Until fairly recently, if you lived anywhere other than San Francisco, it was possible to go days or even weeks without hearing about cryptocurrency.
Now, suddenly, it’s inescapable. Look one way, and there are Matt Damon and Larry David doing ads for crypto start-ups. Swivel your head — oh, hey, it’s the mayors of Miami and New York City, arguing over who loves Bitcoin more. Two N.B.A. arenas are now named after crypto companies, and it seems as if every corporate marketing team in America has jumped on the NFT — or nonfungible token — bandwagon. (Can I interest you in one of Pepsi’s new “Mic Drop” genesis NFTs? Or maybe something from Applebee’s “Metaverse Meals” NFT collection, inspired by the restaurant chain’s “iconic” menu items?)
Crypto! For years, it seemed like the kind of fleeting tech trend most people could safely ignore, like hoverboards or Google Glass. But its power, both economic and cultural, has become too big to overlook. Twenty percent of American adults, and 36 percent of millennials, own cryptocurrency, according to a recent Morning Consult survey. Coinbase, the crypto trading app, has landed on top of the App Store’s top charts at least twice in the past year. Today, the crypto market is valued at around $1.75 trillion — roughly the size of Google. And in Silicon Valley, engineers and executives are bolting from cushy jobs in droves to join the crypto gold rush.
As it’s gone mainstream, crypto has inspired an unusually polarized discourse. Its biggest fans think it’s saving the world, while its biggest skeptics are convinced it’s all a scam — an environment-killing speculative bubble orchestrated by grifters and sold to greedy dupes, which will probably crash the economy when it bursts.
I’ve been writing about crypto for nearly a decade, a period in which my own views have whipsawed between extreme skepticism and cautious optimism. These days, I usually describe myself as a crypto moderate, although I admit that may be a cop-out.
I agree with the skeptics that much of the crypto market consists of overvalued, overhyped and possibly fraudulent assets, and I am unmoved by the most utopian sentiments shared by pro-crypto zealots (such as the claim by Jack Dorsey, the former Twitter chief, that Bitcoin will usher in world peace).
But as I’ve experimented more with crypto — including accidentally selling an NFT for more than $500,000 in a charity auction last year — I’ve come to accept that it isn’t all a cynical money-grab, and that there are things of actual substance being built. I’ve also learned, in my career as a tech journalist, that when so much money, energy and talent flows toward a new thing, it’s generally a good idea to pay attention, regardless of your views on the thing itself.
My strongest-held belief about crypto, though, is that it is terribly explained.
Recently, I spent several months reading everything I could about crypto. But I found that most beginner’s guides took the form of boring podcasts, thinly researched YouTube videos and blog posts written by hopelessly biased investors. Many anti-crypto takes, on the other hand, were undercut by inaccuracies and outdated arguments, such as the assertion that crypto is good for criminals, notwithstanding the growing evidence that crypto’s traceable ledgers make it a poor fit for illicit activity.
What I couldn’t find was a sober, dispassionate explanation of what crypto actually is — how it works, who it’s for, what’s at stake, where the battle lines are drawn — along with answers to some of the most common questions it raises.
This guide — a mega-F.A.Q., really — is an attempt to fix that. In it, I’ll explain the basic concepts as clearly as I can, doing my best to answer the questions a curious but open-minded skeptic might pose.
Crypto boosters will likely quibble with my explanations, while dug-in opponents may find them too generous. That’s OK. My goal is not to convince you that crypto is good or bad, that it should be outlawed or celebrated, or that investing in it will make you rich or bankrupt you. It is simply to demystify things a bit. And if you want to go deeper, each section has a list of reading suggestions at the end.