Bitcoin May Never Replicate the Trust Behind Money

The problems with too much hype. 

by James Dennin
Flickr / andreastrojak

The volatility of bitcoin prices is only one of many reasons it’s unlikely to emerge as a viable payments solution, according to a recent paper produced by the Bank of International Settlements, an organization serving central banks and international organizations. As of Monday morning, the prices for all of the ten largest cryptocurrencies according to CoinMarketCap showed red before rallying in the afternoon.

“Even if trust can be maintained, cryptocurrency technology comes with poor efficiency and vast energy use,” the paper’s abstract reads. “Cryptocurrencies cannot scale with transaction demand, are prone to congestion and greatly fluctuate in value. Overall, the decentralised technology of cryptocurrencies, however sophisticated, is a poor substitute for the solid institutional backing of money.”

The organization highlighted a few problems with bitcoin, drawing flack in replies to its social media posts for seeming to conflate the term bitcoin with cryptocurrencies and crypto tokens in general, a wide universe of technologies with use cases ranging from digital payments to gaming and media monetization.

But it’s not just bitcoin that presents a problem, the organization writes. It may have to do with the very idea of “decentralized trust,” the aspiration that one day people will be able to engage in trustworthy transactions without having to know the parties involved. If we didn’t need to rely on banks or governments to trust one another, proponents argue that we could bring billions of currently unbanked people into the economy and enable all kinds of new transactions.

The problem is that trust enabled by these decentralized systems may be too fragile, the paper’s authors write, calling into question the finality of each and every transaction.

“Trust can evaporate at any time because of the fragility of the decentralised consensus through which transactions are recorded,” the paper reads. “Not only does this call into question the finality of individual payments, it also means that a cryptocurrency can simply stop functioning.”

This isn’t to say that the people working on developing digital currencies and the technology enables them are wasting their time, either. The paper’s authors write that the technology itself likely has many applications, from settling transactions to simplifying bureaucracies.

That’s perhaps a convenient position for an organization serving central banks to have, but they still raise a few pretty good points. When bitcoin transactions started to lag during last summer’s big rally, the community failed to ever build consensus about the proper fix, leading to the eventual fork of Bitcoin Cash.

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