What is the best analogy for cryptocurrency?

  Picconi, a transparent piggy bank with bubbles and gold coins, tulips

Photographic illustration of Slate. Thinkstock photo.

Think of a car. No waiting, a train, think of a train . In fact, imagine a room full of transparent piggy banks. Imagine an apple. Your Visa card Or what about some big circular records dug in limestone?

Wait, come back to the car. Your car:

Meanwhile, someone recently explained blockchain how to dance- "Just a little clumsy dance that a computer has to do to replicate a profoundly human trait."

A poor metaphor can actually make it more difficult to understand what really happens .

These types of cryptoanalogs have become increasingly popular and increasingly absurd. As the first to try to adopt the mainstream cryptocurrency, they have tried (and often failed) to find simple ways to explain the complex technology, to conceptualize these difficult concepts. After all, communication is (a web wallet) key. But while I love a good analogy, metaphorical attempts to explain cryptography are out of this world. There are similarities out there for children 5 years, 7 years and 10 years, for, you know, "that moment when every crypto-parent fears …" Hey Dad, what's a blockchain? ""

The blockchain is not already a metaphor? While the transaction blocks are connected to each other in a pre-established order, there is no real "chain" nor are there physical "blocks" – until a boy makes it literal, ie:

Some analogies courageously attempt to describe technology sans technology (often invoking the supernatural instead), while others try to compare the moment we are inside others before that The current cryptography craze has been likened to the rise of the Internet and the mainstream adoption of YouTube, and – looking back – to the industrial revolution, the Cambrian explosion and the gold rush . But for his detractors, it's a fraud, a Ponzi scheme, a pyramid scheme – "a giant pump-and-dump scheme, which the world has never seen." It is also the first global casino in the world. Some metaphors have been repeated so often that they have become a rooted part of the lexicon ("mining" comes to mind), while others are repeated so often that they could also be. But a poor metaphor can actually make it harder to understand what is really happening (even "mining" comes to mind).

James Grimmelmann, a professor at Cornell Tech and Cornell Law School, has the unenviable task of teaching the basics of blockchain to lawyers. He says that cryptocurrency analogies are particularly difficult: "One of the problems is that there are so many pieces, and the right analogy for each piece is a little different," he says. The analogies that try to capture the whole system become more and more absurd, because they have to be: there is nothing like the cryptocurrency to be compared to.

Andrew Maynard, a professor at Arizona State University, is on agreement. "There is nothing that fits really easily and completely, as with all metaphors." I think we can use metaphors effectively to explain parts of cryptocurrency, but we must be very careful about do not extend them further than they actually do. "(Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future.) A well-chosen analogy may make things easier to understand, but a wrong choice actually obscures the meaning . Beyond the analogization, meanwhile, it can make things more confusing.

Yet it seems that cryptoanalogs are here to stay. So what part of the process are the most common analogies that try to explain and how effective they are?

Gold, digital gold (but better) or "perfect gold"

Bitcoin is often compared to gold or digital gold, a consolidated form of digital money representing physical gold units held by an issuer. Gold is considered a stable global currency, free from political influence, inflation and devaluation related to the currencies issued by the state. It is highly portable, divisible, durable, fungible: everything that people look for in an ideal currency.

It is said that Bitcoin is the gold new . It is an independent global currency. It is something that people have imbued with a high value. And, like gold, there's a limited amount. (The metaphor of gold seems in perfect alignment with the imperfect "mining" below, but the two metaphors are more or less foreign.)

Some argue that the bitcoin is better than digital gold. As a member of the Bitcointalk forum points out, bitcoin is gold more magic :

Imagine that you are a magician. You have magical power over the gold you own. By doing some magic passages with your hand and your phone you can magically divide gold coins and ingots and gold pieces deformed into small, arbitrary pieces and then recombine them into larger ones. Your magical powers allow you to operate equally easily on both tiny gold dust spots and on huge 10,000kg gold pieces (as long as you own this gold). Now imagine you can magically teleport any amount of gold on the Internet with any other wizard on the planet.

