If you’ve been paying any attention at all to international news and financial markets over the past several weeks there’s no way you could have missed the Bitcoin phenomena: the unregulated, uncontrolled digital crypt-currency that’s risen over 600% in value in the last one month. Its durable, portable, fungible and unique, transparent and could as well change the way we pay stuff and do business in the coming times.
A university in Cyprus is already accepting Bitcoins as tuition fees and every other day, different businesses are embracing them as acceptable form payment. Since their inception, they have been increasing in value and the world is beginning to take bitcoins seriously. For example, Just 10 months ago, the price of bitcoin was at a miserable $13 but there has been a recent spike to $900 which was big news across the globe, from Washington to Tokyo to China, and it left many asking themselves: “What the hell is a bitcoin?” It’s a good question — not only for those with little understanding of the modern financial system and how it intersects with modern technology, but also for those steeped in the new internet-driven economy that has so quickly remade our world over the last 20 years.
But ‘What the hell is a bitcoin?’
Bitcoin is a digital currency, meaning it’s money controlled and stored entirely by computers spread across the internet, and this money is finding its way to more and more people and businesses around the world. But it’s much more than that, and many people — including the sharpest of internet pioneers as well as seasoned economists — are still struggling to come to terms with its many identities.
With that in mind, we give you this: an idiot’s guide to bitcoin. And there’s no shame in reading. Nowadays, as bitcoin is just beginning to show what it’s capable of, we’re all neophytes.
Bitcoin isn’t just a currency, like dollars or euros or yen. It’s a way of making payments, like PayPal or the Visa credit card network. It lets you hold money, but it also lets you spend it and trade it and move it from place to place, almost as cheaply and easily as you’d send an email.
As the press so often points out, Bitcoin lets you do all this without revealing your identity, a phenomenon that drove its use on The Silk Road, an online marketplace for illegal drugs. But at the same time, it’s a system that operates completely in the public view. All Bitcoin transactions are recorded online for anyone to see, lending a certain transparency to the system, a transparency that can drive a new trust in the economy and subvert the anonymity.
In short, Bitcoin is kind of like the internet, but for money.
Bitcoin is much more than a money service for illegal operations. It’s a re-imagining of international finance, something that breaks down barriers between countries and frees currency from the control of federal governments. Bitcoin is controlled by open source software that operates according to the laws of mathematics — and by the people who collectively oversee this software. The software runs on thousands of machines across the globe, but it can be changed. It’s just that a majority of those overseeing the software must agree to the change.
Birth of the Bitcoin
About five years ago, using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, an anonymous computer programmer or group of programmers built the Bitcoin software system and released it onto the internet. This was something that was designed to run across a large network of machines — called bitcoin miners — and anyone on earth could operate one of these machines.
This distributed software seeded the new currency, creating a small number of bitcoins. Basically, bitcoins are just long digital addresses and balances, stored in an online ledger called the “blockchain.” But the system was also designed so that the currency would slowly expand, and so that people would be encouraged to operate bitcoin miners and keep the system itself growing.
When the system creates new bitcoins, you see, it gives them to the miners. Miners keep track of all the bitcoin transactions and add them to the block chain ledger, and in exchange, they get the privilege of, every so often, awarding themselves a few extra bitcoins. Right now, 25 bitcoins are paid out to the world’s miners about six times per hour, but that rate changes over time.
Why do these bitcoins have value? It’s pretty simple. They’ve evolved into something that a lot of people want — like a dollar or a yen or the cowrie shells swapped for goods on the coast of Africa over 3,000 years ago — and they’re in limited supply. Though the system continues to crank out bitcoins, this will stop when it reaches 21 million, which was designed to happen in about the year 2140.
The idea was to create a currency whose value couldn’t be watered down by some central authority, like the Federal Reserve.
When the system quits making new money, the value of each bitcoin will necessarily rise as demand rises — it’s what’s called a deflationary currency — but although the supply of coins will stop expanding, it will be still be relatively easy to spend. Bitcoins can be broken into tiny pieces. Each bitcoin can be divided into one hundred million units, called Satoshis, after the currency’s founder.
