Hell's year 2020 devastated life as we know it. But do you know what it was good for? Bitcoin.
The cryptocurrency has skyrocketed, hitting a high of over $ 20,000 per coin this week. There is now more than $ 350 billion worth of Bitcoin in the world, an incredible appreciation for virtual money that was basically worthless a decade ago.
It's a great time to be a long-time owner of the currency and a painful time to be a person who once spent 10,354 bitcoin (including tip) on a stranger dinner. Yes, I am that person.
In May 2013, I spent something in one night that would be worth about $ 200,000 today on raw fish and shrimp tempura rolls for people I had just met. I was a reporter at Forbes at the time, covering technology and privacy. Bitcoin had hit my radar as a privacy technology that allowed people to make anonymous online purchases, much like paying cash in the real world. (Unless it's a huge public digital ledger that never goes away.)
Digital money was invented in 2009 by a mysterious math enthusiast who went under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. By 2013, the value of a single Bitcoin had risen to over $ 100, in part due to its popularity in online black markets such as the Silk Road virtual drug bazaar (which was obviously very illegal and was later closed by federal authorities).
Tech freaks, entrepreneurs, investors, and economists began to get excited about Bitcoin, so I decided to live on the currency for a week to see how valuable it was in the real world.
I bought a few bitcoins for $ 136 each from a website called Coinbase and tried to figure out ways to spend them. There weren't many places that knew what Bitcoin was, let alone that it was accepted for purchases, but since I was living in the tech mecca of San Francisco at the time, I had a few options including a cupcake shop and one Sushi restaurant called Sake Zone.
Still, the week on Bitcoin was difficult: I had to move from my apartment to a hacker hotel that was still under construction. I lost five pounds due to both the limited dining options and my only transportation options being walking or cycling, which a friend rented me for half a bitcoin. And I was constantly being deprived of caffeine because there was nowhere I could sell coffee for cryptocurrency.
On the last night of my experiment, a Monday, I decided to celebrate the weekend by throwing dinner in the sake zone with my remaining crypto stash. I sent an open invitation to Meetup and a community of Bitcoin enthusiasts on Reddit.
I had previously called the owner of the restaurant, Yung Chen, to make sure it was okay to make a group dinner and pay for it in bitcoin. I had told him it would probably be 15 people or something.
But by the time I got to the tiny restaurant on Clement Street in the Richmond District, there were already two dozen people outside. Then more than 60. As I wrote at the time, it was "a wild cast of characters" including "a bitcoin speculator adorned in Google Glass," economists, entrepreneurs who make bitcoin apps and games, and two founders of Burning Man.
A Forbes videographer named Taylor Soppe filmed it all and I played at anchor exhausted.
At the end of the night, I paid the bill, which was $ 957 plus tip. Feeling guilty at the time, I got Yung Chen to accept fun $ 1,000 worth of money because I wasn't sure if Bitcoin was even worth anything.
At the end of the experiment, I concluded that Bitcoin was an incredibly useful demonstration of how a secure, peer-to-peer distributed ledger – Bitcoin's underlying technology called blockchain – can work to keep the online -Possession to track. You could use Bitcoin's technology for car titles or housing deeds and transfer ownership of a car or house in seconds instead of the outdated process of standing in line forever with government agencies. But Bitcoin as a store of value? That seemed silly. I didn't buy the arguments that Bitcoin is like gold.
In fact, I asked myself: had I just cheated on this restaurateur?
Fast forward to 2020. I called Yung Chen this month to check in. He and his wife retired from the restaurant business a few years ago, tired from long hours, he said. They were able to partly thank them for their cryptocurrency income totaling around 41 Bitcoin.
In 2017, after they closed Sake Zone and bitcoin was worth a few thousand dollars, Mr. Chen sold about a quarter of his bitcoin. He now regrets this decision in view of the appreciation of digital money.
“I sold some. I feel so bad, ”he said. “Now I just keep it. I just put it down like camp and wait. "
"Bitcoin has become one of the most important savings items in my portfolio," he added. "That's a lot. It's the equivalent of almost half a million dollars in my account."
Mr. Chen's 54-year-old wife is fully retired, but Mr. Chen's 63-year-old still works for Oakland City as a road inspector, a role he has had for nearly two decades.
When I asked him why he believed in Bitcoin early on, he explained that he had experience in the tech field. He emigrated from Hong Kong to California in 1984 to attend the University of California at Berkeley. One of his first jobs was testing routers for telephone companies.
"I did a bit of technology," he said. "So when they introduced me to Bitcoin, I thought," Why not? We can do it. & # 39; "
The people who introduced the Chens to Bitcoin were employees of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit in a renovated church next to the Sake Zone.
The internet archive wants to archive everything: the internet in general with the wayback machine hosting old versions of websites; Books, much to the displeasure of the people who make money from them; old television news; and on and on. The archive had started accepting cryptocurrency donations years ago, and even paid some employees partially in bitcoin. Since many of them ate lunch in the sake zone every day, they persuaded the Chens to accept it.
"You need to know your neighbors," said Mr. Chen. They tried to convince other dealers in the neighborhood, but didn't get many other buyers.
“At that time, the concept of Bitcoin was still fairly new. And most people don't want to take any chances here, ”said Chen. But he had seen firsthand how quickly technology could change the world. He said he “wasn't really thinking about money. More like a new product I'd love to play around with. "
The internet archive helped the Chens set up a Bitcoin account and provided them with a free Wi-Fi service so that they could conduct the Bitcoin transactions.
"I was trying to get the whole street going," said Brewster Kahle, the director of the internet archive. He dreamed that Bitcoin would be the currency of the web and help create a financial system that is not controlled by governments and big corporations. He said the dream died.
"It's now a speculator system," said the 60-year-old Kahle. "It's just a game of chance. It's like the stock market."
I asked Mr. Chen after dinner night and told him how guilty I felt when I paid such a large bill with money that most people didn't know existed and most people didn't take seriously took when they did.
"I wasn't worried about that," he said. "It was a small amount compared to our regular sales."
"At the time, Bitcoin wasn't big money," he added. "It's a lot of money now."
I don't know burp!