What technology am I talking about? Personal computers in 1975, the Internet in 1993, and — I believe — Bitcoin in 2014.
This may not be the best essay on Bitcoin, but it is definitely the best essay that I have read. Because I respect Marc Andreessen I pay attention when he decides to write publicly. And when I see that Andreessen Horowitz has invested nearly $50 million in Bitcoin-related startups, that gets my completely focused attention.
Media coverage typically talks about much the value of a Bitcoin has risen (or fallen). Or how Bitcoin is a vehicle for buying drugs and guns. I think you will better understand the significance of Bitcoin by thinking of a fraud-free VISA payments system with nearly zero fees and no minimum transaction. That creates possibilities. Once the infrastructure is in place Bitcoin will enable many possibilities that are way beyond a no-fee VISA. Here’s just one of Marc’s many cases: Remittances. The hard-working people who picked your strawberries are sending cross-border remittances to their family. A big chunk of the funds sent (order of magnitude 10%) is lost to bank-fees and funds-transfer agents. A Bitcoin-based payment system will drop that 10% fee to nearly nothing. That will have a huge impact on the workers’ welfare.
Andreessen summarizes why Silicon Valley is “all lathered up”:
The practical consequence of solving this problem is that Bitcoin gives us, for the first time, a way for one Internet user to transfer a unique piece of digital property to another Internet user, such that the transfer is guaranteed to be safe and secure, everyone knows that the transfer has taken place, and nobody can challenge the legitimacy of the transfer. The consequences of this breakthrough are hard to overstate.
What kinds of digital property might be transferred in this way? Think about digital signatures, digital contracts, digital keys (to physical locks, or to online lockers), digital ownership of physical assets such as cars and houses, digital stocks and bonds … and digital money.
All these are exchanged through a distributed network of trust that does not require or rely upon a central intermediary like a bank or broker. And all in a way where only the owner of an asset can send it, only the intended recipient can receive it, the asset can only exist in one place at a time, and everyone can validate transactions and ownership of all assets anytime they want.
Bitcoin is an Internet-wide distributed ledger. You buy into the ledger by purchasing one of a fixed number of slots, either with cash or by selling a product and service for Bitcoin. You sell out of the ledger by trading your Bitcoin to someone else who wants to buy into the ledger. Anyone in the world can buy into or sell out of the ledger any time they want — with no approval needed, and with no or very low fees. The Bitcoin “coins” themselves are simply slots in the ledger — analogous in some ways to seats on a stock exchange, except much more broadly applicable to real world transactions.
The Bitcoin ledger is a new kind of payment system. Anyone in the world can pay anyone else in the world any amount of value of Bitcoin by simply transferring ownership of the corresponding slot in the ledger. Put value in, transfer it, the recipient gets value out, no authorization required, and in many cases, no fees.
That last part is enormously important. Bitcoin is the first Internet-wide payment system where transactions either happen with no fees or very low fees (down to fractions of pennies). Existing payment systems charge fees of around 2 percent to three percent — and that’s in the developed world. In lots of other places, there either are no modern payment systems or the rates are significantly higher. We’ll come back to that.
Bitcoin is a digital bearer instrument. It is a way to exchange money or assets between parties with no preexisting trust: a string of numbers is sent over email or text message in the simplest case. The sender doesn’t need to know or trust the receiver or vice versa. Related, there are no chargebacks — this is the part that is literally like cash — if you have the money or the asset, you can pay with it; if you don’t, you can’t. This is brand new. This has never existed in digital form before.
Bitcoin is a digital currency, whose value is based directly on two things: use of the payment system today — volume and velocity of payments running through the ledger — and speculation on future use of the payment system. This is one part that is confusing people. It’s not as much that the Bitcoin currency has some arbitrary value and then people are trading with it; it’s more that people can trade with Bitcoin (anywhere, everywhere, with no fraud and no or very low fees) and as a result it has value.
If you give your attention to Marc’s essay for 30 minutes I think you will understand why his firm is actively seeking Bitcoin-related opportunities. Oh, I hear that Amazon will launch a Bitcoin payment window soon. Just kidding, but think about how skinny Amazon’s margins are – and the impact on profits when the 2 to 3% credit card fee goes to 0.01% for purchases by Bitcoin customers. Think about the network effects when Amazon starts accepting Bitcoin.