To put it less mystically: as pointed out by the CEO of OKCoin, Star Xu, in his presentation at a Bitcoin 2015 conference, Bitcoin offers "Better portability, divisibility, durability and fungibility than its precious metal cousin" (as summarized by Kyle Torpey at Inside Bitcoins). Digital gold trading closely resembles the exchange of IOUs than the trading of the physical property of the asset, but when you make transactions with bitcoins, you actually transfer ownership of the asset. And while the gold itself is obviously extremely durable, it must be held somewhere. Bitcoins can be stored "on a computer, a piece of paper or even in your head with a twelve word passphrase". Xu gives him the superlative "perfect gold".

But the analogy worries Maynard. "Gold is something that already exists in the ground. … Cryptocurrencies do not exist intrinsically," he says. "The other thing", he adds, "is that gold has a relatively stable value because over the centuries we have decided to give it that value.You do not have the same type of normative value with cryptocurrencies that you have with Gold, which makes them very, very volatile compared to gold. "

Light bulbs and bubbles

See also : magic beans

One of the most popular analogies for those who doubt the bitcoin's longevity is "tulip bulbs", a reference to the tulip mania that gripped Denmark at the beginning of 17 century . In fact, bitcoin could be compared to any resource imbued with speculative value, but comparing coins with tulips is particularly scornful.

Tulip mania, or tulpenmanie was one of the first speculative bubbles and became a shortcut to the more ridiculous deviations of asset prices from their intrinsic value. In four years, speculation has pushed the bulbs of tulips to inflated prices, with a peak in February 1637 – when a single bulb could sell 10 times the annual income of a skilled artisan – before precipitating dramatically almost to zero. Bank leaders are quicker to compare cryptocurrencies with the tulip mania – both the former president of the Dutch Central Bank and the JPMorgan CEO have used the analogy as a warning that the value of bitcoin could freeze at any moment and a reminder of the madness of the previous bubbles. In fact, the former president of DCB said that the bitcoin craze is "worse" than the tulip mania: "At least then you have a tulip".

Tulips are a tangible example of the bubble / balloon metaphor often used to describe cryptography craze (although we will be technicians of our analogies, balloons make more sense than bubbles, they do not really get bigger than their pops). The comparisons are also attracted by the dot-com and housing bubbles, as well as by England's South Sea Bubble of 1720, when the secret actions – "to bring forward a business of great advantage but no one who knows what it is" – went up to the stars. If nothing else, bitcoin analogies are a great lesson in history.

In a post medium of 2017, the entrepreneur and cryptor investor Matt Mihaly argues that the analogy with the tulip is terrible:

Is bitcoin better than tulips? Hell yes . There is not even a reasonable comparison to make. The bubble of the tulip bulb was bound to burst because tulip bulbs are a terrible reserve of value. Something that has a limited duration, can not be divided, is not fungible at all, can not be recognized for its precious characteristics (unique color variations on the flowered tulip), and has no historical record of anything approaching Stable value is highly unlikely to retain the kind of value that would allow someone to literally buy a house with a single light bulb.

As Grimmelmann explains, neither gold bulbs nor are good objective metaphors because both are incredibly charged. "Gold is appealing to people who want to increase bitcoins, because traditionally people have appreciated gold. … Tulips are a reference to the tulip mania, which is only speculative," he says . "The point about them is the same: Bitcoin is precious because others expect it to be precious and that the nature that is perpetuated is what sustains value".

But Maynard, who studies risks, is a cautious fan of the tulip / bubble metaphor. "I think it's really a useful way to get people to think critically about cryptocurrencies. … It's quite a good way to raise red flags on volatility." However, he added: "I do not know if other people different way, and this is always the difficulty with metaphors ".

Rai Stones, a pre-modern coin in micronesian stone

Cryptocarchaeologists clung to this primitive stone coin as a precursor to bitcoin and blockchain, claiming that its decentralized property record is analogous to that of the crypt. He was quoted by Forbes, CoinTelegraph, Science News, Bitcoin.com and the blog of author and programmer Yevgeniy Brikman, among others.

The micronesian island of Yap traded historically on a currency known as rai stones – large limestone discs weighing 4 tons and requiring a wooden stake and several villagers to move them (not exactly an easy resource to be traded). To avoid moving the stones every time a transaction took place, Yapese developed an oral history of ownership, with each villager tracing each transaction and then who owned what stone-something the cryptoanalogists indicated as a prime example of a distributed master book, or a blockchain. They also indicate the scarcity of limestone and the extreme difficulty and luck in "extracting it" (usually involving navigation in another island) as a bitcoin parallel.

