Performing an Autopsy on the Bitcoin

 | Mar 08, 2016 | 3:00 PM EST
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The single most important technological issue today is the nascent development and adoption of open, distributed ledger blockchain technology which I last addressed in the column, "Bitcoin Is Dead, Long Live the Blockchain." 

In this column I'll first briefly address the issue of why bitcoin is not viable. On a regular basis after this I'll be discussing the importance and implications of the adoption of blockchain technology economically, socially, politically and how it will impact investors and the financial markets. 

Bitcoin was the name of the first blockchain technology. However, it was initially designed with specific limits to its size and scalability. There is a debate within the bitcoin community about how to change that, but in its current state it is not viable for large-scale commerce.

As that debate has been going on, the first blockchain technology designed from its inception to be unlimited in size and scalability was Ethereum.

Ethereum, as a result, along with others that have been designed in the past year or so, are the technologies being tested and implemented for substantive commercial application. At this stage it appears highly unlikely the bitcoin technology will be commercialized. As a result, it is probable that bitcoins will eventually become worthless.

The best analogy, although not perfect, for the demise of bitcoin vs. Ethereum and the other unlimited blockchain technologies being developed for commercial application is that of the experience of digital audio tapes (DATs) vs. the compact disk technology of the mid-1980s.

In the 1980s, Sony (SNE) introduced DATs as the intended replacement technology for analog cassette tapes that were used for recording and playing music. Before the technology could be adopted by consumers, however, the compact disk was introduced. Consumers chose that technology over DATs and the DAT technology was terminated for use in consumer products.

The introduction of bitcoin technology and how it has quickly been superseded is instructive from a social perspective, however, and provides insight to the risks posed by technological advancement.

Beyond the technology behind bitcoin is the mindset of its early adopters and proponents.

From a public presentation standpoint, it was billed as an alternative to sovereign currencies broadly and the concentrated rentier control of them by governments and banks. Bitcoin, as the meme developed, was going to challenge the concentration of wealth in the hands of few and democratize how wealth was distributed throughout society.

The problem that quickly arose, however, as a result of the limited size of the bitcoin blockchain technology was that the early adopters, the "miners" of the bitcoins, ended up with a colossally greater degree of bitcoin wealth than any sovereign currency.

The best analogy here is that the situation is somewhat akin to having a global economy based on a "bitcoin standard," similar to a "gold standard," except that the vast majority of the bitcoins are owned by just a few individuals.

That level of wealth concentration is simply not viable economically, financially, politically or socially.

This was a known issue for the bitcoin technology from the outset, which would by definition prevent it from ever being made commercially viable on the scale the early adopters and miners dreamed of, and yet they all chose to ignore it.

The founder of Ethereum, Vitalik Buterin, realized the limitations of the bitcoin technology in the beginning, and conceived of an open, distributed ledger blockchain that would correct it.

What's fascinating about that, beyond the fact that it immediately allows blockchain technology to be commercially viable on a large-scale basis, is that the bitcoin community still did not, and has not, recognized the existential threat Ethereum poses to the bitcoin technology and thus the value of bitcoins.

The bitcoin community is still arguing over whether or not to expand the size of bitcoin to allow it to compete in the new world of blockchain technology, even though it's probably impossible now given the rapid development of commercial applications for Ethereum and others that bitcoin could salvage a place for itself in the new environment.

The reason for the arguing is that the owners of existing bitcoins do not want to accept their immediate devaluation required to expand the size of the bitcoin blockchain.

They are exhibiting the same rentier mindset concerning their control over wealth denominated in bitcoins that they proclaimed was one of the grievances they had with wealth denominated in sovereign currencies and controlled by banks, bankers, the financial sector broadly and the owners of capital closely associated with them.        

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