Thursday, 22 August 2013

An Idiot’s Guide to Bitcoin: the man behind the book

The man in the beanie and glasses, sipping a flat white, looks very at home in amongst Sydney’s Bondi crowd. But he is not there to talk to me about the surfing or café culture. We are there to discuss bitcoin, and in particular, the book he has written about bitcoin.

Gustaf van Wyk is man who wears many hats (today’s is a blue beanie). He is architect, designer, artist, bitcoin enthusiast and now, author. An Idiot's Guide To Bitcoin is a book which, he says, “makes it easy for the average man to get involved with bitcoin.”

 But how did a man, who comes from South Africa and started out studying architecture, come to write and illustrate a book about digital currency? For a start, it came down to passion. “What made it possible for me was that I was passionate about it. I can’t do anything I’m not passionate about,” he says. It was for that reason that architecture fell by the wayside because he was not able to “sit at a desk and draw line drawings for someone else for ten years.” He began freelancing and bar tending but it was bitcoin that got him “really excited.”

“I discovered bitcoin about two years a go,” he tells me. The way he discovered it, he says, “is an interesting story,” and one which started out on the Silk Road, the underground website, known for being an online market for drugs, aka the “ebay for drugs”. The site accepts bitcoin and this was where Gustaf was introduced to it, although he could instantly see its potential was a lot bigger than the black market. “I have a bit of an alternative view on life and I could see through the fact it was drugs and that caught me and I thought this is really interesting, and I took it from there.”

His alternative view stems from the belief that “the use of force has no place in human society.” Once we are on this subject, his eyes light up and it is clear this is one area he is passionate about. “Bitcoin immediately to me was the removal of force from economics. It comes down to volition and mutual consent. There are no third parties, no pressure. I’ve always wanted something to fight for and there are so many causes and you do your bit here and there, but nothing was really an umbrella cause, and bitcoin became that for me. Through bitcoin I could see a better world. I’ve never been able to project a better world through any other projects that have come my way. Bitcoin was that – I immediately started learning as much as I could and finding out what was going on and getting involved. In fact I only used Silk Road twice and after that, then I started buying bitcoins and trading them,” he says.

He admits to initially making “a bunch of money,” just through bitcoin’s value increasing as he first bought them when they were around $10, but he says, “I quickly realised, you can’t treat bitcoin as a commodity. It really is a means of trade.” Is he one of the “bitcoin millionaires”? No. “I spent them too quickly, I was too enthusiastic,” he laughs.

He is, however, a libertarian. He seems hesitant at first about labelling himself as such. “There are a lot of connotations of words,” he explains, but then he nods and is certain. “Yes, absolutely. Yes, I am a libertarian. As far as the root of the word libertarian, as in liberty and freedom, then yes I am a libertarian. I think mankind only has one right and that’s freedom; all other rights are derivatives of that right.”

Some of the things he says seem to follow the same school of thought as the bitcoin evangelists, people such as Roger Ver and Erik Voorhees. He agrees. “But one my big influences, which I am proud to admit, was Ayn Rand, growing up: her theories on objectivism and the basic human right of freedom, and how she arrived at that point, where objectively our minds are our survival mechanism. We don’t have claws, we survive with our minds and therefore we have the right to use our minds. That’s where it comes from for me… The freedom to do what I want, as long as I don’t violate that exact same right of someone else."

"It came down to a very simple truth and that is freedom and bitcoin was that, and when I saw that, it was so exciting.”

It was, he admits, like an epiphany, although he laughs, “There was no moment. It was probably over a matter of weeks, but by the end of those weeks, once I had really cleared up what bitcoin was in my mind, and I had gone through it, I knew it had to be driven as hard as it could.”

So, today that is exactly what he is doing and An Idiot’s Guide To Bitcoin is his way of doing it. The 100-page e-book, available from his website, first establishes, “what is money?” by giving some context and background, before taking the reader on a light-hearted, and at times humorous, journey into the world of bitcoin.

What makes this book even more unique are the beautifully-drawn illustrations, which are interspersed throughout, usually at the start of each chapter. “That was the most fun part,” he says. “Some of them are a little bit cryptic, just a bit of fun to add my own flair because I am an artist. I think I did about one hundred drawings before I chose the right ones.” He tells me he might add some more and he has left himself open to do that, by publishing this book as version 1.0. “Bitcoin is a new thing and it is growing. I can’t release a book and sit on it. But that’s part of the fun, keeping up with things.” When I ask him about that point, about how quickly the bitcoin ecosphere is evolving and how the statistics are becoming outdated, he smiles. “The phrase ‘at the time of writing’ comes up often,” he says.