Or not. "No, no, it's the exact opposite," says Grimmelmann. The stones and the bitcoin of Rai "point out that the currency is socially constructed", but "beyond this, it is the worst analogy to which I can think, because it is the exact opposite of the spectrum between extremely physical objects large and purely virtual currency on computers. "

"That is becoming obscure," says Maynard, who had not heard the analogy with the Rai. "My first question would be: Where is it different from any other form of primitive currency? For my mind, and I think in a very simplistic way, we get back to the basics of what money is, and it's basically assign value to something that you can use commercially, but there is always a question about who assigned that value, where that value comes from, and whether it is totally driven by the market or driven by scarcity or otherwise. "

Mining and miners

Mining is the term for what computers do when they create new bitcoin. There will be only a total of 21 million bitcoins, and so far, more than 17 million have been "extracted". Where do bitcoins come from? Approximately every 10 minutes, a new "block" of transactions is added to the blockchain and with it a predetermined amount of bitcoins is generated. To be the only one to add the next block, computers all over the world compete (using a huge amount processing power) to solve a complex puzzle, the winner is rewarded with the new coins . The puzzle-solving activity undertaken by computers is known as "mining" and their operators as "miners".

The problem with the mining metaphor is that it invokes the action of digging. But bitcoins do not exist to be discovered or found. They are mining for bitcoins not in the sense of looking for them, but rather to make them exist or confine them .

In "Weaving is a better metaphor for Bitcoin, instead of mining," David Orban talks about the weight of false analogies, claiming that the mining metaphor is actually detrimental to the understanding of bitcoin:

[T] the imaginary that comes with shimmering gold coins, which link us to old perceptions of what the nature of Bitcoin is, and how it should be managed; the selfish activity of the miners, the rush to gold, in which the metal that is inherently useful in some industrial processes or in electronics, is subjected to ridiculous evaluations; the value of gold as an investment. … These and others do not apply or apply very weakly to Bitcoin, but we still carry them with the power of the words we have accepted. "

Orban prefers, as the title suggests, to weave:" [W] the eaves take the intertwined threads and through their expert, value-added activities create a strong fabric, which is exactly what the distributed global network of computers that create Bitcoin Blockchain! "

Grimmelmann points out that the term mining has become so ingrained that people do not realize that it is more a metaphor – it has taken on a meaning in its own right. But instead he prefers to explain blockchain computing to his law students using the lottery ticket analogy: everyone is competing to find the random winning number that will unlock the next block, but it's such a random number that luck plays a role finding it first, as well as your number of voices / computers. "It's a much better analogy than mining," he adds, a word that suggests could be out of online games. "It's a metaphor for doing some really boring repetitive tasks because you get some reward for it."

But the metaphor of mining has its advantages, according to Maynard. "I actually like it," he said. "You have people who are committed to creating something, which is very similar to the miners who work hard to extract something and give it value." Until we think of the same coins as gold , as discussed above. "But again," the risk professor warns cautiously: "It's very, very specific to some part of the cryptocurrency mechanism."

A set of Clear Lockers or Transparent Piggy Banks

Ignoring the fact that the web portfolio – the digital "position" in which people "store" their "coins" – is already a metaphor, people have attempted to further explain this mechanism, using the idea of ​​glass cassettes, transparent cabinets, bulletproof glass safes or my favorite, "indestructible transparent plastic piggy banks":

C & # 39; is a room that anyone can access. The room has security cameras that anyone can see, and every second of recorded footage is available online forever.

The room is full of indestructible piggy banks made of transparent plastic. Of course, these piggy banks have coin slots, and everyone can see which coins are in which piggy bank. These piggy banks can never leave the room.

Every person has a key that can open his piggy bank. Let's say I want to buy a pair of alpaca socks and you want to sell them.

First tell me which piggy bank is yours. Then, I go into the room with a ski mask. Anyone in the world can see me with security cameras, but not with my face.

So, unlock my piggy bank, take some coins, then put them in your piggy bank. I leave the room.

Now everyone in the world knows that your piggy bank has coins that were previously in my piggy bank. This is the case with every transaction, so everyone knows the history of each coin.

