It has to be done.
On Thursday night, The Big Bang Theory, easily one of the most-watched shows on television, introduced Bitcoin to millions of average people who might know a lot about their favourite sitcom but very little about digital currencies.
For the Bitcoin community, where people regularly still post news articles about Bitcoin online to show it’s being talked about, last night’s 11th season episode of the show was a high point in terms of spreading public awareness about the technology. On the flipside, Bitcoin’s inclusion on a show that trades in superficial references to “smart” things most people already sort-of know about shows that Bitcoin is already on people’s minds, and not necessarily for the reasons that true believers in the technology would like.
The real juice behind Bitcoin is decentralized ledger technology—called the blockchain—but the digital currency’s recent price run has more people seeing dollar signs than complex system design. So, with what is likely the technology’s first mainstage appearance in a piece of primetime television entertainment, it’s worth talking about how it was presented.
First, nobody who watched Thursday night’s episode of The Big Bang Theory learned anything about Bitcoin that they didn’t know before, unless they literally knew nothing about it. The main things that I took away are: Bitcoin is worth a lot of money, like a life-changing amount of money, and new coins are created with computers doing math problems and they’re somehow stored on hard drives. And that’s it. In 20-odd minutes, the show basically went through the motions of the most generic “I lost my old Bitcoin” Reddit story ever, of which there are many examples online.
Is it worth complaining that The Big Bang Theory didn’t accurately represent how decentralized ledgers work, or that private keys are stored on hard drives, and not bitcoins themselves? No, of course not. The show regularly sacrifices complex subjects for a reference or two that really just signals that a character is a nerd.
But the question of presentation takes on another dimension when we’re talking about a volatile asset that people are pouring their hard-earned money into for no other reason than “the price goes up” and with little understanding beyond that. Hell, octogenarian Ron Paul recently ran a commercial on Fox News telling people to put their retirement savings into Bitcoin. My girlfriend’s dad simply calls cryptocurrencies “stocks.” This is real money and a lot of people really don’t understand it.
So, in a way, The Big Bang Theory’s Bitcoin episode is a pale horse. The episode—banal, surface-level, but most importantly price-obsessed—already reflects how some investors and speculators view Bitcoin. The US Commodity Futures Trading Commission just approved Bitcoin futures trading, which is purely a way for people to bet on Bitcoin without ever having to engage with it or even understand it.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .