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Whaddaya mean, No refund? But I paid in Bitcoins! Oh I see...
El Reg sets an arse among the pigeons
Something after the Weekend, Sir? Don’t tell anyone but I think I might have made an arse of myself again. It’s one thing to show oneself up among one’s peers but another to demonstrate publicly how thick I am front of people who are smarter, sharper, more successful and frankly a damn sight wealthier than me – a sector of society I generally refer to as "other people".
This time, I was trying to rub shoulders with a group of enterprising souls from London’s Tech City sector, hoping some of their smartness would rub off onto me. Or at the very least, onto my shoulders.
But alas, my shoulders remained resolutely stupid throughout. For on the evening that I had chosen to attend this particular networking event – the pre-Easter meetup of the Silicon Roundabout group – the main topic of discussion was FinTech, a subject about which I know nothing.
In fact, I was 20 minutes into a conversation with a "fellow" entrepreneur before it dawned on me that FinTech has no Scandinavian connotations whatsoever. No one actually told me outright but I picked up on a few hints, such as the way in which my conversation pal was turning my brain to pulp with chatter about innovation (aaargh! that word!) in the digital financial services sector and the fact that the event was hosted at the Barclays Accelerator in Whitechapel, East London.
Oh, and the puzzled reaction when I began singing the praises of “pony trekking and camping... or just watching TV” was a giveaway.
Up to that point, I thought I had been chumming it up with your everyday tech startup dudes, stereotypified as sweaty programmers with Asperger Syndrome, dubious personal hygiene and job titles along the lines of Founding CEO or VP Global Domination. The only drinks on offer were Red Stripe and Red Bull. The only food was Pringles and Celebrations. Surely this HAD to be a networking evening for nerds.
As realisation dawned on me, the full horror of the situation began to set in. Looking around the room, I now saw that everyone was dressed "smart casual" and were shaking each other’s hands and talking right into each other’s faces. It was me that was mumbling and sweating. I had inadvertently walked into the vipers’ nest and now found myself surrounded by banking consultants, financial services speculators and FinTech developers.
You know those occasions when you wish you had a machine-gun?
Before I could think, we were ordered into the presentation room and, terrified of being discovered, I was carried along with the crowd like imposter George Berger being led to his Vietnamese doom.
My fears were unfounded: the first presentation was delivered by a friendly, handsome, teddy-bear of a man who, with his faded t-shirt under a suit jacket and his cultivated Edwardian beard, settled me back into my comfort zone. Ah, a Hoxton hipster at last, a nerdy developer I can identify with.
His startup, XBTerminal, has created an NFC-based, handheld terminal for handling Bitcoin transactions in bricks-and-mortar retail locations – what we used to call "shops". The undeniable strength of his product lies in the fact that he and his team thoroughly understand crypto-currency tech rather than just evangelise about potentials – what we used to call "bullshitting".
During the Q&A, someone raised the matter of issuing refunds to customers who wanted to return a product they were dissatisfied with. Given that an electronic terminal handling a virtual currency does not print receipts and that Bitcoin’s exchange rate sometimes fluctuates wildly from one minute to the next, how do refunds work? Teddy-bear’s answer was that retailers would probably just refuse refunds on Bitcoin transactions.
“Whaaaaat?” I heard someone shout in a rough impersonation of Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon. It was me.
Dabbsy begs to differ during the Question and Answer session
Unfortunately, by this time, the lager and Red Bull, not to mention the chocolate and crisps, had kicked in. I have a reputation for blurting out stupid questions in conference situations, and no teddy-bear and no bloody Finns were going to stop me. Looking back, I think I may actually have been swigging a can of lager as I spoke. I must be the only dunk heckler who chooses to sit in the front row.
“No receipts and no refunds?” I asked. “I think you’ll find there are laws in this country.”
The explanation from the podium was certainly not evasive, but it was difficult to get my pretty little head around and grew more complex as other members of the audience chipped in to defend the Bitcoin retail process. One theory put forward was that buying a product in BTC was “one-way refundable” – er, what we used to call "no refunds", I suppose – and another was that Bitcoins were “just like cash”, as if buying a shirt from Marks & Spencer with banknotes precluded your ability to return it for a refund when you discover the neck size is wrong the next day.
Someone spoke up and said that Bitcoins were usually spend on food, in which case refunds were irrelevant.
Another suggestion was that we should treat Bitcoin like a foreign currency. For example, if I buy a product from Europe with a sterling credit card, it gets converted into euros as part of the electronic transaction. If I return the product and demand a refund days or weeks later on, the exchange rate will almost certainly have changed in the meantime, so that the sum I get back won’t be the same as the one I originally paid.
Exchange rate? Conversion? I thought the whole point of a crypto-currency was to be above all that nationalist, protectionist, political interference lark. If I buy a super-deluxe soya latte with twinkling lights and singing angels for 0.01 BTC and the first sip tastes like raw sewage, I want my 0.01 BTC refunded thank you very much.
“So what’s the point of using Bitcoins at all? It sounds like a terrible way of buying anything,” I said before remembering my place and adding: “Sorry.”
I have so much to learn about how money works.
During the post-presentation networking, teddy-bear introduced himself to me with a friendly smile and an expression in his eyes that possibly hinted at murder. But the guy’s smart and so is XBTerminal.
Of course you get a receipt, says teddy-bear. It’s an electronic one, that’s all.
The device isn’t tied to the fortunes of Bitcoin, either: it’ll work with any existing crypto-currency and almost certainly those yet to come. It’s probably the right product at the right time as demand for Bitcoin options in shops is still tiny but growing rapidly in certain retail sectors. If I had £150,000 to throw around, I wouldn’t mind 25 per cent of the millions the company is eventually going to make in the years ahead.
No, XBTerminal is cool. My argument is with crypto-currencies themselves, not in the future but right now. They are worrisome, awkward, complicated and unmanageable. Everyone knows that money is just a means of exchange and that neither cash nor pieces of plastic have any intrinsic value, but Bitcoin is utterly incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t a nerd. As the refund issue demonstrates, they are impractical too.
Frankly, I don’t like them and I don’t trust them. Some people have become millionaires simply by sitting on Bitcoins, while others make their fortunes by shifting them around a bit, and most damning of all, the City seems to find them interesting – during which time nothing gets made, nothing gets done and there is nothing to show for it other than a bunch of banker-wankers getting rich out of their inexplicably highly valued expertise in being unproductive.
Looking back at my scrawled notes from the Q&A session, I seem to have headed the page very distinctly: "Bitcoin Bollocks."
Evidently I wasn’t so drunk after all. ®
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. A second presentation that evening concerned angel investments in foreign tech startups, during which he learnt that one of the directors used to work at Goldman Sachs, naturally conjuring images of babies on pitchforks and drowning kittens. Everyone else seemed mightily impressed, though. Scary.