Imagine a game of chess where the pieces are all jumbled up. A player might be given four queens while their opponent has none or a score of bishops and rooks to match. Such is the premise behind “Really Bad Chess,” released in 2016 by developer Zach Gage. Although many have analogized chess to the world at large (viewing the game as a microcosm of society with its hierarchy, roles, and interactions among the pieces), what makes “Really Bad Chess” more fitting is that (as in the game) life doesn’t offer an equal starting point for everyone.
Some players must work harder to “win,” leaving it up to their skills to compete with even the most privileged opponents. Moreover, people in society’s upper echelons (similar to those who start with an array of powerful pieces) are often reluctant to relinquish their positions. They may even attempt to control the choices of other players.
In essence, promoting a modest pawn into a formidable queen has become increasingly difficult. And no more pronounced is this in our digital age. Despite the widespread connectivity of the web and social media, tech and political moguls continually seek to manipulate societal systems to restrict, surveil, and control the liberties inherent to all human beings.
That said, tools are emerging that promise users that they will help level the playing field and preserve these fundamental rights. One such tool is Bitcoin. When it initially launched, Bitcoin was intended to help people reclaim financial freedom. Today, it has transformed into an ecosystem of tools and products that promise to safeguard not only the freedom to transact but also the freedom of speech and the right to a free and uncensored culture.
Transactions and how Bitcoin works
Before Bitcoin, there were attempts to create an open, peer-to-peer financial system, like eCash, B-money, Bit Gold, and Hashcash. In 1984, Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek suggested a type of money that governments couldn’t control. And in 1997, the NSA published a paper on the cryptography of anonymous electronic cash. However, Bitcoin succeeded, whereas others failed by effectively solving the Byzantine Generals’ problem related to the issue of “double spending.”
The Double Spend Problem refers to stopping digital money from being spent twice. Intermediaries like banks prevent double-spending in traditional financial systems by privately verifying each transaction. But with this centralized oversight comes the overt influence on monetary policies and regulations. Before Bitcoin, attempts at solving the double spend problem all had some semblance of a central administrator handling the books and, therefore, carried the risk of manipulating the system in one way or another.
The Bitcoin Network differs by allowing any member involved to verify and agree on the validity of transactions. It achieves this through its proof-of-work consensus mechanism. Within this system, participants (called nodes) on a public network spend computing power (energy) to verify transactions and add the data to the blockchain. Here, “the blockchain” is essentially a buzzword to describe something akin to an immutable accounting system. Contributors (miners) are rewarded for maintaining and securing the network by earning Bitcoin, hence the analogy and phrase of “mining” due to bitcoins parallels with gold.
Detractors claim that Bitcoin is primarily a “decentralized Ponzi scheme” or worse, “rat poison squared.” But proponents maintain that it offers a more resilient and open monetary system — one that counteracts the inflationary consequences of currency debasement, a technique used by governments to meet financial obligations, stimulate domestic spending on infrastructure, fund wars, and the like.
How Bitcoin protects the freedom to transact
Take, for example, the hurdles of opening a simple savings account or obtaining loans — banks often demand extensive documentation and prerequisites. Conversely, Bitcoin offers an alternative to traditional remittances, providing a crucial economic lifeline for many developing countries and low-income people with free-to-use digital wallets.
Furthermore, peer-to-peer (P2P) Bitcoin networks boast lower fees than some conventional platforms like Western Union, making them more appealing in emerging nations. For example, a Reuters report published in 2020 demonstrated how an African small business owner increased profits and safeguarded his venture from currency devaluation by compensating suppliers in Bitcoin. BTC had no added fees, and transactions were swifter, more secure, and cheaper than traditional money-transfer firms.
Even in developed countries, Bitcoin is not without its value. The recent mismanagement of Silicon Valley Bank aside, alternative financial systems have become increasingly necessary in light of the growing censorship and penalties imposed by payment platforms such as PayPal. In 2022, the company reversed a contentious policy that might have resulted in users being charged $2,500 for disseminating “misinformation,” as the payment platform asserted that the policy update had been released “by mistake.” Conversely, Bitcoin’s decentralized nature provides a way to conduct transactions openly without relying on highly centralized, authoritarian platforms.
