Opening Pandora’s box: Why cryptocurrency is here to stay

Today I wish to discuss something mundane: Bitcoin doesn’t work. Bitcoin is an interesting but flawed experiment that was abandoned by its creator(s) a few years after setting it up. Some of the main flaws Bitcoin suffers from are as following:

  • The network is stuck with a hardcoded 1MB anti-spam measure that prevents the system from scaling. Transaction capacity can’t be increased at this point without causing an implosion of the community. Consensus on what should replace the hardcoded 1MB anti-spam limit seems impossible to achieve, so this arbitrary limit remains in place.
  • The network uses an unsophisticated method to reach consensus on the transactions that should be accepted. The double-spending problem is solved by forcing everyone to make pointless math calculations. This method is simultaneously used to solve the distribution question. The result is that the protocol now utilizes 0.25% of the global electricity supply to function, according to conservative estimates.
  • The amount of electricity currently used per individual transaction on the network can be expected to be roughly somewhere between 10 and 100 dollar. This means that even a 100-fold increase in transaction capacity, even without a subsequent increase in value of the currency, would still leave us with an enormous amount of money spent on electricity per transaction. This money would need to be coughed up by the network’s participants themselves, in the absence of the block reward. To put it in different terms: A bitcoin transaction currently uses an estimated 400,000 times more electricity than a VISA transaction. Even a 100-fold increase in transaction capacity would leave us with an absurd waste of resources, the cost of which will eventually find its way back to the userbase.
  • Game theory predicts┬áthe system can’t function properly anymore once the block reward becomes negligible, as the miners receive a financial incentive not to confirm all transactions that fit into a block and to start forking the blockchain, rather than properly mining on top of previous blocks. The system’s credibility however, is based on the promise that no more than 21 million coins will ever come into existence.
  • Economic forces lead to the emergence of specialized devices to mine transactions and a concentration of mining capacity in pools. Because electricity prices are relatively low in China, the power to validate transactions has now ended up in the hands of a handful of wealthy Chinese men. This is the antithesis of a decentralized system. Most conventional currencies could be argued to be more decentralized, as in contrast to the mining pool operates, there is at least generally a sense of democratic accountability.
  • In the absence of full blocks, mining pools have a financial incentive to spam the network to drive up transaction fees. The system however isn’t designed to properly handle transaction fees. The result is a situation in which the network goes through chaotic fluctuations in transaction fees. It’s effectively impossible to judge what the proper fee for a transaction should be, as users who create transactions at a later point in time can add higher fees to end up further ahead of the line. Regular users often end up spending months with their bitcoins in limbo, only regaining access once the value of their coins has declined by half or more.

This doesn’t mean the Bitcoin experiment has been completely pointless. A few interesting accomplishments were made:

  • The ability to anonymously receive an inherently scarce digital asset without centralized control allowed people to avoid economic blockades. This proved useful for political whistleblowers like Wikileaks, although it can be used by isolated authoritarian regimes like North Korea too.
  • The relatively high degree of anonymity awarded by the currency enabled the emergence of online marketplaces for prohibited substances. This isolated drug dealers from one another and thereby prevented dealers from murdering their competition. Prices thus went down and deaths declined as well. In addition, the online marketplaces delivered access to prohibited substances to people who would otherwise have no access to them. The marketplaces also allow people to anonymously leave reviews for drug dealers, thereby leading to safer drugs.
  • An effective system for the possession of wealth in a manner that can’t be reached by authorities was created. A Bitcoin user maintains at all times plausible deniability in regards to his possession of bitcoins. Inheritances can be passed on through cryptocurrency without estate taxes and economic transactions can be made without VAT or income taxes. Criminals can lock away their wealth, outside of the reach of authorities. This is not per definition a positive societal development, but fits within the agenda of those with an anarcho-capitalist ideological orientation.
  • Criminals who make threats against their victims can receive payments in an anonymous manner. In the past, kidnapping cases were often solved once the criminals sought to collect the reward. Criminals can now engage in blackmail and other criminal acts, without a significant risk of getting caught upon receiving the reward. Very few people would consider this to be a positive societal development, but it is nonetheless a reality that has had a significant effect in determining the kind of society we will live in for the foreseeable future.

