Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain


Waiting for that cover of Wired.

(2018) Documentary (SingularDTV) Rosario Dawson, Lauri Love, Laura Shin, Imogen Heap, Jamie Dimon, Bill Tai, Tim Draper, Mark Jeffrey, Vinay Gupta, Gary Wright, Spiros Michalaskis, Michael Oved, Steve Mnuchin, John Lyotier, Matthew Green, J. Christopher Giancarlo, Gramatik, Sky Guo, Bettina Warburg, Chris Hayes, Naomi Colvin.  Directed by Alex Winter

 

Even the non-technology oriented will be aware of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. Some might even know that Blockchain is the technology behind it, a program that is very nearly impervious to unauthorized alteration and is a nearly foolproof way to record transactions between two parties electronically. It is the basis of how cryptocurrency works.

I had always thought cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin (there are thousands of cryptocurrencies out there currently) were essentially a universal digital currency that could be used for Internet purchases but that’s a bit simplistic. A cryptocurrency uses cryptography – mathematics-based codes – to control financial transactions and also the creation of additional units.

Governments and financial institutions look at cryptocurrencies with wariness and for good reason; by their nature cryptocurrencies are decentralized – not beholden to a specific government or financial institution as normal currency, credit cards and most traditional types of exchange are. A popularization of cryptocurrency could threaten the status quo in ways that would pull the rug out from under those in the corridors of power currently so it isn’t surprising that most billionaires, financial executives and the Secretary of the Treasury have denounced them.

But as Winter points out, Blockchain is far more than cryptocurrencies. Winter travels the world to show how Blockchain facilitates other uses that may be deemed revolutionary. For instance, he looks at how solar power users in Brooklyn can buy and sell excess energy without going through a power company. He also goes to Jordan where UNICEF has founded a super grocery store for refugees that uses eye scans for payment and cryptocurrency as a means of exchange.

Winter is clearly a proponent of the technology but let’s face it – there may be no two subjects on earth that are more boring than technology and finance and this film heavily covers both. I give Winter points for trying to tackle the subject and to make sense of it at least to a degree, but the people interviewed – and there are a lot of them – use a ton of both computer and financial jargon that are not always defined and before too long one’s non-technical head may end up spinning as mine did.

But as hacktivists like Lauri Love, whose fight against extradition from the UK to the United States is also detailed here, will tell you that decentralization is a way to fight corrupt governments and corrupt institutions. It’s not a shock when considering the role banks had in the financial crisis of 2008 that affected so many and ruined so many lives, and that the apparatuses that were in place then that permitted it to happen have never been truly corrected.

I don’t know that cryptocurrency and Blockchain are panaceas to effect real change but they certainly could be. I do know that human greed tends to ruin every good thing and I suspect that will be the eventual fate of Blockchain as well, but as Rosario Dawson intones in her narration, Blockchain will require some sort of regulation in order to survive. Given the current administration in place, one wonders if such regulation would be set up to benefit billionaires as has most of the policy to come out of it has.

REASONS TO GO: At least attempts to bring a very important technology into some sort of layman understanding.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a whole lot of jargon that may cause non-computer geeks to tune out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Winter is best known as Bill S. Preston in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inside Job
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bilal: A New Kind of Hero

Boom Bust Boom


Terry Jones is bullish.

Terry Jones is bullish.

(2016) Documentary (Brainstorm) Terry Jones, John Cusack, Andy Haldane, Zvi Bodie, Robert J. Shiller, Steven Kinsella, Perry Mehrling, Dirk Bezemer, Wilhelm H. Buited, Paul Mason, John Cassidy, Steve Keen, James Galbraith, Randall Wray, Nathan Tankus, Daniel Kahneman, Laurie Santos, Lucy Prebble. Directed by Terry Jones, Bill Jones and Ben Timlett

It is a fact of life that our lives are deeply affected by forces largely out of our control. It is not an exaggeration to say that many of these forces are literally beyond our understanding; one of those things is economics. Economics make the world go round in a capitalist society; when the system is working properly, prosperity is shared. When it isn’t however…

Jones, who some may remember from the subversive Monty Python comedy team from the 70s, aims to make sense of why bad things happen to economies. Using interviews with economists and historians to explain why economies that are booming end up going bust eventually.

The concepts are certainly interesting; basically Jones and his fellow filmmakers are arguing that the tendency for good economic times to breed a kind of euphoria that leads to bad decision making, an onset of greed and an eventual “bubble bursting” which takes the economy down. A lot of the concepts here have been argued by now-deceased economists like John Kenneth Galbraith (who like the other deceased thinkers are portrayed here by puppets and voiced by voice-over actors) and present-day ones like Haldane, Kinsella and Bodie.

But unlike most of the financial documentaries we’ve seen in the last couple of years, the finger-pointing that goes on (and there is some, to be honest) is tempered by an optimism that things can change. However our entire institutional mindset has to change, beginning with how we educate our up and coming economists. We see some interviews with college students studying for economic degrees who know little of the history of economic crises, from the Dutch Tulip crisis of the 17th century to the Great Depression of 1929 to even the most recent recession.

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, which makes not teaching it more of a crime. And in some ways, this entire documentary – only an hour and 15 minutes long – feels a bit like a teaching aid at an advanced high school teaching economics for students who might want to be economists someday. The puppets and animations that accompany the fairly dry talking head interviews are at least entertaining if at times simplistic.

However, there aren’t enough of them to really elevate this and the interviews can be a bit sleep-inducing, although there are a few charismatic sorts here including activist-actor Cusack who has some pretty strong opinions on the 2008 subprime bubble collapse. There’s also some fascinating information not only about the various bubbles but how they are part of human nature as anthropologist Laurie Santos shows an experiment in which monkeys on an island off of Miami were made to have a capitalist-like society with “monkey money” exchanged for the things they need and how they made horrible decisions based on manipulation by the scientists.

I find stuff like this fascinating; Da Queen, who works in the financial sector, is not normally very enthusiastic about these sorts of documentaries – it’s too much like being at work, she tells me – but she liked this one even more than I did, which should tell you something. I did find the interviews to be occasionally sleep-inducing, but that doesn’t mean that Jones and cohorts don’t explain the subject well, nor that the information isn’t good and necessary.

Not everyone will get into this, but this is useful information in understanding how the economy works. And we all should have at least a basic understanding of it, particularly if we intend to do any investing. If we’re going to make the right decisions with our money, we should understand how the system can work against us – or for us. Education is the first step in making things better; movies like this one provide it.

REASONS TO GO: The puppetry and some of the animation is fun. Some very interesting historical information.
REASONS TO STAY: A very dry topic indeed. A whole lot of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and topics.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Directors Terry and Bill Jones are father and son, respectively.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: VOD, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Capitalism: A Love Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Automatic Hate