The story behind the Internet currency that’s one part science fiction, one part libertarian wet dream.
In 2009, Satoshi Nakomoto (possibly a real person, possibly a pseudonym for one or more hackers) invented Bitcoin, the first peer-to-peer currency. Bitcoin, which works along the same lines as the Bittorrent network you might use to download movies and music, isn’t the first online currency. Linden Dollars, the unit of exchange in Second Life, are widely traded and regulated by game's maker, Linden Lab. Nakomoto’s innovation was using math-heavy cryptography techniques to create a medium of exchange that doesn’t require a central authority or physical tangibility (like gold) to deter counterfeiters and regulate the money supply.
Each time bitcoins change hands, so does a transaction history encoded in a string of characters. This “hash value” or digest can be decoded by anyone with sufficient computer power and time to devote to the effort. When bitcoins are exchanged, a digest is broadcast to the network of users, a participant does the work of decoding the transaction history, and other users quickly confirm their history is accurate. (The decoders earn a 50-bitcoin bounty for their work.) This happens about once every 10 minutes. Everyone who holds the currency agrees on who owns what, which ensures people can’t copy-and-paste their way to millions or defraud other users without the whole network agreeing that it happened.
In other words, Bitcoin isn’t just a currency, it’s a massive experiment in group trust. It’s also a hint of the financial system to come and, ultimately, a scam.
You probably heard of the digital cash after it was rocked by sudden changes in value. A few weeks ago the value of the bitcoin briefly plunged to negative eight cents to the dollar as hackers crashed exchanges and digitally ransacked electronic wallets to the tune of $9 million. A single victim claims that hackers absconded with some 25,000 of his bitcoins, worth, absurdly, approximately $375,000 at present dollar-to-bitcoin exchange rates.
That’s a crazy amount of money to have stolen by someone essentially copying a file from your hard drive. And that’s just the beginning of what’s happening in the world of Bitcoin, which combines enough hackers, monetary policy cranks, and mysterious Japanese corporations to populate a Neal Stephenson novel.
Bitcoin is a libertarian’s dream come true: a steadily expanding money supply without the state getting in the way of the sweet mechanics of the market. The money changes hands without transaction fees to corporations or government tracking. That’s why Bitcoin’s most ardent supporters are folks like gold-standard advocates and hard-core Wikileaks partisans. As interest in the currency grows, tech-savvy investors have jumped into the mix, speculating with bitcoins and profiting as demand increases; early adopters reaped returns as large as 1,000 or 2,000 percent.
There are nearly 7 million bitcoins sloshing around the Internet, worth over $100 million. Should you jump in the pool? I wouldn’t recommend it.
So far, you can’t buy anything with bitcoins that you couldn’t purchase more easily with cash or a credit card. Despite rumors that Bitcoin was creating an online Hamsterdam where anonymous users could sell drugs and lord knows what else, Bitcoin isn’t truly anonymous unless you’re already taking some relatively advanced anonymity steps. Even then, Internet forensics could likely track you down.
More problematically, the economics don’t quite work. Currencies are most valuable when lots of people trust and use them frequently. But PayPal has refused to convert bitcoins to cash, and major exchanges like MtGox have fallen to hackers. A currency that you can’t convert into anything else isn’t worth, well, anything.
But the biggest problem is that, despite its anarchic design, the system presents a huge opportunity for big fish to take advantage of the Internet everyman. Ben Laurie, a respected web security expert and cryptographer, makes a compelling case that Bitcoin won’t work because it accrues such a huge advantage to people who can bring the most computing power to bear on clearing transactions. “I mean, it’s nice for the early adopters, so long as new suckers keep coming along,” he concludes. “But in the long run it’s just a pointless waste of stuff we can never get back.”
Most worrisome is the opportunity for collusion: If any single person or group controlled a majority of computing power in the network, they could rewrite the transactions to take your money. Bitcoin relies on the growth of the network to outpace any single node’s ability to control the bulk of the processing power, but one mining collective, deepbit, currently clears more than a third of all transactions. Already, hackers have used botnets, online networks of computers, to increase their ability to process transactions and mine bitcoins.
These dynamics make watching Bitcoin a lot like watching monetary history in fast-forward. Timothy B. Lee, a tech journalist, paints a convincing scenario in which Bitcoin nodes band together to seize control of the network, becoming the equivalent of online banks as they provide transaction services to everyone else. And if those banks get together to regulate the supply of money, well, that’s where central banks come from.
Ultimately, all money is based on trust. Aside from the folks who prefer to base the value of their assets on the hard work of Russian gold miners, most Americans trust dollars because we have some sense that the U.S. government isn’t going anywhere and is somewhat accountable to us. It’s hard to trust a monetary system concocted and managed by anonymous hackers who aren’t answerable to anyone.
Bitcoin still offers a glimpse of a future in which the dollar is digitized: No more wasted money printing paper and coins, and instead of stimulating the economy with handouts to banks, the government could just download money onto your USA Cash Card. But we won’t want to cede control of our future currency to profit-seeking financial companies (the main advantage of Bitcoins today is their fee-free exchange) or give the government any more ability to track our purchases than they do with cash. We’ll want a decentralized peer-to-peer monetary system that combines the advantages of Bitcoin with the purchasing power of the dollar.
Assuming, of course, that the dollar has any purchasing power left by the time we want to digitize it.