For the above four reasons, the value of Bitcoin isn’t zero. There are situations in which a person would want to use cryptocurrency, where no other currently known alternative could do a better job. This doesn’t mean that no superior alternative will come along. Simultaneously however, the reality remains that no alternative will necessarily solve all of the issues with Bitcoin. Genuinely understanding Bitcoin is irreconcilable with seeing it as a viable long-term investment.

Its value won’t decline to zero however, its main use will be as a nostalgic reminder of the world’s first iteration of a phenomenon that will revolutionize the world: Cryptocurrency. To argue the value of Bitcoin should be zero makes as much sense as arguing the value of one of van Gogh’s paintings should be equal to the value of the canvas on which it was painted. Scarcity and cultural relevance are sufficient to give something value, despite having no practical use.

For this reason, I’m willing to make the following bold predictions:

  • There will be cryptocurrencies that are better in certain aspects than Bitcoin, without having any disadvantages compared to Bitcoin. For this reason, Bitcoin will cease to dominate the cryptocurrency market. Within the next few years, Bitcoin’s market dominance will decline below 10%.
  • There will be no single cryptocurrency however, that is capable of solving every single one of Bitcoin’s flaws. We don’t have flying cars today, because the properties that make for a great car, make for a bad airplane and vice versa. Similarly, solving some of Bitcoin’s flaws, makes it difficult to solve the other flaws. A really good anonymous coin can’t have a proof of stake protocol as that needs you to prove your ownership of a particular share of the supply, thereby undermining your anonymity. At the same time, the proof of stake protocol is the most effective method to render the currency as a whole safe from control by malicious actors.
  • Governments will cease treating cryptocurrency as a single monolithic phenomenon but will instead introduce legislation related to specific iterations of the phenomenon. Ownership of Monero for example might very well become illegal in some jurisdictions, while ownership of other cryptocurrencies is tolerated.
  • Outside actors will actively intervene in the cryptocurrency phenomenon. If white hats gain control of a botnet that currently controls more than half a cryptocurrency’s hashpower, why not carry out a 51% attack against the currency, if the currency is predominantly used by criminals? Why wouldn’t China eventually want to have a say in regards to which transactions are confirmed on the Bitcoin blockchain? If coins belonging to a hacker or North Korea can be reliably identified, the Chinese government might very well choose to prohibit miners from mining on top of blocks that process transactions using such coins.
  • Cryptocurrency will become a mainstream investment, but most investors will seek out parties that store the coins on their behalf.
  • Bitcoin will eventually cease to be fungible, although some other cryptocurrencies will maintain genuine fungibility. Anonymity promoting techniques won’t manage to keep up with blockchain analysis on the Bitcoin protocol. White listed bitcoins will trade at a premium compared to non-white listed Bitcoins, which means that non-white listed bitcoins end up de facto blacklisted.
  • The dark net markets won’t disappear and the online drug trade will merely grow dramatically in the years ahead. Instead, the markets will become decentralized and cease needing any central administrators who could perform exit scams or hand the site over to authorities.
  • A growing number of freelancers will choose to be paid through cryptocurrencies. Illegal tax evasion in general will grow dramatically, as a consequence of the cryptocurrency phenomenon. Governments will generally respond to this trend by increasing the tax burden on those who play by the rules, which will merely increase the problem of tax evasion. It will become common practice for criminals to store a portion of their wealth in the form of cryptocurrency, as a form of insurance for their families.

Finally, my two most bold predictions are as following:

  • Cryptocurrencies will emerge that will function as online autonomous organizations, with a desire to impose their influence on the real world (meat space). Cryptocurrencies can function as efficient voting systems and delegates can be chosen who can administer a budget on behalf of the owners of a coin. In the long run, token-based online systems of political association will come into existence that could be considered analogous to governments.
  • Cryptocurrency will eventually come to be recognized as the most socially disruptive technological phenomenon of the 21st century. Whereas most recent technological innovations have centralized power in the hands of state actors, cryptocurrency has had the opposite effect. China is losing control over the outflow of capital from the nation, imprisoned drug dealers have secret fortunes the government can’t seize and can’t prove beyond reasonable doubt, while diplomatically isolated regimes continue to function by hacking cryptocurrency exchanges.

