Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Visit to London's 'Bitcoin Squat'

A version of this article was published on Wired on 15 May 2013.

The meeting place is a street corner on a very windy London evening. There's a bald-headed man waiting on the corner too.  My colleague nudges me and whispers: "Is that him?" The man approaches and asks if we are Amir's friends. I explain that we're here to meet Amir, as he's agreed to speak about Bitcoin at our Cybersalon event, the following week. The topic is Net Politics. 

Amir has become a spokesperson for Bitcoin in London. I'd approached him after he'd spoken publicly at a Bloomberg event and the London New Finance Meetup.

Amir is nowhere to be seen. So I call him. On the second attempt he answers and gives me directions to come to the building they're squatting in. A large locked gate greets us, but we manage to squeeze through, into their hacker hideout. 

The building is a former Tibetan Buddhist temple with a large graffiti mural on one wall. In it are about ten people- two of whom are chopping vegetables and cooking up what is to be a big communal dinner. One of the cooks introduces himself as a documentary filmmaker. He says he's working on a film entitled 'Finding Satoshi'. He explains that Satoshi Nakamoto is the hacker name of the unknown creator(s) of Bitcoin, who implemented the system including code and Maths, and then moved on to 'do other things'. It's very important for the decentralised nature of Bitcoin, that Satoshi has gone. It's not a tech start-up after all. It is the idea rather than a dominant personality or promise of IPO riches which give it motive force.

Another guy, a hacker, is bent over his laptop on a sofa. He has a black eye and a few serious scars. He tells me he's been beaten up by the police at their other squat. There's also a little boy playing in a large toy car which needs recharging. I help him plug it in and then turn around and see the guy we've come to meet.

Amir is very warm and hospitable- greeting me with a kiss and a hug- and then proceeding to find more chairs. He is passionate and animated as he starts to talk about the Free Software movement and hacker culture out of which Bitcoin's community and wide adoption has spread.

Amir explains how he'd organised the first Bitcoin conference last year- an event in London filled with hackers and anarchists and how incredible it had been. He says he'll be doing another one later this year, this time in Vienna. "I've got the best speakers. But I'm really really bad at marketing it", he explains. "It's called UnSYSTEM. As in, Undo the System". "Will Satoshi be there?", I ask. "Yes he will, replies Amir, "But under another name". 

I'm intrigued, like most people, about the idea of who Satoshi is, the Banksy of Finance as he's dubbed. I ask a few of the hackers I meet there tonight if they are Satoshi. None of them admit to it but one winks and continues, "I wouldn't tell you if I was!"

"Do you live in this squat?" I continue to quiz Amir. "I live in one nearby" he replies and goes onto explain that a group of activists fighting against the financial system live here, together with other people, some from Occupy London. "We have a Bitcoin group contingent inside working on projects and developing software", he adds.

I mention that I hadn't realised how much ideology there was behind Bitcoin's development, and undoubtedly behind 'Satoshi's' original idea. My friend warns me that 'ideology' may be the wrong word to use for a group of anarchists, to which they might object. At the squat I start to realise these people really seem to be embodying their beliefs by living communally and choosing to use their skills to build arguably the biggest disruptive technology out there. They are affecting money and the role of governments - "we're giving tools and financial freedom to everybody", explains Amir. "Bitcoin really is the free market", he continues, "It's not about the abuse of power and monopolies".

The squat is filling up. A group of young men are sitting in a circle avidly discussing something. They include the bald-headed man I'd met outside, who turns out to be a University lecturer.  Others are bankers dressed in suits sitting next to hooded hackers and the documentary filmmaker. I sit on my haunches by them, and listen. The bald-headed man is saying that through his research Bitcoin could be seen as a Ponzi scheme. He's realised that the early hoarders are those with the largest amount of Bitcoins and they're not selling them. Some people disagree. One likens the situation to Apple shares owned by the founders and early employees. They discuss whether this is a flaw in the workings of Bitcoin as a currency. As Bitcoin appreciates in value, does it become illiquid? In other words, is the prospect of becoming more valuable ruining Bitcoin's value as a currency that nobody wants to spend? Is it more of a commodity than a currency?

The discussion is interrupted by the call that dinner is ready. Someone gives me a paper plate and I help myself - it's delicious and healthy. There are now about thirty people in the space and more continue to come in and out. The food is plentiful and there's no sign of money exchanging hands, even in digital form.

After dinner, I'd been told that there would be a presentation. "They mostly do educational talks here", someone explained. Tonight is no exception. Pablo, another Bitcoin hacker, will be talking about Ca La Fou, a 'post-capitalist eco-industrial project' in Catalonia, Spain that he's helping to set up. 

Amir helps him set up the projector. They use a vegetable rack which sums up their lifestyle nicely: bread, potatoes and carrots support the white Lenovo laptop running Linux and the 4500 lumen projector.

Pablo has prepared slides and talks for about an hour about the project- he describes a cooperative where people live and work together- but where home ownership is also possible. When someone leaves, they sell their house to someone else. Most people make money outside. The main occupation inside is making and selling marmalade to the cooperative itself. There is a network of them around Spain. Pablo is mature and obviously has been through a lot of thinking on how this will work as well as been heavily involved in the refurbishment of the land and buildings. "It's a cooperative but in today's sense of the word, with technology as an intrinsic part", he explains.

I invite Pablo to join Amir and speak at our event the following week. He obliges. You can watch it below or here.

Amir asks me for help- to spread the word to fill the huge venue they've secured in Vienna for the next Bitcoin conference. It's next to the UN building and will be happening in November.

When I'd first got in touch with Amir it was to speak about how Bitcoin will disrupt politics and governments. But this visit has made me discover a lot more. Certainly Bitcoin, like hacker culture, is based on freedom. But these hackers' beliefs are more than that - they believe in really changing the system- including finding different ways of living (squatting and cooperatives) and creating a real culture of communal sharing as the dinner embodied. 

I've met just one group of Bitcoiners of course, who seem be motivated by things other than making money. They certainly have ideological links to the 1960s US counterculture, which spawned early Silicon Valley. As investors equate Bitcoin to Gold 2.0, I wonder what will happen to this ideology and to Bitcoin itself.

Inside the squat
Amir and a friend tuck in
Amir and Pablo at Cybersalon

The unSYSTEM Bitcoin and social change conference will be held in Vienna from 1 - 3 November 2013.

Speakers include Richard Stallman the founder of the Free Software Movement, Jacob Appelbaum, a hacker closely linked to WikiLeaks, Cody Wilson, creator of the Wiki Weapon, a platform for 3D printable guns, members of Occupy London and Birgitta Jónsdóttir, an Icelandic MP from The Pirate Party.

The next Cybersalon event in the series 'The Net Then and Now': will be held on 29 May in London about meaningful digital interaction. More on and can be followed via @cybrsalon


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