Illustration by Gustaf van Wyk

Within the book there is a little history, a sprinkling of statistics and importantly, some practical information about how to use it, including useful websites and simple explanations of much of the terminology surrounding ‘crypto-currency’. “If you read the book with no technical background, apart from knowing what the Internet is, you will understand it,” he says.

Simplifying the concepts was very important to Gustaf, especially as he comes from a creative background and, by his own admission, the two worlds, of art and finance, are often very separate. “We don’t really know too much about finances, especially when it comes to the bigger vocabulary of accounts and things,” he says. This is where bitcoin taught him a valuable lesson. “You assumed money was a complex thing,” he says, “and through bitcoin I learned money really is not a complex thing and it shouldn’t be a complex thing. They hide so much from us through complexity and then you just accept that you do not understand it. Then the question came to me: What is money really then?”

This was the question that inspired the first two chapters of An Idiot’s Guide To Bitcoin and really got him thinking about how big the financial industry has become, quite literally. “The tallest buildings in the city are always the banks, when money is really just a facilitation between two parties. It has become a third entity, this powerful thing in the middle, and bitcoin to me was back down to the basics of what money is: just a facilitation between two traders, people who have value to offer.  It becomes an exchange of value with no strings attached and then I realised that people need to understand that money is not complex and I wanted to show them that, and bitcoin was the vehicle.”

He even says his third chapter, outlining what bitcoin is, comes down to a simple idea that, “bitcoin is money.” He adds, “Everyone tries to describe what bitcoin is on the Internet and everyone has a different little phrase or solution but at some point, you don’t need to understand what it’s all about, you just need to know that bitcoin is money.”

But what about the future of bitcoin as money? Gustaf believes it will not necessarily be smooth sailing. “The nature of bitcoin threatens the nature of the world right now: all this banking and all these centralised powers. If bitcoin is going to succeed, they stand to lose a lot of that power. I realised if bitcoin is going to have its day in the sun, it is going to have to stand its ground to these people at some point. That fight will come because these central banks, they are not going to go silently into the night, why would they?” It is another reason behind his writing An Idiot’s Guide To Bitcoin. His “effort,” he says, to promote bitcoin to the wider public, “because I believe our only hope for the survival of bitcoin is if it grows, if enough people use it and if the bitcoin economy grows."

The banks and central authorities are not the only obstacles, he believes, facing bitcoin. Gustaf thinks the issue will be wider than that; that the struggle is going to be “with the Western world.” He explains, “Because I’m from Africa, I pay a lot of attention to what’s happening there. The developing world is absolutely poised to pioneer this revolution, if you want to call it that, because their national fiats are inflation-ridden, over-taxed and over-controlled; the places with the highest buy into bitcoin is the developing world.

“Then you have the western world, who are complacent, who are comfortable, who are kept that way and who don’t have an immediate, on the ground need for bitcoin, where the developing world do.”

It is those parts of the world where he is keen to go and do more work. He talks about bitcoin wallet, Kipochi, and its integration with M-Pesa, Kenya’s hugely popular mobile payment system (used by over two-thirds the adult population there.) He hopes that it can take off in countries such as India. “If it can go viral in India then a sixth of the world’s population will accept bitcoin. That would be wonderful. These are the places I would like to work and do more promotion,” he says. 

“Maybe it is time for the developing world to be the pioneers in something.”

For Gustaf, there are many other avenues he would like to explore and he is not afraid to admit one of the reasons he wrote the book was because he needed to make some money as well. He announced the sale of An Idiot’s Guide To Bitcoin just a week a go and already has had over 100 sales. He tells me he is making just enough to survive on while being able to promote the book and work on his other “bitcoin endeavours”. One of those involves hosting a free “bitcoin for beginners” event in Sydney at some point in the future. He is also looking into getting a physical version of the book printed with the help of crowdfunding.

Finally, I ask him how he envisages the future for bitcoin. He laughs and looks a little sheepish. “I don’t know if I should admit this. The full potential of bitcoin is beyond our imagination. I don’t think we would recognise the world that we live in because if you think about the main purpose of political borders — to protect national economies — if everyone is trading in a global economy, those borders become obsolete. I think about the world John Lennon asked us to imagine …  I think the concept of one world economy that is not centralised is so massive, that we can all live as one.” So does he think John Lennon would be in favour of bitcoin? “Absolutely,” he says. “I don’t doubt that for a second!”

Gustaf’s own enthusiasm for bitcoin is contagious and it’s fair to say, the bitcoin world has probably not heard the last of him.  “The book is really just the beginning,” he says. “I’m just testing the waters.”

By Louise @ Bitscan


  1. “Maybe it is time for the developing world to be the pioneers in something.” - I agree with this. Bitcoin discovery is just right in time for our generation. Our developing world needs something new to change the point of view of how people view the currency.

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