Since he was 11, Gardner has been determined to leave the world better than he found it. He grew up the sort of person on whom global warming weighs heavily. He had always assumed the future held for him a life of public service, a career in politics. The son of a leading expert in Confucianism, he discovered Sun Tzu's The Art of War in high school and it came as a revelation.
Things flowed naturally from there: At Bard College, where he was an honors student, he built his own major, political strategy -- blending elements of political studies, economics, psychology and military strategy. For the last of these, he obtained special permission to take classes at West Point, the military academy.
In the fall of 2013, he joined the campaign of Maura Healey, who was running for attorney general of Massachusetts. And that's where his life plan went sideways. Although Gardner believed Healey was the best candidate and deserved to win, he soon became disgusted with the role of money in politics, with the sheer amount of time that has to be spent raising funds rather than shaping policy, and he left.
For the first time in years, he didn't know what the future held. "There was this void in my life, where I wondered how I was going to change the world," he says.
Bitcoin has filled that void. It is a technology that Gardner believes could lead to the betterment of millions of lives. As a global transaction network, it could be used for remittances -- the practice of workers, usually recent immigrants, sending a portion of their pay back home to their families in another country. Remittances are a $550 billion industry, according to the World Bank. Established international money transmitters Western Union and MoneyGram charge fees as high as 10 percent for some amounts and destinations.
One the other hand, all-in-one Bitcoin companies like Coinbase offer the ability to buy and sell bitcoins for fiat currency, store them in a cloud-hosted wallet and send and receive them from others. At most, users pay a 1 percent fee for transactions. (A payments industry insider recently confided to me that legacy money transmitters like Western Union and MoneyGram are seriously concerned about Bitcoin.)
"I think it's an incredibly democratizing technology," Gardner says. "All of a sudden, people who have come to America for the American Dream, and are trying to support their family back in Kenya, and are driving a taxi in New York, and who don't want to give 9 percent of their hard-earned cash to Western Union -- Bitcoin allows them to do that. That alone is a worthy cause for me to pursue."
But that potential wasn't immediately apparent to Gardner. Like many people, he first heard of Bitcoin in connection with Silk Road, the online black market which the FBI shut down last fall and which has since been resurrected under new management. Curious, he visited the site and poked around, but didn't buy anything. "Nothing I really want to get myself arrested for," he thought.
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By the fall of 2013, however, some of Gardner's more tech-savvy friends were telling him to buy bitcoins. He had doubts about its real value, but it sounded like easy money. His aunt had taught him the basic precepts of investing; he had been buying stocks for years. If Bitcoin was a bubble, it was one he could ride with a fair amount of confidence.
Moreover, he began to be convinced that the shutdown of Silk Road that October would lead to a surge in Bitcoin's value. He traded a few thousand dollars for bitcoins when the digital currency was worth about $140. He sold when the price went above $1,000.
So far, so profit. But Gardner wasn't willing to commit myself to understanding the technology behind this weird speculative commodity. Not yet.