Synopsis: Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper tells the story of the first years of Bitcoin, from the cypherpunk origins, right through until 2014, by which time Bitcoin had matured. The book is a brilliant piece of narrative non-fiction. Read this article for a comprehensive Digital Gold book review!
***This review is part of a series. Click here for my full list of the world’s best cryptocurrency books.***
Digital Gold Book Review
I read Digital Gold for the first time in late 2017, just as I was starting to write The Crypto Intro. Many people had independently recommended it to me – so many, in fact, that I couldn’t help but bring Digital Gold to the top of my to-read list.
That in itself is quite remarkable, because I always have dozens of books that I feel I must urgently read. It just goes to show how valuable that reviews are to help us decide how we will spend our valuable reading time. Because I enjoyed reading Digital Gold so much, I wanted to add my voice to the chorus of those who recommend it.
The Story Of The Early Days Of Bitcoin
If you don’t know much about the origins of Bitcoin or the fascinating characters who steered it during its formative years, then you are in for a treat. Digital Gold is the sort of book that fans of writers such as Michael Lewis or Neil Strauss will absoutely love. Just like the work of the aforementioned writers, Digital Gold takes a serious subject and communicates it in with entertaining storytelling.
Nathaniel Popper has the benefit of some fascinating characters. They range from the ultra-libertarian anarcho-capitalists who want to use Bitcoin to bring down the government, to geeky computer programmers who were fascinated by the technology itself, to Silicon Valley types whose eyes lit up at the prospect of bringing disruption to the antiquated financial sector.
One of the central characters is Ross Ulbricht, the former drug trafficker who was the mastermind behind the Silk Road online marketplace. Silk Road allowed users to take advantage of the anonymity inherent in Bitcoin, along with the “Tor” darknet software, to enable the buying and selling of drugs and other illegal contraband over the Internet. Silk Road was able to operate out in the open for years before eventually being shut down by the FBI in a dramatic raid that saw Ulbricht arrested. Readers of Digital Gold get to follow the entire story of Silk Road, and will gain an insight into what such radical privacy might mean for society’s ability to enforce laws.
Another of the topics that Digital Gold covers is the hunt for Satoshi Nakamoto – the anonymous founder of Bitcoin. Incredibly, to this day nobody knows who Satoshi Nakamoto really is. As a highly skilled cryptography expert, Nakamoto has been able to cover all traces of his digital footprint, leaving no trace of his whereabouts or identity. The book tells of the time where a journalist thought they had finally tracked Nakamoto down, only to find a confused old man named “Dorian Nakamoto” who had no idea what Bitcoin was or why the throng of assembled media were bothering him.
Digital Gold manages to expertly weave between such engaging episodes as these while also getting across a deeply important message. Readers will leave the book both entertained and informed – with a much clearer idea about what exactly Bitcoin is and what it might mean to the world. Nathaniel Popper undertook exhaustive research in the course of putting this book together, and it really shows.
To pick holes in this Digital Gold book review seems unfair, because it is absolutely a 5-star reading experience. I would just caution people thinking of buying this book to know what you are getting. Digital Gold is a narrative nonfiction account of the history of Bitcoin. It isn’t going to teach you the technical aspects of blockchain or how to get started with Bitcoin for yourself. These sorts of details wouldn’t fit. A different book, The Crypto Intro, covers that sort of information.
Also, because this book was finished in 2014, it doesn’t cover anything that has happened to Bitcoin or crypto in the years since then. Digital Gold is a point-in-time, backward-facing account of the early years of Bitcoin. But it does this job brilliantly.
Quotes From Digital Gold
I want to use this Digital Gold book review to share a few short passages which will give readers a flavor of what they are in for:
“There was a lingering memory of this unfulfilled dream of Silicon Valley. While the Internet had freed information and communication from the postal service and the publishing industry, the Internet had essentially never disrupted money, and dollars remained bound by the old networks run by the credit card companies and the banks.”
“Bitcoin’s lack of any apparent intrinsic value didn’t matter when looked at against the history of money. The reason gold itself had been used as money was not that it was valuable; it had become valuable because it was used as money. And it was used as money because it did what all good money did: it served as a sort of physical ledger on which society could keep track of who was owed what.”
“All the panelists compared Bitcoin in its current form to the Internet in 1992 or 1993, before the first web browser. Back then, there had been lots of excitement in a small circle of technologists about what the Internet protocol could do, but the programs and infrastructure did not yet exist to make it accessible to ordinary people.”
The Verdict: Digital Gold Book Review
It isn’t often that I can say that I “couldn’t put a book down”, especially non-fiction – but Digital Gold is one of those rare treasures. It is, of course, must-reading for anyone interested in crypto. But I would also recommend it to anyone who wants to enjoy a crackingly entertaining story, and one which is all-the-more amazing because the tales are completely true.
If you enjoyed this Digital Gold book review, you would also enjoy my book – The Crypto Intro which is more of a practical how-to guide for getting started with Bitcoin and crypto. Read Digital Gold for the history of crypto, and read The Crypto Intro for the steps to try crypto for yourself!