Bitcoin is one of the first digital currencies to use peer-to-peer technology to facilitate instant payments. The independent individuals and companies who own the governing computing power and participate in the Bitcoin network, also known as "miners," are motivated by rewards (the release of new bitcoin) and transaction fees paid in bitcoin. These miners can be thought of as the decentralized authority enforcing the credibility of the Bitcoin network. New bitcoin is being released to the miners at a fixed, but periodically declining rate, such that the total supply of bitcoins approaches 21 million. One bitcoin is divisible to eight decimal places (100 millionth of one bitcoin), and this smallest unit is referred to as a Satoshi. If necessary, and if the participating miners accept the change, Bitcoin could eventually be made divisible to even more decimal places.
When you pay someone in bitcoin, you set in motion a process of escalating, energy-intensive complexity. Your payment is basically an electronic message, which contains the complete lineage of your bitcoin, along with data about who you’re sending it to (and, if you choose, a small processing fee). That message gets converted by encryption software into a long string of letters and numbers, which is then broadcast to every miner on the bitcoin network (there are tens of thousands of them, all over the world). Each miner then gathers your encrypted payment message, along with any other payment messages on the network at the time (usually in batches of around 2,000), into what’s called a block. The miner then uses special software to authenticate each payment in the block—verifying, for example, that you owned the bitcoin you’re sending, and that you haven’t already sent that same bitcoin to someone else.
Majority consensus in bitcoin is represented by the longest chain, which required the greatest amount of effort to produce. If a majority of computing power is controlled by honest nodes, the honest chain will grow fastest and outpace any competing chains. To modify a past block, an attacker would have to redo the proof-of-work of that block and all blocks after it and then surpass the work of the honest nodes. The probability of a slower attacker catching up diminishes exponentially as subsequent blocks are added.
Barely perceptible in the early years after bitcoin was launched in 2009, these adjustments quickly ramped up. By the time Carlson started mining in 2012, difficulty was tripling every year. Carlson’s fat profit margin quickly vanished. He briefly quit, but the possibility of a large-scale mine was simply too tantalizing. Around the world, some people were still mining bitcoin. And while Carlson suspected that many of these stalwarts were probably doing so irrationally—like gamblers doubling down after a loss—others had found a way to making mining pay.
In the meantime, the basin’s miners are at full steam ahead. Salcido says he’ll have 42 megawatts running by the end of the year and 150 megawatts by 2020. Carlson says his next step after his current build-out of 60 megawatts will be “in the hundreds” of megawatts. Over the next five years, his company plans to raise $5 billion in capital to build 2,000 megawatts—two gigawatts—of additional mining capacity. But that won’t all be in the basin, he says. Carlson says he and others will soon be scaling up so rapidly that, for farsighted miners, the Mid-Columbia Basin effectively is already maxed out, in part because the counties simply can’t build out power lines and infrastructure fast enough. “So we have to go site hunting across the US & Canada,” Carlson told me in a text. “I’m on my way to Quebec on Monday.” As in oil or gold, prospectors never stop—they just move on.
Because of bitcoin's decentralized nature and its trading on online exchanges located in many countries, regulation of bitcoin has been difficult. However, the use of bitcoin can be criminalized, and shutting down exchanges and the peer-to-peer economy in a given country would constitute a de facto ban. The legal status of bitcoin varies substantially from country to country and is still undefined or changing in many of them. Regulations and bans that apply to bitcoin probably extend to similar cryptocurrency systems.
Carlson has become the face of the Mid-Columbia Basin crypto boom. Articulate, infectiously optimistic, with graying hair and a trim beard, the Microsoft software developer-turned-serial entrepreneur has built a series of mines, made (and lost) several bitcoin fortunes and endured countless setbacks to become one of the region’s largest players. Other local miners credit Carlson for launching the basin’s boom, back in 2012, when he showed up in a battered Honda in the middle of a snowstorm and set up his servers in an old furniture store. Carlson wouldn’t go that far, but the 47-year-old was one of the first people to understand, back when bitcoin was still mainly something video gamers mined in their basements, that you might make serious money mining bitcoin at scale—but only if you could find a place with cheap electricity.
