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Bitcoin Is Money for Methuselah
"The lowest time preference is a luxury afforded to the eldest amongst us."
An unlikely link between blockchain and blocking aging?
For this essay, we will take a break from the Methuselah dividend series to focus on another topic that is near and dear to my heart: Bitcoin. You may be wondering why someone supposedly interested in exploring the Biotechnological Revolution and all its repercussions would decide to veer off into a discussion revolving around the world’s largest and oldest blockchain-based cryptocurrency.
Well, lest you think I have abandoned our current theme of radical life extension, my objective in this piece is to define the relationship between money and superlongevity. As we shall see, this will inevitability lead us to consider Bitcoin. Indeed, not only is Satoshi’s invention compatible with radical life extension, it is surprisingly synergistic. This synergy may even explain the curious intersection of people interested in both cryptocurrency and life extension.
As the frighteningly smart Allen Farrington has written, Bitcoin is Venice, as well as many other things. Here, I will attempt to demonstrate that – in addition to all else Bitcoin is – Bitcoin is money for Methuselah.
The extropians and the legend of Hal Finney
Before delving into how Bitcoin and radical life extension are related, I want to first acknowledge the common cultural roots of the respective movements that have coalesced around these ideas. Indeed, the extent to which the forerunners of Bitcoin – the cypherpunks – and the early proponents of radical life extension existed within a single community is greatly underappreciated. This community was known as the extropians.
Now, I will not pretend to be a cultural historian of the various futurist movements of the 1980s and 1990s. I was too young to participate in these communities in their heyday, and it is difficult to precisely demarcate where the extropians began and the cypherpunks ended without substantial reseach1.
Therefore, I will quote a lengthy and informative excerpt from an episode of What Bitcoin Did featuring the Bitcoin journalist, Aaron Van Wirdum (someone who has invested the time understanding this history), which characterizes the relationship between these respective groups. Here, Van Wirdum describes how the cypherpunk movement was born out of the expansive and fertile intellectual environment fostered by the extropians:
The extropians started in the 80s, they were a group of California-based, super optimistic futurists basically. They got interested in nanotechnology, life-extension technology, space exploration and they saw science progressing at an increasing, exponential pace even, and they started to philosophize about where that could lead society. That led to very futuristic ideas, including eternal life, which is a big one. They believed that it was very possible that, even within their own life spans, and some of them are still alive today, so who knows, science would progress to the point where we'd cure all diseases, as well as old age. So we could live forever.
That was one of the key goals they had, but also, like I mentioned, artificial intelligence, and mind uploading that I mentioned. All sort of these crazy, or I don't know if they're crazy, they didn't think they were crazy for sure. They were taking it very seriously. One of the interesting things about them, a lot of futuristic ideas around that era, they foresaw the future as managed by some sort of super wise, perfect government kind of thing. Something like Star Trek comes to mind when I think of that.
There's perfect government that will make humanity happy. These extropians had a very different idea of how humanity should progress, and it was a very libertarian idea, and it was very influenced by Austrian economics. They saw government as a roadblock to that future. So they got interested in digital cash as well, from an Austrian perspective and also from the privacy perspective, as you can't have a tyrannical government watching over all your transactions, and also realize a utopian future.
So these guys were thinking about digital cash. Next step is, I think Eric Hughes, he moves back to California, or he was looking to relocate in California, or something like that. I think he wanted to live closer to the beach, I think that was it. Then he met up with Tim May, because he lived somewhere close to the beach, that was an old friend of him. Tim May, was one of these extropians and so he was thinking about digital cash, and he was thinking of digital cash in the context of information markets, which is an interesting topic, if you want to get into that.
But Eric Hughes and Tim May, they started talking about digital cash, the future of the internet, and then they basically... It was like a meeting of the mind kind of thing, where they just kept talking about this stuff for days and days. Then at some point, they got the idea that they should form a group to protect privacy, to actually make this work, to use the tools of cryptography that were available, and to start building stuff that was useful. John Gilmore was also one of the three unofficial founders of the Cypherpunks.
So they met up, they invited a bunch of friends and a lot of these friends were also extropians, so there's a lot of overlap. Nick Szabo was in the extropian group, Wei Dai was in the extropian group, Hal Finney was there and a lot of these extropians came to this Cypherpunk meeting, which wasn't called the Cypherpunks yet. The Cypherpunks was kind of a joke they came up with at one of these meetings, was a play on cyberpunk of course.
They started meeting, and they started discussing how to realize this stuff, how to realize anonymous remailers, which are sort of the precursors to Tor, digital cash, information markets, how to ensure that the future of humanity would enjoy some level of freedom through encryption.
Interesting history for sure. Notice how integral the concept of radical life extension was to the extropian ethos – one of their “key goals” was to “live forever” per Van Wirdum.
To further illustrate how closely these communities were interwoven, let us consider the story of a man beloved by bitcoiners, Hal Finney2. Most bitcoiners know that Finney was the first person other than Satoshi to engage with the Bitcoin protocol3 – his involvement immortalized by the following tweet:
What is perhaps less well known is that Finney also took steps to immortalize himself in a much more material manner by cryonically preserving his body after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis4.
