Bitcoin and The Wild West: Interview with Austin Craig from Life On Bitcoin
Tuesday 26 November 2013
“A funny thing happened as the value rose. We kept spending bitcoin, but the dollar value of our wallet tended to stay the same. It was like a bottomless wallet.”
- Austin Craig
“We paid somebody in Chicago half a bitcoin for two train passes,” he explains. “At the time, we were overpaying them just a little, to put their fears to rest about this currency they'd never heard of. But now, that half bitcoin is worth $400.”
The Craigs' adventure has also ingratiated them to members of the bitcoin community across the globe and helped them to establish a network of bitcoiners, who they could call upon in different parts of the world, including in the dead of night after a long flight to Singapore when all buses and trains had stopped running. “We'd hoped to use a car service, who had agreed to work with us during the experiment in Singapore to arrange rides. But we needed a local phone, which we didn't have, and couldn't secure using bitcoin at the airport,” says Austin, adding, “We ended up using the help desk to call a local bitcoiner we'd been in contact with. We woke him up and asked if he could give us a ride. We felt bad, because it was the middle of the night, he has a wife and kids and a day job, and we didn't want to inconvenience him so, but we didn't have other options. He was extremely kind, came and gave us a ride to the hotel without so much as a single complaint.”
The stress of that night did not end there after they discovered the hotel had no free wifi.”We found out they didn't offer breakfast or room service, and that wifi was an additional charge. We also weren't able to charge it back to the travel agency like we had at previous hotels. It was a scary and disheartening night. Nothing was working the way we'd planned, and we were very very tired,” says Austin.
It is clear they are extremely grateful for the support of the bitcoin community. “We literally couldn't have done this without the community. They not only helped us by crowdfunding the film, but they were helping all along the way, by pointing out services and merchants that we would have otherwise missed. They also kept us accountable,” Austin says.
Despite the occasional scary moment when they wondered where they would sleep, or how they would eat, they found they never starved and were able to purchase some items that genuinely took them by surprise.
“One of our favorite parts of the trip was when we met with a photographer and bitcoin enthusiast in Berlin,” says Austin. “Marcin Dzieniszewski of TinType Berlin does amazing tin-type portraits on glass plates. Think of US civil war era photography, and you'll know what I mean.
"He messaged us on facebook and offered his photography services payable in bitcoin. It's something we never would have done otherwise, but was one of the most fun things we did in the whole three weeks, and now we'll have these wonderful portraits for years, maybe generations. Tintype photography will last centuries if kept properly.”
Meeting people such as Dzieniszewski and their friend in Singapore has given them a very positive impression of the bitcoin community with Austin stating it is “made up of people who really believe in bitcoin as a platform for global change.” He adds, “It can change not only their personal finances, but opens up a world of possibilities for new and better services and e-commerce. The people in the bitcoin community today are the ones that realize that we're only scratching the surface. And they're the ones with the itch to keep scratching.”
Their encounters within the community have also been diverse with Beccy finding a woman on a street stall willing to accept bitcoin for a henna tattoo and planning to buy traditional Polish slippers from a woman in Ottawa, in her 80s, who might be the oldest bitcoin merchant they have found.
From their small, hometown of Provo, in what they say is “conservative Utah,” to the more liberal Berlin neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, they have seen the way bitcoin is viewed and embraced around the world. Of Provo they say, “With a couple months talking to people about it, we have several businesses that gladly accept it now.”
However there is still a long way to go before bitcoin can be considered mainstream. Austin agrees, saying, “The truth is, even the most bitcoin friendly communities are still very small. Kreuzberg in Berlin had more businesses accepting bitcoin than anywhere else we went, but not by that much. In every city we visited, the strength of the bitcoin community could be traced back to just a few people. It was the owner of one restaurant in Kreuzberg who had persuaded the other merchants to accept bitcoin. He single-handedly spread bitcoin to a couple dozen businesses in his area, just by talking about it. The same thing is happening in Singapore, New York, and everywhere else we've been.”
The global community also ensured they would not end up destitute and starving when they arrived in a new place. “We tried to coordinate with members of the bitcoin community in the places we'd be visiting. They helped us find places to stay and eat,” says Austin. Although, of course, once they stepped into “uncharted territory,” they were often greeted with raised eyebrows and questions.
They say Singapore, Kreuzberg and Stockholm are some of the most fascinating places they have visited. “Stockholm was beautiful, but had fewer merchants accepting bitcoin. We'd love to come back to these places to meet up with the bitcoin community, but also we'd like to be regular tourists. That was one drawback; it was hard to "see the sights" like we would have with Euros or dollars.”
However, they found the differences in attitude towards bitcoin were not so much between national or ethnic cultures, but between large companies and smaller companies. “The smaller companies, in the US, Europe, or Asia, were always easier to work with,” Austin says.
His point was proved when they struggled to buy a data plan for Austin’s cell phone and resulted in taking a two-hour return trip just to fill up their car in Salt Lake City.
He believes this is one area where there is a huge gap in the market.
“If any oil or cell phone executives are paying attention, I'm telling you now that there is a huge opportunity here to be a first mover in accepting bitcoin. You'll set yourself apart as tech-forward companies. You'll be light years ahead of the competition."
- Austin Craig
They acknowledge that bitcoin is “still very new and it’ll be a while before it’s fully a household name and even longer till it’s widely understood.” Even in shops where they advertised that they accepted bitcoin, the couple often found they were the first to actually do a bitcoin transaction.
Retail services is another area, that Austin believes is ripe for growth. “There are huge opportunities for bitcoin entrepreneurs to build the services that we'll all be using, from e-commerce to point of sale devices to secure cloud solutions,” says Austin. “It's like the Web was in 1995. All the basic technology is there, but it might be years before it's fully developed and the network is widely utilized and trusted. So far, though, the adoption of bitcoin has moved faster than I would have expected. Maybe it won't take so long.”
"Bitcoin is just like the Wild West. People will build the infrastructure and services necessary to settle that land, and they'll make a fortune."
The couple themselves benefitted from the low transaction costs and ease of use, and see this as one of the big selling points going forward. “We never once had to think about exchanging currency in the various countries we went to. It didn't even cross our mind till we were done. We didn't pay any foreign transaction fees as you would with a credit card. We never had to rely on an ATM, or the associated fees there. We weren't carrying around large wads of local cash, so there wasn't the concern of being pick-pocketed, as can so easily happen to foreign tourists in large cities. Any of the normal concerns about money while traveling were just gone,” says Austin.
For now, they are concentrating on their documentary and looking at doing follow-up interviews, creating graphics, writing an original music score and translating it into several languages.
And having put bitcoin through its paces and gained an insight into the global community very few others have, they believe the way is open for the trailblazers. Austin says, “In the US, the West was settled by tough pioneers, heading out into a place of high opportunity and high risk. There is free land out there, if you can survive. Bitcoin is just like the Wild West. People will build the infrastructure and services necessary to settle that land, and they'll make a fortune... if they survive."
By Louise Goss
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