When the virtual currency bitcoin was released, in January 2009, it appeared to be an interesting way for people to trade among themselves in a secure, low-cost, and private fashion. The Bitcoin network, designed by an unknown programmer with the handle “Satoshi Nakamoto,” used a decentralized peer-to-peer system to verify transactions, which meant that people could exchange goods and services electronically, and anonymously, without having to rely on third parties like banks. Its medium of exchange, the bitcoin, was an invented currency that people could earn—or, in Bitcoin’s jargon, “mine”—by lending their computers’ resources to service the needs of the Bitcoin network. Once in existence, bitcoins could also be bought and sold for dollars or other currencies on online exchanges. The network seemed like a potentially useful supplement to existing monetary systems: it let people avoid the fees banks charge and take part in noncash transactions anonymously while still guaranteeing that transactions would be secure.
Yet over the past year and a half Bitcoin has become, for some, much more. Instead of a supplement to the dollar economy, it’s been trumpeted as a competitor, and promoters have conjured visions of markets where bitcoins are a dominant medium of exchange. The hyperbole is out of proportion with the more mundane reality. Tens of thousands of bitcoins are traded each day (some for goods and services, others in exchange for other currencies), and several hundred businesses, mostly in the digital world, now take bitcoins as payment. That’s good for a new monetary system, but it’s not disruptive growth. Still, the excitement is perhaps predictable. Setting aside Bitcoin’s cool factor—it might just as well have leapt off the pages of Neal Stephenson’s cult science-fiction novel Snow Crash—a peer-to-peer electronic currency uncontrolled by central bankers or politicians is a perfect object for the anxieties and enthusiasms of those frightened by the threats of inflation and currency debasement, concerned about state power and the surveillance state, and fascinated with the possibilities created by distributed, decentralized systems.
Bitcoin is not going to make government-backed currencies obsolete. But while the system’s virtues, such as anonymity and the lack of bank fees, may not matter much to most consumers, one can envision it being useful in a variety of niche markets (some legal, others not, like recreational drugs). Where anonymity is valuable, where trusted third parties are hard to find or charge high rates, and where persistently high inflation is a problem, it’s possible that bitcoins could in fact flourish as an alternative currency.
Before they become such an alternative, though, the system will have to overcome a major, and surprising, problem: people have come to see it primarily as a way to make money. In other words, instead of being used as a currency, bitcoins are today mostly seen as (and traded as) an investment. There’s a good reason for that: as people learned about Bitcoin, the value of bitcoins, in dollar terms, skyrocketed. In July 2010, after the website Slashdot ran an item that introduced the currency to the public (or at least the public enthusiastic about new technologies), the value of bitcoins jumped tenfold in five days. Over the next eight months, the value rose tenfold again. This attracted an enormous amount of publicity. More important, it also made people think that buying and holding bitcoins was an easy way to make a buck. As a result, many—probably most—Bitcoin users are acquiring bitcoins not in order to buy goods and services but to speculate. That’s a bad investment decision, and it also hurts Bitcoin’s prospects.
True believers in Bitcoin’s usefulness prefer to deny that speculation is driving the action in bitcoins. But the evidence suggests otherwise. The value of the currency has been tremendously volatile over the past year. A bitcoin has been worth as little as a few pennies and as much as $33, and after seeming to stabilize at around $14 over the summer, the bitcoin’s value tumbled by almost 50 percent in a matter of days in August. Media coverage has had an outsized impact on the value of bitcoins, even when it has not had a major impact on the number of transactions conducted. Blog posts in which people talk about buying bitcoins because of how much they’ve increased in value are common. In May, Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, which focuses on patent and copyright reform, posted that he had decided to put all his savings into Bitcoin. Although he had previously published a series of posts arguing for the bitcoin’s viability as a currency, his first listed reason for investing in bitcoins was that their value had risen a thousandfold against the U.S. dollar in the previous 14 months. That’s classic speculative thinking.