“Don’t Understand Bitcoin?” asked the headline of a recent video from Clickhole, the Onion‘s viral-media parody site. “This Man Will Mumble an Explanation at You.” The inexplicable hilarity of the mumbling man and his 72-second explanation of Bitcoin contains, like all good humor, a solid truth: most of us don’t understand Bitcoin, and the simplistic information we seek out, for all we grasp of it, might as well be delivered unintelligibly. A few years ago we featured a much clearer three-minute explanation of that best-known form of cryptocurrency here on Open Culture, but how to gain a deeper understanding of this technology that, in one form or another, so many of us will eventually use?
Consider joining “Bitcoin and Currency Technologies,” a free course from Coursera taught by several professors from Princeton University, including computer scientist Arvind Narayanan, whose Princeton Bitcoin Textbook we featured last year.
The eleven-week online course (classroom versions of whose lectures you can check out here) just began, but you can still easily join and learn the answers to questions like the following: “How does Bitcoin work? What makes Bitcoin different? How secure are your Bitcoins? How anonymous are Bitcoin users? What determines the price of Bitcoins? Can cryptocurrencies be regulated? What might the future hold?” All of those, you’ll notice, have been raised more and more often in the media lately, but seldom satisfactorily addressed.
“Real understanding of the economic issues underlying the cryptocurrency is almost nonexistent,” writes Nobel-winning economist Robert J. Shiller in a recent New York Times piece on Bitcoin. “It is not just that very few people really comprehend the technology behind Bitcoin. It is that no one can attach objective probabilities to the various possible outcomes of the current Bitcoin enthusiasm.” Take Princeton’s course, then, and you’ll pull way ahead of many others interested in Bitcoin, even allowing for all the still-unknowable unknowns that have caused such thrilling and shocking fluctuations in the digital currency’s eight years of existence so far. All of it has culminated in the current craze Shiller calls “a marvelous case study in ambiguity and animal spirits,” and where ambiguity and animal spirits rule, a little intellectual understanding certainly never hurts.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.