His tune changed when he transferred to the University of Michigan in January. His roommate, Kinnard Hockenhull, is involved in a Bitcoin startup, and the other man was thrilled to have a sounding board.
Fired up by Hockenhull, Gardner began to read more about Bitcoin. The more he read, the more aware he became of its possible applications as a commodity, a currency and a transaction network. Meanwhile, he was obsessively reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers in advance of a scheduled Jan. 27 appearance by the author in Ann Arbor. He was particularly fascinated by Gladwell's analysis of the fact that 14 of the richest people who ever lived were all Americans born within a nine-year period in the middle of the 19th century. Evidently they were born late enough to foresee the Industrial Revolution, the building of the railroads and the rise of Wall Street, but not so late that they weren't able to capitalize on these events. A similar pattern emerged in the early days of the personal computer revolution, and again at the dawn of the commercial Internet.
"Every single day, I would read this Gladwell chapter, and I would read a bit more about Bitcoin," Gardner says.
Finally, at 2 a.m. on the night before Gladwell was scheduled to speak, Gardner was struck with the realization that Bitcoin may represent yet another watershed moment. "Holy shit, this may be it," he thought. "This is one of those major revolutions."
From that moment, he was hooked. He became active in the Bitcoin club at the University of Michigan, which is how he found himself on Feb. 5 on a videoconference call with Bloch, Elitzer and three other guys, members of the Bitcoin clubs at MIT and Stanford. Before long, they were agreeing to launch the CCN, with Michigan as its head chapter.
The network came out of stealth mode on March 25, announcing itself in a guest post for Bitcoin advocate Ryan Selkis's email newsletter. "At the CCN, we plan to relentlessly promote the spread of Bitcoin and related technologies like a megachurch pastor on Sunday morning cable," the founders wrote.
The response from universities around the world has surprised even them. The network already counts some 16 established member clubs -- among them Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania -- with some two dozen more in the works, including clubs in China, Australia and Europe. The parent organization intends to provide "educational resources, administrative documents, marketing materials and regional contacts that might be needed for a college student to start a crypto club at their school," Gardner and Bloch wrote in their March 25 announcement.
Gardner is in the final stages of filing for 501(c)(3) status for the CCN, and he has decided on a big initiative for chapters in 2014: getting their universities to accept Bitcoin donations. There is a precedent: Earlier this year, Nicolas Cary, the chief executive of Blockchain, made a gift of $10,000 in bitcoins to the University of Puget Sound, his alma mater. But that was a one-time thing, Cary says, and he had a hell of a time making it happen. The school had no policy for handing digital currency gifts. In the end, administrators set up an account with BitPay, a payment processor, to accept the funds.
Gardner already knows what such a process would look like at the University of Michigan. Donors would be able to make Bitcoin gifts in two ways: either through a Coinbase-powered widget on the Michigan site (if they had a Coinbase account), or by sending bitcoins directly from the digital wallet of their choice to the university's own wallet address. The bitcoins in each transaction would be instantly converted into dollars in order to shield the university from Bitcoin's infamous price volatility. Coinbase already provides this service for Overstock and other retailers.
Before settling on Coinbase, Gardner spoke with representatives of BitPay and Circle. All three were interested, he says. "This could eventually lead to tuition payments and the like in Bitcoin, which would be massive. So there's a lot on the line for them."