Economic Uncanny Valley

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Bitcoin. You may have heard of it: a so-called virtual peer-to-peer currency system. It’s been billed alternately as the savior of the world from the hands of the banking system, the scourge of world governments, a monumental waste of energy resources, a privacy nightmare, and just plain dumb. But what the hell is it? Nobody knows. Let’s get started.

You have to admit there’s something exciting about a virtual currency system, but at the same time, that something just might be hype. There’s something vaguely “of Anonymous” to the whole deal—it might be revolutionary, but also could be a joke. It could be teenagers pretending they’re anarchist comic book heroes. The trouble is, it’s tough to tell for sure.

And yet, this is what we were promised from cyberspace, wasn’t it? This is the reality of Neuromancer and Snowcrash. Virtual currencies to spend in virtual shadow worlds, run by cryptopunks, comprising off-the-grid hacker economies. If you have a single sci-fi bone in your body, you are irresistibly turned-on by the idea of a fluctuating exchange rate between Second Life’s Liden Dollars and Bitcoin. Watching the numbers rise and fall on www.bitcoincharts.com is better than a Matrix screensaver, because it is somehow, possibly, maybe, happening in real life. This is the sort of radical stuff that is The Future we fantasized about, rather than oil shortages and housing surpluses.

Virtual technologies are becoming decidedly real. From cell phone augmented reality, to the broad range of Kinect motion-sensor hacks, to location-aware tech, it’s hard to tell what is virtual, what is real, and what is just made up. The virtual is real... but still, a different sort of real. As Gilles Deleuze wrote, “The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual.” We have more reality than ever, only some of it is virtual reality, and other elements are actual reality.

“Extreme virtual reality” seems to describe Bitcoin. Setting aside the functional import of a virtual currency for a moment, Bitcoin is quite real, and impressively so. The value of all Bitcoins in existence is around 105 million USD. Over 24.5 million USD in transactions take place every 24 hours. (My stats are as of June 13, 2011. For real-time statistics of all kinds, see the excellent site http://bitcoinwatch.com.) It is difficult to estimate the total computing power of the distributed Bitcoin network, but some vague guesses place it greater than the power of the world’s top 500 supercomputers... combined. This virtual reality might not mean a thing to most of us in our daily life of tweets and emails, blogs and new media. But it certainly is not nothing...

 

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