Since discovering bitcoin in 2011, Pittsburgh-based programmer Dan Mross has been enchanted by the promise of the controversial open-source digital currency. Dan’s filmmaker brother Nick was frequently on the receiving end of Dan's bitcoin evangelizing, and Nick soon developed an interest in bitcoin himself.
As the film’s title indicates,“The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin” is the Mross brothers’ love letter to bitcoin and its potential to transform the global economy. The documentary provides unprecedented insight into the peculiar but growing bitcoin subculture and introduces us to some entrepreneurs who have risked their livelihood and freedom to make bitcoin more accessible to the general public.
Nick and Dan Mross came to New York last week to debut “The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin” at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, where they discussed the confounding complexities of bitcoin with International Business Times.
International Business Times: "The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin" addresses the difficult question of what bitcoin is, exactly. The film does a really good job of illustrating how hard it is to explain it by comparing bitcoin's comprehensibility to the early days of the Internet. Even now, most of us can't explain exactly what the Internet is, even though it's an essential part of our lives. Do you think there will come a time when bitcoin will be so embedded in our culture that we won't have to define exactly what it is?
Dan Mross: I do ... Every day when you use the Internet, you use a DNS system, and most people have no idea what that is. Right now, bitcoin is a protocol ... and there's nothing built on top of it. We're just dealing with the raw material itself. You have to have a pretty deep knowledge of how it all works to use bitcoin now, but there are startups that will make it more accessible for everyone.
IBT: I had previously thought of bitcoin as kind of wanting to “take over” federally backed currency, but after watching the documentary, it looks like that's not the case, at least not right now. It seems like they need to coexist ...
Dan: I'm really glad you said that because that's what a lot of people hear about bitcoin ... that these anarchist groups are going take down the banks with this thing. That's the impression you get on the news, or that it's about money laundering. But it's just a protocol. That's what we wanted to show.
Nick Mross: It's a tool, and a lot of people can use it for different things. And if there are bad actors, they are separate from bitcoin itself. That's what we wanted to show in the film -- it's this technology, and it's not really tied to any one thing. How [bitcoin and centralized currency] will coexist across the globe will be interesting to see. But we're hoping here in the U.S. that it finds a way to work within the current banking system.
IBT: Bitcoin has an open-source foundation, which is for the most part considered to be very secure, but the recently discovered Heartbleed bug exposed how easily a simple typo can wreak serious havoc. Did Heartbleed prompt anyone in the bitcoin community to rethink OSS? What is the worst-case scenario?
Dan: The Heartbleed security bug was a very bad problem, but security flaws occur in both open and closed source software. Open source software allows the greatest number of people to do auditing and testing, so I still firmly believe it to be a better development methodology. Bitcoin would not be possible any other way without fundamentally altering the properties that allow it to function as a global currency
IBT: I still feel like I don't fully understand how bitcoin can be used. I haven't noticed anywhere in New York where you can use bitcoin to buy a cup of coffee. Is that where we are going?
Dan: In different areas it's taking off in different ways. In the U.S., people are using it for financial gain. At the same time, when we went to that bitcoin conference [featured in the film] in Nashua, N.H., all of the vendors took bitcoin. I lived on bitcoin for a week.
It's so new. Bitcoin is only five years old, and people only started finding out about it in 2013.
Nick: People want answers already, but that's like going back to 1985 and asking what the Internet is going to look like. It's going to take time. There is no answer yet.
IBT: I couldn't help but notice that there were very few women interviewed in “The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin” -- in fact, the only female featured was not part of the community. How male-dominated is the bitcoin community?
Nick: Our documentary film is mostly U.S.-based, and we captured the stories as they unfolded in front of us. Right now, the bitcoin community is comprised of mostly males, but this is similar to the gender demographics of the tech and finance industries as a whole. Bitcoin itself has always been in the public domain, so it's impossible for it to have any kind of gender imbalance by its design. We have worked very hard to create a film that will help everyone better understand bitcoin, and we believe that is the best way to bring awareness to people of all genders and backgrounds.
IBT: Your film talks about how bitcoin is going to be very valuable in developing countries that don't have a stable centralized currency. But you need to have a smartphone or access to mobile technology to use bitcoin. How do you reconcile that?
Nick: In developing countries, people tend to have smartphones, even when they don't have much else. It's an easy device for them to get, and they can more quickly participate in a [cyber-based] financial system than go and set up a bank account.
Dan: As developing nations grow, if they don't have a banking infrastructure there, they don't need to now. They can leapfrog it right away.
IBT: It sounds very convenient to be able to do all of your transactions with your smartphone, but it also sounds a bit scary. Say, in the case of a catastrophe, like on 9/11, when no one's phone worked in the city. How would that play out if we were all using digital currency?
Dan: I think it can be complimentary ... You may opt to use bitcoin and have dollars as well.
IBT: As your film points out, it is essentially impossible to recover stolen bitcoin. Do you think this makes it more vulnerable to large-scale theft operations?
Dan: Thefts will always occur, but with bitcoin it is easy to prevent the massive thefts, like the recent Target security breach, where millions of card numbers and personal information were stolen by thieves. The best tools to prevent bitcoin losses are education about proper security practices and good wallet software. There are a number of companies that are trying a variety of ways to make using bitcoin more secure, from wallet services to "cold storage" facilities, and the bitcoin software itself is also being updated with features to make payments safer and more secure from different types of theft.
IBT: Dan, you're a bitcoin miner. Can you tell us what that is exactly? Is that how you make your living?
Dan: I make a living as a software developer. Bitcoin is a hobby. With bitcoin, the transaction processing is crowdsourced. So bitcoin mining is people who are participating in processing transactions on the bitcoin network, voluntarily and all around the world, and they are being rewarded with the issuance of bitcoins. The bitcoin is this headless, decentralized network that crowdsources all of the work that's needed to function and it pays people bitcoins for doing that work.
IBT: Satoshi Nakamoto came up several times in the documentary. And at one point, you address the Newsweek story that claimed to identify him. [Disclosure: IBTimes and Newsweek share the same parent company]. The film indicated that you guys don't think the man identified in that story is really him.
Dan: I don't.
Nick: I don't think it's him, either. Whether or not he had some old school ties to it, I don't know. But from a filmmaking standpoint, [including that story] was more about showing that bitcoin had gotten to a point that people care now ... If that story had broken a year earlier, I don't think we would have seen that kind of response.
IBT: Why do you think he or she is in hiding, or doesn't want to be identified?
Dan: Look at how big it's becoming, look at how people interpret it and how disruptive it may be. Whoever they were, they knew a lot about cryptography ... Maybe they were someone who worked at the NSA and did this as a side project and didn't want to get in trouble for it. Or maybe they worked for a government of another country.
Whoever it was, they value their privacy a lot. I don't understand why they would go to such lengths to hide their identity and then use their own name. That's not palatable to me. But ultimately, it doesn't matter. What Satoshi did was solve a computer science problem that people have been trying to solve for a long time ... Someone shared their idea with the world and tried to remain quiet and stay in the background.
IBT: Is it you? Are you Satoshi Nakamoto?
Nick: Late at night in the editing room, our editor would sometimes look at me and say, “Is Dan Satoshi?” It was a joke, obviously. Of course not.
Dan: For the record, no.