If Bitcoin goes to zero, what will be left? More than you think

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“Bitcoin will go to zero or to many, many zeroes.” That’s the prediction of Shakil Khan, a Spotify investor and virtual currency expert, who shares the commonly-held view that the future of Bitcoin is all-or-nothing.

Khan repeated the prediction last week at a Dublin tech event  with Jeremy Allaire, a successful entrepreneur who just raised $9 million for a new Bitcoin start-up called Circle. The two touched on Bitcoin’s potential but — and this is the interesting part –they also discussed what will happen if Bitcoin gets wiped out.

Recall that, while the currency is riding high of late, it could still disappear in a flash. Since its inception in 2009, Bitcoin has lived in the shadow of existential collapse at the hands of various threats: hacking; manipulation of the money supply (by “selfish miners” or others); liquidity crises; criminal syndicates; and so on. So far, it has weathered all of these things — though with wild fluctuations — but that doesn’t mean a future shock won’t kill Bitcoin once and for all.

So what happens if Bitcoin does fail? The most obvious outcome is that speculators will take a terrible bath. Those left holding the digital currency will have an asset that’s worth precisely nothing and, unlike previous failed currencies, Bitcoin owners won’t even be able to eat it or burn it for warmth:

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But that’s not the end of the story. As Khan and Allaire point out, Bitcoin wouldn’t simply disappear but would leave behind a valuable architecture and business eco-system for others to build upon.

“Some of the technology advances that have been taking place in the past few years since Bitcoin was embraced can surely be used for a bunch of other things in the future, especially when it come to remittances and other Western Union-like businesses,” said Khan.

Allaire, meanwhile, claims that the new Bitcoin era is akin to the early 1990s when people used common protocols to develop web browsers and, in turn, built companies and entire industries atop those protocols. The ultimate result was a communications revolution in which free internet protocols replaced expensive and inefficient voice networks. This time around, the nascent infrastructure surrounding Bitcoin is poised to overthrow the settlement, clearance and processing problems that now limit how we exchange money.

“The cryptographic payment systems are an innovation that has happened… it is a set of protocols that are extremely valuable… The fundamental invention that has happened here is here to stay and will be built on for decades,” said Allaire, while adding that the process is at an early very stage and will take 10 or 20 years to emerge.

Allaire, of course, is not a neutral authority. He has skin in the game since his new Circle company is itself part of the emerging payment eco-system he describes. But given his past success in building Brightcove, another emerging technology company, his perspective merits attention.

It’s also worth noting that Allaire’s outlook jibes with that of respected investment firm Union Square Ventures, which last week published “Bitcoin as Protocol“, a thoughtful essay that explains how Bitcoin’s public ledger and other features of the currency are creating a rich pile of of permission-free tools that will support a wide variety of innovation.

The bottom line is that Bitcoin has reached a stage of development where it is not just a currency, but an emerging technology eco-system that will last even if Bitcoin itself disappears.

Correction: an earlier version of this story described Bitcoin’s inception as 2011, not 2009.

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