Money is one of the oldest technologies. It’s older than written language; we know this because the first writing we find is keeping track of transactions. Money has held many forms (rock, bone, metal, paper, cloth, plastic, etc.), each generation of token ideally being more portable and harder to forge. Portability, (ease of moving around the tokens) increases what you can do with it, while forgeability describes how secure it is against counterfeiters.
Modern online banking is essentially impossible to forge, and is vastly more portable than physical tokens because it exists on controlled central banking networks. For those with access to modern banks, money has never been more free to move around. Enter Bitcoin; it is no less forgeable than its predecessor, but it’s portability is exponentially increased, and being decentralized it introduces a new feature, it’s open to everyone.
What is Bitcoin?
At first glance bitcoin appears very similar to how we already transact in the developed world; it’s “just” digital money. We already have paypal, venmo, online banking, and credit cards that allow us to move our money around. However, to call bitcoin similar is making a huge mistake and vastly misunderstanding its concept, philosophy, and power.
Modern banking services are exclusive to the developed world and only accessed with the permission of for-profit, private institutions, the gatekeepers of local and global money transfer. In the developing world there are billions of people without access to any bank, and many more have limited access to even basic services. Often there’s little competition which stifles innovation and increases monopolistic practices. It’s these citizens of our global society that stand to benefit most from this technology in an immediate sense.
Bitcoin is a decentralized money, a peer-to-peer means of exchanging value. There are several layers to this concept alone; most significantly, that bitcoin is fundamentally different from anything we have ever contemplated. This makes it difficult to understand the implications or benefits of such a revolutionary technology. It’s an epochal shift in how we can transact and store value.
This system can be accessed by everyone, anywhere, anytime. It is neutral, trans-national, it’s freedom of money. Bitcoin itself requires no personal information or account creation through a business, nation, or organization. One simply generates keys and is free to transact with anyone. There isn’t a central authority to dictate who can and can’t use the network, no gatekeepers, no one to freeze payments or hold funds.
How is Bitcoin Secure?
I think people are well-justified to be skeptical of bitcoin’s security, it’s often touted as “unhackable” or “immutable”. I try not to speak in absolutes; so I simply state that it’s not worth trying to hack because its security lies in cryptography and game-theory.
If you guessed my private key you could spend coins associated with that address. Computers can guess many times in a second, but even with every computer on the planet it would take much longer than the universe has existed to guess the private keys to a single bitcoin address. This is still true even with 1,000 earths worth of computing power. This is cryptographic security.
Game theory sounds daunting but it’s easy to understand, it’s “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.” In bitcoin this manifests through “proof of work” which amounts to “miners” using computers to do lots of math problems, the results of which get embedded in the transaction record (the blockchain), and they receive rewards for their effort of mining a block. Miners are incentivized to contribute to the system.
So what if we try to cheat?
The amount of money and resources required to assemble enough computing power to even attempt to cheat the system (the “51% attack”) would cost more than any benefits of doing so because the attack has no guarantee of working, and it would be obvious to anyone looking at the transaction record. In some cases the cheating transaction could be routed-around, essentially erased, negating all the work put in by the attacker who still had to pony up all the computing hardware and electricity. It’s simply more profitable to take those computing resources and just mine bitcoins instead of attempting an attack. Game theory at its finest.
Many criticize the computing power and electricity “wasted” on bitcoin mining. Another perspective is that all this computational expenditure is quite intentional because it maintains the security of the system. It’s analogous to mining gold; gold ore is just a pile of rocks that require significant extraction and refining to yield highly valuable and useful gold.
Bitcoin’s proof of work is so-called because the blockchain is evidence of massive computation, that computation equals security. The security is what makes bitcoin valuable. The proof of work is the proof that energy and computing power were expended in securing a history that can never be altered.
Furthermore, renewable energy is increasingly providing electricity for bitcoin miners mitigating environmental concerns. We can also compare it with the environmental impact and cost of continuously replacing paper currencies in hundreds of countries, gold mining resources “wasted” on gold just to sit in vaults, or all of the concrete and steel poured into thousands of banks across the globe.
What can it do?
At the time of this publication citizens of Venezuela are losing purchasing power of their money by 25,000% per year, and the IMF predicts it will reach a million percent by the end of 2018. Their failing government continues printing more money robbing constituents of their savings and there are daily limits to how much Venezuelans can withdraw from the banks and huge lines of people trying to get their evaporating money.
When this happened in Zimbabwe and people needed wheelbarrows full of money to buy a single loaf of bread the residents had little recourse. But some Venezuelan locals are turning to crypto-currencies to flee the currency crisis, escape the inflation, and protect their ability to acquire food and shelter. It’s capital flight away from a national currency without having to even leave their neighborhood because their $20 cell phone can now act like a global bank.
Global remittances account for over 500 billion dollars a year. International money transfer services require physically being near the local office during business hours. A fair amount of coordination is required to find an institution with local access in both countries. Transfers can take days to clear, and fees vary wildly and make it difficult to transfer small amounts. Bitcoin can send a transaction at any time from your phone to anywhere on the globe in seconds with negligible fees without any intermediary. It’s not hard to see why in some places this industry is being heavily disrupted.
Credit cards are a “pull” system, meaning you give out your card number and anyone can pull money from it, this model is the cause of credit and debit card fraud. If your card info is ever compromised you will need a replacement card and sometimes have to fight with institutions for weeks, months, or years to get your money back or have your credit restored. Bitcoin is a “push” system, only you can spend your money. No fees or extra charges can ever be added without you manually sending them. Automatic payments can be set up on your end, but never “their” end.
Bitcoin is programmable and flexible, allowing money to flow around the world as easily as cat videos and memes. It can mimic the way we do business currently when we desire, but, so much more is possible that will never be viable with our current systems. In fact, we haven’t even figured out what yet is possible because innovation has just begun.
Until now the only ones that could innovate in the financial space are those with the connections to permissioned worldwide banking network. Now, a 19 year-old has created a world-computer whereby the programs can never be silenced and money itself can be deterministically programmed.
Ultimately this enables anyone to write the next killer app (an application that can program money) without permission from anyone. This opens the door to escrow services, crowd-lending, crowd-funding, global markets, and more, all without any kind of middleman or business deciding the rules or taking a cut.
It’s a free market of money. And we are just getting started.