The overwhelming majority of bitcoin transactions take place on a cryptocurrency exchange, rather than being used in transactions with merchants. Delays processing payments through the blockchain of about ten minutes make bitcoin use very difficult in a retail setting. Prices are not usually quoted in units of bitcoin and many trades involve one, or sometimes two, conversions into conventional currencies. Merchants that do accept bitcoin payments may use payment service providers to perform the conversions.
Granted, all that real-worlding and road-hitting is a little hard to visualize just now. The winter storms that have turned the Cascade Mountains a dazzling white have also turned the construction site into a reddish quagmire that drags at workers and equipment. There have also been permitting snafus, delayed utility hookups, and a lawsuit, recently settled, by impatient investors. But Carlson seems unperturbed. “They are actually making it work,” he told me earlier, referring to the mud-caked workers. “In a normal project, they might just say, ‘Let’s just wait till spring,’” Carlson adds. “But in bitcoin and blockchain, there is no stopping.” Indeed, demand for hosting services in the basin is so high that a desperate miner offered Carlson a Lamborghini if Carlson would bump him to the head of the pod waiting list. “I didn’t take the offer,” Carlson assures me. “And I like Lamborghinis!”
Various potential attacks on the bitcoin network and its use as a payment system, real or theoretical, have been considered. The bitcoin protocol includes several features that protect it against some of those attacks, such as unauthorized spending, double spending, forging bitcoins, and tampering with the blockchain. Other attacks, such as theft of private keys, require due care by users.
The network requires minimal structure to share transactions. An ad hoc decentralized network of volunteers is sufficient. Messages are broadcast on a best effort basis, and nodes can leave and rejoin the network at will. Upon reconnection, a node downloads and verifies new blocks from other nodes to complete its local copy of the blockchain.
Numerous people have been suggested as possible Satoshi Nakamotos by major media outlets. On Oct. 10, 2011, The New Yorker published an article speculating that Nakamoto might be Irish cryptography student Michael Clear, or economic sociologist Vili Lehdonvirta. A day later, Fast Company suggested that Nakamoto could be a group of three people – Neal King, Vladimir Oksman and Charles Bry – who together appear on a patent related to secure communications that was filed two months before bitcoin.org was registered. A Vice article published in May 2013 added more suspects to the list, including Gavin Andresen, the Bitcoin project’s lead developer; Jed McCaleb, co-founder of now-defunct Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox; and famed Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki.
Wallets and similar software technically handle all bitcoins as equivalent, establishing the basic level of fungibility. Researchers have pointed out that the history of each bitcoin is registered and publicly available in the blockchain ledger, and that some users may refuse to accept bitcoins coming from controversial transactions, which would harm bitcoin's fungibility.
With the Bitcoin price so volatile everyone is curious. Bitcoin, the category creator of blockchain technology, is the World Wide Ledger yet extremely complicated and no one definition fully encapsulates it. By analogy it is like being able to send a gold coin via email. It is a consensus network that enables a new payment system and a completely digital money.
The whole process is pretty simple and organized: Bitcoin holders are able to transfer bitcoins via a peer-to-peer network. These transfers are tracked on the “blockchain,” commonly referred to as a giant ledger. This ledger records every bitcoin transaction ever made. Each “block” in the blockchain is built up of a data structure based on encrypted Merkle Trees. This is particularly useful for detecting fraud or corrupted files. If a single file in a chain is corrupt or fraudulent, the blockchain prevents it from damaging the rest of the ledger.
The primary purpose of mining is to allow Bitcoin nodes to reach a secure, tamper-resistant consensus. Mining is also the mechanism used to introduce bitcoins into the system. Miners are paid transaction fees as well as a subsidy of newly created coins, called block rewards. This both serves the purpose of disseminating new coins in a decentralized manner as well as motivating people to provide security for the system through mining.
Skipping over the technical details, finding a block most closely resembles a type of network lottery. For each attempt to try and find a new block, which is basically a random guess for a lucky number, a miner has to spend a tiny amount of energy. Most of the attempts fail and a miner will have wasted that energy. Only once about every ten minutes will a miner somewhere succeed and thus add a new block to the blockchain.
The domain name "bitcoin.org" was registered on 18 August 2008. In November 2008, a link to a paper authored by Satoshi Nakamoto titled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System was posted to a cryptography mailing list. Nakamoto implemented the bitcoin software as open source code and released it in January 2009. Nakamoto's identity remains unknown.