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Bitcoin, Cryptocurrencies and Blockchain Technologies: Insights from and for IR

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As Bitcoin makes international headlines and warnings of cryptocurrency booms and busts abound, there is much that IR scholars can productively add to, as well as learn from, debates over the latest ‘wild west’ of an unstable and crisis-prone global economy. Beyond the economistic, legalistic, and technical analysis of daily price swings, challenges posed to existing legislation, and potential vulnerabilities in computer code, IR can usefully foreground the forms of power, agency and legitimacy that persistently underlie technologically enabled shifts occurring in the transnational ordering of a range of activities, from agriculture trade to migrant remittances. By adding nuance to discussions that have tended to alternatively write off Bitcoin as evil or uncritically praise its underlying blockchain technology as ‘the greatest invention since the Magna Carta’ IR can build on longstanding efforts to understand the actors, processes and objects contributing to patterns of both change and continuity in global governance.

What are Blockchains and Cryptocurrencies?

Blockchains, at their core, are digital sequences of numbers coded into computer software that permit the secure exchange, recording, and broadcasting of transactions between individual users operating anywhere in world with access to the Internet. The development of blockchains, like most technological change, draws on previously existing technologies. In an initial instance, blockchains incorporate digital encryption technologies that to varying degrees mask the specific content exchanged as well as the identities of individual users. Algorithms, pre-coded series of step-by-step instructions, are also mobilized to solve complex mathematical equations and arrive at a consensus on the validity of transactions within networks of users. In a second instance, time-stamping technologies periodically bundle verified transactions into datasets, or ‘blocks’. Linked together sequentially, these ‘blocks’ form ‘chains’ that make up larger ‘blockchain’ databases of transactions broadcasting permanent records of transactions whilst maintaining the anonymity of users and specific content exchanged. Blockchains are meant to be immutable, unless users arrive at a clear consensus to undertake changes.

Authored by a still unidentified individual or group of individuals using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, the technical design for blockchains initially outlined in a 2008 white paper was quickly taken up in an online community of technology enthusiasts. Bitcoin, the first time-stamped ledger of user-verified........

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