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Opening The Gates

Because it’s such a mind-blowing idea, and the first time they hear about it is usually through a short, negative press story, most people are initially repulsed by Bitcoin (like I was!). As you’re about to see, even really smart people fall into the “Bitcoin is evil” trap when the subject is broached.

bitcoinAnger

The following excerpt, which gracefully closes Nathaniel Popper‘s must-read book, “Digital Gold“, shows how uber-philanthropist Bill Gates was initially perturbed when Xapo CEO and Bitcoin advocate Wences Casares suggested that Bitcoin could be used to further the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation‘s mission to “unlock the possibility inside every individual“:

In the hallway walking to lunch, after the Bezos-Buffett conversation, Wences spotted Bill Gates, who had been notably reticent about Bitcoin. Wences knew that Gates’s multibillion-dollar foundation had been making a big push to get people in the developing world connected financially, and Wences approached him to explain why Bitcoin might help his cause. As soon as Wences broached the topic, Gates’s face clouded over, and there was a note of anger in his voice as he told Wences that the foundation would never use an anonymous money to further its cause. Wences was somewhat taken aback, but this was not the first time he had been challenged by a powerful person. He quickly said that Bitcoin could indeed be used anonymously— but so could cash. And Bitcoin services could easily be set up so that users were not anonymous. He then spoke directly to the work that Gates was doing, and noted that the foundation had been pushing people in poor countries into expensive digital services that came with lots of fees each time they were used. The famous M-Pesa system allowed Kenyans to hold and spend money on their cell phones, but charged a fee each time. “You are spending billions to make poor people poorer,” Wences said. Gates didn’t just roll over. He vigorously defended the work his foundation had already done, but Gates was less hostile than he had been a few moments earlier, and seemed to evince a certain respect for Wences’s chutzpah. Wences saw the crowd that was watching the conversation, and knew he had to be careful about antagonizing Bill Gates, especially in front of others. But Wences had another point he wanted to make. He knew that back in the early days of the Internet, Gates had initially bet against the open Internet and built a closed network for Microsoft that was similar to Compuserve and Prodigy— it linked computers to a central server, with news and other information, but not to the broader Internet, as the TCP/ IP protocol allowed. “To me it feels like you are trying to get the whole world connected with something like Compuserve when everyone already has access to TCP/ IP,” he said, and then paused anxiously to see what kind of response he would get. What he heard back from Gates was more than he could have reasonably hoped for. “You know what? I told the foundation not to touch Bitcoin and that may have been a mistake,” Gates said, amicably. “We are going to call you.” After Wences got back to California, he received an e-mail from the Gates Foundation, looking to set up a time to talk. Not long after that, Gates made his first public comments praising at least some of the concepts behind Bitcoin, if not the anonymity. And so Bitcoin and its believers attracted one more person who was willing to give this new technology a look, and remain open to the possibility that the whole thing wasn’t, at least, entirely crazy.

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