I think I’ll just read John Lanchester’s superb piece about bitcoin in the London Review of Books one more time. It’s hard to choose a favourite part of such an excellent article, but if I was pressed to do so, I suppose it would be this part:
David Birch is the author of a fresh, original and fascinatingly wide-ranging short book about developments in the field, Identity Is the New Money. His is the best book on general issues around new forms of money, and new possibilities generated by blockchain technology.
John is much too kind. And is a much better writer than I am, which is why his piece is so good. His basic question about where we are going next is fascinating and has been at the heart of some heated debates that I’ve been involved in recently, including a stand-up with a bunch of very clever people at the European Blockchain Congress in London.
My preferred method of accelerated learning is arguing with smart people, and the Congress delivered them in spades. But before I come back to this particular argument, let’s just frame the big picture. First of all, no-one would deny that the bitcoin blockchain is a triumph of technology and engineering and innovation and ingenuity. Statistically, almost no-one uses it, but that’s by the by.
“The total addressable market of people who want to buy bitcoin is very, very thin,”
Indeed. And most of them aren’t in America or any other developed market. Why? Well, bitcoin is a super-inefficient form of digital currency that was designed to solve one problem (uncensorability). If I’m trying to get my last few dollars out of Caracas before the power is shut off permanently then bitcoin might provide a rickety bridge to US Dollars, but if I’m trying to pay for a delicious burrito at Chipotle then bitcoin is pointless. However, and this is what the argument at the Congress (in the picture above) made me think about, there may be other factors that mean the bitcoin blockchain will obtain mass market traction.
What factors? Well, here are two that were touched on during the discussion pictured above, together with my more considered reflections on them.
One factor might be irreversibility. I think we all understand that you can’t build an irreversible payment system on top of a reversible payment system (such as direct debits in the UK) but you can build a reversible payment system (which is what society actually wants) on top of an irreversible one. That’s a good argument for having an fast, free and irreversible payment system that can be built on to provide a variety of different payment schemes suited to particular marketplaces. In the UK we already have this, it’s called the Faster Payment Service (FPS). Once the Payment Systems Regulator (PSR) has finished opening up access to FPS and once FPS can be accessed efficiently through the “XS2A” Application Programming Interaces (APIs) that will be put in place by the Second Payment Services Directive (PSD2), then we ought to be able to unleash some creativity in the developer community and perhaps build a reversible payment scheme on top of this irreversible infrastructure (I’m not the only genius to have thought of this: MasterCard are one of the bidders). Then it wouldn’t matter whether the scheme used the bitcoin blockchain or the FPS or NPP in Australia or TCH in the US or Ripple or anything else: the choice would come down to price and performance. Perhaps bitcoin would then be a choice, although I’m not sure about it.
Another factor might be anonymity. No-one who actually thinks about it wants anonymity. What they want is privacy. But there is a similar asymmetry as in the case of irreversibility. You can’t build an anonymous system on top of a non-anonymous system but you could build a privacy-enhancing transaction system on topic of an anonymous system and since I’m rather wedded to the idea of private payment systems, I find this an interesting combination. Again, would bitcoin be a choice for this? That’s not clear to me at all.
What if those factors turn out to be important enough to build new services, but not for creating a currency? This would support the view that a blockchain, although not necessarily the bitcoin blockchain, might well be the shared security service that society needs to anchor a new generation of online transactional services. As time goes by, this strikes me as a more and more interesting possibility. I mentioned it a couple of weeks ago.
Dr. Wright says “The mining of bitcoin is a security service that alone creates no wealth”. So to return to the point above, the sheer volume of mining going on (provided it does not become concentrated) means that there is a very, very secure piece of infrastructure out there. This infrastructure may be used to “anchor” all sorts of new services that need security as I said above. Some of them may be payments (as the Lightning folks hope) but most of them will not be.
So, to get back to John Lanchester’s piece, where might we be going next? I’m pretty sure that we’ll soon see another more efficient blockchain that will untangle the cryptocurrency from the carrier by providing some other incentive for mining (perhaps more like Ethereum, who knows). This, the Watt blockchain that will replace the Newcomben blockchain that we have now, could well be the new supranational security infrastructure that, as some claim, will be as important as the Internet itself because it will provide the security layer that the Internet should have had in the first place.