For adult drug dealers, these piggy banks tend to be boring glass lockers with a slot. But it is a useful analogy for what happens when someone loses his personal bitcoin "key": money is locked inside the locker, inaccessible forever. As the confident analyst adds, "[I] f you do not trust yourself to keep track of your key, or you're afraid that someone steals it, you can have Mr. Gox or Mr. Web-wallet or some others hold the key for you, they will let you choose a secret password [sic] and they will open the safe for you if you tell them the password. "Or they will steal your money and it will cost you millions.

Maynard disputes the cabinet's analogy. "I find it a little twisted," he says. "But also, it does not tell you anything about who pays for the lockers." While the analogy implies that coins moving between the lockers are free, bitcoin transactions come with a fee – and an unstable one at that. Meanwhile, hardware portfolios, the safest type of bitcoin storage, cost.

Grimmelmann also believes that the analogy is limited – in his case, because transparency is true only for some cryptocurrencies. It works with bitcoins, but there are many other coins for which transactions are hidden.


The metaphor of God, found here on the subreddit of Bitcoin Discussions, tries to describe the fact that the omnipotent blockchain sees, manages and records everything:

The blockchain is as if God, who can see everything happen everywhere at once, was looking at all the new gold in the world being unearthed, and all the gold that had been unearthed changed hands, while the people they mistook him for sheep and swords and things. Because he wants everyone to be kind and also responsible human beings, he gives everyone in the world a precious casket. Then he does it so that all the gold is kept in the treasure chest of whoever owns it, and the only way money can be removed from your chest is if you think of the 24 magic words. There are many words and since God has chosen these 24 in a special way that makes it practically impossible to guess, no one will ever enter your chest.

So if someone digs a piece of gold, it goes straight into their personal treasure chest. If you want to buy something from Joe, you agree with him how much gold you have to pay, then think about your magic words, and God transfers so much gold into Joe's box. God confirms everything. One ounce of gold, went from your box into Joe's treasure box. God never forgets, never minds, never loses anything, and never fails, because he is God.

God is the blockchain. Bitcoin is gold.

The not so subtle metaphor continues to make the devil appear and suggests an evil paper-based monetary system that people must hold in the hands of more powerful entities, also known as banks.

"It's not very useful," says Grimmelmann. "Describes many systems in which exchanges are public."

A current account or a credit card

People also compare blockchain technology with a checking account or a credit card, where money is nothing more than moving digital figures. You do not have cash, but a number .

Maynard thinks that the analogy with the credit card, even if incomplete, covers an important cryptofunctionality that is often left out of the cryptoanalogies: the tariffs. "Something that is so often missed, especially when it comes to blockchain more generally, is that there is always a third party that gets value from those transactions, be it miners or anyone else. analogy with Visa, as long as you do not push it too far, it's really helpful in recognizing that there's a transaction cost.Every time you make a transaction, someone benefits. "

As a Redditor says:

Use your Visa card. Visa authenticates the transaction. Visa gets money for this. You send bitcoin. A miner authenticates the transaction. Blockchain rewards that miner for that.

I could go on. A quick Google reveals that there are endless comparisons. Cryptocurrency is money as email is placed. Bitcoins are like … coins? Bitcoins are like "coupons you can spend in any store". Bitcoins are like digital apples. Blockchain is like a game of football, while blocks are like crumpled pieces of paper. Blockchain forks are like a vegetarian restaurant that decides to change menus. Web portfolios are like banks.

To his credit, the viral metaphor car / sudoku / heroin does a decent job in capturing both the strangeness of the bitcoin mining process: the idle machine is your computer, the sudoku is the complex problem that is running to solve, the heroine is … heroin – and the absurdity of this new crypto-world, in which the true "value" can be created, apparently, from nothing.

But as Maynard and Grimmelmann kept reminding me, no cryptoanalogy is perfect – no, not even auto / sudoku / heroin. Once tried to apply it to the blockchain its weaknesses emerge. Furthermore, metaphors make no sense unless you have a rough understanding of the cryptocurrency they are trying to explain. But once you've explained the process by which computers compete for the bitcoin reward, do we really need the sudoku or the machine?

This new field is complicated, but mixed metaphors make it even more so. Technologists are not always the best at explaining things, but it is important to find clear language to explain what is happening if people are going to get on the table (metaphorical). We give people the benefit of the doubt and skip the stones. Although at this stage, the mining is probably here to stay, so ingrained that it is almost impossible to dig.

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