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Does Bitcoin Presage a Digital Recasting of the Monetary System?

The Bitcoin could be a classic speculative bubble, but the digital currency may shed light on the future of money. Whether or not the Bitcoin survives, the technology that spawned it could prompt the creation of numerous decentralized currencies.

Living up to the rap that it’s caused a speculative bubble, encrypted digital currency Bitcoin peaked at $266 early last month before crashing to $105. Such price swings don’t captivate David Birch, a founding director of U.K.-based information technology consulting firm Consult Hyperion, whose specialty is secure electronic transactions. Birch is more interested in what the $1 billion-­plus market for Bitcoins, which were trading at about $120 in mid-April, says about technology’s transformation of currency.

The decentralized, computer-generated Bitcoin has been in circulation since 2009, soon after pseudonymous developer Satoshi Nakamoto published its specifications online. But as Birch points out, today’s international monetary system dates only to 1971. “It’s having a bit of a midlife crisis,” he says. “There’s no reason to imagine that a sort of ramshackle system that was held together from ’71 onward is the optimal way of organizing money.”

The Bitcoin may not survive, but Birch foresees a world in which people keep hundreds of electronic currencies in smartphone wallets. He says central banks have nothing to fear, giving the example of saving for retirement by forgoing unpredictable U.S. dollars for money based on kilowatt hours and cubic feet of water. “If the priority of a central bank is price stability, then I would have thought they would be in favor of a wide variety of currencies,” he says.

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