The Cavendish Chronicle

Termly print magazine from Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Student-run, read, & written.

Anarchy or Autarky? The dark side of the Bitcoin revolution

by Emma Sims

The volatile cryptocurrency’s value rose 900% in 2017, but at what human cost?

Lucy Cavendish College is a multidisciplinary haven, one where intellectual vitality abounds. But a tendency to veer towards academic insularity isn’t uncommon, with HSPSers despairing over Durkheim, and the Englings, Dante. It’s nice – and often necessary – to broaden your exposure to other disciplines, other schools of thought, other arenas of study. And yes, while we’re all entitled to audit other courses (Intro to Microeconomics, anyone?), I’m yet to meet anyone who’s actually had the wherewithal to pedal down to Sidgewick and attend a lecture not given by their faculty.

That’s where the beauty of LCC’s grad talks comes in. A weekly event, convened in college, in which students (ostensibly graduate students, although word on the street is that savvy undergrads can sneak in) gather to hear a fellow Lucian relay their academic endeavours. If this sounds totally, inaccessibly dry, it really isn’t; a recent example comes from criminology wunderkind Alex Aldridge, who discussed her research on the collusion of sex and drugs (rock and roll: model’s own).

The focus of this week’s column, though, is on DeAnna Lee Pope’s presentation – although I’d be inclined to say performance, it was that enrapturing – on the darker implications of everyone’s favourite cryptocurrency.

Easing us in with an audience-participation history of currency, from bartering with shells to the evolution of the two-dollar bill. The way we ascribe value, DeAnna explained, is a system unique to humans. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than Bitcoin, which, DeAnna explained, emerged in 2009 as a direct response to the financial crisis.

Each bitcoin comprises, she went on, a bit of code sent not just digitally, but anonymously. Its problems aren’t, ostensibly, that hard to decipher; its anonymity makes it an optimal currency for illegal transactions. If you want a shipment of pills from Amsterdam, Bitcoin’s a fairly robust bet.

Alas, its implications are far darker than this. Over two-thirds of transactions that went through the Silk Road in 2014 pertained to weapons, child pornography, child prostitution and, of course, illegal drugs. What this triggers is a cascade of human rights issues.

Enter a slew of international organisations and NGOs to nip this thing in the bud, right? Nope, explained DeAnna:

“Consistently, international organisations like the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, see cryptocurrencies […] as non-threats to human rights.”

This seems bizarre, given the legions of statistics that would testify otherwise. But the discrepancies in how people define money – and if cryptocurrencies “count” – mean that Bitcoin and its spinoffs are routinely discounted as alive-and-well threats to human right. For money to be money, it has to have three things: a unit of account, a unit of exchange, and it has to be accepted as such: “If not, it’s kind of redundant, right?” Universal acceptance is the gateway to meaning, to validity.

Is there an answer? DeAnna’s steely countenance, her clear-cut sense of direction, assures us there is; what we need is “a consistent legal vernacular in how we define money internationally,” she decrees. A formidable answer, but this can be broken down: customer due diligence, anti-money laundering enterprises, counter-terrorism finance systems. There are multiple solutions to this preventable problem.

“Our money reflects who we are, and what we value […] we only assign value to the things we think matter,” said DeAnna. In the eyes of major NGOs, Bitcoin doesn’t, and by default, nor do its life-threatening ramifications. This is something that needs bringing to attention. DeAnna, from the bottom down, is doing just that. On the centenary of (*some* – stay woke) women’s suffrage, this feels like a fitting homage: women using their agency, privilege and voices to lobby for change. If acceptance is the first step to recovery, this acknowledgement feels like a step in the right direction.

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