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Opinion | What John Oliver left out about cryptocurrencies

The HBO comedian explained cryptocurrencies like bitcoin to the general public but missed the importance of blockchain technology

John Oliver

John Oliver talking crypto (via HBO).

If it’s true that trends haven’t made it into the big leagues until John Oliver makes fun of them, then bitcoin is officially in the big leagues.

On Sunday night, the Last Week Tonight comedian spent a full 25 minutes essentially knocking the popular cryptocurrency as nothing more than a huge gamble. Highlighting Bitcoin as well as a dozen other different cryptocurrencies—TitCoin, JesusCoin, and a few other choice offerings—Oliver implied that all coins are created equal, and he doesn’t seem to think particularly highly of any of them.

He even made a comparison that strikes fear in the hearts of millennials everywhere: that bitcoin is as much of a speculative investment as Beanie Babies were back in their heyday. Given that most millennials still have dozens of formerly valuable Beanie Babies collecting dust in their parents’ basements (sorry, Mom), that’s a pretty big warning sign and a great way to scare them away.

Oliver took his biggest swing at bitcoin’s reputation by stressing over and over how confusing it is. Bitcoin, said Oliver, is “everything you don’t understand about money combined with everything you don’t understand about computers.”

While the line was good for laughs, that pessimistic presentation can have consequences that are no joke. Presenting cryptocurrencies as a highly complex system beyond anyone’s comprehension is a huge turn-off for would-be investors. It confirms what a lot of people already fear: they’ll never be able to understand it, so they should stay away from holding it in their portfolio.

That’s bad for bitcoin. It’s even bad for people who will never have anything to do with bitcoin.

There’s more at stake than just profits. At the heart of bitcoin is the blockchain technology that enables the coins to function. That technology does a whole lot more than power a risky Ponzi scheme, as Oliver implies. In fact, experts are exploring ways that blockchain, the public digital ledger that securely records information, may be able to do all sorts of things from helping people predict and prevent cancer to reducing electoral corruption. The amazing potential of blockchain, and its critical link to bitcoin, is the part that Oliver missed—and it’s important.

Blockchain without bitcoin wouldn’t be the same. For bitcoin to exist, miners have to verify transactions on the blockchain. As an incentive to run computers performing that verification, miners are rewarded with bitcoin. Using “trustless” consensus, this mutually beneficial network keeps the system operating..

While it’s true that early adopters stand to make a lot of money if a new wave of investors swoops in, it’s not just because those early adopters got in on the ground floor of a meaningless pyramid. It’s because they believed not only in the value of the coins, but also in the new and creative blockchain technology that supports them. It’s because they continue to believe that the financial system as we know it is ready for an overhaul, and that cryptocurrencies are at the center of that overhaul.

That belief is what makes the difference between bitcoin being a gamble—as Oliver suggested it is—or being an asset in the truest sense of the word.

The show’s presentation missed this nuance. Instead, it played into the fears of the 18 percent of Americans avoiding bitcoin who think it’s nothing more than a scam and the 27 percent who say they just don’t understand it, according to a survey from personal finance website Finder.

For Oliver, investing in bitcoin—or in any cryptocurrency, for that matter—is purely about lucky guesses, dice rolls, and a clock counting down toward disaster. If enough people believe him, that may just become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If, on the other hand, enough people sign on to bitcoin and the changes it could bring, the joke may be on Oliver.

Jessica Levy is a writer on every topic imaginable and a ghostwriter helping finance and tech professionals put their ideas into words. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, TechCrunch, Forbes, VentureBeat, and more. You can learn more at her website. Disclosure: Levy's combined holdings in bitcoin, ethereum, and litecoin is less than 5 percent of her total assets.