Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Dead Man’s Switch, on Discovery+

Crypto has come a long way baby, but it is still valid to ask whether it is truly money, by the classical economic definition. It can certainly function as a store of value, although it did not turn out that way for customers of QuadrigaCX. However, its lofty but fluctuating exchange rate does not make it practical as a medium of exchange or a measure of value. Prices that go on for eight or nine decimal places simply are not efficient. Yet, only Paul Krugman would argue crypto has no value (for the record, I’m suggesting it is too valuable to serve as currency). As a result, many people were ruined by the mysterious disappearance of their QuadrigaCX holdings. The murky circumstances surrounding the death of the exchange’s co-founder and the subsequent exchange lock-out are chronicled in Sheona McDonald’s Dead Man’s Switch, which premieres tomorrow on Discovery+.

There was a time when QuadrigaCX was Canada’s largest exchange. Founders Gerald Cotten and Michael Patryn came around at the right time and they shrewdly courted the Vancouver crypto community. Cotten was the Zuckerbergish public face of the company, so when he had a falling out with Patryn, he became the only one with access to Quadriga’s off-line “cold wallets.” That meant when he died while visiting India (for rather uncharacteristic reasons) nobody could access the bulk of the crypto investments parked in the exchange.

Millions of dollars-Canadian were lost, spurring fruitless audits and litigation. Not surprisingly, many of Quadriga’s creditors started to suspect Cotten faked his death and absconded with their Coins when the founders’ scandalous background came to light. McDonald does a great job handling this line of inquiry. She never indulges in fanciful speculation, but what she uncovers in India is definitely grounds for suspicion. In fact, it is utterly bizarre and undeniably fishy.

McDonald and her talking heads also nicely explain the essentials of crypto crime and the factors that contributed to Quadriga’s rise and fall, in ways that are smart but layman friendly. Not surprisingly, a lot of the principals were unwilling to talk to her, or they are supposedly dead, but she cleverly includes her due diligence efforts to reach out to Patryn (a.k.a. Omar Dahani) and Cotten’s wife and ostensive heir, Jennifer Robertson. Ironically, their evasiveness heightens the sense of mystery. The sheer weirdness of the tale is entertaining, but the film also makes it clear small investors were badly hurt by the loss of their holdings.

Dead Man’s Switch
(so titled because Cotten presumably did not have one) is probably the brainiest true crime documentary of the last few years (even more so than Gibney’s The Inventor). We still do not know the full story of Quadriga, but McDonald and company make it clear a heck of a lot of strange mischief was going on behind the scenes and hold viewers’ attention every step of the way. Enthusiastically recommended, Dead Man’s Switch starts streaming tomorrow (12/23) on Discovery+.