sabato 1 marzo 2014

Adam Rothstein: Bitcoin and the Speculative Anarchist @ Rhizome mag, 18feb2014

When I tell my close friends—who know of, and share, my anti-capitalist anarchist views—that I own some cryptocurrency (my current holdings equal something under 10 USD) I get the same sort of looks that I did when I told them in 2009 that I used Twitter. "How can you support that libertarian bullshit?"
BTC is not entirely straightforward, and falls into a new category of the economic uncanny. But basically, it is a peer-to-peer database that lists a number of units of value, or coins, by unique addresses, and assigns them to personal owners by more unique addresses. The database makes sure that only the right coins are assigned to the right owners by keeping a single list of who owns what, called the blockchain. It also makes sure that the blockchain cannot be falsified, by placing the transactions between pieces of a complicated code, which are called the proof of work. Since every computer on the network is simultaneously generating the proof of work (and is rewarded for doing so by being given a fraction of new BTC according to the amount of work they are doing, in what is called mining), it would take a computer that is more powerful than all the others combined to mess  up the record. So, through this peer-to-peer verification system, the record stays legit, without needing the need for a centralized bank to be in charge.
It may sound arcane, but if Bitcoin was a commercial beta release, it would be a runaway success. Even with recent fluctuations, the total value of the cryptocurrency is still over eight billion USD, it has spawned many third-party startup firms attempting to offer products to use with Bitcoin, and there have been more copycat cryptocurrencies, "altcoins," than anyone can count. And at least we know why Bitcoin is valuable, unlike most social media startups: People pay money for it. It's as simple and old fashioned as that.
But bitcoin is supposed to be about something more than just money. There is an ideology that is part of the Bitcoin service; one can not help but download it along with the electronic wallet. However, this ideology is not exactly what it is often made out to be. Bitcoin is supposed to be the killer app of a libertarian dream—it is purportedly 1) a digital currency, 2) a means for conducting anonymous transactions, and 3) an egalitarian, peer-to-peer economic system that will render obsolete the need for fiat currencies, cash, wire transfers, bank accounts, and any other current financial framework that happens to be unpopular. And it fails to live up to all these promises.
Bitcoin isn't quite a currency; it's a wholly new sort of financial instrument, functioning differently than anything with which we are familiar. A currency is a tool for the circulation of value, which through the force of the market becomes the only way that the vast majority of people can offer their labor in exchange for the necessities of life. If businesses start paying their employees in BTC then it might be a currency; until that time it is more like day trading, or stamp collecting. At the same time, it is entirely intertwined with conventional currencies, banks, and legal structures. Cryptocurrencies rely on the ubiquity of expensive graphics processing cards produced by capitalist companies under state-negotiated international trade laws.  Thus, they simply cannot be the lynchpin of anti-government sentiment they are made out to be.
Even in the blackest markets of the internet, there are many early-adopters, but no fully-adopteds, no one who can claim to have entirely disengaged from fiat currencies and infrastructures, or from mainstream capitalism. Bitcoin might have benefits, but currency still has other benefits. People like their financial transactions to have authorities to whom they can appeal in times of crisis. They may buy pizzas with Bitcoin or stake disposable amounts on arcane, high-risk investments, but their 401k is in dollars. 

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