Why is Bitcoin so hard to understand?

I’ve been working at CoinGeek for almost two years now. Before I started, I knew next to nothing about Bitcoin. Today I’m not sure how far from nothing I can claim to have travelled, although I’ve had plenty of chances to absorb knowledge from the best minds in the business. But there isn’t an organised series of grades to pass, like on the piano, so it’s hard to chart your progress. 

When friends hear about my job, their response is often along the lines of “OK great, well maybe you can explain Bitcoin to me because I have no idea what it’s all about”. To which my practiced answer is a genuine question: “How long have you got?”

If they want only the quickest version, that makes it harder, for the same reason that Mark Twain apologised to his correspondent, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Friends’ enquiries have made me wonder what it is about Bitcoin that makes it so hard to explain and understand. I think it’s a matter of confusion about what kind of an explanation your listener is expecting, because Bitcoin works on so many levels—as a software system, as an economic model and as an idea. 

So if, like me, you feel that however much you learn, you still don’t fully understand Bitcoin, I think you need to decide what understanding would really mean to you. If you understood this about Bitcoin, would that be enough? And that this could a number of things:

  • Understanding it as an engine. Open up the bonnet and see what connects to what. The private key creates a public key, and the public key creates an address. Even if at some level you get lost in the code and the maths, you can still take an overview of the design and know broadly what the different parts are for. I don’t know exactly how my car works, but I know the petrol gets ignited in the pistons and that makes the car move – and that’s good enough for me. So perhaps some kind of functional explanation of the software would be enough to understand Bitcoin? 
  • Understand it as an economy. If you’re familiar with theories about the relation between money supply, inflation and unemployment, for instance, then perhaps you’d be satisfied with a Bitcoin explanation that talks about token acquisition and ownership, limited supply, security safeguards and deflationary pressures. It’s an economic system in which everyone acts the way they do because of the rewards they’re offered. So if you could see how the different players are incentivised to make a new kind of economy, would that make you feel you understood? 
  • Understanding it mystically. Bitcoin is a gift to the world, announced in the sacred text of the White Paper, set running in 2009 and continuing to do its good work despite the efforts of bad actors to derail it. As the years go by, although we will never fully grasp its subtleties, we can continue to explore, debate and marvel at what we have been given. This is the profound, big picture view in which if you claim to understand fully, it’s a sure sign that you don’t. Is this what you’re looking for – an acceptance that you will never fully understand but can always continue to learn more? 

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Many attempts to explain Bitcoin confuse these different categories. So if someone mixes the first and the second, for instance, I’d like to ask: “Are you telling me about how the software works or why the miner wants to do that?” That kind of confusion can be buried in another layer if metaphors further blur the picture: “so how does the envelope get into the postbox and how do you open the postbox?”

And there’s another question nobody’s been able to answer: who are Alice and Bob? And why do they only ever want to buy coffee?

If I’m asked how much I understand Bitcoin, it’s a bit like being asked whether I’m any good at tennis by someone whose tennis skills I know nothing about. Any good, compared to what? Maybe having piano-style grades wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. If I had a Grade 1 Bitcoin certificate, it would definitely be framed and hung on the wall. 

New to Bitcoin? Check out CoinGeek’s Bitcoin for Beginners section, the ultimate resource guide to learn more about Bitcoin—as originally envisioned by Satoshi Nakamoto—and blockchain.