David Bowie predicted the essence and impact of the internet in 1999. He was a visionary and regarded as one of the greatest artists of our time, but little do people know, he was also a genius in more than just music.
In this interview in with The BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, he captures the essence and the power contained within what was then skeptically viewed as “just” a message-delivery system. He accurately predicted the unimaginable potential of the internet not just as a conveyor of information, but a conveyor of rebellion. Jeremey also perfectly represents the other side of the story, the skeptic everyday person who resists change.
I want to explore that analogy and compare it to today, 20 years later, in the nascent world of blockchain technology and cryptocurrency along with the significance of Bitcoin’s emergence just ten years after that video came out.
In the entire video, you can see the struggle on the face of the interviewer, the pained expression of trying to grasp something beyond his comprehension as he tries to get into that same headspace as Bowie.
That, or he thought David was on some real strong trippy shit.
When asked about being a musician, specifically Rock and Roll, David Bowie had a very interesting analogy to make, one that most people have already forgotten in this new millennium: that Rock and Roll was originally about rebellion. And even more interesting was how he jumped from Rock and Roll to the Internet as the new flag-carrier for the spirit of revolution.
“…it had kind of like, a call to arms kind of feeling to it, like this is the thing that will change things, a dead-dodgy kind of occupation to have. It still produced signs of horror from people when you said “I’m in rock and roll.” Now it’s a career opportunity, and the Internet now carries that flag, for the subversive and chaotic, nihilistic and…”
The interviewer then makes a face that says “how the hell did he connect those two random things like that? Is he high?”
But before he can say anything, Bowie interrupts and says:
“Oh yes it is! Forget about the Microsoft element, the monopolies do NOT have a monopoly… maybe on programs.”
Some of the smartest people in the world have compared Bitcoin and the technology that has emerged from its wake as something as significant as the internet itself, and I completely agree. The parallels are pretty obvious.
Anyone working in Bitcoin or the broader blockchain technology industry will understand what David was talking about. Just like with the first Rock and Rollers, that call-to-arms feeling was exactly what attracted most of us to work with Bitcoin in the first place. That feeling that something had to change in the existing system, in this case, in the world of money and finance, was a common denominator among the first movers in this industry.
He couldn’t have been more accurate in describing it as a “dead-dodgy” kind of occupation to have. It took my own mother over three years to understand and believe that this was a real industry we were trying to build, that I wasn’t going to go to jail for what I did for a living. To this day, we get looks of skepticism from most people when we tell them that our business is built on Bitcoin and blockchain technology platforms. The world is only starting to see this as a career opportunity, and not something subversive or chaotic. In many ways, it is still as chaotic as anything can be.
David also talks about how the monopolies have lost their monopoly. This is a perfect analogy with the complete destruction of the monopoly on money creation by nation states and central banks brought upon by the Bitcoin protocol. When the first person other than Satoshi Nakamoto started running Bitcoin, that monopoly suddenly became a sand castle in a fast-rising tide.
This was the biggest argument against the Internet back then — everyone can say anything or do anything or be anything, therefore, it won’t work. It is a great underestimation of the power of the individual when expressed through a collective network.
David Bowie responds:
“From where I am, by virtue of the fact that I’m a pop singer and writer, I really, like, I embrace the idea, that there is this demystification process going on between the artist and the audience.
Now it’s a communal kind of thing , it’s about the community, it’s becoming more more about the audience, because the point of having somebody who “led the forces” has disappeared! Because the vocabulary of rock is too well-known, as a currency it is not devoid of meaning anymore. It’s only a conveyor of information, not a conveyor of rebellion.
— And internet has taken on that, as I say, and so I find that a terribly exciting idea, so from my standpoint being an artist, I’d like to see what the new construction is between artists and audience. It’s almost like the artist is to accompany what the audience is doing, and that feeling is very much permeating the internet.
Let’s analyze that statement for a bit. Bowie talked about the demystification process going on between the artist and the audience due to the Internet’s ability to breakdown the importance of the artist versus that of the audience, where the audience now becomes as important, if not more important, than the artists themselves.
When the world of money and finance started to become global, the rise of institutional financial gatekeepers have become personified and glorified in the role of banks and bankers. Banks were the most revered institutions of the new industrial era, providing credit, savings, and safekeeping of our wealth and assets. If you wanted a good and stable job, find work in a bank. Up until the 80s and 90s, this was a common narrative.
