Bitcoin has been a hot topic in the news over the last few weeks.
The digital currency has its adherents. The Winklevoss twins, made famous by the movie Social Network after suing Mark Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing the concept of Facebook, now purportedly own millions of dollars worth of Bitcoins.
It also has its detractors. Paul Krugman has argued that the whole enterprise is misguided. Bitcoin aficionados are, he writes, “misled by the desire to divorce the value of money from the society it serves”.
Still others cannot seem to make up their mind. Digital advocacy group, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) accepted Bitcoin donations for a time, but became uncomfortable with its ambiguous legal status and shady associations, such as with the online black market Silk Road, and decided to stop accepting Bitcoin in 2011. A couple of years on and the EFF’s activism director is speaking at a conference on Bitcoin 2013: The Future of Payments.
Recent media interest has been fuelled by the extraordinary roller-coaster ride that is the Bitcoin price. In early April, online trading saw Bitcoins changing hands for over US$200. At the time of writing, prices are back below US$100. As with many markets, it’s hard to say exactly what is driving the price. Speculators, like the Winklevoss twins, buying Bitcoins will have helped push up prices, while reports that Silk Road has suffered both a deflation-driven collapse in activity and hacking attacks may have contributed to the down-swings.
Although not obvious on the chart above, dramatic price movements are nothing new for Bitcoin. Switching to a logarithmic scale makes the picture clearer. After all, a $2 fall from a price of $10 is just as significant as a $40 fall from a price of $200. The 60% fall from $230 to $91 over April has certainly been dramatic. But back in June 2011, after reaching peak of almost $30, the price fell by 90% within a few months.
The volatility of Bitcoin prices is orders of magnitude higher than traditional currencies. Since the start of the year the price of gold has been tumbling, with a consequent spike in its price volatility. Even so, Bitcoin’s volatility is almost ten times higher. The chart below compares the volatilities of Bitcoin, gold and the Australian dollar (AUD).
A week or so ago, armed with this data, I was well advanced in my plans for a blog post taking Bitcoin as the basis for a reflection on the nature of money. I would start with some of the traditional, text-book characteristics of money. A medium of exchange? Bitcoin ticks this box, with a growing range of online businesses accepting payment in Bitcoin (including WordPress, so not just underground drug sites). A store of value? That’s more dubious, given the extremely high volatility. It may appeal to speculators, but with daily volatility of around 15%, it’s hard to argue that it is a low risk place to park your cash. A unit of account? Again, the volatility gets in the way.
That was the plan, until a conversation with a colleague propelled me in a different direction.
She asked me what this whole Bitcoin business was all about. Breezily, I claimed to know all about it, having first written about Bitcoin two years ago and then again a year later. I launched into a description of the cryptographic basis for the operation of Bitcoin and went on to talk about its extreme volatility.
I then remarked that when I first wrote about it, it was only worth about $1, but had since risen to over $200.
“So,” she asked, “did you buy any back then?”
That shut me up for a moment.
Of course I hadn’t bought any. What gave me pause was not that I had missed an investment opportunity that would have returned 20,000%, but that I was so caught up in the theory of Bitcoin that it had not occurred to me to see what transacting in Bitcoin was actually like in practice. So I resolved to buy some.
This turned out not to be so easy. While there are many Bitcoin exchanges, paying for Bitcoins means jumping through a few hoops. Perhaps because the whole philosophy of Bitcoin is to bypass the traditional banking system. Perhaps because banks don’t like the look of most of them and will not provide them with credit card services. Whatever the reason, your typical Bitcoin exchange will not accept credit card payments. Many insist on copies of a passport or driver’s licence before allowing wire transactions, neither of which I would be prepared to provide.
Eventually I found BitInnovate, which allows the purchase of Bitcoin through Australian bank branches. Even so, the process was an elaborate one. After placing an order on the site, payment must be made in person (no online transfers), in cash, at a branch within four hours of placing the order. If payment is not made, the order is cancelled. Elaborate, but manageable, and no identification is required.
But before I could proceed, I had to set myself up with a Bitcoin wallet. As a novice, I chose the standard Bitcoin-Qt application. I downloaded and installed the software, and then it began to “synchronise transactions”. This gets to the heart of how bitcoins work. As a purely digital currency, they are based on “public key cryptography”, which is also the basis for all electronic commerce across the internet. The way I make a Bitcoin payment to, say, Bob is to electronically sign it over to him using my secret “private key”. Anyone with access to my “public key” can then verify that the Bitcoin now belongs to Bob not me. Likewise, the way I get a Bitcoin in the first place is to have it signed over to me from someone else. In case you are wondering what one of these Bitcoin public keys looks like, mine is 1Q31t2vdeC8XFdbTc2J26EsrPrsL1DKfzr. Feel free to make Bitcoin donations to the Mule using that code!
In this way, rather than relying on a trusted third party (such as a bank), to keep track of transactions, the ownership of every one of the approximately 11 million Bitcoins is established by the historical trail of transactions going back to when each one was first “mined”. Actually, it’s worse than that, because Bitcoin transactions can involve fractions of a Bitcoin as well.
So, when my Bitcoin wallet told me it needed to “synchronise transactions”, what it meant was that it was about to download a history of every single Bitcoin transaction ever. No problem, I thought. Two days and 9 gigabytes (!) later, I was ready for action. Now I could have avoided this huge download by using an online Bitcoin wallet instead, but then I would have been back to trusting a third party, which rather defeats the purpose.
The cryptographic transaction trail may be the brilliant insight that makes Bitcoin work and I knew all about in it theory. But in practice, it may well also be Bitcoin’s fatal flaw. Today, a new wallet will download around 10 gigabytes of data to get started, and that figure will only grow over time. The more successful Bitcoin is, the higher the barrier to entry for new users will become. I suspect that means Bitcoin will either fail completely or simply remain a niche novelty.
Still, it is an interesting novelty, and despite the challenges, I decided to continue with my investigations and managed to buy a couple of Bitcoins. The seller’s commission was $20 and falling prices have since cost me another $20 or so. So, I am down on the deal, but, as I have been telling myself, I bought these Bitcoins on scientific rather than investment grounds.
Of course, if the price goes for another run, I reserve the right to change my explanation.