I've been saying it since I read the whitepaper: Bitcoin is the most important technological innovation since the Internet. Back then (in early 2011) it sounded crazy; today, lots of people say things like that.
Although few would argue Bitcoin is more important than the Internet — a global, peer-to-peer currency wouldn't be possible without global communication, after all — many comparisons are merited.
But the similarities between these two disruptive technologies isn't my focus today; the fact that they're both flexible platforms for innovation has been widely discussed. I'd like to point out a notable difference between the two.
Internet as Spontaneous Order
No one person, company, collective, or other organized group of human beings designed or created the Internet. Bitcoin, in contrast, was sprung on the world quite literally overnight, like a controversial new book, or the next iPhone.
That's not to belittle the importance of the Internet, nor imply Bitcoin is a bigger ‘game-changer’. In fact, though the Internet's origins may be less exciting, it's probably a subject worthy of study — it might be the greatest example of spontaneous order, ever.
As others have pointed out, the Internet evolved like human language, or the market economy. It's a beautiful growth of order and cooperation, with no central, identifiable source or overseer. Despite many claims that the Internet owes its beginnings to “the government”, a closer look reveals a very different story.
Though the central algorithms and ideas behind Bitcoin aren't exclusively thanks to its creator, the narrative of Bitcoin, contrary to the Internet's, does have a central protagonist, and one who had a grand vision to boot.
Story of Satoshi
The story of Satoshi Nakamoto — the mysterious creator(s) of Bitcoin, whose real-world identity is still not certain — is a thrilling one indeed. Satoshi's mystery will be icing on the cake when the Bitcoin story gets passed down through the generations.
However, the point I'm driving at is not that Satoshi is a faceless genius, but that he's a “he” at all (or a “they” or a “she”). Bitcoin's origins cannot only be pinpointed to a very particular point in time; its existence can be pinpointed to a very specific ‘person’.
There's a whole-lot to be said about the intelligence and foresight of Mr. Nakamoto, but that “he” is an identifiable and particular figure is the interesting part.
A Peaceful Revolution
When I say Bitcoin is a “revolution”, I don't mean, “a political upheaval” or anything in the violent sense of the word. What I'm getting at is more along the lines of definition number 6 at Wiktionary.org:
a sudden, vast change in a [..] discipline, or the way of thinking and behaving
There's no doubt the Internet has ‘revolutionized’ the way we communicate — everything from business to dating, in-between and (for better or worse) beyond. But it wasn't really planned that way; it just sort-of happened.
Bitcoin, on the other hand, was premeditated. It was imagined and designed consciously, and — though no-one can foresee all the consequences it may bring — it was intended to revolutionize.
The Internet evolved, but Bitcoin was invented, and its goal was to change money as we know it. The Internet has been an evolution; Bitcoin is a revolution.
Needless to say, the glamour Bitcoin's story finds in future history books isn't a foregone conclusion (yet), as is that of the Internet. But we should consider ourselves lucky; we have front-row seats to watch it play out.
And luckily Bitcoin's future is, in large part, in our hands.