The recent fluctuations in Bitcoin’s value are just the latest in a series of spectacular peaks and troughs since it was created in 2009. (Though its price has been falling recently, it remains five times higher than last April, before the latest major peak began).
Commentators are often dismissive of Bitcoin buyers, writing them off as naive victims of a fraudulent bubble. But if we look more carefully, we can trace the history of Bitcoin through five key narratives. Each has drawn in a different group of buyers and in doing so contributed to its long-term growth in value.
Bitcoin arose from a tiny group of cryptographers who were trying to solve the “double spend” problem facing digital money: “cash” held as a digital file could easily be copied and then used multiple times. The problem is easily solved by financial institutions, who use a secure central ledger to record how much everyone has in their accounts, but the cryptographers wanted a solution that was more akin to physical cash: private, untraceable, and independent of third parties like the banks.
Satoshi Nakamoto’s solution was the Bitcoin blockchain, a cryptographically secured public ledger that records transactions anonymously and is kept as multiple copies on many different users’ computers. The first narrative of Bitcoin’s value was built into Nakamoto’s original “white paper”. This claimed that Bitcoin would be superior to existing forms of electronic money such as credit cards, providing benefits like eliminating chargebacks to merchants and reducing transaction fees.
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