I read a recent article in Salon by Keith A. Spencer titled, “The cryptocurrency bubble stems from our STEM obsession” and the only point Spencer makes that I agree with is a phrase in the article’s title.
I agree that we do have a bit of a stem obsession in the U.S. Getting a computer science degree has become the current-day equivalent replacing the ambitious desire that a generation of parents had in the 1960s-1980s of wanting their children to be doctors. I’m not entirely sure when med school became such a popular choice for parents to promote, but it persisted for decades until a degree in computer science emerged as a separate credential.
Many of the other points Spencer made completely miss the mark. He inaccurately insists that cryptocurrency is not egalitarian for what appears to be no other reason than he had difficulty setting up his computer to mine Dogecoin in 2014.
I’m left to wonder how someone who earned a STEM degree can struggle to correctly set up the environment for mining Dogecoin. The original instructions for mining bitcoin that Satoshi Nakamoto included in a message to the Cryptography Mailing list on January 8, 2009 consisted of two sentences:
Nakamoto was not intentionally being vague. It only takes a several mouse clicks to successfully execute those two instructions. I do agree with Spencer that some specialized knowledge of computer hardware is needed now for coins that can’t be mined using a CPU, and that simply wasn’t a consideration in 2009. This reality is not as prohibitive as he describes it.
Availability and Accessibility of Information
Never before in human history has information been so freely available and accessible. Websites like Wikipedia have eliminated the need for space-consuming and pricey encyclopedia sets previous generations used, and websites like Coursera, offering massive online open courses in virtually every discipline, make a wide variety of information free and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.
Up until the mid 1990s information had a cost associated with it: a high cost. Take the encyclopedias mentioned above, for example. How many families in the 1980s do you know who managed to buy a complete set instead of stopping midway through the alphabet? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Wikipedia replaces that intermediate step, and it fills the void while improving the experience. Wikipedia can be updated continually, eliminating the need for waiting an entire year for access to updated content.
Due to the existence of open source software, the barriers to entry to the computer industry are nonexistent or at least much less fixed when compared to professions such as law. If you don’t agree, try becoming a lawyer by creating a Github account.
If you want to read more about the history of open source software, I covered the topic in this article titled, “A Block-Length (10 minute) History of the Movement that Enabled Bitcoin.” It’s an important read because it highlights how the open source approach to software can keep the technocracy Spencer fears in check.
In its early days, bitcoin mining and the community surrounding it was extremely inclusive. Yet that doesn’t deter Spencer from insisting that mining bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies requires a specific educational background and skill set. I’m guessing Spencer’s degree was in a major other than computer science, perhaps biology. Otherwise, I don’t think he would have had such difficulty mining Dogecoin.
Even if he were accurate about specialized computational and math skills needed to mine cryptocurrency and to ensure wallet security, no one has a monopoly on that information. If his STEM degree is in computer science and he can’t mine Dogecoin, it might be time to question what a degree in computer science represents.
GPU mining involves executing an algorithm. Any difficulties miners encounter with setup more than likely has to do with the drivers from the hardware manufacturer, and drivers are typically not open source. If they were, cryptocurrency development teams could more fully address these intricacies and make setup easier for the end user, in this case cryptocurrency miners. Greater availability of open-source hardware could simplify this process.
Perhaps, his mountain of excuses disguised as social justice is marginally reasonable. I suppose Spencer potentially could be right. If there’s anything I’ve learned by this point in my life, it’s that I’ve either severely underestimated my own technical skillset or I’ve repeatedly overestimated the capabilities of my fellow humans.