Bitcoin Billionaires is an embarrassingly frantic piece of boot-licking that never once questions the assumed financial and moral genius of its subjects. There are moments of hilarity – the twins smash their computers with sledgehammers, and yell things such as “we’re trending on Yahoo” – but they are unintentional. It is the story of two men who embody what many suspect about contemporary capitalism: that the most reliable way to get rich is to be rich already.
The Winklevii’s wild ride is told in this book by Ben Mezrich, who also wrote The Accidental Billionaires, which became The Social Network. It reads like the script of the movie it, too, will become — Sony has already bought distribution rights. This makes for great scene-by-scene snacking but little driving narrative. Crucially, the reader does not get an answer to the biggest question many will have: is bitcoin a great alternative to money as we know it or merely a digital Ponzi scheme?
Although it’s a gripping read, Bitcoin Billionaires is the world of bitcoin as pitched to a half-interested Hollywood screenwriter. It’s a story of hardline libertarians, revolutionary tech and parties full of Bollinger. Phone calls are dramatic and life-changing. Inch-perfect descriptions of bitcoin are given in free-flowing yet highly ordered chats on private jets and parties. And there are attractive women everywhere, whom Mezrich describes in some detail. One has “pendant curves billowing up out of leather bustiers”, another is “six feet tall in her bare feet” with “eyelashes as long as tarantula legs”. Are you reading carefully, casting directors?
Better books will surely be written about the cryptocurrency phenomenon, including the early free-for-all that is traced in this book. But this is still an easy read for anyone willing to go along with the reconstructed dialogue and cinematic scene-hopping that are part of the genre. You could read it now, or just wait for the movie.
An author who keeps using the word “Billionaires” in his book titles likely keeps one eye firmly on the bottom line himself, and Bitcoin Billionaires feels like a draft of the screenplay for the film that Mezrich wills into being on every page (the rights have already been sold). Whirling us through an array of glamorous locations – Ibiza, Cyprus, Panama – while hitching his story of technological revolution to a racy human narrative, he shamelessly imagines screen-friendly dialogue, much of which expounds on technical details...
Bitcoin Billionaires charts the ideological struggle within the Bitcoin community between those like the Winklevoss twins, who believe that cryptocurrency should be regulated and must dissociate itself from criminality, the better to revolutionise the world monetary system, and the libertarian cypherpunks who see Bitcoin as a weapon in the struggle against all systems of authority. As Mezrich concludes, cryptocurrency is not going away. The revolution is real: the question is whether crypto will take its place alongside existing financial institutions, or overthrow them entirely.
The detail is dizzying. The value of traditional currency is underwritten by gold, worth whatever people are prepared to pay for it in cash. It exists, therefore it is. But bitcoin is underwritten by vast “blocks” of unique computer source code, as many as 31,000 lines long, which validate each bitcoin transaction. These chains of mathematical proofs can’t be replicated. Bitcoin “miners” spend fortunes on vast amounts of computer hardware (and energy bills) to crunch new numbers and discover more blocks, like infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters. Surely, they can crunch an analogy to better explain the phenomenon?
The book is written with a slick beauty. It is structured as a sequence of dramatic scenes that often begin with movie-style datelines (“San Francisco. October 1, 2013”), and careful attention is paid to outfits: Tyler “was decked out in a crisp, white linen shirt, a brightly colored Vilebrequin swimsuit, and a woven straw fedora”. There is an especially brilliant and cinematic chapter about “a bank heist in reverse”, which details how the Winklevi split their private key (the long alphanumeric code that represented their bitcoin holdings) into three parts and stashed printouts in various safe deposit boxes all over the US, having erased all digital copies. The book even has a truly heartwarming ending, at which the reader gives a little cheer. As an introduction to the rise of cryptocurrencies and the modern tech world generally, it is as painless and novelistic as could be imagined.