Prominent investors and entrepreneurs like Naval Ravikant and Paul Krugman have also highlighted Bitcoin’s potential as a hedge against financial collapse and a means of diversifying portfolios amid possible financial instability, not to mention its promise as a store of value. Bitcoin’s importance as a geopolitical force has also been evident in real-world crises like the Ukraine conflict. As recounted by Twitter user usleepwalker, who experienced the crisis firsthand, traditional banks were inaccessible during the turmoil, preventing people from accessing their funds. In contrast, those with cryptocurrency could rely on their assets for payment and alternative stores of value.
Bitcoin and freedom of speech
Companies like Meta and Twitter initially flourished within the open and ever-expanding landscape of the internet — a space that championed unfettered communication and expression. But they now find themselves at the center of a concerning trend. These web2 companies are increasingly exerting influence over online discourse. By doing so, they inadvertently — or perhaps intentionally — stifle free speech and contribute to censorship in overt and subtly pernicious ways.
Decentralized technologies like Bitcoin support freedom of speech by enabling users to embed and inscribe messages on its blockchain through resources like Ordinals, Bitcoin Stamps, and Nostr — all of which provide the ability to cryptographically preserve messages (regardless of the content) without gatekeepers or intermediaries in a decentralized public manner.
The idea of filling Bitcoin blocks with JPEGs and videos — or even video games — isn’t sitting well with some in the Bitcoin community who have voiced concerns that putting NFTs directly on the Bitcoin network will drive up transaction costs.
But despite this divisiveness, such methods are another way and pathway or open door for anyone to preserve and share information for posterity in a censorship-resistant manner, free from the constraints of any central authority.
For digital culture to flourish across various subgroups and niches, creators must be encouraged to experiment, allowing markets to respond organically to their work. However, as the boundaries between tech oligarchs and the platforms on which creators rely to innovate and monetize their work become increasingly restrictive (e.g., YouTube demonetizing videos or engaging in overt censorship), viable options within the web2 landscape are diminishing.
Fortunately, Bitcoin offers an array of alternatives (even before Ordinals) to help counteract the polished curated media and permissible boundaries of creative expression. Created in 2014, Counterparty is one example of a platform that allows people to create assets on Bitcoin like grassroots cryptographic artwork and memes (otherwise known as CryptoArt), notable amongst which were assets like Rare Pepes — tokenized variations of the Pepe the Frog meme by Matt Furie which still command significant sums on secondary markets.
In fact, within a mere two years of the Rare Pepe project launching, 1,774 unique Rare Pepe cards were approved for admission into the grassroots project. The cards included numerous references to pop culture and political satire like Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Putin-themed cards, with some rarer one-of-one cards selling for as high as $3.6 million as seen in a Sotheby’s auction in October 2021.
Other memetic ecosystems were also inspired by Counterparty and Bitcoin’s technology, like Doge and a related platform for minting assets on Dogecoin like DogeParty (a fork of Counterparty and Bitcoin). Both demonstrate how the innovative technologies behind Bitcoin and Counterparty have spurred the development of diverse platforms that cater to niche communities and interests.
But ultimately, be it Doge or Pepe, they serve as an illustration of a culturally significant movement that has arisen and flourished in the digital realm from the native currency of memes, cultivated and preserved through the decentralized power of Bitcoin rather than being shaped and curated by traditional media outlets.
While initially focused on financial sovereignty, the Bitcoin ecosystem has evolved to protect a broad range of liberties, including transactional freedom, free speech through Ordinals, and an uncensored cultural platform via Counterparty and Nostr.
As the network expands with new nodes and more users join to explore and engage with various concepts across all layers, the ecosystem becomes increasingly secure and decentralized. And it is through such innovative tools that we inch closer to a balanced and equitable digital landscape where every player can thrive, regardless of their starting position. Or — in embracing the spirit of Really Bad Chess — disrupt conventional hierarchies and rigid systems to foster an environment where more individuals can turn their pawns into queens, ultimately advancing the cause of liberty in the digital age.