Alex Winter‘s “Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain” is the best 85 minute primer you will ever get on Bitcoin, its many imitators and the potentially world-changing technology that makes cryptocurrencies possible.
As Winter’s legion of expert witnesses explain, this isn’t just about “democratizing” money. It’s about the tech that points toward a decentralized world of personalized power grids, impenetrable personal (online) identity and power quite literally in the hands of the people.
It’s heady stuff, and Winter — Bill of the “Bill & Ted” movies in an earlier life — is the perfect explainer and surrogate for the audience. The director of “Deep Web,” “The Panama Papers” and “Downloaded” is emerging as a top tier documentary storyteller, an Alex Gibney for the cloud computing age — seeking out good communicators to interview, asking the right questions off camera and figuring out which fuzzy concepts need graphics to help break down the facts into something the layperson can understand.
His technique is to throw a LOT of voices and faces at the viewer, carving off complex ideas into edible bits. That’s harder on those reviewing his films than those simply watching and learning from them.
There’s British hacker, activist and self-described “Internet busybody” Lauri Love, an “on the spectrum” thinker who warns about the ways the web is being “used to control…to manipulate,” as “a tool of accumulation of power.”
It’s all the data mining and abuse social media companies and hydra-headed entities like Google employ to keep individuals in their thrall.
And here comes Blockchain, the data management/”transaction tracking” technology willed to life by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto as a response to the global financial meltdown of 2008.
Want to avoid the interconnected currency-exchanges manipulated by market “gamblers” who bring the world’s economy to near ruin, decade after decade? Take the power out of “too big to fail” institutions like banks and market manipulators like Goldman Sachs. Put it in the hands of every single person with money.
Venture capitalists like Tim Draper, cryptocurrency mavens such as Mark Jeffrey, journalists like Laura Shin of Forbes, Cal Tech quantum physicist Spiros Michalakis and musicians like Imogen Heap and Gramatik all extol the virtues of Blockchain, not just as a means of moving money around, but as a method by which individuals, from Kansas City to Kenya, Iceland to India, can take greater control of their lives, their identities and their future.
Puerto Rico’s power grid is wiped out by Hurricane Irma? Decentralize the antiquated “grid” with personal solar and wind power generation, linked by Blockchain, so that not every piece of the chain is not knocked out at once.
The business model for making a living as a musician is broken? Blockchain can connect musicians to fans more profitably than Napster, more efficiently than Spotify and give the artist control over what they create.
Winter’s film, narrated by Rosario Dawson, briskly skips through early Internet history and likens bitcoin to those early days of the world wide web. As Winter serves up a parade of Big Bankers (Jamie Dimon of JP Chase) and business TV talking heads (Jim Cramer, et al), ridiculing bitcoin and its tidal wave of crypto-knockoffs with the phrases “Ponzi Scheme” and endless comparisons to “Tulipmania” in 17th century Holland, he shows us a timeline.
Yes, there have been bubbles — several. Yes, there are con artists out there looking for ways to get their digital paws on your stash. Ordinary people from all corners of the world are stacking computers and linking them to “mine” the currency (better explained in the movie than I could hope to venture — basically, “improving the speed of verifying transactions” on the web with computing power, and being rewarded for it).
But Blockchain, the core technology, “the flux capacitor of bitcoin,” which is “not a thing, but a process,” is sound and revolutionary and could and should impact everything from water and energy to money and music.
Winter’s cast of interviewees are a blend of bitcoin evangelists and Blockchain explainers and theorists, with the many naysayers lumped mostly into montages, clip after clip of dismissal and derision from those who either aren’t grasping the totality of it or have a vested interest in maintaining the current system.
But when banking is explained as “just ‘cloud storage for money,'” when several theorists get into how Blockchain solved “The Byzantine Generals Problem,” when the technology’s seemingly foolproof autonomy and cryptographic impenetrability is summed up as “Your trust is in the laws of math, the building blocks of the universe,” and Blockhain is labeled “a bureaucrat that’s incorruptible,” you start to get it.
As venture capitalists like Tim Draper are worth watching and hearing out as they anoint it as “the next big thing” (five years ago) and have yet to be proven wrong, maybe the days of listening to the CNBC shouters, the Warren Buffetts and Jamie Dimons, the benefactors of the current system — during boom and bust — are at an end.
Whatever you bet on bitcoin, don’t make the mistake of betting against Blockchain.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Narrated by Rosario Dawson, with Tim Draper, Lauri Love, Bill Tai, Gramatik, Vinay Gupta, Imogen Heap, many others
Credits: Directed by Alex Winter. A SingularDTV release.
Running time: 1:24