Cryonics, which involves the vitrification of the recently deceased and their long-term storage in liquid nitrogen, is the extropian solution to death in a world that currently lacks robust anti-aging technology; the hope being that future restorative technologies will enable revival5. Indeed, the founder of extropianism, Max More, served as the president of the leading cryonics firm, Alcor, for nearly a decade.
Finney’s involvement with Bitcoin at its origin and his decision to become Alcor’s 128th patient perfectly encapsulates the overlapping ethos – which clearly involved a defiance of death – of the cypherpunks and extropians. While this is just one man’s story, we will see that this convergence lives on in our current era.
An enduring alliance between crypto and longevity
In some sense, extropianism per se has withered and its original proponents are no longer the vanguard of futurist thought6. That said, many of the central tenets espoused by the extropians – including radical life extension – have been subsumed by a more encompassing and persistent movement, transhumanism. Indeed, the ideological lineage is rather direct, given that the aforementioned Max More was also instrumental in defining the philosophical underpinnings of transhumanism, coining in 1990 the modern use of the term in a short essay, Transhumanism: Towards a Futurist Philosophy7.
Regardless of these historical details, even a casual observer of the cryptocurrency space in our current era may have noticed the disproportionate interest many proponents of the space have in – if not transhumanism more broadly – life extension specifically8.
It is interesting to ponder why, even across different eras and generations, there is an overlap between those interested in cryptocurrency and superlongevity - two seemingly disparate ideas. Is this just an example of nerds being interested in nerdy things, or is there something more fundamental going on? Perhaps those interested in both domains are predisposed to this predilection by something more first-order. We will consider the logic of this ideological affiliation in due course, but first some examples…
Vitalik Buterin, creator of the second largest public blockchain, Ethereum, has made multiple multi-million dollar donations to various anti-aging research organizations, such as the SENS Research Foundation and the Methuselah Foundation, and has made his pro-longevity views known:
Coinbase founder Brian Armstrong has also signaled his interest in life extension by posting a link to Nick Bostrom’s classic fable on the insidious tyranny of death and why we should oppose it. More recently, he has publicized his support of specific projects headed by serious longevity researchers, such as Matt Kaeberlein:
There are many other examples that I could cite9, but there is one individual in particular who quintessentially exemplifies the shared enthusiasm for both life extension and cryptocurrency (especially Bitcoin). If Hal Finney is the archetypal example of this enthusiasm from the extropian era, Balaji Srinivasan is carrying the torch in our time.
The purpose of technology
In addition to being intimately involved in both the biotechnology and cryptocurrency industries10, Balaji has theorized about the relationship of technology, scarcity, and time, which will bring us to the crux of this essay. In his short but influential piece, The Purpose of Technology, Balaji explains the logic of technological progress and how it inevitably leads us to consider life extension:
If the proximate purpose of technology is to reduce scarcity, the ultimate purpose of technology is to eliminate mortality.
At first that sounds crazy. But let's start with the premise: is the proximate purpose of technology to reduce scarcity? Think about how a breakthrough is described: faster, smaller, cheaper, better. All of these words mean that with this new technology, one can do more with less. In the digital world, Google made information on any topic free to anyone with an Internet connection, and WhatsApp made it free to communicate with anyone. In the physical world, innovations like the Haber Process or the Green Revolution allowed us to produce more with less. In a real sense, these technologies reduced scarcity.
Now for the second half of the sentence, the logical implication. Is the ultimate purpose of technology to eliminate mortality? Well, mortality is the main source of scarcity. If we had infinite time, we would be less concerned with whether something was faster. The reason speed has value is because time has value; the reason time has value is because human life has value, and lifespans are finite. If you made lifespans much longer, you'd reduce the effective cost of everything. Thus insofar as reducing scarcity is acknowledged to be the proximate purpose of technology, eliminating the main source of scarcity – namely mortality – is the ultimate purpose of technology. Life extension is the most important thing we can invent.
This is excellent, and closely resembles the reasoning behind why I have always given primacy to the pursuit of superlongevity. Balaji is essentially making the claim that developing the anti-aging technology that will enable radical life extension is the most important technological endeavor because no other advancement will afford us more time – our most precious commodity11.
As brilliant of an articulation as this is, I think Balaji could have taken things further by integrating cryptocurrency – and more specifically, Bitcoin – into his model. To understand how, and to finally consider why Bitcoin is money for Methuselah, we must consider the economic concept of time preference.
Time preference: the link between Bitcoin and radical life extension
Time preference refers to the value an individual places on a receiving a good or service earlier rather than later. So, possessing a low time preference means forgoing immediate gratification in pursuit of longer term, potentially more valuable, goals12. Bitcoiners are always eager to point out that, given Bitcoin's 21 million coin supply cap13, holders of the digital currency are incentivized to save rather than spend since they are not prone to inflationary pressures. This, in turn, promotes the allocation of capital towards only truly worthy objectives14.
Indeed, many bitcoiners testify to the fact that the simple act of holding the currency seems to engender lower time preference behavior15. While this fascinating psychological shift is surely beneficial, the expectation of death puts a limit on how low time preference can be, which bounds the ambition of any project undertaken by an individual with a non-extended lifespan. Radical life extension would drastically change this calculus, given that the time preference of a person with an indefinite lifespan could operate on the order of centuries or millennia16.
