Making the Invisible Visible: Bitcoin Edition

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Can invisible information have a defined visual aesthetic?

-and/or-

When can the aesthetics of the digital world move beyond symbology?


PSA: Not sure what Bitcoin is? It’s a completely digital peer-to-peer payment system and currency that uses cryptography to secure transactions. It was introduced as open source software by Satoshi Nakamoto, a pseudonymous character who the media is obsessed with trying to identify. Users can send and receive bitcoins using digital wallets (imagine a digital version of your actual wallet – the cash inside it can be handed to someone else, but if you lose it, it’s gone). While you can get bitcoins by mining (an activity built into the software), most people now buy them from an exchange or sell goods to earn them, just like a normal currency or stock. While BTC was once associated with less-than-reputable online vendors like The Silk Road, it’s now accepted by many retailers (Dell, & Overstock.com to name a couple) and its adoption rate is sky-rocketing. Here is a [rapidly growing] list of 3,000+ vendors who accept Bitcoin. If you’re new to Bitcoin and want a safe, easy way to get your hands on some BTC, head over to Coinbase

Still confused? Watch this video


Ever since I began research for Proof of Work – a one-night-only exhibition I co-curated that was partially inspired by the blockchain – I’ve been fascinated by Bitcoin’s ‘blah’ aesthetic.

A simple Google search for "Bitcoin" returns these results.

A simple Google search for “Bitcoin” returns these results.

Bitcoin doesn’t look like anything, because it’s a purely digital currency. Since its creator is anonymous, there isn’t even a picture of a person to stand in as a visual reference. The Bitcoin whitepaper released by Satoshi Nakamoto (the digital currency’s anonymous creator) is a study in minimalist design – with clean black text on a white background and a few clinical-looking tables explaining the digital coin’s complexities, there is nary a visual to be found. Just like code itself, the information is the content, and it can only be understood once it is read by someone – or something– who can read it.

While Bitcoin itself inherently defies visualization, we live in a world that more or less demands visuals, especially when explaining concepts that are difficult to grasp. Articles about BTC need something to accompany their writers’ words, which is why the now-ubiquitous golden coin adorned with a “Ƀ” has become the go-to image for visualizing Bitcoin. This symbol really bugs me – it seems wrong that the thing that was invented to be inherently non-physical has come to be symbolized by a physical coin. There are even people creating actual physical bitcoins made from gold and silver, with the bitcoin value embedded digitally within the coin. Why is this happening? It seems counterintuitive, and yet I get it – people want something they can hold in their hands, something physical. We inhabit a physical world, which is why grappling with the digital is often so, so hard.

We need a better design to signify Bitcoin, as the golden coin is confusing people about what the currency is and how it works. What else could do the job, though? It’s a simple fact that humans need to reference existing, easily-understood ideas in order to explain new, innovative ideas – this is how our minds expand and learn. And, if there’s one thing we’ve seen with new technologies, it’s that most humans tend to cling to what they know. This desire to make new things seem more like familiar things is why we have nostalgic Instagram filters, why you can buy retro iPhone docks that look like old-timey telephones, and why our computer operating systems resemble the physical file-and-folder office systems of days gone by. It’s why we need user-interaction designers to turn code into an easily understood environment. Drop a human into an environment that is unfamiliar, and she’ll panic. Make it look like something she’s seen before, and you can trick her into trying something new.

While most people have heard of Bitcoin at this point, many of them would never consider using it – they think it’s a bubble, used by drug dealers, on the verge of becoming illegal, or too confusing for non-techies. This is the story the media has told, and this is the problem. Like coding, I believe that Bitcoin is one of those things that you really can’t fully appreciate or understand until you not only spend time researching it, but also use it – until then, it’ll remain an abstract concept. For most people I’ve talked to, their conception of BTC is situated in the realm of the impossible, still just a symbol of an unknowable concept.

The lack of rich visual representation is contributing to Bitcoin’s image problem. It’s like trying to represent a river with the water droplet emoji. It means nothing.


Just for fun, here are a few Bitcoin-themed stock photos. The stock photography aesthetic is soul-wrenching as a whole, but these really take the cake for being literal in the most uninteresting way possible.

 


If we could start from scratch and reinvent the aesthetics of Bitcoin, how would it look?

Illustrations are typically used to illuminate or expand on textual information by providing a visual representation of something that the text describes. They can also take on a more poetic role, providing a visually intriguing resting place for the mind to wander while the text is absorbed and pondered. The current aesthetics of Bitcoin are made up from the worst illustrations, most of which come from stock photo companies (I won’t blame Photoshop for causing the gnarly rise in this ridiculously literal CGI illustration style, because at least the team at the Onion is still doing amazing things). The above Bitcoin stock photo illustrations do nothing to allow the mind to expand while pondering Bitcoin. They show a cold dark cavern where light cuts your eyes with a thousand pixelated lasers as you shoot through the 4th dimension, which is a cross between that crazy 3D Simpsons episode and the TRON movies. In a word, cliché.

