This contains spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Well the king daddy of cryptocurrencies has officially hit the mainstream with the airing of “The Bitcoin Entanglement,” the latest installment of the seemingly infinite, expanding, universe of The Big Bang Theory. That’s 11 seasons of Howard’s gargantuan belt buckles ladies and gentlemen… pretty impressive. As a bitcon idealist myself, I couldn’t help but keenly anticipate exactly how producer Chuck Lorre and his writing staff would handle this foray into something I’d be very surprised if they really understood. I expected a somewhat superficial overview of the “honey badger” currency that has for years just seemed to parkour its way out of any and every attack… and superficial it was.
But under that surface, I feel like I got more than just a plot line out of bitcoin in this episode. I sensed a distinctly negative, almost subliminally delivered, and frenzied depiction of the world’s first global censorship resistant decentralized currency. The plot was simple and harmless enough: Boys mine bitcoin, boys forget bitcoin, boys search for bitcoin, boys lose bitcoin. I mean, come on… we knew these guys weren’t walking away from this episode as bit-millionaires. But the devil is in the details, and I’m thinking those details were not designed to cast bitcoin in the best light.
Forget that the price doubled in the roughly six weeks between filming and airing ($5000 to $10,000). Forget that this sound money is saving lives in countries with collapsing economies like Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Let’s talk about the subtle little jabs the BBT creative team took at bitcoin, and just how, um, tangible they are. I’ll give the caveat that some of these quotes took place 7 years earlier in the episode’s timeline, so they may have been MORE true then than now. But that doesn’t mute the naked effect of pall-casting.
1. “It’s just like actual money, but you can’t see it, hold it, or spend it on anything”
Within three minutes of the cold open the first shot is fired. Obviously, this is no longer true. Plenty of merchants accept bitcoin now, and even seven years ago we have the famous story of pizza bought (and delivered) for 10,000BTC. Can you see bitcoin? Well, that depends on your perspective. Can you always see your USD? Both bitcoin and Apple Pay can be used on the same phone (that you hold, btw) and I think a fair share of people have gotten over being able to see their money some time ago. Not to get too “Snopesy” on you, but I’m giving this one a mostly false.
2. “If it’s not tangible, how do you know it’s not gonna just disappear tomorrow?”
Not many mario minutes pass before this gem drops. I’m not sure why tangibility is so important in an outsiders view of bitcoin. But I suppose, in a quaint, old world way, it’s understandable. But had they dug a little deeper they would have found just how difficult it is to make bitcoin disappear. The network spans at least tens of thousands of computers world wide. Just ask China how hard it is to make bitcoin go away. Let’s put it this way, if bitcoin has disappeared, it probably means the internet has disappeared and we have some real earth-shattering situation going on. Your bank won’t be any help in that situation either.
As far as tangibility… It’s time to face facts. The digitization of the world is not only removing the need for tangibility in many cases, but showing its disadvantages as well. Email isn’t tangible. MP3s aren’t tangible. Ebooks aren’t tangible. Netflix isn’t tangible. Money doesn’t have to be either. The jury is just about in on tangibility, folks. It’s overrated, and sometimes quite heavy (ya know, like gold).
3. “So we have to write an elaborate program so we can mine a fake coin that you can’t spend on anything?”
We’ve already addressed spending and tangibility, so I’ll move right along to “writing an elaborate program”. This is probably a semi-valid point. At the time they were mining bitcoin it was more complex than it is today, but bitcoin is still in the process of evolving into a user friendly experience. With billions of dollars at stake, the large team of gifted, open source coders have been loathe to move too fast or recklessly in this area for one simple reason; nothing is more important to a currency than its security. So yes, bitcoin involves some complexity, research and personal responsibility. But if, God forbid, the Big Bang Theory is on the air seven years from now, I’m confident that the user experience will be as smooth as Sheldon’s chest surely must be.
4. “Before we begin, this may have some unprecedented tax implications… we’re gonna be on the phone with the IRS for hours.”
Well isn’t that a nice little scare tactic? Before I begin, this may have some unprecedented snark implications. Fun fact, any time you come into a great deal of money, there are tax implications. So I kinda take issue with the use of the word unprecedented there. In fact, the precedent for taxing assets that appreciate goes back practically all the way to the big bang itself. You know, death, taxes and all that. There is no justified reason to set bitcoin apart here. On the bright side, if you have to pay a lot of taxes, it means you made a lot of money. I can think of worse things.
All of that before the Bare Naked Ladies assault my ears for like the 94th time.
Now before I get into TL;DR territory, let me “lighting round” some other quotes containing sneaky, negative, associations that litter the episode… and yes, I know I take some of these out of context. That’s part of the whole “subliminal” thing; context is irrelevant.
Sheldon on the crew mining without him: “Someday you will regret this”
Howard trying to start the mining program: “It crashed, must have a virus…”
And of course, the final blow; it turns out Sheldon had hacked the mining laptop and stole the bitcoin, only to have lost it. I find it hard to believe someone as “on the spectrum” as Sheldon would let this happen. But hey, let’s not let the truth spoil a good lynching. They would be remiss if they didn’t make it seem like it was easy to lose all your money with bitcoin, right?
But through all of the unfounded sniping, there was one insidious theme that struck me most about the episode; the clear pump and dump vibe… dump bitcoin, pump traditional financial implements. For as smart as these guys are supposed to be, they were certainly not smart enough to be “hodlers”. There was never any thought to save the bitcoin. The entire episode revolved around irresponsibly (in my opinion) changing that inevitable currency of the future to inflationary fiat as soon as humanly possible. For instance, Leonard asks Raj what he will do with the money. Raj’s response was, “As a RESPONSIBLE ADULT, I will put the money in a CD and wait for that money to mature.” Wow, that was a little more obvious than the cards you flash at the end of episodes, eh Mr. Lorre? There was even a dud of a joke crowbarred into the dialogue about how Howard’s mom was worth dating because she opened a savings account for him (ewww). Of course there was no mention of how that savings account earned infinitely less in interest than the appreciations of the bitcoins would have.
My spouse, who was watching with me, mentioned that she felt there was a disconnect between how nerdy/smart the characters are and how disinterested they were in the amazing thing bitcoin had become. I had to remind her that these guys weren’t exactly principled fellas. Just a couple episodes earlier they were tripping over each other trying to be the one that first would service the military with their invention. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the writers would have them fellating a corrupt banking system as well.
I guess The Big Bank… um, sorry, The Big Bang Theory is not too big to fail after all.