Bitcoin and the Ayn Rand Imagination

This article was originally published at The Atlas Society.

The Atlas Shrugged movie is now accepting Bitcoin to join their web forum, called Galt’s Gulch Online. Limited content is available for free to all visitors of Galt’s Gulch Online, but premium content, such as the new Atlas Shrugged Part 3 teaser trailer, is available only to “producers” who pay a fee. And that fee can now be paid in Bitcoin.

Bitcoin is a digital money sweeping the world and offering some degree of freedom from government currencies. It imitates the scarcity of a material currency (e.g. gold) by means of an algorithm, which places a limit on the amount of bitcoin that can be “mined” from its source by those who maintain the transaction ledger. As Rob Wile puts it, “It’s like a giant interactive spreadsheet everyone has access to and updates.” 

Miners, however, are not the majority of users — most users gain Bitcoin by receiving it as payment from the protocol, or by purchasing it with dollars (at a Bitcoin ATM, for instance). Bitcoin is exchanged and stored in “wallets,” which can be downloaded from sites such asBlockchain.info. Each wallet has a unique address, which users share with each other in order to send and receive bitcoin (or fractions of bitcoin, as one bitcoin is currently equivalent to about $500).

Bitcoin is completely legal and, for now, mostly unregulated. Other appealing features, for lovers of liberty and capitalism are Bitcoin’s anonymity (every transaction is encrypted, unlike the elaborately traceable trails of credit, in which you trade the whole of your financial identity just to purchase a hamburger) and Bitcoin’s distributed network (the government can never shut down bitcoin; its code can live on any and every computer.)

Ayn Rand finished and published Atlas Shrugged in 1957 — interestingly, just a year before the American military first began using the computer networking technology that would eventually develop into the internet we know today.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand romanticized the industries of steel, copper, oil, railroads, and motors. Rand used these technologies to philosophically symbolize intelligence, creativity, and man’s redemption from nature and even death. Dagny’s first thought when she finds Galt’s motor is that it would “add ten years to every man’s life.” Galt’s motor represents not only technological progress but the self-starting mechanism of human will.

In later years of her career, Ayn Rand wrote about the philosophical meaning of other technologies. She and colleague Nathaniel Branden wrote about “The Property Status of Airwaves” for the technologies of radio and television. She explored the horror, ethics and spectacle of the atomic bomb in an unfinished movie script called Top Secret (you can read her notes about it in The Journals of Ayn Rand).

One of her most beautiful, elated essays was about her experience watching the launch of Apollo 11, which she described as “the concretized abstraction of man’s greatness… That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt–this was the cause of the event’s attraction and of the stunned numbed state in which it left us. And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being–an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.”

Unfortunately, Rand died in 1982, before the real boom of the digital and internet age. We will never know what fascinating insights and commentary she would have had about digital technologies such as Bitcoin. Whether smart property would have affected her opinions about government enforcement of contract and property laws. Whether theories such as Ethereum, which applies Bitcoin scripting language to law, would have inspired Rand to essays refining and elaborating her view of a proper government.

We will never know whether a dot-com millionaire character might have burst with pride at his ability to host a digital city in the cloud — in the same way Hank Rearden felt pride at hosting a cocktail party in his warm, opulent home. Perhaps Rand would have written a code-genius character in reference to Satoshi Nakamoto, the alias of Bitcoin’s inventor, to appear alongside the other creator archetypes in Galt’s Gulch.

We can’t know Rand’s mind about the events of our own age. But in the project of the Atlas Shrugged movies, and their attendant commentary, we can see what captures an Objectivist imagination. Jay Ankeney has praised the aesthetics of the CGI technology used to portray Rearden’s bridge. Nick Gillespie wrote a unique commentary for Time Magazine, called “Ayn Rand Would Have Loved Kickstarter.” It’s about how the Atlas Shrugged movie team’s Kickstarter Campaign embraced innovative social media strategies. We can picture a millenial Dagny crowdfunding the John Galt line as a supplement to direct investments.

The Atlas Shrugged movie team’s acceptance of Bitcoin is significant. Bitcoin is a technology of the highest human aspirations, and Objectivism is a philosophy to defend and describe human aspiration.

In Atlas Shrugged’s “money speech,” Ayn Rand wrote, “Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value… Your wallet is your statement of hope that somewhere in the world around you there are men who will not default on that moral principle.” A Bitcoin wallet is also a statement of hope about all human beings in the world. It is more universal than the dollar, as it transcends governments and geography.

At the end of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt traces the symbol of the dollar as a benediction over the earth, open again to the creator’s imagination. In 1957, the dollar was the limit of Ayn Rand’s imagination of money. It was, at the time, the most appropriate symbol of capitalism. Perhaps new technologies call for the imagination of new symbols.

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