Cryptocurrency and the magical realism of energy looting

The volcanic landscape is rich in imagery, sensory stimulation, raw materials, and layers of human experience with the geophysical world. I’m explicitly interested in how volcanic landscapes are mined for value;  in the case of my fieldwork in highland Panama, volcanism provided columnar basalt and andesitic slabs used in pre-Columbian grave construction, eruptions provided bases for indigenous oral traditions that made sense of the world, and the volcano provides a contemporary ecotourism draw. All provide very different forms of value derived from volcanism.

I was surprised to recently encounter an entirely new and very early-21st century form of deriving value from the volcanic landscape. A few weeks ago I drove past a former NATO bunker in Reykjanesbaer, Iceland, now repurposed as a bitcoin mining site for the Cloud Hashing company. Whether bitcoin is viewed as something perverse (e.g., here or here) or slightly more positively as the product of ‘utopian cyberlibertarian ideology’ (here), the cryptocurrency concept in itself is fascinating in the form of bitcoin or competitors like Ripple, Litecoin, Peercoin, Namecoin, or Dogecoin [see note below]*.  

The Iceland trip was ostensibly a chance to visit lava fields, ashfall zones, and geothermal energy sites. The deliberate placement of a physical mine for virtual currency there, however, wedged itself in my thoughts as something odd and interesting. The Cloud Hashing bunker (engagingly described here with video and photos) is located in Reykjanesbaer explicitly to make use of abundant, inexpensive geothermal energy permitted by the subarctic volcanic context. A hundred plus computers - caged and guarded - process algorithms day and night; the computers are vented with arctic air to prevent overheating from the constant work as they attempt to outperform other miners' computers to win a block of 25 bitcoins. The decentralized network is programmed to eventually release a total of 21 million bitcoins. Since 2009 over half the full number of total bitcoins allowed by the system have been released, but the slower pace of release built into the program over time means that it may take a hundred years of increasingly difficult and power-intensive computing gymnastics to release the full amount. I can't help but imagine a hundred years of Icelandic solitude for the computers in the Cloud Hashing bunker (and their future generations once they are too old to carry on the endless toil). Reykjanesbaer would take the place of Macondo in the magical realism of virtual wealth.

That wealth could be substantial, which is the draw for speculators. Bitcoin’s current price can be real-time tracked here. For a vivid example of its meteoric rise in value consider that in 2010, 10,000 bitcoins were used to pay for two Papa John’s pizzas; in December 2013 each new bitcoin peaked at $1,100. Worldwide, the computers currently dedicated to bitcoin mining are estimated to have a collective computing power that is 4500x the capacity of the IBM Sequoia, the US Government’s powerful supercomputer. As the Sequoia was built for the National Nuclear Security Administration for nuclear weapons simulations and side projects such as astronomy, energy, genome study, and climate change, it is clearly quite powerful [deployed in June 2012, it was for a short time the world’s largest supercomputer; it was supplanted by China’s Tianhe-2 as of the November 2013 rankings]. Though it is just meant to give comparison of computing power, that juxtaposition of the Sequoia versus the combined data miners’ computing power is a bit confronting, no? Why substantially more energy is put toward wealth creation than climate change and energy studies is a larger philosophical question without a simple answer.

Personally, I find clear parallels between global bitcoin mining and the California gold rush of the late-19th century. The miners in both cases were often ambitious young men gambling in the hopes of finding wealth in new and unexpected forms. More than that, though, I am thinking of the tremendous waste and irreplaceable loss that the gold rush engendered as unanticipated and thoughtless byproduct. As the isthmus of Panama provided one of the best ways for miners to travel from the east coast to west coast of the US or back, a connected ‘gold rush’ began when gold artifacts were discovered in highland Panama graves. Thousands upon thousands of pre-Columbian graves were opened and emptied. The finely crafted gold artifacts within them were most frequently melted for the value of their metal (which was fairly diluted as it was tumbaga, or a gold-copper alloy; it was the archaeological context and data and caliber of craftsmanship that would now make them priceless), while ceramic artifacts were broken and discarded or became, with stone artifacts, part of a secondary market of lower value.

To return to the image of lonely, caged computers working for the next hundred years to mine bitcoin…. If the theme of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Hundred Years of Solitude was the repetition of history with the continual presence of ghosts, the historical overlap in rushes on pre-Columbian Panamanian graves and bitcoin mining is that of unimaginable wastage. While desecrated graves clearly link to ghosts of the past, the wastage of vast amounts of fossil fuel have uncomfortable associations to the ghosts of our own children and grandchildren. While the earnest and likable entrepreneur behind the Icelandic Cloud Hashing facility proudly touts its use of geothermal energy, in order to diversify in case of power outages or changes in government regulation he will build his next bunker in Texas. No geothermal energy to run the computers, no arctic air to cool them; the expenditure of non-renewable energy in order to create something ephemeral will be in stark contrast to the glowing description of the Icelandic facility's sustainability.

Archaeologists fetishize coins as a prototypical exemplar of terminus post quem; if you excavate a neatly date stamped or dateable one in your site - barring errant rodent tunnels or other such inconveniences to your stratigraphic cake layers - you are gifted a clear fix on your chronology. For this reason alone I might be suspect of a virtual currency like bitcoin and more likely to support one that is more tangible or material. I can’t help but feel hope and gratitude, though, for the optimism behind a currency called SolarCoin. While SolarCoins can be mined via algorithms like other cryptocurrency, house owners with solar panels will receive actual coins from their energy company for each megawatt-hour of electricity they feed back into the grid. The idealistic and grassroots element of the currency is at the core of bitcoin as well, but without the Silk Road and Tor associations and without the need to air condition a mine full of overheated, overworked, and very solitary computers in Texas.

NOTE

* While 21 million Dogecoin were recently hacked and stolen, to their credit they are also largely behind the presence the Jamaican bobsled team in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi so we should cut them some slack. Less slack permitted for the egregiously named CoinYe with a cartoon of Kanye West on it.

Richard Perry/The New York Times (Cloud Hashing bunker in Reykjanesbaer, Iceland)

Richard Perry/The New York Times (Cloud Hashing bunker in Reykjanesbaer, Iceland)