Premieres Wednesday, November 9, 2022 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV + Sunday, November 13 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2 / PBS Video App
NOVA “Crypto decoded” dives deep into one of today’s most talked about technologies – cryptocurrency and the blockchain technology that makes it possible. From Bitcoin to NFTs, cryptocurrencies are making headlines and claiming a share of global financial activity. But what exactly are they and how do they work?
NOVA examines how and why cryptocurrency came into existence, featuring a wide range of experts who go beyond hype and skepticism to unravel the social and technological underpinnings of “crypto”, and explores the possibility that this new technology could change much more than money.
NOVA: Crypto Decoded: Overview
In order to fully understand the revolution some say crypto promises, “Crypto Decoded” seeks to answer a deceptively simple question – what is money, anyway? Coinage has been around in one form or another longer than recorded history, and the film turns to experts like Ellen Feingold, curator of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History – home to the largest collection history of money in the world – to unpack this complex past. Feingold explains that anything can be used as money as long as a community agrees on its value. All money is a necessary fiction, based on shared trust.
While banks and credit card companies are widely credited with tracking the flow of payments and keeping detailed, centralized records, some believe this gives too much power to these financial brokers — and the governments that oversee them. This lack of confidence prompted computer programmers and mathematicians to seek an alternative.
For Mark Miller, a computer science student in the late 1970s, George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel “1984” seemed prophetic, as trust in government waned in the wake of Watergate and the Vietnam War. The film looks at the invention of public key encryption – one of the fundamental components of cryptocurrency – and its promotion by Mark Miller and others.
Seeing that this new form of communication could give governments unprecedented power, computer scientists and mathematicians raced to create a way to keep online communications private and secure. What they created was something that had eluded cryptographers for millennia: nearly unbreakable code.
Today, public key encryption is central to digital communication and, in particular, electronic money transfer. It’s what allows us to shop online with relative confidence that our credit card information won’t be stolen with every transaction.
On Halloween 2008, the game changed again, when an article written under the name of Satoshi Nakamoto appeared on the Internet. Satoshi introduced Bitcoin, “a peer-to-peer electronic payment system” who revolutionized the cryptocurrency industry. To this day, no one knows who Satoshi Nakamoto is – one of the most important pieces of technology in recent human history was created by someone who is still completely anonymous.
The first of many now popular cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin has removed the “intermediaries”, replacing them with a technology known as “block chain” an immutable record of transactions, distributed among all users and secured by public key algorithms.
NOVA: What is blockchain?
The film sheds light on the factors that led to Bitcoin’s success, such as incentivizing its users to maintain the blockchain. Those who contribute to the computing power of the system are rewarded with newly minted bitcoins, making it the first truly autonomous system, run entirely by users with no central authority.
Inspired by this innovation, an early adopter of Bitcoin saw a different kind of potential. What if crypto could decentralize not just money, but everything? “Crypto Decoded” shines a light on the creation of Ethereum – now the largest blockchain in the world, performing 10 times more transactions per day than Bitcoin.
Unlike the Bitcoin blockchain, which only maintains a record of coin ownership, Ethereum allows users to write “smart contracts” computer programs that run on the blockchain. Ethereum allows anyone to mint and program coins with additional functionality – doing for the blockchain what the iPhone app store did for the cellphone. One type of smart contract has taken the world by storm: NFTs (non-fungible tokens).
A more recent smart contract that we see in “Crypto Decoded” is EquityCoin. Vernon J, a Brooklyn real estate investor, and his partner, computer programmer Akil Ash, hope to use crypto to turn vacant land into affordable housing in East New York. This largely low-income neighborhood is one of many where banks have long been reluctant to fund development, so Vernon and Akil’s project – EquityCoin – aims to remove banks from the equation.
The goal is to replace the bank with a community – for cryptocurrency to empower a group of people to create their own systems. EquityCoin is rooted in this concept of “decentralization” — removing the powerful institutions that dominate many areas of modern life, especially where money is concerned.
Quotes from filmmakers:
“Crypto Decoded aims to demystify this emerging technology – examining how and why it was created, and its potential impact on our society”, said Edna Alburquerque, producer of Pangloss Films. “I hope viewers will understand why it’s important to learn more – whether you actively engage in crypto or not, it has the potential to shape your future to some degree.”
“There is a lot of talk about the current state of the crypto industry and the market has changed dramatically during the production of our film,” said Peter Yost, director of Pangloss Films. “But the technologies around which crypto is built have the potential to impact much more than just the financial sector.”
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As “Crypto Decoded” examines the technological underpinnings of crypto, utopian dreams, practical promises, and potential dangers, it attempts to answer the question: is crypto just hype? Or could it usher in a revolution that goes far beyond money?
Many compare the state of crypto today to the state of the early days of the Internet – striking parallels are seen as the film takes us through the invention and transformation of crypto in recent years. New coins, blockchains, and decentralized applications are released with staggering frequency. But in this loosely regulated and extremely volatile environment, it’s hard to know which projects will crash and burn and which will, in crypto parlance, “to the Moon.”
However, as the popularity of crypto increases, so do its complications. As major corporations jump in on the action and crypto transactions attract the attention of financial regulators, there is a risk that the initial promise of crypto independence could be undermined. As our lives become increasingly digital, many believe crypto is here to stay. But huge questions remain. “Crypto Decoded” unpacks the main questions: what is the underlying technology? What’s the point? And what could be the future of crypto?
Watch at your own pace:
This episode will be available on demand at pbs.org/nova, the NOVA YouTube channel, and the PBS Video App
A NOVA production by Pangloss Films for GBH. Written, produced and directed by Peter Yost. Produced by Edna Alburquerque. Co-produced by Alex Clark. Edited by Ralph Avellino. NOVA’s executive producers are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt. NOVA is a GBH production. Ddistributed internationally by PBS International.
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