What’s being touted in some circles as the future of money looks hardly more peaceful than its past. Bitcoin, a formerly obscure cyber-currency, is now all over the headlines with reports of bankruptcies, thefts and FBI lockdowns. If our fate is to buy and sell in bitcoins, this instability is troubling. But despite the headlines, the triumph of Bitcoin and related cyber-currencies is a lot less likely than recent commentary would suggest. One cause of all this hype? The number of people who understand what Bitcoin is seems almost immeasurably small—and that probably includes some of its users.
Money, it should be conceded, is not a simple topic. Most people understand how gold, which is something of a primal money, is mined, refined and shaped into coins. It is rare, pure, easily divisible and has been cherished over the centuries. Paper money is more complex. From 1900 through 1971 (with the exception of during World War I), the US dollar was backed by gold, meaning its value was legally defined by a certain weight of the metal. That ended in 1971, when Richard Nixon shocked the world by breaking the link to gold and allowing the dollar’s value to be determined by trading in the foreign exchange markets. The dollar is valuable not because it’s as good as gold, but because you can buy goods and services produced in the United States with it—and, crucially, it’s the only form the US government will accept for tax payments. Among the Federal Reserve’s many functions is allowing the issuance of just the right quantity of dollars—enough to keep the wheels of commerce well greased without slipping into a hyperinflationary crisis.
But Bitcoin (capitalized as a concept, lowercased when referring to units of the currency, according to American Banker) is another animal entirely. It is the first and most famous of a large and growing family of so-called “cryptocurrencies.” Others include Litecoin, Feathercoin, Songcoin (“designed for The Music Industry”), Auroracoin (Iceland only) and Dogecoin (“the fun cryptocurrency”)—but Bitcoin is by far the largest. Its origin is traced to a 2008 paper written by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto. Newsweek recently claimed to have located the real one, but he promptly denied all, so the whole thing remains quite mysterious.
According to its semi-official definition, a crypto-currency is “a peer-to-peer, decentralized, digital currency whose implementation relies on the principles of cryptography to validate the transactions and generation of the currency itself.” (While that is one dense slab of prose, to be fair to the cryptoids, it wouldn’t be easy to define the dollar succinctly either.) What this means is that Bitcoin and the rest are electronic currencies created and transferred by networked computers with no one in charge. The role of cryptography is not merely to guarantee the security of the transaction, but also to generate new units of the currency, which are “mined” by having computers solve complicated mathematical problems. Once solved, new coins are created and their birth—with digital signatures guaranteeing authenticity and uniqueness—announced to the rest of the system. The creator earns the value of the new coins when they enter the system.
Trading is done via exchanges, which communicate with other exchanges, but there is no central authority. Some trading is done online, but you can also buy bitcoins for cash in person.
The mining requires enormous amounts of computing power, though specialized processors have been developed to reduce power consumption, which in turn produce many tons of carbon. Even the most ephemeral coin has material roots.