The Future is Scary: review of documentary Trust Machine by documentary filmmaker Alex Winter

Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain

Dir: Alex Winter

This is a big story. If you agree with some of the commentators quoted in the film it's one of the biggest stories. We had the age of the transistors and bulbs, then we had the age of the silicon chip, and now we have the age of blockchain. 

Blockchain is a complex area and this film works hard to demystify. Trust Machine is an exploration of blockchain technology and a spotlight on a few of the key players. Bitcoin is one of many new currencies that uses blockchain technology to protect the integrity of your money. On the surface of it, Trust Machine seeks to unpack this confusing, big-talking technology. Yet, if you dig beneath the surface it's really about who owns the internet. Is it ever going to fulfil its early promise of distribution of power to the people?  

The director, Alex Winter, has made some big documentaries, notably Downloaded and Deep Web, but he's also turned his hand to thrillers and TV and commercials. He knows how to tell a story with nuance and heart. The strongest thread in this story is the plight of Lauri Love who is facing extradition from England to the United States for hacking charges that could lead to a 99 year jail term. Although Lauri's actions don't directly relate to blockchain they certainly relate to the flow of power back and forth across the ocean of the web. 

Lauri's charges stem from a tribute to a computer whiz called Aaron Swartz. Aaron co-developed RSS (a system for automatically updating subscription feeds) and helped set up Reddit (the front page of the internet). At the time of his death from suicide, aged 26, he was facing charges of breaking into the JSTOR archives at MIT and downloading 1000s of academic articles. It's not clear what he wanted to do with the articles. The university had resolved the issue with Aaron but prosecutors were pursuing him with a potential jail term of 35 years. It was all too much for Aaron and he brought the case to an end by taking his own life.

Lauri Love at the fundraiser for his legal fees. Trust Machine: The Story of Bitcoin by indie filmmaker Alex Winter

Internet activists around the world were rocked by Aaron’s death and sought to publicise the issues by doing what they new best - digital protest. The allegations against Lauri Love are that he hacked various US government websites and stole information. Lauri's actions were part of that campaign of acknowledgement and protest in honour of Aaron.

I won't tell you how Lauri's story ends. It's enough to say that it is the epitome of struggle between the big capitalist players, including various governments, and the computer scientists who envision an internet for the people, free from interference and censure. 

This film is slick. The production values are impeccable. Studio interviews with a range of people help to fill out the story. The editing and graphics are flawless. The overall impression left after watching the film is that you're in the safe hands of an experienced filmmaker. As to the illumination of blockchain technology and bitcoin and how that's going to effect our future, I'm not sure that I understand it any more than I did before. As the narrator suggests, "the opinions become so hyperbolic and contradictory that it becomes almost impossible to parse fact from fiction". In fact, I think the future is probably scarier than I could have imagined. 

Indie film Trust Machine: The Story of Bitcoin by filmmaker Alex Winter

The best description of bitcoin is by Vinay Gupta (serial entrepreneur and coder) towards the end of the film. "What is it? It's a bank account that stores magic internet money that comes from the central bank of the internet that is a decentralised database that is everywhere and nowhere maintained by a bunch of people that you don't understand". That about sums it up for me. Search out Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain to find out how this cutting edge technology has real impact on your every day life.


Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain is appearing at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. For details and tickets go here.