‘Trust Machine’ is Bitcoin for dummies
Crypto currency like Bitcoin is a hard thing to explain to people, even in a documentary explicitly about what it is and how far the application can be taken. Trust Machine does its best to lift the veil of fear around the concept, though at times it glosses over concerns in its vision of a brave new world.
The documentary, playing at 14 Pews Saturday, is the latest from Alex Winter. Best-known for his role as Bill in the Bill & Ted franchise, Winter has been at the helm of a number of technology-driven docs for years, including a 2012 retrospective of Napster that was a marvelous look at how streaming and file-sharing forever changed the way we consume music. In an era of Spotify and Apple Music, he has been a visionary.
So, he’s worth taking quite seriously. The thrust of Trust Machine is how the concept of blockchain removes the centralized power of the World Wide Web and redistributes it through a democratized system of verification. In extremely lay terms, blockchain is a series of code that timestamps each use of a token bit of information.
Think of it how a store scans an item into their inventory, then scans it again to sell to you. Now imagine that the item itself contained a cryptograph that recorded the transaction, and would continue to record it even after you sold, traded or gave the item away. That string of information, currently near-impossible to tamper with, is what makes Bitcoin and other token currencies possible.
They get a bad rep because they are popular with people dealing with illegal activities. The use of crypto currency for the drug trade on sites like The Silk Road gets a prominent mention. There’s also the fact that several authoritarian nations like Russia and North Korea are very interested in how blockchain financial assets might be used to circumvent international sanctions.
This does get some screen time, and Trust Machine acknowledges that at some point government regulation must get involved in the blockchain if it is to be used in the utopian manner that so many of the subjects believe it can be.
The film doesn’t do much postulating how that regulation might look, just as it gives only a brief nod to the fact that the computing power necessary to make the blockchain work (called “mining”) is a huge drain on the electrical grids wherever it happens. All this is set aside as a something our clever species will obviously fix when we stop being so worried.
Instead, everything is bright. Blockchain uses run the gamut from simple to miraculous. Refugees moving through various regions could use it to tokenize their identity so that they wouldn’t need to keep re-applying for papers as they move through jurisdictions. This would reduce the chance for vital information to get lost, something that seems very applicable to our own current crisis with lost children separated at the border. Urban areas where people contribute to the power supply through solar or wave energy could enable individuals to source their energy locally and through green sources.
Even music gets a nod. Imogen Heap used blockchain to track sale of a song and ensure that the information contained every contributor to the track so that they could automatically receive their fraction of the transaction. It’s the next logical step from Winter’s Napster documentary and a chance to make the famously opaque royalty system more transparent to each artist.
Trust Machine is in love with the technology it describes and see a realm of wonders that it could bring into our lives. Winter takes a very dense subject and pitches it as a brighter future for us all. Though it leaves the darker aspects for others to fix, a viewer will walk away from the film with far more information than the talking financial heads on the news shows let out. It clears the air of menace and offers quite a bit of hope on a subject that is usually rife with ignorance and misrepresentation.
Jef Rouner is a Houston-based writer.