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Henry Mance: Help! Anyone remember my bitcoin password?

Section: Daily Dispatches

By Henry Mance
Financial Times, London
Friday, January 15, 2021

Let me explain my reaction to the news that a San Francisco-based programmer has nearly L200 million in bitcoin, but cannot remember the password. According to the New York Times, Stefan Thomas has only two more guesses to access the keys to a digital wallet that contains his fortune. Otherwise he loses the lot.

I think there was a brief moment when I found it hilarious. Then I found it too painful to think about. Now I have reached a state of acceptance.

... Dispatch continues below ...


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This is the kind of "Sliding Doors" moment that we all fear -- what if we never met our partner, what if we took that plane, what (in my case) if I had slipped jumping from a ledge into a rock pool. Life could have been so different.

Accidents do happen, especially to bitcoin investors. An estimated 20 percent of the digital currency is stranded -- owned, for example, by people who can't remember how to access it. I thought these guys were against the right to be forgotten?

A Financial Times colleague wisely wrote down the passphrase to his bitcoin, now worth a few thousand pounds. Sadly he wrote it down wrong. As long as he doesn't write things down wrong in the FT, he'll be fine. But other forgetful bitcoiners will bang their heads against their Tesla prospectuses, because the dollar value of their currency has more than tripled in the past year. A Welsh IT worker claims he binned a laptop with £230m of bitcoin, and has spent eight years asking the council for permission to search its landfill.

There are serious implications for bitcoin, which wants to be a store of value, but is clearly overemphasising the storing part. Remember that it is the most environmentally damaging currency imaginable, with a carbon footprint bigger than Sri Lanka, because of the computing power required to create each token. If Silicon Valley wanted to pollute the world while creating nothing of usable value, it should have copied Northern Ireland's cash-for-ash scheme.

There are broader lessons for digital evangelists. Internet libertarians envisage that people will flourish when the regulatory guardrails are thrown off and inefficient humans are replaced by automated systems.

But what if humans are quite useful? Walk in beaten and empty-handed to a bank branch, and the tellers will find a way to reconnect you with your overdraft. Whereas, even if you could identify bitcoin's mysterious founder Satoshi Nakamoto, he couldn't help you access your digital wallet. For a species that forgets things, that is suboptimal.

The other lesson is about genius. Silicon Valley loves a genius, often identified by how early they invested in X or what employee number they were in Y. But maybe the people who invested early in Facebook weren't geniuses -- they were just lucky. Maybe the people who become viral stars are not the funniest or the best singers.

Password-amnesiac Mr Thomas was given his 7,002 bitcoin for making a video -- a task millions of people could have done. He could be worth as much as Ed Sheeran or become the internet's version of the Fifth Beatle. But it wouldn't say much about his ability or contribution to society.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss. ...

So wrote Rudyard Kipling. No one can really follow that advice. No one can treat triumph and disaster the same, even though luck often decides which we end up with.

All we can do is have compassion for those people who never made their fortune, who never fell in love, who fell ill. Four years of Donald Trump has surely taught America that wealth does not correlate with moral status. If bitcoin teaches Silicon Valley the importance of luck, then maybe it will have created real value after all.

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