The Key to the System
How do you spend bitcoins? Trade them? Keep people from stealing them? Bitcoin is a math-based currency. That means that the rules that govern bitcoin’s accounting are controlled by cryptography. Basically, if you own some bitcoins, you own a private cryptography key that’s associated with an address on the internet that contains a balance in the public ledger. The address and the private key let you make transactions.
The internet address is something everyone can see. Think of it like a really complicated email address for online payments. Something like this: 1DTAXPKS1Sz7a5hL2Skp8bykwGaEL5JyrZ. If someone wants to send you bitcoins, they need your address.
If you own some bitcoins, what you really own is a private cryptography key that’s associated with an address on the internet
If you want to send your bitcoins to someone else, you need your address and their address — but you also need your private cryptography key. This is an even more complicated string that you use to authorize a payment.
Using the math associated with these keys and addresses, the system’s public network of peer-to-peer computers — the bitcoin miners — check every tran
saction that happens on the network. If the math doesn’t add up, the transaction is rejected.
Crypto systems like this do get cracked, and the software behind Bitcoin could have flaws in it. But at this point, Bitcoin has been tested pretty thoroughly, and it seems to be pretty darned secure.
For the ordinary people who use this network — the people who do the buying and the selling and the transferring — managing addresses and keys can be a bit of a hassle. But there are many different types of programs — called wallets — that keep track of these numbers for you. You can install a wallet on your computer or your mobile phone, or use one that sits on a website.
With these wallets, you can easily send and receive bitcoins via the net. You can, say, buy a chapatti or rolex on a site that’s set up to take bitcoin payments. You can donate money to a church. You can even pay for plastic surgery. The number of online merchants accepting bitcoins grows with each passing day.
But you can also make transactions here in the real world. That’s what a mobile wallet is good for. The Pink Cow, a restaurant in Tokyo, plugs into the Bitcoin system via a tablet PC sitting beside its cash register. If you want to pay for your dinner in bitcoins, you hold up your phone and scan a QR code — a kind of bar code — that pops up on the tablet.
How to Get a Bitcoin
If all that makes sense and you wanna give it try, the first thing you do is get a wallet. We like blockchain.info, which offers an app that you can download to your phone. Then, once you have a wallet, you need some bitcoins.
The easiest way to buy and sell bitcoins is via a website called Coinbase. For a one percent fee, Coinbase links to your bank account and then acts as a proxy for you, buying and selling bitcoins on an exchange. Coinbase also offers an easy-to-use wallet. You can also make much larger bitcoin purchases on big exchanges like Mt. Gox or Bitstamp, but to trade on these exchanges, you need to first send them cash using costly and time-consuming international wire transfers.
Yes, you can keep your purchases anonymous — or at least mostly anonymous. If you use a service like Coinbase or Mt. Gox, you’ll have to provide a bank account and identification. But other services, such as LocalBitcoins, let you buy bitcoins without providing personal information. Ironically, the best way to do this is to meet up with someone here in the real world and make the trade in-person.
Local Bitcoins will facilitate such meetups, where one person provides cash and the other then sends bitcoins over the net. Or you can attend a regular Bitcoin meetup in your part the world. Because credit card and bank transactions are reversible and bitcoin transactions are not, you need to be very careful if you’re ever selling bitcoins to an individual. That’s one reason why many sellers like to trade bitcoins for cash.
The old-school way of getting new bitcoins is mining. That means turning your computer into a bitcoin miner, one of those nodes on Bitcoin’s peer-to-peer network. Your machine would run the open source Bitcoin software.
Back in the day, you could do bitcoin mining on your home PC. But as the price of bitcoins has shot up, the mining game has morphed into a bit of a space-race — with professional players, custom-designed hardware, and rapidly expanding processing power.
Today, all of the computers vying for those 25 bitcoins perform 5 quintillion mathematical calculations per second. To put it in perspective, that’s about 150 times as many mathematical operations as the world’s most powerful supercomputer.
And mining can be pretty risky. Companies that build these custom machines typically charge you for the hardware upfront, and every day you wait for delivery is a day when it becomes harder to mine bitcoins. That reduces the amount of money you can earn.
Bitcoins in Uganda
Techjaja will keep you posted on any new developments regarding this emerging global trend.