'Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain': Film Review

A digestible intro to a potentially world-changing concept.
10/26/2018

Actor turned tech-savvy documentarian Alex Winter looks at the concept behind Bitcoin and many other applications.

Moviegoers who still think that "Bitcoin" and "blockchain" are synonyms will have their eyes opened by Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain, an engaging doc that also appeals to those who pay a bit more attention to developments in the digital arena. That latter group certainly includes actor-turned-director Alex Winter, who in films like Downloaded and Deep Web has proven himself a thoughtful and uncondescending guide for noobs. Refreshingly unconvinced by hype but still awed by blockchain's potential, the film should have legs once it slides from theaters to streaming, remaining relevant even as this unruly topic develops.

The enormous amount of public attention to Bitcoin is, of course, the film's point of entry to blockchain, the innovation underlying that and other cryptocurrencies. Winter and narrator Rosario Dawson whisk us back to the 2008 economic collapse, when Satoshi Nakamoto (who may or may not be an actual person) released a paper outlining his inventions. Having solved something called the "Byzantine Generals Problem," Nakamoto found a way to create an open ledger of transactions that could be split up in a decentralized way across computer networks; no central server was required.

Unfortunately, the invention's first brush with fame came via Silk Road scandals. Many casual observers (and unsophisticated legislators) assumed the only use for cryptocurrency was the purchase of heroin or other illicit goods. But already, activism-minded hackers were seeing more utopian possibilities both for Bitcoin and the tech idea behind it.

Winter follows the case of Lauri Love, a British activist accused by the U.S. of stealing secret government data; over several years, he had to fight off American attempts to extradite him for trial here. While the relevance of Love's case to Winter's film isn't immediately evident, Winter uses his story (and that of the late activist Aaron Swartz) to show how aggressively governments and institutions try to clamp down on disruptions to their monopolies on power. It's an easy segue from this kind of individual persecution to the broader ways in which governments and banks oppose anything built on a blockchain.

Which is a shame, since it turns out blockchains are good for much more than hiding wealth from the taxman. After providing a gloss on the history of Bitcoin and the media's response (cue many sound bites about investing bubbles and tulip mania), the film introduces next-generation inventions like Ethereum, whose inventors realized you could put not just a ledger but an entire computer program into a blockchain. The ensuing discussion of smart contracts could use a good deal more explanation, since the idea underlies much of what's to come, but Winter needs to dazzle us with real-world applications lest we lose interest.

Soon the film has gone far from financial markets. Blockchain can be used to control microgrids of electrical transmission, building systems resilient enough to survive major disasters; it might help combat identity theft and social-media tyranny, through the invention of a "self-sovereign identity" platform; songwriters like Imogen Heap believe it could even help fix the carnage Napster caused, letting fans support artists directly with micropayments. The DJ Gramatik went even further than Heap, making his entire discography available on file-sharing sites and selling shares in his career via crypto.

In one of the most tangible examples, a group within UNICEF is exploring blockchain as a means of giving refugees official identities independent of the failed nations they're fleeing — eliminating vast amounts of bureaucracy on individuals' long roads to aid and safety.

Still, for most people in the world right now, the most exciting thing about blockchain is the prospect of making a fortune overnight. In its closing scenes, the film's narration acknowledges how attractive this field is to scammers and speculators, concluding that crypto "will likely require some sort of regulation to survive." That's a tough thing for techno-utopians to admit, especially since their pitch for blockchain relies on its supposed incorruptibility. Having invested a bit of time early on to the dawn of the internet, Trust Machine has shown us how beautiful inventions can be twisted by entrenched powers. The film's hope is that, if more people are paying attention this time around, blockchain might remain a tool for popular empowerment.

Production companies: Futurism Studios, Trouper Productions
Distributor: SingularDTV
Director-screenwriter: Alex Winter
Producers: Geoffrey James Clark, Kim Jackson, Alex Winter
Executive producers: Alex Klokus, Zach LeBeau, Arie Levy-Cohen, Joseph Lubin
Director of photography: Anghel Decca
Editor: Tim Strube
Composer: Bill Laswell
Sales: SingularDTV

85 minutes