There were a couple of entertaining articles last month about people tragically losing access to Bitcoin wallets containing tens of millions of dollars by forgetting their private keys. In one anxiety-inducing instance, a programmer had two tries left to guess the password to a hard drive holding the private keys for $220M worth of Bitcoin. Considering the immateriality of these stories’ subject matter, their imagery was surprisingly concrete and vivid: hard drives in vacuum-sealed bags, reformatted laptops, metal plates buried in backyards, and a guy rummaging through a landfill in search of a discarded hard drive containing £50M worth of cryptocurrency. To paraphrase Tolstoy: Happy Bitcoins are all alike; every lost Bitcoin is lost in its own way. The currency’s chaotic failure modes, and the janky methods by which people stored their passwords, are a powerful illustration of the boundary that separates the platonic digital universe where Bitcoin lives—an internally consistent reality where everything works the way it’s supposed to—and the chaotic, flawed human domain where we can’t have nice things, where we depend on computers but consistently find ways to undermine their gifts. One of the articles cited an estimate that 20 percent of existing Bitcoin, or $140B worth, is currently stranded in inaccessible wallets or otherwise lost. That Bitcoin is all still there, of course—immutable and patiently existing, as it’s designed to—but its irresponsible stewards failed, losing the privilege of accessing it, and now the Bitcoin lives on without them in its own separate dimension to which the portal of entry has closed.
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