The case can be made that cryptocurrency delivers no significant positive contribution to society and causes more harm than good. This case can be made for gunpowder too. It can’t be credibly argued however, that cryptocurrency won’t leave a significant mark on the evolution of human social organization in the information age. Pandora’s box has been opened and we’re going to have to deal with the consequences, whether we like it or not.

3 Comments

  1. “Scarcity and cultural relevance are sufficient to give something value, despite having no practical use.”

    Although you do not explicitly mention it, but you seem to adhere to a commodity theory of money. This is a misunderstanding of what money is. Money inherently is credit, as David Graeber showed in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. If we follow the ideas of Modern Monetary Theory, this means that a monetary instrument is one which holds a promise of the issuer to take its currency back, for instance as acceptance for taxes, historically the most popular use case. A unit of a currency is then both an asset for the holder and a liability for the issuer. In the case of cryptocurrencies, there is no issuer who makes such a promise, meaning it is a commodity. Compared to gold or bananas (or a Van Gogh) however, there is no real underlying value except what someone else might pay for it. Hence cryptocurrencies are inherently an instrument of speculation, dependent on getting new greater fools that take over the assets from lesser fools. It’s a modern variant of a Ponzi scheme.

    In order for cryptocurrencies to work, the changes it would need to undergo will show that the whole concept is not that revolutionary. It will mean that a lot of processes get automated. But seeing as currently most of our currency doesn’t exist in physical form, again this is hardly revolutionary.

    • I don’t think this abstract theoretical speculation on what constitutes money is really directly relevant to the value of cryptocurrency. It’s mostly used by economists and investors to wave away a novel phenomenon they don’t comprehend.

      If anything, the model doesn’t fit the observation: We can imagine cryptocurrency’s value should be zero, but it has been around for eight years now and there’s no clear evidence that the phenomenon is approaching a value of zero anytime soon. When the theoretical model contradicts the observations, the model must be incorrect.

      Why is that? If I anonymously want to buy drugs on the Internet or order someone killed, I’m going to need cryptocurrency, rather than conventional currency. In other words, regardless of whether the issuer will take it back or not, I need cryptocurrency. Combine that with the fact that individual cryptocurrencies are scarce by design, and we have two factors that lead us to expect cryptocurrencies to have value.

      You argue that cryptocurrencies need to change to work, but the evidence demonstrates that they happen to work as we speak. People use darknet markets to buy drugs these days. Individual currencies might be unsustainable, there may be ways of doing it better, but there’s no reason to assume the phenomenon itself can’t function, we merely have to look at the markets today to comprehend this simple fact.

      • “It’s mostly used by economists and investors to wave away a novel phenomenon they don’t comprehend.”

        That’s just a weak argument. “It’s different this time.”

        “We can imagine cryptocurrency’s value should be zero, but it has been around for eight years now and there’s no clear evidence that the phenomenon is approaching a value of zero anytime soon. When the theoretical model contradicts the observations, the model must be incorrect.”

        If you study the market, it’s quite clear that it’s solely fueled by speculation. So actually, the model is correct. The underlying value is zero, which explains all the wild swings in prices and the current bear market.

        “You argue that cryptocurrencies need to change to work, but the evidence demonstrates that they happen to work as we speak.”

        The evidence at the moment mostly demonstrates how it doesn’t work. It’s not a store of value at all (see all the price swings). Outside of illegal activities, the commodity of digital tokens is not accepted. Because it’s not a store of value it’s not a great unit of account at all. Even at the simple task of being a better way to process payments it fails, as you have pointed out yourself.

        Of course some actual usable currencies might emerge, but they will not resemble this current market in any way. Some mutual credit system might work out. Holochain is a new initiative that aims at such a system, so it’s better to focus on that instead of a well-intentioned but ill-founded idea like Gridcoin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*