you familiar with Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies? These are currencies not supported by any government, which can be traded anonymously and somewhat frictionlessly. They are gaining traction among people who want to make illegal transaction, who want to avoid taxes, and who just want freedom. And now, increasingly they are being used not as a currency for trade, but as an investment. As a result, people are working hard to make more Bitcoin, which is a complex mathematical operation called mining. Some organizations have set up huge computer farms employing custom hardware to do nothing more than mine bitcoin.
Anway, after some time, I calmed down and realized that this isn’t so bad, and it could even be … good?
You see, one cannot look at something we don’t like in a vacuum. It must be compared to real alternatives. We hear over and over from the advertising industry that websites need to make money. (not this one — ed.) That’s what pays for the content, the computers, and the personnel. Ads make the “free” Internet as we know it possible.
But ads suck. They are ugly and intrusive. They involves a third party — the advertiser in every page I visit. There’s me, there’s the website, and then there’s this guy over in the corner who wants to sell me viagra. Because the money is coming from the advertiser, he gets a say in the content of the site. Furthermore, he gets to know that I visited the site, and can start to collect all kinds of information on my browsing history, eventually creating a dossier on my personal habits that he will use to target me for the rest of my life. And finally, he gets to suck up my cpu cycles and my limited screen real estate in order to serve me his ads. It’s maddening!
I don’t like it, have never liked it, and would much prefer a subscription supported Internet. But that’s never going to happen, so I’m told.
So how is letting people mine bitcoin better?
- no screen real-estate
- no data collection
- no third party
Sure, they’re sucking up my CPU and battery just as the advertisers, but probably no worse, and perhaps that’s a fair price to pay.
Electricity started out with small local generators, even “home” generators, then increasingly centralized for a long time, and today, there is a big push for “distributed” generation, which is basically decentralized power generation, but maintaining a connection to the power grid.
Computing started out small on home computers and has become increasingly centralized in big data centers. Will the next step to reverse that pattern?