Bitcoin presents an interesting illustrational challenge. How do you represent something that, a) is digital, so doesn’t actually look like anything, and b) most people don’t understand? And how do you do it in a way that will draw people in?

Tasked with marketing the Internet back before it was a familiar concept, CompuServe got creative and came up with some pretty fantastic campaigns:

With a little creativity, CompuServe turned the Internet into something that people wanted to understand – these ads touch us on a human level, playing to our needs and desires. Bitcoin shares a lot with the early Internet – what’s missing is the physical entity (the Internet had the computer – Bitcoin doesn’t live anywhere that specific)–the portal through which the human mind can fly towards understanding. Visual design was also a key component to personal computers before they hit the consumer market – with Bitcoin, visual design has taken the back-burner to code architecture. Much like the Internet, Bitcoin will only thrive once a critical mass of users begin to actively engage with it. When will the Bitcoin community invest in compelling creative designers and artists to take on the task of re-defining the digital currency’s visual vocabulary?

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 11.12.57 PMThe aesthetic of the digital world’s back end (no pun intended) is hard to pin down and hard to humanize in all forms of creative media. Tony Zhou’s A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film points out the ways that filmmakers have evolved their treatment of texting and the Internet on screen, recognizing that the human mind needs more creative stimulus than what we get when we’re presented with drab visuals of computer screens, code, and text messages. The digital doesn’t have to be treated literally – it can be presented in dynamic ways, challenging viewers to make judgments about what they’re seeing and what it means. Inspiring creative thinking is one of the best ways to engage a reader/viewer/potential advocate – that’s why Bitcoin’s current non-creative aesthetic is doing it such a disservice right now.

Now is the time to turn to the fine art world for inspiration. Two artists who have risen to the challenge of making the invisible visible are Alec Soth and Trevor Paglen. Soth attempted to photograph “the cloud” in Silicon Valley, and ended up capturing a terrific and at times haunting series of black and white photos demonstrating the empty, strange aesthetic of the digital frontier. Paglen used satellite imagery, a compass, testimonies and maps from former prisoners to try to photograph government “black sites,” secret prisons that are not supposed to be seen or known by anyone. These bodies of work are remarkable because they give visual form to ideas that would otherwise go un-thought, and once we are confronted by the imagery, our mind begins to fill in the invisible spaces with questions, ideas, and opinions. Soth and Paglen’s visuals bring invisible ideas into the physical world, opening up the doors of thought by turning the mundane into a springboard for new ideas, questions, and conversations.

I challenge the Bitcoin community to tackle the problem of the currency’s current aesthetic.

Bitcoin and the art world have not truly mixed yet – while there are a few ventures that attempt to bring art and Bitcoin together, the efforts so far feel one-sided (i.e. they’re for the Bitcoin community only – the fine art world has not been involved). Bitcoin needs to improve at representing itself – it was born without a brand, and the brand it has come to embody is unfortunate. It needs real artists, designers, and other creatives to help push the thinking around the nascent currency to the next level. As Bitcoin’s adoption continues across the world, I would love to see the aesthetics of the currency evolve in ways that push conceptual boundaries. Bitcoin has the potential to reinvent our poorly structured financial systems, but in order to contemplate these big changes, more people need to engage with the complex ideas inherent in the currency. This won’t happen until we have compelling graphics to illustrate the ideals and frameworks of the cryptocurrency.  Let us become poetic, let us imagine something better. Let us rise to the challenge and get conceptual. People are smart and idealistic – we strive for a better tomorrow, and we want to reinvent our reality in ways that will improve upon the status quo. To gain critical mass and move forward, we need to be inspired– we need a beautiful idea to rally behind. Not a hollow cartoon, not a cold CGI collage . Something human, something real.

We need to involve artists, designers, makers. We need the new poetics of the crypto-digital.

Don’t show me another golden Bitcoin symbol or else.


RELATED THOUGHTS:

Recent events in the Bitcoin world seem more like art than real life:

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This is what Bitcoin really looks like.

 

2 thoughts on “Making the Invisible Visible: Bitcoin Edition”

  1. Roark
     ·  Reply

    Surely an interesting challenge Willa in this excellent piece. Kindly take a look at the visuals of my current series called ‘Transmutation of Nehushtan’ at http://www.misterbitcoin.info I am also moderating a panel at inside bitcoins on artists inspired by bitcoin so if you or any artists you know wish to be part of it please let me know. The panel is on October 7 on day 3 of the conference.

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