Like many people, I’ve long regarded bitcoin’s rise with both wonder and confusion. To help me make sense of it, I started calling cryptocurrency experts and academics to ask, is bitcoin just a dumb bubble, like 17th-century tulip bulbs? An investment hedge, like gold? A currency, like dollars? The answers I got weren’t satisfyingly unanimous. I heard “all of the above” and “none of the above” and “nobody knows for sure, yet.”
Toward a More Perfect Money
What’s wrong with dollars, anyway? If you ask me, very little. I like my credit card. I don’t even mind cash.
But to others, the dollar’s dangers are glaringly obvious: a single omnipotent entity, the federal government, strictly controlling money supply and the rules that govern it. Some worry that the creation of too many dollars will lead to out-of-control inflation. “Cypherpunks have dreamed of fully decentralized electronic payment systems for decades” that would allay these concerns, writes Timothy Lee, a senior tech-policy reporter at Ars Technica who has long been on the bitcoin beat. Most digital-currency ideas, however, had the same tragic flaw—replicability. Just about everything that exists online (think text, photos, or files) can be copied. Fear of rampant counterfeiting would spell death for a digital currency.
Bitcoin solved this problem with the blockchain, an online ledger that records and validates all peer-to-peer payments to eliminate double-spending. For those inclined to less-than-legal behavior, it helps that the blockchain encrypts transactions to provide anonymity. The payment network is maintained by bitcoin “miners,” a decentralized group of individuals with powerful computers that approve transactions and are rewarded with new bitcoins for their work. The total possible supply of bitcoin in the world is capped. Thus, bitcoin solves both of the cryptopunk money problems—the blockchain thwarts centralization, and the planned scarcity of bitcoins checks inflation.
The blockchain is an ingenious and potentially transformative technology. People like Marc Andreessen, the well-known venture capitalist, have predicted that it could become the scaffolding of the entire economy, like the internet. Here’s a taste of the transformative vision from an interview Andreessen held with The Washington Post:
Digital stocks. Digital equities. Digital fundraising for companies. Digital bonds. Digital contracts, digital keys, digital title, who owns what—digital title to your house, to your car … You’ve got digital voting, digital contracts, digital signatures … And then every aspect of financial services: insurance contracts, insurance derivatives, currency exchange, remittance—on and on and on.
Nobody knows for sure whether the blockchain will transform the economy of the future, as Andreessen foresees. What’s clearer, however, is that it has not transformed the economy of today. While the number of bitcoin transactions is growing every year, it’s nothing close to a mass-market consumer technology, like Google, or Netflix, or even PayPal. Bitcoin remains cumbersome to use (the typical transaction can take up to 10 minutes) and the price is extremely volatile. It is, for now, a frankly terrible currency built on top of a potential transformative technology.