It’s difficult to watch the news or surf the Internet without running into something about Bitcoin and blockchain.
On Facebook an ad suggests the “number 1 ICO [initial coin offering] for investors” and asks, “Have you ever wanted to know the secrets of the most successful cryptocurrency traders?” Every day brings news about these “cryptocurrencies.” Bloomberg reports that Goldman Sachs is setting up a cryptocurrency trading desk. The Marker in Israel says that the Bank of Israel is looking into “digital currencies.” Israel, especially, is well placed to take advantage of the new craze but its financial regulators are also wary of becoming a hub for fraud or part of a bubble.
The first hurdle with this new world is understanding the lingo. When Long Island Iced Tea announced it was changing its name to “Long Blockchain Corp” it sought to cash in on the new fad. For shareholders this is a good deal as the stock jumped. But for others it’s just mysterious.
What is “blockchain”? One colleague described it like Google Docs for the whole world, an internationally accessible set of contracts. Wikipedia explains that these are a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, “which are linked and secured using cryptography.”
Nick Spanos, founder of the Bitcoin Center NYC in 2013 and CEO of Blockchain Technologies Corp, says that “institutions across the world use blockchain smart contracts to digitize guarantees and secure documents.”
Spanos is a co-founder of the Zap Project, which works to solve one of the biggest challenges in the blockchain industry.
Spanos says that banks and intermediaries are no longer needed for anyone, anywhere in the world to transact and enter into contracts. “These transactions happen more securely, more quickly and usually at much lower fees,” he wrote in an email. He argues that cryptocurrencies using blockchain could replace central banks one day because it is open-source. “Bitcoin represents the people’s declaration of monetary independence.”
Being versed in this new world is as important now as being versed in the Internet was for those growing up in the 1990s.
But the tsunami that is coming requires some navigation.
Bitcoin was created in 2009. It is the most well known of what are called “cryptocurrencies.”
Ripple, another coin-style payment protocol, was released in 2012.
Ethereum was founded in 2015. There are other coins as well, a “Litecoin” and even a “Putin coin.” Most famously, Bitcoin started 2017 at a price of $1,000 and was trading at almost $20,000 in mid-December. It lost some of that value on December 21, falling to around $13,000.
Cashing in on this ride has become the goal of many companies, who are seeking to find a way to access investors. But oldstyle banks and institutions such as stock markets are wary of listing companies that they see as gambling in these new technologies.
On December 19 the US Securities and Exchange Commission temporarily suspended trading in The Crypto Co. on December 19. Shares of that company had grown 17,000% in three months, according to CNN money. Now many companies are flocking to do ICO s, a kind of IPO for companies based in cryptocurrency.
For years, Bitcoin was able to percolate in the shadows, with loyalists outside the mainstream. Now that it is being subjected to the spotlight there are no shortage of critics. Harvey Pitt, a former chairman of the SEC, told CNBC that “we’re in line for some serious regulatory responses to all of this and that will be forthcoming after the first of the year.” Brad Garlinghouse, CEO of Ripple, told CNN Money that “many of the ICO s are more frauds than real businesses. The industry needs to work with regulators and not be in the shadows.”
The pushback against these currencies is not just about regulation. There is also a major push by insiders to whisper news stories to media and spread misinformation about BitCoin. Terrorism, bubbles and mass environmental disaster laying waste the world are just some of the click-bait stories. For instance Wired magazine asked in early December, “If running the bitcoin network uses up as much yearly electricity as a medium-sized country, is it worth it?” The article notes “it’s nigh on impossible to know exactly how much energy is being used.”
Wait, so then why the sub-head claiming that it uses as much as a whole country? The article admitted that the range for energy use was between 100MW and 3.4GW. Relying on the same source at “Digiconomist,” the website bigthink.com claimed that Bitcoin’s total annual energy consumption is 29.05 TWh, which “is the equivalent of .13% of the entire world’s annual energy consumption, and that is more than the individual energy consumption of 159 of the world’s countries.”
That sounds like a lot. But PRI.org, like Wired, admitted that actually, “no one knows for sure.”
If BitCoin “mining” was really taking up so much electricity, wouldn’t we see a massive energy spike in countries where these processors are based, such as China? Another criticism found online is that Bitcoin or blockchain technology isn’t nearly as good as existing systems.
“In the end the advantage of the existing human and software systems surrounding transactions... outweigh the purported benefits as well as the hidden costs,” writes Kai Stinchcombe at Medium.com.
This is an argument in favor of using credit cards or online payment systems that already exist.
Banks, credit cards and the international monetary system have an interest in casting aspersions on digital currency. It’s the same aspersions that were used to critique manufacturing leaving Western countries for China, or the same ones that were used to cast doubt on online shopping, or Uber or basically anything that is new. Major airlines don’t like discount airlines. Legacy media doesn’t like new media. Local tax authorities don’t like large Internet companies whose sales they can’t tax.
The prophets of the cryptocurrency world have a different imagination. They think that these coins can solve many problems.
You can find articles online proposing digital currency as a solution to problems for stateless people, such as Palestinians or Kurds, as a way to bypass borders. Russia, for instance, reversed course on cryptocurrencies, initially cracking down on them and then “going all in,” according to an article at Vice. “Theories range from Russia making a strategic decision to reduce its economy’s reliance on oil and gas through bullish crypotcurrency investment to Russian oligarchs looking for clever ways to avoid western sanctions,” the article claims.
In the end, the old-style financial markets want to get in on the action as well. Bitcoin futures started trading in December. This derivatives market around Bitcoin is a good way for investors who don’t want the exposure of owning the digital currency to profit.
For investors it can also mean investing in companies that are testing the waters.
Although Bitcoin itself may be a bubble, the degree to which the world is looking into blockchain and cryptocurrencies illustrates that a new world is on the horizon.
How exactly that market will mature is unclear. No one could have predicted what would follow when the first email was sent in 1971. Similarly when new websites such as SnapChat or Twitter first rolled out people mocked them as impractical. In the words of Brexit prophet Nigel Farage, “who’s laughing now?” Follow the author @Sfrantzman.