Science fiction authors have an uncanny habit of predicting the future. Whether it’s Jules Verne envisaging the moon landings in From the Earth to the Moon, George Orwell prophesying mass surveillance in 1984, or Ray Bradbury forecasting wireless headphones in Fahrenheit 451, literary imagineers seem to have a direct pipeline to the borderlands of the beyond.
Of all the 21st century innovations, none are as beguiling as cryptocurrency, a blockchain-based version of digital cash that lets users transact value without relying on governments or banks.
In fact, blockchains enable the verification and authentication of just about any dataset, from contracts and account information to records of stock ownership. So, which literary craftsmen (or women) can we credit with owning a crypto crystal ball? And how accurate have fictional representations of money and society been in portending crypto as we know it today?
Prolific author Philip K. Dick is the grandmaster of clairvoyant sci-fi, though cynics might argue that it was inevitable he’d get some things right: after all, he produced 40 novels and 121 short stories during his lifetime. In any case, Dick predicted things like facial recognition (The Minority Report), memory manipulation (We Can Remember It For You Wholesale) and virtual reality (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep).
So, what about crypto? Well, disappointingly, Dick didn’t lay out a blueprint for Satoshi Nakamoto. He did, however, casually describe decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), smart contract-powered communities that can automatically execute actions without the need for intermediaries. In his 1953 novella The Variable Man, Dick writes about a machine that will “turn power over to all of us, not just a limited number one person could dominate.
In his 1953 novella The Variable Man, Phillip K Dick writes about a machine that will “turn power over to all of us, not just a limited number one person could dominate.
“This gimmick makes it possible for citizens to raise and decide issues directly. They won’t have to wait for the Council to verbalize a measure. Any citizen can transmit his will with one of these, make his needs register on a central control that automatically responds. When a large enough segment of the population wants a certain thing done, these little gadgets set up an active field that touches all the others… The citizens can express their will long before any bunch of grey-haired old men could get around to it.”
Set in 2031, Heavy Weather is a novel characterized by climate chaos, digital networks and societal collapse. Written by cypherpunk OG Bruce Sterling, the novel also features a digital form of currency that bears more than a passing resemblance to bitcoin. In fact, it’s probably the best evocation of cryptocurrency in fiction to date. Here’s a particularly fascinating passage: “Alex did not find it surprising that people like the Chinese Triads and the Corsican Black Hand were electronically minting their own cash. He simply accepted it: electronic, private cash, unbacked by any government, untraceable, completely anonymous, global in reach, lightning-like in speed, ubiquitous, fungible, and usually highly volatile.”
Shadowrun is a sci-fi franchise originally conceived as a role-playing board game in the late 1980s. A hodgepodge of urban fantasy, crime, horror and pulp, Shadowrun has little to do with cryptocurrency – yet managed to predict the devices many people use to safeguard their digital assets. We’re referring, of course, to hardware wallets – or credsticks, in the Shadowrun world.
Credsticks are “small pen-like devices” that can be inserted into computers to transfer funds at low cost while eliminating a paper trail. Credsticks are secured variously by passcodes, voiceprints, retina scans or fingerprint scans – meaning they’re quite a bit more advanced than the hardware wallets we know today.
Neal Stephenson is a brainiac science fiction author whose keen interests in cryptography, philosophy, currency and technology have been explored in a succession of mind-bending novels and short stories. His magnum opus is probably Cryptonomicon, a 900+ page tome simultaneously set in the mid 1940s and the late 1990s, with characters comprising code breakers and technological libertarians.
Although a plot strand in Cryptonomicon features the creation of a digital currency, the 1995 short story The Great Simoleon Caper is the one to focus on. In this work, references are made to a cryptographic e-money consisting of “numbers moving around on wires.” Stephenson references CryptoCredits where “if you know how to keep your numbers secret, your currency is safe.” That sounds a lot like private keys.
Clearly Satoshi Nakamoto stood on the shoulder of giants when conceiving Bitcoin. While we cannot possibly say that he read the aforementioned books, we know for a fact that Satoshi was influenced by a host of cypherpunks, not least Wei Dai and Adam Back, both of whom are cited in the famous Bitcoin whitepaper.
Might Satoshi have been inspired by nonfiction books like Timothy May’s The Sovereign Individual (1997), a meditative work that pondered the decoupling of money and the state? What about Eric Hughes’ A Cypherpunk Manifesto (1993), an essay that railed against regulations, extolled encryption, and discussed the need to “come together and create systems which allow anonymous transactions to take place”?
As with any new technology, Bitcoin didn’t appear in a vacuum. The message within the Genesis Block is the most obvious reminder of the context but fundamentally it is, as Edward Snowden so succinctly put it, about ‘Freedom’. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find fictitious expressions of future society grappling with freedom from state through new forms of money.
It makes Satoshi’s achievements that much impressive that rather than just conceive of an idea around a new form of money free of control, he went and built it…..and it works.
Satoshi’s no longer around to answer questions about his inspirations, but we should take reassurance from that. All we have is his enduring masterpiece Bitcoin, a decentralised cryptocurrency whose technological advancement continues in his absence.