In this context, banks are the artists (and maybe the record label), and everyone else is the audience. Big banks “led the forces” and had vast amounts of power and influence over society. They still do to this day, but the coming of age of the internet and the vast improvement in the interface between the user and the network is rapidly changing all that. Fintech, Insuretech, Regtech, mobile payment platforms and the like have come out strong in the last decade, and the customer is now as important, if not more important, than the institutions themselves. New applications using technology have begun to show us that these revered institutions have been sleeping on the job, and that they have been too slow to adapt to the changing needs of their audience.
Going back to the interviewer, he again mentions what he believes to be the absurd idea that “anyone can say or do anything”:
Here we go again, that same narrative. “If anyone can say anything, it must be worthless, it will be meaningless.” If anyone can say or do anything in a way that it becomes censorship-resistant, with permission-less access, then nothing will come out of it except chaos. This could not be further from the truth, and David knew that, with conviction.
Bitcoin’s invention allowed anyone in the world to “say anything” in the context of commerce and value exchange, the same way the internet did in the context of communication and information exchange.
“Oh but absolutely! Because I believe that, at the time, up until at least the mid-70s, we really felt that we were still living under the guise of a single and absolute creative society where there were known truths and known lies, and was no kind of duplicity of pluralism about the things that we believed in. That i started to breakdown rapidly in the 70s and the idea of a duality in the way that we live, in there are always two, three, four, five sides to every question that the singularity disappeared, and that, I believe, has produced such a medium as the internet and it absolutely establishes and shows us that we are living in total fragmentation.”
Up until 2008, we were still living under the guise of a single and absolute financial society where there were known truths and known lies, and nothing can be questioned. This started to break down in the midst of the confusion caused by on of the biggest financial meltdowns in modern history and the house of cards that fell along with it. Suddenly, we realized that there are two, three, four, five sides to every question, and that monopoly disappeared forever.
It produced an entirely new medium in the form of Bitcoin, as a new kind of software, a new kind of network, a new kind of money, and a new subversive idea that came out of nowhere and completely demystified the relationship between the gatekeepers of money and the consumers of money. Things like blockchains, consensus algorithms, and peer-to-peer networks showed us that the emperor had no clothes, and that we are living in total fragmentation because of all the trust we gave to these institutions.
Interviewer: “You don’t think that some of the claims that are being made for it are hugely exaggerated, I mean, when the telephone was invented people made amazing claims for it —
I know! The President at the time, he was outrageous! He said he foresaw the day in the future when EVERY TOWN in America will have a telephone. Now that, how dare he claim that, absolute bullshit (Sarcasm). So, no, I don’t agree, I think the internet — I don’t think we have even seen the tip of the iceberg.
“I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good an bad, is unimaginable! I think we are actually on the cusp of something exhilarating AND terrifying.” he says.
Interviewer: (Still looking exasperated) It’s just a tool isn’t it?!
“No, it’s not. No, it’s an alien life form… Is there life on Mars? YES, and it just landed here.” Says David.
Right now, some of the claims about the potential of Bitcoin as a new decentralized global monetary standard or how blockchain technology will change our fundamental understanding of trade, ownership, and trust seems hugely exaggerated, and rightfully so. Just like the early days of the internet, there is a lot of hype in the industry today.
But, like David, we believe that what we are seeing today is not even the tip of the iceberg. We believe that we are on the cusp of something both exhilarating and terrifying, like an alien life form landing on Earth. Bitcoin’s impact has barely made a ripple in the coming wave of innovation and disruption in the world of finance, yet here we are, only ten years in and moving trillions in value on a global scale, enabling millions of people to transact with anyone, anywhere, anytime.
To which David says:
“Oh yeah, I am talking about the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different from anything we can envisage at the moment, where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico, it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.”
Isn’t Bitcoin just another payment system like VISA or Paypal? Isn’t it just another delivery system for money? No, we argue that it is something much more profound, just like David argued for the Internet in 1999.
We live in a world of digital commerce and value exchange that was severely limited by the restrictions placed by gatekeepers, where every action is monitored by a middleman, every participant is vetted by a process that excludes two-thirds of the world’s population from participating in the global internet economy, because it was the only solution to a problem we could not solve — the double spending problem.
The release of Bitcoin in 2009 gave the world a better practical solution based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, and it has opened a pandora’s box of possibilities that cannot be undone.
The actual context of transactions and the state of the content being exchanged, not just money, but entire classes of value both tangible and intangible, will be so different from anything we can envisage with our limited perspective today, where the interplay between the two parties in a transaction, between the user and provider, senders and receivers, become perfectly in sync with little to no friction.
It is going to crush every single idea we have of what mediums of value exchange are all about.
RIP David Bowie, a real legend.