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Conversations with Mom about Bitcoin
For my 100th Cryptoday newsletter, I wanted to do this small tribute to my mom. My mother was a Speech & Theater professor in UP Diliman, and I’d like to think that whatever public speaking skills I have are largely due to her early mentorship. It was her birthday this week; she would have been 67. She passed in 2012, and the following is an essay I wrote for her a couple years after that, in which I imagined what it would have been like to explain Bitcoin to her for the first time. It’s a little embarrassing because you can tell I wasn’t very good at explaining crypto, but perhaps what’s even more interesting is that crypto has actually gotten harder to explain since then.
I miss you, Mom.
When my mom passed away in 2012, Bitcoin was just a faint blip on my radar, and I often wish that I had been familiar enough with it back then to have been able to talk to her about the coming financial revolution. In my daydreams, we continue to have conversations about all the products I’m currently working on, and whenever I build something complicated I wonder if my mom would’ve liked using it. Oftentimes, when I try to explain cryptocurrency to people who are older than me, I secretly wish I had been explaining it to her instead.
“It’s money that’s completely online,” I’d begin, and she would crinkle her nose, because those were words that don’t describe anything, really.
“It’s like Paypal, but without the 4.5% transaction fee,” I’d try again. She had heard of Paypal, of course, but the only time she had ever shopped online was through Amazon and iTunes, neither of which required a Paypal account.
“It’s a new kind of money, without any government support. It was built by this lone economist who wanted to create something better than regular paper currency.” The underdog savant angle would’ve piqued her curiosity, for sure. “And now a few million people are using it all over the world.”
She’d consider what I had just said, and then — I’m 100% sure of this — she would’ve asked, “What does it look like?”
Her tone would have been blunt. She didn’t particularly like using ugly things.
“Well …” I’d struggle a little, and reach for the most obvious thing: the Coinbase wallet app. Inwardly I would thank god that I had stopped using the Blockchain.info version — that one seemed like it had been designed for the visually impaired.
“It looks like this. This app is your wallet, and it’s got all your Bitcoin money in it. The big number at the top is how much money I have. The green numbers are payments people have made to me, and the red numbers are payments I’ve made to people.”
I’d scroll up and down, showing her dozens of transactions. Mostly red.
“You don’t have a lot of money,” she’d say, shaking her head.
And I’d probably get a little defensive. “Well, I’ve been giving it away to my friends and colleagues so they can try it out! We’re trying to advocate Bitcoin use in the Philippines.
“Also, Bitcoin is expensive right now, and I’m waiting for the price to drop a little before I buy. It’s like when you wait for the dollar rate to go down before you exchange your pesos.”
“Why, how expensive is it?”
“Uh, well, 1 Bitcoin is about 27,000 pesos right now.”
Her eyes would go wide, and she’d smack my arm. “Ikaw talaga! You’re going to spend all your money again!”
“I’m not! Most of these are just donations from people in the office so I have some Bitcoin to give away to first-timers.” I’d reach for her phone and try to change the subject. “Look, I’ll create a Coinbase account for you so you can have your own wallet. It’s free, don’t worry.”
I’d open an account for her, and show her where everything was. “There, now just click the Receive Money button.”
“Oh, what’s this?” she’d exclaim, when the QR code pops up on screen.
“That’s your wallet’s address. It’s like an email address. I scan it with my own wallet app like this,” I’d explain, pulling up the camera function and pointing it at her phone. “And then now I can send you money. Simple, huh?”
“Normally, I’m supposed to give people enough Bitcoin so they can buy a cup of coffee, but since you’re my mom, I’ll give you 500 pesos worth.” I’d tap the numbers in and hit Send. Her app would beep a few seconds later.
“Oh! That was fast. But why does it say Pending?”
“Well, that’s because other people need to confirm that the transaction is valid first. It’ll take a few more minutes, but that money is as good as yours.”
“What other people?” She’d be confused by this, just like everyone else who isn’t familiar with the blockchain. The entire Bitcoin network is composed of other users, I’d explain, and they all work together to make sure that the transactions are valid and that the whole network is secure.
“Those other users make a tiny bit of money for every transaction they confirm, and that’s how the network grows. It’s pure people power. Cool, huh?”
At this point, I’d be truly proud of myself, having shown my mom how Bitcoin worked. She’d fiddle with the app tentatively, afraid that she might break something, or lose her money somehow. I’d sit beside her, pointing out how to confirm her mobile number for added security, and showing her how to add friends.
She’d ask questions like, what would happen if she lost her phone (“Nothing, the money is backed up in the cloud”), and could someone steal her money (“Only if they know your password”), and if she never spent the BTC, would it just stay there forever (“Yup!”). We’d talk about Satoshi Nakamoto, and his vision for secure cash without banks. And I would tell her how, if I had bought $100 worth of Bitcoin in 2010, I would have $15M by now.
“Ok,” she’d say finally, when she was satisfied that she understood most of it. “Now show me what I can buy with this.”