Let me explain my reaction to the news that a San Francisco-based programmer has around $220m 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.
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 per cent 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.