Therefore, given that the advent of radical life extension will smash through the hard floor on the lowering of time preference and the fact that Bitcoin’s supply hard cap makes it the obvious choice for the long-term planner, there is a natural synergy between superlongevity and the original blockchain-based cryptocurrency17. This is why Bitcoin is money for Methuselah.
Considerations and conclusions
Before closing, we can return to the question posed earlier regarding the curious overlap of those attracted to both the cryptocurrency and longevity spaces. While owning Bitcoin or having the luxury of time may encourage an individual to acquire a lower time preference, I do think that some people intrinsically possess this quality. As such, they may have an affinity – consciously or not – for things, such as hard money or life extension, that could enhance that lower time preference even further.
This may explain some of the overlap between the two camps, but certainly not all of it. Astute readers will have already identified problems with this theory coming from multiple directions. There are many cryptocurrency enthusiasts who prefer coins that do not possess the hardness of Bitcoin, but who are still very interested in life extension. Inversely, there exists a potent strain of bio-Luddism in some Bitcoin maximalist circles that is squeamish on the idea of radical life-extension. Many of these same people extol the virtues of possessing a lowered time preference. Obviously, it is complicated and there are many competing values to consider.
So, lacking any quantification of how the preferences in these various groups breakdown, I cannot claim if the overlay in question is explained by some fundamental psychological predilection. However, that is okay, because that is not actually important, nor is it the point of this essay. The point is that Bitcoin and radical life extension are philosophically harmonious in that they both foster lower time preference and have the capacity to incentivize individuals to build a better world.
Bitcoiners like to quip, “Bitcoin fixes this”, in response to the litany of problems our civilization faces. Given that the rationale for this statement relies upon the concept of lowering time preference, I propose a corollary: Life extension fixes this.
We will return to the Methuselah dividend series in the coming weeks with our next installment exploring the notion of “multimodal mastery”. As always, if you find this content worthy, please subscribe below and spread the good word:
That said, I am not just learning of these ideas now. Before Bitcoin was invented, I discovered extropianism by way of reading The Singularity Is Near, which is essentially Ray Kurzweil’s reiteration and elaboration of extropian ideas.
This long tweet thread, which basically doubles as a tribute, by Dan Held is an excellent overview of Finney’s exceptional life.
Unless he was Satoshi – a topic I am not particularly interested in, but theories abound if you want to go digging.
Finney’s decision to be cryonically preserved has fantastical implications. I do not know the status of the substantial number of bitcoins mined by Finney, but if they are still accessible and if cryonics works, the revived Finney would wake up an incredibly wealthy person; a story worthy of a sci-fi novel.
I think Tim Urban’s Wait But Why is the best introduction to cryonics if you are new to the concept.
Ironically, the development of a philosophy explicitly devoted to extropy seems to have succumbed to its arch-nemesis: entropy (although this is not entirely fair – continue reading).
To be more precise about the meaning of these terms, I should mention that More considered transhumanism more of an umbrella term, with extropianism being the “foremost version of transhumanism”. For our purposes, this is a distinction without a difference, as radical life extension is a primary objective of both extropianism and transhumanism.
I would add a bit of nuance to Balaji’s statement here – even if radical life extension is achieved, time will still be scarce compared to any material commodity. This is because time can only ever be spent at one rate regardless of how much of it you can expect to possess. This is obviously not the case for conventional currencies, and is probably why Elon Musk said this.
The application of time preference in economic theory has a long and controversial history, which I do not have the time or expertise to relitigate. For our purposes, I am simply referring to the capacity of an individual to be oriented towards the long-term, which I think is self-evidently essential for the continued health and advancement of civilization.
Countless hours have been spent explaining the durability of Bitcoin’s supply cap, but I recommend this short explainer on the topic. For the record, I do not think it would be impossible to lift the cap, just extremely difficult. This degree of difficulty does not exist with any other cryptocurrency, hence the privileged position Bitcoin has in this essay.
While I do not think everything from meaningless modern art to ugly architecture can be blamed on inflating fiat currencies that incentivize high time preference behavior (as many Bitcoin maximalists do courtesy of The Bitcoin Standard), there is certainly truth to this idea.
I have experienced this myself.
Avid readers of Methuselah’s Library will remember that I first alluded to time preference in the Unbounded Deep Scholarship post. In truth, the concept has many more implications with respect to radical life extension, as we will see in future installments of the Methuselah dividend series.
As much as I would like to take credit for being the first to make the connection between radical life extension and hard money, the broad strokes of this logic were already mapped out by my intellectual superior, Dhruv Bansal of Unchained Capital. In a masterful trilogy of stellar blog posts on Bitcoin Astronomy, Bansal argues that a solar system-spanning cryptocurrency ("Solcoin") will eventually be needed to coordinate the construction of space-based megaprojects, which will be planned by humans with extended lifespans and very long investment horizons. My small innovation here is to state that the same logic holds with Bitcoin on Earth in a post-aging society.