Bitcoin and Potosí Silver

Bitcoin, the digital cryptocurrency, has been celebrated as the future of money on the Internet. Although Bitcoin does present several forward-looking innovations, it also integrates a very old concept into its digital architecture: the mining of precious metals. Even though Bitcoin explicitly invokes mining as a metaphor and gold as an example for understanding the cryptocurrency, there has been little critical work on the connections between Bitcoin and previous metalist currency regimes. The following essay proposes a historical comparison with colonial South American silver mining and the global currency regime based on the New World silver peso it created as a way to interrogate Bitcoin. The comparison with colonial South America, and specifically the silver mining economy around the Cerro Rico de Potosí, will help to develop a historical and political understanding of Bitcoin’s stakes, including questions of resources, labor, energy, and ecology.
Mining and the extractive apparatus that accompanies it always imply massive-scale earthworks that reshape the planet itself, a process known as terraforming. The Potosí comparison will reveal Bitcoin to form part of a similar process of digital primitive accumulation we can provisionally name cryptoforming.

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