One Wednesday earlier this month, a group of 50 self-identified tech geeks and a smattering of middle-aged investors shuffled into a modest storefront rowhouse at Spadina just south of King. They ignored the unpainted walls and bare floorboards, and instead focussed on the bright orange ATM standing in a corner. Once the machine was turned on and the screen lit up, the seven guys huddled around it let out a small gasp, which prompted half the room to drift over and start asking about the black slits—a thumb scanner and digital wallet reader.
That’s how the initial Bitcoin 101 session opened at Bitcoin Decentral, the city’s first bricks-and-mortar space dedicated to promoting the purely internet-based currency. The storefront opened its doors on Jan. 1; its cash machine (which was fully operational as of last Wednesday) was just the second Bitcoin ATM in the entire world.
Though talk of “Bitcoin” kept popping up last year, few people seemed to really understand how the currency works—including many who attended Decentral’s info session. “We get people coming in all the time; the big sign catches their attention,” said Anthony Di Iorio of the large neon striped-B logo that sits outside the front window of the four-storey house (which he’s leased for a year).
Bitcoin launched in 2009 as the first internet-based currency. People can buy bitcoins like any other currency, and store them in a digital wallet. But what’s unique is that, like the file sharing program, BitTorrent, the currency runs on a peer-to-peer network rather than centralized computers. The Bitcoins themselves are created, or “mined,” by people using sophisticated computers to solve cryptographic equations. Every time a transaction occurs—roughly 40,000 to 70,000 a day—a complex mathematical problem is sent into the network. The first miner to solve the calculation and add the transaction to the communal ledger gets a small cut, which can scale up to thousands of dollars per day.
The technical aspect may have been somewhat advanced for the crowd gathered for Bitcoin 101, especially when, like the currency itself, the intro session was decentralized, with no single leader giving speeches. Instead, four people who work in the building circulated, answering questions. “Tonight, we’ll be talking about how Bitcoin will change everything,” said Kyle Kurbegovich, who films a regular Bitcoin podcast in one of the unfinished rooms. Some attendees were confused and disappointed they weren’t given a sit-down presentation. An hour later, one young woman stood bewildered at the coffee table, complaining that she still has no clue what her Bitcoin-mining boyfriend does.
Even Canadian regulators seem spooked by the currency: They haven’t decided whether Bitcoin is legal, or if it should be taxed. Start-ups that change dollars into Bitcoins have been closed by some of Canada’s major banks. Yet Canadian entrepreneurs have been at the forefront of the currency’s expansion: The world’s first dollars-to-Bitcoin ATM launched in a Vancouver café, and a physical hub similar to Decentral opened in Montreal last summer.
“It’s still not well known, and we can change that,” said Di Iorio a few days after the info session. “A lot of people are curious.” Despite minimal publicity, around 160 people attended Decentral’s Jan. 1 launch. And Di Iorio plans to lease office space in the 4,500-square-foot house to Bitcoin entrepreneurs, along with having an in-house receptionist and web developer. Though computers and desks had yet to be brought in, two start-ups already call it home, including one that’s building a browser extension to make Bitcoin use easier online. The row house is also planning headquarters for the first national Bitcoin conference in April, which Di Iorio believes could be the world’s biggest.
“I see a future where you see Bitcoin everywhere; that’s certainly what we hope for,” he said. “You should be able to use it across the city, anywhere, anytime to make safe, instant transations.” And if anyone is still in the dark about how this might happen, Bitcoin Decentral is certainly the place to ask.