Remember when bitcoin was going to disrupt the world’s banking system? That was two years ago and, while new payment platforms like Venmo and Apple Pay have gained traction, virtual currencies now feel more like a fad than a phenomenon.
At least that’s the view of Felix Salmon, a financial blogger and early bitcoin skeptic, who did his best to dump cold water on a room of alt-currency enthusiasts gathered Monday at a Bloomberg event titled “Bitcoin: Beyond the Currency” in New York City.
“This is pure Silicon Valley utopianism,” said Salmon, suggesting that bitcoin backers are blinded by “solutionism” and adding that investors who embrace the currency are no more rational than goldbugs.
Salmon also pointed out that, as a five-year-old technology, bitcoin has grown long in the tooth even as it fails to make inroads among ordinary consumers.
“I don’t think it’s going to zero [dollars], but it will always be currency of the future,” said Salmon, who also took shots at the motives of Barry Silbert, a large investor in bitcoin who acted as Salmon’s opponent in an occasionally salty debate over bitcoin’s future.
Silbert, meanwhile, got in a few licks of his own, telling the purple-suited Salmon that he may have wit and style, but that Silbert had the facts on his side.
So who was right? As someone who has written about bitcoin for two years and shared some of the fascination over a new borderless money system, I found that Salmon made the stronger points.
Even though he hammed up his stage role, Salmon drove home some obvious truths: bitcoin remains too complex for the average person to understand, let alone use; the global banking system is indeed broken but that doesn’t mean bitcoin is the solution; bitcoin is not — and never will be — relevant for “normal” people.
He did, however, acknowledge that virtual currencies have attracted an incredible amount of “intellectual capacity” and that the repositories of GitHub are now filled with an “open source technology that will be incredibly robust and that people will build on top of it” — but that such building should be directed at existing currencies, not virtual ones.
Salmon’s suggestion is also consistent with others who think the public ledger “blockchain” function at the core of bitcoin, which allows strangers to verify if a transaction has taken place, has a promising future. (Indeed, this week a high-profile group of tech figures made a $21 million bet that the blockchain will disrupt the work of trustees, notaries and other record keepers).
Overall, Salmon’s skepticism appeared to win him few friends in a room of bitcoin believers (my elevator ride down was full of people denouncing him), but at a time when Apple Pay is ascendant, it’s hard to see how virtual currencies fit in the mix.