Because the target is such an unwieldy number with tons of digits, people generally use a simpler number to express the current target. This number is called the mining difficulty. The mining difficulty expresses how much harder the current block is to generate compared to the first block. So a difficulty of 70000 means to generate the current block you have to do 70000 times more work than Satoshi Nakamoto had to do generating the first block. To be fair, back then mining hardware and algorithms were a lot slower and less optimized.
To be accepted by the rest of the network, a new block must contain a so-called proof-of-work (PoW). The system used is based on Adam Back's 1997 anti-spam scheme, Hashcash. The PoW requires miners to find a number called a nonce, such that when the block content is hashed along with the nonce, the result is numerically smaller than the network's difficulty target.:ch. 8 This proof is easy for any node in the network to verify, but extremely time-consuming to generate, as for a secure cryptographic hash, miners must try many different nonce values (usually the sequence of tested values is the ascending natural numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, ...:ch. 8) before meeting the difficulty target.
A few years ago, CPU and GPU mining became completely obsolete when FPGAs came around. An FPGA is a Field Programmable Gate Array, which can produce computational power similar to most GPUs, while being far more energy‐efficient than graphics cards. Due to its mining efficiency, and ability to consume relatively lesser energy, many miners shifted to the use of FPGAs.
The code that makes bitcoin mining possible is completely open-source, and developed by volunteers. But the force that really makes the entire machine go is pure capitalistic competition. Every miner right now is racing to solve the same block simultaneously, but only the winner will get the prize. In a sense, everybody else was just burning electricity. Yet their presence in the network is critical.
^ Jump up to: a b c d Joshua A. Kroll; Ian C. Davey; Edward W. Felten (11–12 June 2013). "The Economics of Bitcoin Mining, or Bitcoin in the Presence of Adversaries" (PDF). The Twelfth Workshop on the Economics of Information Security (WEIS 2013). Archived (PDF) from the original on 9 May 2016. Retrieved 26 April 2016. A transaction fee is like a tip or gratuity left for the miner.