I read about the development of a new course at NYU on Bitcoin, and a light went on: this is the experiential education opportunity of the decade. Maybe. For a little while. Cautionary tale or emerging new currency or digital fluke…I’m not sure. But what I do know is that this is an opportunity to engage students in an active way in the analysis of an emerging phenomenon that follows in so many different ways from other, fascinating parts of the global economy, high-technology society, and digital subculture.

A week ago, to visit my friend Bryan Ballard (of Netsolus), I hauled down to New York City and registered for the Bitcoin conference at which his company was exhibiting something that I guess you could describe as a “next generation data center” for mining equipment (not that I really understand what a first generation center would be). The idea he was hawking even harder than his company’s wares was this: Bitcoin may have reached a critical mass, its equipment so expensive and so powerful and so power consumptive that the mining – locating, decrypting, monetizing – of these “coins” now merits and can support large scale mining centers. These places use a lot of power. A room full of them can use as much power as a small city. The boxes and gadgets that grind away at the technocryptostuff in order to “solve” for Bitcoins, well these things can work fast. Terms like “terra-hash” and “Peta-hash” get thrown around, but for those of us to whom the valorization of math as currency seems like a cruel joke, really, the metric you could best use to describe the thing is wattage. Best I could decrypt what my friend told me, one big black box that decrypts at about one terra-hash/second will find (on average – and averaging here matters a lot) enough “coinage” at the present difficulty level that as of last week, anyway, it would generate enough money to pay back the cost of the equipment (about $5000) in less than a month. The ROI on this equipment is 100%, or so it seems in April of 2014. That’s amazing. And even if the numbers are slightly off, or even dead wrong, the bottom line here is about more than the return on investment.

What I saw in New York and what many are seeing around the world is the stunning and hypnotizing power of mining for Bitcoins, trading Bitcoins, creating language and symbols for Bitcoins and so many other emergent phenomena about this thing. It evokes the mystique of digital gaming and the unsubtle libertarianism of CB radio. The halls of Javits were filled with hippies wearing “Bitcoin: the Honey Badger of Currency” t-shirts and hedge fund guys. Only once or twice have I ever been more hypnotized by a phenomenon of technology and its subculture, and frankly both phenomena (human cloning and radicalgenetic enhancement) kind of petered out, more promise than substance. Maybe Bitcoin will do that too. Maybe its basic suppositions are wrong, or even evil. Perhaps the things aren’t money, or aren’t even currency. Perhaps these are elevated abstractions and nonsense, as Buffett described them last month. Or maybe, as my friend put it, old white guys aren’t the best judge of next level technology, and perhaps as Stanford economists have begun to note, the currency has enormous social utility and every bit as much metaphysical status as paper currency. Maybe, maybe, maybe. It’s an electrifying issue that may very well have the paradigm-changing effect Kuhn and Rorty identified in their own critiques of progress.

Some years ago I taught a class at Penn that was required of all the students in the (then) new bioethics concentration that I directed. All of the students had to write a law for their state legislature regarding the topic of the semester. Throughout the semester, the students learned from key people that write and think about and whip votes for bills, drawn from media and government relations and science. The exercise was odd, for me and for the students, because the product was not actually the legislation. That was short. The proposed bills were never more than five pages in length, and the rationale was crafted for the none-too-specialized minds of Utah representatives and Ohio senators and Alabama regulators. The real exercise was the doing of it: the phone calls, the visits, and the negotiations that led to the bills, and that eventually (for most of the students) led to their introduction on the floor in their states. A couple of them actually made their way into laws, about genetic discrimination and even embryonic stem cells. Looking back it was the defining moment in my teaching career, at least from my point of view, because let me bring to bear everything I think collegiate education should be but almost never is: truly applied but rigorous experience that tests the value and validity of imaginative conceits about how the world should be. It was experiential education.

So the question is, can we mount courses about Bitcoin that will allow experiential education about crypto-currency? What is the right form for them? Who should teach them? Where? I’m curious what you think. I’m just mining for bits of advice.

Glenn McGee

– Originally published on LinkedIn (