Several days ago, the USD/BTC exchange rate soared to dizzying heights, reaching almost $250 for one unit of the virtual, decentralized currency. Then it crashed to $55. But since then, it has gone back up to $100.
I’d heard of them before, but I had assumed it was some sort of pyramid, and that the train had already passed. Pyramids are only good for those at the top. It’s the creators of currencies who get rich, not their users. In short, I was skeptical.
Still, as someone on a perpetual lookout for lazy and socially unproductive ways of making money, I knew I had to check it out.
And I discovered some rather interesting things.
First, Bitcoins can’t be just created out of thin air. Just like gold or other minerals, they have to be “mined” by solving complex cryptographic puzzles. In practice, some users pool their computing power for this task. There is a theoretical limit to the total amount of Bitcoins that can enter circulation: 21 million. So you can’t inflate it like you can with any fiat currency.
Second, they offer real advantages over conventional currencies. There are no banking or transfer charges, because you are your own bank. Your Bitcoins are held in an encrypted file on your hard drive, and can easily be transferred between your own accounts, or “wallets,” and other accounts. These transactions can be completely anonymous, because your wallet isn’t linked to your “true name” (paging Vernor Vinge).
This anonymity means that you can, in relative ease and safety, avail yourself of online black markets selling all kinds of cool shit of dubious legality.
For instance, on April 15th 2011 – since known as “Black Friday” in certain circles – the DoJ flunky Preet Bharara shut down the three biggest online poker companies operating in the US. In the ensuing panic, dozens of others left of their own accord, voluntarily restricting access to US players to avoid any legal ramifications. But a few continue to operate here. Perhaps the most interesting case is that of Seals with Clubs, a site where you gamble with Bitcoins. This is an example of an innovative and dynamic enterprise that has bypassed real life problems to create a product that people enjoy and that is likely to continue to grow, especially if governments start taking a harder line against online poker. (Incidentally, the games at Seals seem to be very soft, even at high stakes – or at least that is the impression I got from observing them for 15 minutes or so. Definitely something to look into if you get some portion of your income from poker).
But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Investigating Bitcoins led me, of course, to the “deep web,” the Silk Road, and even weirder places. I will retrace the journey, should you wish to undertake it yourself.