MONEY

The Problem With the Great MIT Bitcoin Giveaway

A group of Bitcoin investors and entrepreneurs are planning to dole out $500,000 in the currency to MIT undergraduates. Here's why that's troubling.
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Pity the incoming freshmen at MIT this coming fall--at least for a moment. They've not yet graduated high school, but already they are part of a high-tech propaganda experiment.

Tuesday, a pair of entrepreneurially minded Bitcoin enthusiasts, both MIT students, announced they'd raised a half-million dollar fund, largely from fellow Bitcoin investors, to give every MIT undergraduate--all 4,500 of them--the equivalent of $100 in Bitcoin. On the surface, this seems like kind of a cool mass experiment. (And what student wouldn't take $100 in anything: beer, books, precious minerals, open-source cryptocurrencies…?) But peer into the web of interests in the recently volatile alternative currency by the project's creators and investors, and the giveaway starts to look a bit less wholesome.

The Tech, an MIT-affiliated publication, nods to the possibility that the Bitcoin experiment by Jeremy Rubin and Dan Elitzer is more about bolstering the "perceptions" of the cryptocurrency than fostering innovation among students:

Former International Monetary Fund chief economist Simon Johnson, an MIT professor unaffiliated with the project, said that he was "all in favor" of encouraging innovation in finance and that Rubin and Elitzer’s experiment "could be a positive" for perceptions of bitcoin. He noted that the cryptocurrency's credibility has become a bigger concern this year after the bankruptcy of Mt. Gox, once the largest bitcoin exchange.

What's the creators' interest in Bitcoin? The project was dreamed up by Rubin, a sophomore who studies computer science and who founded a Bitcoin-mining company called Tidbit, which was slapped with a subpoena from the state of New Jersey earlier this year. Tech publications at the time glossed over the subpoena's contents, instead focusing on the fact the scrappy startup had just won a prize for being "innovative" at a recent local hackathon. But the document asks for information regarding Tidbit accessing and installing programs on unauthorized computers.

Rubin's partner in putting together the fund is Elitzer, a student at MIT's Sloan School of Business. He's also the founder and president of the MIT Bitcoin club. In a phone interview, Elitzer told me he owns Bitcoin, but isn't sure whether Rubin does (he believes Rubin lost some in the recent Mt. Gox shutdown), and he found investors by talking to MIT alum and attendees of Bitcoin conferences, including the CoinSummit conference in San Francisco last month.

"We're trying to get some of the brightest minds of the generation using Bitcoin and experimenting with it on a deeper level," he said.

The investors who are pouring money into what will be an instant diversification of the ownership of Bitcoin--and perhaps a move that will bolster its reputation as an actual currency, rather than an investment or speculation tool--are also invested in Bitcoin's future. Half of the funding for the project comes from Alexander Moros, who's an investor in Bitcoin, a member of the Bitcoin Foundation, and lists himself in an online profile as a "Bitcoin angel investor." He's also one of the managing directors of Hudson River Trading, a firm specializing in high-frequency trading--you know, the subject of Michael Lewis's last investigative book, Flash Boys

Does giving the equivalent of a quarter of a Bitcoin to thousands of young people add up to a conflict of interest for these students and their investors? Maybe it's totally harmless. No student is going to be forced to take the fraction of a bitcoin they're offered. And students are frequently the targets of giveaways--gum, Red Bull, and free haircuts all come to mind as things I was often offered as an undergrad. None influenced my long-term spending habits, taste, or investments.

But certainly, the university community might take pause, or even be taken aback, if MIT substituted for "Bitcoin" here at the magnitude of this deal, almost any other product. Say a group of coal investors gave every one of the 4,500 students $100 in coal stock? What if a soda company gave the same group of hyper-smart, tech-savvy 18-to-22-year-olds a stake in the future of the stuff in hopes that their outsized influence online would give the company a big boost? It certainly starts to feel icky--and a little exploitative of the MIT community--and raises ethical questions. (Plus, a half-million dollars from alumni might otherwise make for a very nice scholarship endowment.) There's a difference between a sample pack of gum and a literal investment in the future of a concept. When I brought this up to Elitzer, he seemed thoughtful, and admitted that he understood the analogy. He also agreed that most current Bitcoin owners use it more as an investment than as a currency. Still, he said, a college campus is an ideal Petri dish for this kind of experiment.

"New technologies tend to be adopted by college students," he said. "In that sense, we're hoping that doing this project at MIT it can give a glimpse at a community where Bitcoin is used."

Let's set aside the fact that early adoption is being purchased here. This particular project is being couched in terms of spurring innovation. And it will be neat to see, at least intiellectually, just what happens if a few thousand young adults are given a little bit of a new currency. Will they spend, and create a lot more liquidity for Bitcoin? Will the developers innovate further technologically upon the Bitcoin rails? 

If only it were a simple thought experiment--or a project by impartial researchers or curious scholars. But it's not: It's a project engineered by individuals with a financial incentive in the success of the very product they are putting into the hands of tech influencers. What's certain is there is no downside to this experiment for its investors--who are also invested in the future of Bitcoin.

IMAGE: Flickr/btckeychain
Last updated: Apr 29, 2014

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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