Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan: I blame Bitcoins for making me feel old

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I know I’m old, ’kay? I’ve known that ever since I saw a blurb for a programme that announced that ‘Lynda Carter (Smallville)’ was appearing and realised that a critical mass of people have now been born who know nothing of Wonder Woman and who would gaze pityingly upon a superhero who saved the world from Nazis using nothing but bulletproof bracelets and – although looking back, I can hardly believe this bit myself – a lasso. I remember sweet cigarettes, Nitty Nora searching through our scalps at school – where we got morning milk – and watching the rag and bone man on his horse coming down our road. I’m old.

But until this week, I didn’t realise I was old enough to become both baffled and frightened by new things. I didn’t think that started to happen until your 70s, at least. But that was before people started talking about Bitcoins – and talking about them as if they were a) a definite thing and b) a thing we all, automatically, know about and understand.

I do not. how can I understand a virtual currency when I still secretly think that tucked away in a honeycomb of bank vaults under every country is all the money? Yes, yes, as it happens I do see it all in pieces of gold and silver, with the odd gem thrown in to add interest (in the visual, not compound sense). When the system went into meltdown five years ago and we were all, apparently, 24 hours away from being unable to pay wages or dole out cash from atms across the (formerly) civilised world, I in essence thought the goblins had just got themselves lost in the honeycomb for a while and someone would have to go in, find them and maybe update their maps so such a thing couldn’t happen again.

But it exists, this new electronic currency – at least in the sense that strings of digits we are calling coins, for what they actually are defeats language, have been created, and are being exchanged for goods and services in a growing number of fields across a growing number of countries. Bitcoins move unhindered by fees, paper trails, transfer limits, bank opening hours or any of the other ills that sterling, dollars, euros or any other form of lucre that’s issued and controlled by a central bank is heir to. there are no coins – although some bloke did start minting them as novelty items and now there seems to be a genuine demand for them, although whether the real coin’s value is pegged to the unreal currency’s I have no idea and will have to move away from this thought before my brain starts bleeding – but you can still buy and sell them just as you can any country’s money or gold or silver. (Although until I started researching this column, I again didn’t actually know that you can literally buy gold or silver. On the internet. People will send it to you in coins or little tiny bars.

I went downstairs aflame with the light of discovery and wonder to tell my husband this and he just looked at me for a while and then turned back to his computer shaking his head and muttering something about paying in the coin of fathomless ignorance or congenital idiocy. Whatever.)

Not only are Bitcoins impossible to get my head around, their presence also gives a terrifying glimpse into the ordinary world I know nothing about. Like, say, how ordinary money works. Central banks control the supply? how? What? You can make money? they have been? that’s what QE is? Then why don’t they do more of it until we’re all rich? Ask the goblins? As soon as I catch one, I shall.

And from there of course it’s a few short steps to standing around all day wondering how aeroplanes stay up, why electricity doesn’t leak out of sockets, why we don’t see more of Cate Blanchett and how exactly tables stay together. What ARE nails? What IS glue, exactly?

The fact is, the future is here and I am adrift. Clearly I have to decide – whether to start making active, determined efforts to keep up with the world and its lightning pace of change, or whether to start slipping quietly into desuetude, tartan slippers and possibly a bath chair and let it all get on perfectly well without me.

A deal – if I can understand what Spotify is and why Spotify is by the end of the day, I’ll go on. Otherwise I shall set my back to the future. That’s a play on the title of an old film, by the way. Google it, dear children, while I set this rug more firmly about my knees. my joints ache, and my heart… my heart…”

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