What Ethan Lou discovered in the 'wild west' of cryptocurrency

An interview with the author of 'Once a Bitcoin Miner'

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Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Managing Editor

Myles Ma is a health care expert & personal finance writer for Policygenius. He edits the Easy Money newsletter.

Published October 13, 2021|5 min read

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Ethan Lou turned 18 in 2008, just as the Great Recession was roiling financial markets and a mysterious figure named Satoshi Nakamoto released the white paper laying the groundwork for Bitcoin. Lou would go on to chronicle the rise of cryptocurrency as a journalist and investor, encountering many of the key figures behind the technology along the way. His new book, “Once a Bitcoin Miner,” traces the “Wild West” story of digital money and the people who use it. He spoke with Easy Money about the book and why cryptocurrency has been so intoxicating for so many people.

“People think Bitcoin is exclusively a techy or monetary policy subject,” Lou says. “And I think that makes many shy away from it. But you don't need to come at it from those angles. This book examines crypto through the lens of the human condition.”

Lots of people have written about Bitcoin. Why did you think your own experience was a good entry point for readers, as opposed to telling a more detached history?

Well, the best kinds of stories are both, and this is it. You need the little man to anchor the big picture. And this book isn't a story of my life. In the book I meet a co-founder of Ethereum and Gerald Cotten of QuadrigaCX (before he was reported dead), and hang out in North Korea with Virgil Griffith, the man later arrested for allegedly teaching blockchain to the totalitarian state. The book is anything but detached. It delves deep into the lives of the fast-talkers, the exiles, the ambitious, and the daring, forging their paths in a new world, harsh and unpredictable.

What makes you (and millennials in general) interested in this technology?

At times, I think my millennial generation sees itself as inheriting a collapsing world, weighed by dread and meaninglessness. Statistics abound of how current generations are less likely to own a home or get out of debt than previous ones. In the United Kingdom, those problems were causing millennials to be the first generation to have worse health than their parents. Bitcoin represents a form of escape from that, and not just the financial circumstances — there is an ecosystem there, and it is its own world in many ways. I could work a crypto job, consume only crypto media, spend only crypto and socialize with only crypto friends. I could occupy the same physical space as my neighbour, but I could at the same time be entirely elsewhere. So Bitcoin represents a modern version of the new continent — the new frontier myth. There's a lot of talk about monetary policy and computer science, but at the heart of it, on a visceral level, I think this is what makes it so intoxicating to many.

What did Bitcoin teach you about money, both as a concept and your relationship to it?

It taught me that money is a very abstract concept. There's this little anecdote from the book: 'Consider the Micronesian island of Yap, which had used large, donut-shaped stones as currency, which the people called “Rai.” Because they were heavy, the Rai stones themselves didn’t actually change hands. People simply agreed the ownership had changed, as if there were a ledger tracking all the stones. So the actual stones became less important. At least once, a stone was somehow lost, but it continued to be traded as if it still existed. The figurative ledger had become the real currency system.' At its heart, that's our monetary system right there.

Can people buy your book with Bitcoin?

Yes and no. No bookseller I know takes Bitcoin, and all the places that take Bitcoin don't do books (that I know of, at least). I have tried to persuade my publisher to do so, to no avail. I did have quite a lot of people ask me this question, so I have spent quite a lot of effort trying to make this happen. I have, in fact, bought lists of bookshops in the United States and Canada and mass emailed every single one — again to no avail. But if you are in the United States, my understanding is that you can pay with cryptocurrency wherever you use PayPal, so that is kind of yes to that question. As well, El Salvador has made Bitcoin legal tender, so I would imagine its bookstores are obligated to take the currency. Whether they stock English books or not, of course, is another question. I have not looked into that. If you really, really want to buy the book with Bitcoin, though, you can reach out to me directly. I am working toward setting up some sort of purchase portal for that on my website. In the meantime, just look me up and reach out to me.

We're a personal finance site, so I have to ask: Why should people spend money on this book?

Well, I would say that, at once an immersive narrative of adventure and fortune, “Once a Bitcoin Miner” is also a work of journalistic rigor. Scenes and settings are crafted from three years’ worth of interviews, freedom-of-information requests, and court documents. In particular, Library Journal says the book "delves into these questions using minimal technical jargon, grounding theory with anecdotes....Recommend for patrons who aren’t familiar with cryptocurrency." While nonfiction, the book is plot- and character-driven and meant to be read like a novel.

Senior Managing Editor

Myles Ma

Senior Managing Editor

Myles Ma is a health care expert & personal finance writer for Policygenius. He edits the Easy Money newsletter.