What is cryptocurrency?

Cryptocurrency is a digital form of currency that is based on blockchain technology, and uses cryptographic techniques to ensure secure and transparent transactions and to protect against counterfeit coins. 

Cryptocurrency marks a significant shift from traditional fiat currencies, which are issued and regulated by central banks and governments. Cryptocurrencies, by contrast, operate on decentralized blockchain networks, which are distributed ledgers that record all transactions across a network of computers, or nodes, and do not require intermediaries like banks to verify or complete transactions electronically.

The inception of cryptocurrency is most commonly attributed to Bitcoin, which was introduced in 2009 by an anonymous person or group known as Satoshi Nakamoto, and remains the most popular cryptocurrency to this day. Bitcoin was designed to be a peer-to-peer electronic cash system, allowing online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution. 

What is a blockchain and why is it important?

Blockchain technology is the architecture that underpins most cryptocurrencies and is fundamental to their function. A blockchain is another term for a distributed public ledger, and is made up of a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptographic mathematical verification. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data. This chain of blocks, or blockchain, ensures the integrity of data by making it virtually impossible to alter previous transactions without changing all subsequent blocks simultaneously, which would require consensus from the majority of the network. 

This consensus mechanism is what allows the network to operate in a decentralized manner without a central authority, and protects it from manipulation. Since each node on the network has a full record of the transactions which took place on the block chain, this also allows for additional transparency and for individuals to audit transactions themselves. 

What are cryptocurrencies used for?

Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin were initially envisioned to operate as a secure, decentralised  alternative to fiat currencies like the U.S. Dollar. Certain cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are accepted as a form of payment by many private vendors and businesses throughout the world, and was made legal tender for the first time in El Salvador. While many use Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies for payments, its highly volatile and speculative nature have also led many to instead use Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies as an investment vehicle.

As blockchain developed, however, so too has its use cases. The successful launch and adoption of Ethereum and its smart contract technology fueled a steep rise in cryptocurrencies being used as more than just a payment system. Smart contracts opened up the doors for cryptocurrencies to be used as a fully functional “decentralised computer” capable of executing contracts automatically by having conditions for transactions and operations written directly into the code, thus removing the need for a central auditor or authority. This has had profound implications in a variety of sectors, like insurance, finance, gaming, art and more, which continues to develop to this day.

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What are the advantages of cryptocurrency?

One advantage of cryptocurrencies is their potential to offer financial inclusion to unbanked populations, particularly in developing countries where traditional banking infrastructure may be lacking. Furthermore, the pseudonymous nature of many cryptocurrencies can enhance privacy and security for users, though this has also attracted scrutiny and criticism regarding the potential for facilitating illegal activities such as money laundering, hacking and fraud.

The decentralized nature of cryptocurrencies reduces the risk of systemic failure because there is no central point of control. One central aspect of Bitcoin, and part of the fuel for its meteoric rise in value, is its strictly limited supply of 21 million coins. This is hardwired into the code and can never be changed by any one person or group. As such it has anti-inflationary properties vs the fiat currencies in use today, and its value cannot be arbitrarily changed by a central bank or government, or its supply arbitrarily inflated.

What are the disadvantages of cryptocurrency?

The lack of central regulation, however, can also mean that cryptocurrencies are subject to significant volatility. Prices can fluctuate wildly in a short period, influenced by factors such as market demand, investor speculation, regulatory news, and technological developments. This volatility can make cryptocurrencies attractive for investors looking for high returns but can also pose risks to those who seek stable value storage.

Security is another critical concern. While blockchain technology is inherently secure, the centralised platforms and exchanges where cryptocurrencies are bought, sold, and stored are not immune to hacks, breaches, or fraud. Numerous high-profile cases have seen millions of dollars worth of cryptocurrency stolen from exchanges, highlighting the importance of robust security measures and the risks associated with digital assets.

Regulatory scrutiny is also a common theme of the contemporary cryptocurrency landscape. Governments and financial regulators worldwide are grappling with how to integrate cryptocurrencies into existing financial systems and regulations vary widely by country, with some embracing cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology, while others impose strict restrictions or outright bans.

Disclaimer: This article was produced with the assistance of OpenAI’s ChatGPT 3.5/4 and reviewed and edited by our editorial team.

© 2023 The Block. All Rights Reserved. This article is provided for informational purposes only. It is not offered or intended to be used as legal, tax, investment, financial, or other advice.

About Author

Jordan Leech is a Berlin-based Editorial Intern at The Block. He has worked for several years as a broadcast journalist, camera operator, and producer before aiming to get established working in the crypto industry. Jordan holds a degree in Philosophy and Political Science from the University of Guelph and is an avid photographer and traveller in his free time.