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Bitcoin the Political Virtual of an Intangible Material Currency

Bitcoin the Political Virtual of an Intangible Material Currency

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Published by Mark Arnout Jansen
This paper concerns the open source software project Bitcoin. Bitcoin is often described as virtual cash and this paper asks what the term ‘virtual’ signifies when applied to ‘cash’ and in turn what ‘virtual cash’ says about Bitcoin. Bitcoin is related to the 1990s activist movement of libertarian cryptographers known as ‘cypherpunks’ and to the cyber-libertarian political philosophy, demonstrating the historical intertwining of cryptography and politics. Cypherpunks argued that privacy is a prerequisite for an open society and that cryptography and anonymous transaction systems were needed as assurance. Bitcoin is the latest effort by cryptographers to create digital tokens similar to cash, where Bitcoin’s designer Nakamoto argues that with Bitcoin users no longer have to trust a third party, traditionally the bank. Bitcoin does not fulfill this promise as trust remains to be established, albeit in a different manner. Power is not destroyed, but transferred from banks to Bitcoin’s protocol. The paper concludes that ‘virtual’ refers to Bitcoin’s model of how cash appears to function in everyday exchange, allowing user privacy. Bitcoin does not model another aspect of cash, namely that it is a credential referring to debt. Bitcoin discontinues the concept of debt.
This paper concerns the open source software project Bitcoin. Bitcoin is often described as virtual cash and this paper asks what the term ‘virtual’ signifies when applied to ‘cash’ and in turn what ‘virtual cash’ says about Bitcoin. Bitcoin is related to the 1990s activist movement of libertarian cryptographers known as ‘cypherpunks’ and to the cyber-libertarian political philosophy, demonstrating the historical intertwining of cryptography and politics. Cypherpunks argued that privacy is a prerequisite for an open society and that cryptography and anonymous transaction systems were needed as assurance. Bitcoin is the latest effort by cryptographers to create digital tokens similar to cash, where Bitcoin’s designer Nakamoto argues that with Bitcoin users no longer have to trust a third party, traditionally the bank. Bitcoin does not fulfill this promise as trust remains to be established, albeit in a different manner. Power is not destroyed, but transferred from banks to Bitcoin’s protocol. The paper concludes that ‘virtual’ refers to Bitcoin’s model of how cash appears to function in everyday exchange, allowing user privacy. Bitcoin does not model another aspect of cash, namely that it is a credential referring to debt. Bitcoin discontinues the concept of debt.

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Published by: Mark Arnout Jansen on Sep 30, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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BITCOIN: THE POLITICAL
VIRTUAL
OF AN INTANGIBLE MATERIAL CURRENCYM.A. JANSEN1Utrecht University
 – 
MA New Media & Digital Culture
 
Abstract
This paper concerns the open source software project Bitcoin. Bitcoin is often described as virtual cashand this
 paper asks what the term ‘virtual’
signifies
when applied to ‘cash’ and
in turn what
‘virtualcash’
says about Bitcoin. Bitcoin is related here to the 1990s activist movement of libertarian
cryptographers known as ‘cypherpunks’ and
to the cyber-libertarian political philosophy, demonstratingthe historical intertwining of cryptography and politics. Cypherpunks argued that privacy is aprerequisite for an open society and that cryptography and anonymous transaction systems were neededas assurance. Bitcoin is the latest effort by cryptographers to create digital tokens similar to cash, where
Bitcoin’s designer Nakamoto argues tha
t with Bitcoin users no longer have to trust a third party,traditionally the bank. Bitcoin does not fulfill this promise as trust remains to be established, albeit in adifferent manner. Power is not destroyed, but transferred from banks to
Bitcoin’s prot
ocol. The paper
concludes that ‘virtual’
 
refers to Bitcoin’s model of how cash appears to function
in everydayexchange, allowing user privacy. Bitcoin does not model another aspect of cash, namely that it is acredential referring to debt. Bitcoin discontinues the concept of debt.
Keywords
bitcoin, crypto-currency, cryptography, virtual cash, cybercash, electronic payments, online payments
Acknowledgements
I express thanks to René Glas for supervising this MA-thesis. Furthermore, although neither cash norBitcoins were involved, the intangible credits for designing the frontpage of this thesis really are forJan Zoutendijk.

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