There has been a long history of secondary currencies that compete with, or work alongside, dollars, though most have avoided trying to become a universal store-all. Frequent-flier points are a basic currency, and there are no shortage of credit cards that reward dollar debt with points that can be redeemed at retailers like Amazon or Best Buy. Credit itself is a kind of virtual currency, trading abstract accounting units that are only converted to dollars at the endpoints.
If the sudden popularity in Bitcoin does represent something revolutionary, it is part of a growing series of movements seeking to offer an alternative way of organizing society without relying on government paternalism. To wit, some of the most popular uses of Bitcoin have been in commerce for drugs, one of the most heavily regulated products in America.
What makes Bitcoin so appealing is not ultimately economic philosophy or fiscal theory, but the freedom from our present constraints. Like Occupy, the Tea Party, and the Anti-Globalization movements, Bitcoin is part of a wave of experimentation trying to imagine a world without centralized government authorities interfering in our daily lives.
The curiosity in Bitcoin is the latest moment of romantic experimentation of what life might be like without dependence on a central government and the idea that perpetual change produces perpetual goodness. Like gold-standard partisans, Bitcoin enthusiasts don't offer an especially convincing argument for a better world, nor do they address the challenges of what human civilization might be like without any kind of currency at all.
All the same, Bitcoin has inspired an irrefutable stirring of revolutionary thought that can only come when enough people start to feel there is something fundamentally inadequate about our present.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.