Money is about the exchanges and the transactions that we have with each other. Money isn’t anything objective. It’s about a collective story that we tell each other about value. A collective fiction. And that’s a really powerful concept. In the past two decades, we’ve begun to use digital money. So I get paid via direct deposit, I pay my rent via bank transfer, I pay my taxes online. All of these interactions are literally just changing 1’s and 0’s on computers. There’s not even anything physical, like a stone or a coin. Digital money makes it so that I can pay someone around the world in seconds.
Now when this works, it’s because there are large institutions underwriting every 1 or 0 that changes on a computer. And when it doesn’t, it’s often the fault of those large institutions. Or at least, it’s up to them to fix the problem. And a lot of times, they don’t. There’s a lot of friction in the system. How long did it take the credit card companies to implement chip and pin? Most of the credit cards still don’t work outside the country. That’s friction. Transferring money across borders and across currencies is really expensive. An entrepreneur in India can set up an online business in minutes, but it’s hard for her to get loans and to get paid: friction. Our access to digital money and our ability to freely transact are being held captive by these gatekeepers. And there’s a lot of impediments in the system slowing things down. That’s because digital money isn’t really mine, it’s entries in databases that belong to my bank, my credit card company or my investment firm. And these companies have the right to say “no.” If I’m a PayPal merchant and PayPal wrongly flags me for fraud, that’s it. My account gets frozen, and I can’t get paid.
These institutions are standing in the way of innovation. A lot of these services don’t inter-operate, and as a result, this blocks what we can do with payment. And it makes transaction costs go up. So far, we’ve been through two phases of money. In an analog world, we had to deal with these physical objects, and money moved at a certain speed — the speed of humans. In a digital world, money can reach much farther and is much faster, but we’re at the mercy of these gatekeeper institutions. Money only moves at the speed of banks.
We’re about to enter a new phase of money. The future of money is programmable. When we combine software and currency, money becomes more than just a static unit of value, and we don’t have to rely on institutions for security. In a programmable world, we remove humans and institutions from the loop. And when this happens, we won’t even feel like we’re transacting anymore. Money will be directed by software, and it will just safely and securely flow.
Cryptocurrencies are the first step of this evolution. Cryptocurrencies are digital money that isn’t run by any government or bank. It’s money designed to work in a world without intermediaries. Bitcoin is the most ubiquitous cryptocurrency, but there are hundreds of them. There’s Ethereum, Litecoin, Stellar, Dogecoin, and those are just a few of the more popular ones. I have an app on my phone that I can use to buy things book online tickets. But it’s not just for small transactions. In March, there was a transaction that moved around 100,000 bitcoins. That’s the equivalent of 40 million US dollars.
Cryptocurrencies are based on a special field of mathematics called cryptography. Cryptography is the study of how to secure communication, and it’s about two really important things: masking information so it can be hidden in plain sight, and verifying a piece of information’s source. Cryptography underpins so many of the systems around us. And it’s so powerful that at times the US government has actually classified it as a weapon. During World War II, breaking cryptosystems like Enigma was critical to decoding enemy transmissions and turning the tide of the war. Today, anyone with a modern web browser is running a pretty sophisticated cryptosystem. It’s what we use to secure our interactions on the Internet. It’s what makes it safe for us to type our passwords in and to send financial information to websites. So what the banks used to give us — trustworthy digital money transfer — we can now get with a clever application of cryptography. And this means that we don’t have to rely on the banks anymore to secure our transactions. We can do it ourselves.
In Bitcoin, I spend by transferring Bitcoin, and I get paid when someone transfers Bitcoin to me. Imagine that we had this magic paper. So the way that this paper works is I can give you a sheet of it and if you write something on it, it will magically appear on my piece as well. Let’s say we just give everyone this paper and everyone writes down the transfers that they’re doing in the Bitcoin system. All of these transfers get copied around to everyone else’s pieces of paper. And I can look at mine and I’ll have a list of all of the transfers that are happening in the entire Bitcoin economy. This is actually what’s happening with the Bitcoin blockchain, which is a list of all of the transactions in Bitcoin. Except, it’s not done through paper. It’s done through computer code, running on thousands of networked computers around the world. All of these computers are collectively confirming who owns what Bitcoin. So the Bitcoin blockchain is core to how Bitcoin works.
Cryptocurrencies are the first step to a world with a global programmable money. And in a world with programmable money, I can pay anyone else securely without having to sign up or ask permission, or do a conversion or worry about my money getting stuck. And I can send money around the world.This is a really amazing thing. It’s the idea of permission-less innovation. The Internet caused an explosion of innovation, because it was built upon an open architecture. And just like the Internet changed the way we communicate, programmable money is going to change the way we pay, allocate and decide on value.
We’re entering a new era of programmable money. And it’s very exciting, but it’s also a little bit scary. Cryptocurrencies can be used for illegal transactions, just like cash is used for crime in the world today. When all of our transactions are online, what does that mean for surveillance — who can see what we do? Who’s advantaged in this new world and who isn’t? Will I have to start to pay for things that I didn’t have to pay for before? Will we all become slaves to algorithms and utility functions?
All new technology comes with trade-offs. The Internet brought us a lot of ways to waste time. But it also greatly increased productivity. Mobile phones are annoying because they make me feel like I have to stay connected to work all the time. But they also help me stay connected to friends and family. The new sharing economy is going to eliminate some jobs. But it’s also going to create new, flexible forms of employment. With programmable money, we decouple the need for large, trusted institutions from the architecture of the network. And this pushes innovation in money out to the edges, where it belongs. Programmable money democratizes money. And because of this, things are going to change and unfold in ways that we can’t even predict. The idea about cryptocurrency disrupting fiat currency might not happen the way people might think because we are all still going to need that fiat currency in our pockets so what I think is that both the cryptocurrency and the fiat currency will remain but the cryptocurrency will be more valuable than the fiat currency.