In Berlin, bitcoins readily replace the euro
More stores in the German capital are accepting bitcoin payments, the cyber currency until recently used primarily for online purchases. Its success lies in disgruntlement with conventional banks due to the crisis but also due to genuine financial advantages.
Graefekiez, Berlin, August 2013. As it does every Tuesday, the canal echoes with the tell-tale sounds of the Turkish market. Berliners ambling between the stalls succumb to irresistible last-minute offers. Mikaela buys a kilo of fish – "€3" announces a placard – and pays in cash, from hand to hand. No receipt, no cash register. The transaction leaves no visible trace, other than the bag full of glistening fish that Mikaela takes with her.
Two hundred metres further south, in the same district, Brand treats himself to a latte macchiato at Floor’s Café. When it comes time to pay, he pulls out his smartphone, takes a picture of the quick response code (QR code) that appears on the screen, types in a code, clicks "OK", and leaves. He has left no trace of payment – or not much. A software application has transferred money from his on-line account to the café's and the transaction appears in the blockchain – a ledger which records the transactions in chronological order. Brand, 32, did not need a credit card or a bank account. The transaction data is kept secure by the blockchain, protected by rigorous encryption codes that bar anyone from accessing or modifying the amount, the provenance or the destination.
This is the bitcoin miracle, the cryptocurrency that is flourishing here, in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Nearly 25 shops – most of them cafés, but also hotels, restaurants, small electronics firms and office supply stores – accept this virtual currency launched in 2009 by an anonymous hacker known as Satoshi Nakamoto.
The exchange rate of the cryptocurrency is currently very high with one bitcoin worth €78, that means a coffee costs only 0.02 bitcoins. On paper at least, it can be used to purchase anything – housing, cars, computers or clothes. Although it fulfils all the criteria to be considered a currency, as was recently recognised by Texas judge Amos Mazzant, the bitcoin is nonetheless free of all control by governments or central banks. This is starting to raise concerns, especially because its use is becoming more and more widespread.
Currency of the future?
Sitting on his white Vespa in front of Floor's, Brand explains briefly how the bitcoin system works. According to him, it is a responsible choice such as buying an environmentally-sustainable product rather than a polluting low-cost one. With his smartphone in his right hand, he opens the EasyWallet application – he then just needs to take a photo of the QR code in the café, insert the amount required, click on OK and the payment is made. "I pay in bitcoins at least two times per day, for lunch and for a coffee. I don't know if the bitcoin is the currency of the future, but it will certainly be those currencies that rely on internet-based technology that will dominate. Perhaps there will be several but I have the impression that it is an inevitable change," he says.
Florentina Martens is the owner of Floor's Café. Of Dutch origin, the 26-year-old former student at Berlin's art school launched her small food service enterprise and wholeheartedly supports the bitcoin. For her, it all started when she was a waitress in a nearby bar that allowed the use of the alternative currency. "At first, it almost bothered me, I didn't fully understand how it worked and when someone wanted to pay in bitcoins, I got flustered," she says. Later, when she decided to open her own café, she was convinced by her neighbours, obtained some information on the system and decided to accept payments in a currency that a short time before she had considered a chore. Some software and a QR code, that is all the client needs. For now, Florentina has not converted her bitcoins into euros. Everything she earns in bitcoins, she spends for herself in the neighbourhood.
At first clients wanting to pay in bitcoins were rare. But today she has some everyday that use it to pay for a coffee, a slice of cake or a sandwich. "They are not 'nerds' sporting glasses and ponytails. And there are as many men as women, most of them young with alternative life-styles," she says. For her, as with most of the other "bitcoiners" interviewed by Linkiesta, the primary motivation is a disgruntlement with private banks and with the monetary policies of central banks in general, which came to maturation during the crisis. Because it is "decentralised", the alternative currency, as well as being trendy, is seen as closer to the consumer.
It is no accident that this experiment is taking place in Graefekiez, a district of modest size, with an atmosphere and an economic structure all of its own. The story begins at Room77, "a restaurant on the fringes of capitalism," which, in early 2012, offered its clients "warm beer, cold women and fast food served in slow motion," according to a sign on the door. The owner, Joerg Platze, a German of American origin (his father was a Texan), became a kind of evangelistic booster for the cyber currency. It is thanks to him that a large part of the shop-keepers in the district today use "We accept bitcoin" stickers. "For me, it is first and foremost a practical question: it is very quick and more economical," he argues. Unlike a credit card, for example, the transaction generates no fees. Joerg Platze managed to convince other tradespeople, such as an old electrician, a neighbour of Room77, who installed the software last week and has just posted the bitcoin sticker on his door. Although none of his customers have yet asked to pay in bitcoins, he will be prepared when they do.
A hotel school graduate and formerly employed in the food service industry, 41-year-old Cassandra Wintgens is the owner of the "Lekkerurlaub" guesthouse. The bitcoin system fits in with her concept of alternative hotels, consisting of affordable rooms, organic food, Wifi access and using a currency that does not transit through a bank. "Our first guest arrived in May. He told us that he had read that it was possible to pay in bitcoins and it was for that reason that he booked a room with us," she says. A single room costs 0.52 bitcoins, or €40 while a double costs 0.85 bitcoins or €65. The guesthouse's invoices already provide for payments in bitcoins. These will have to be converted into euros at the end of the year for inclusion on her tax form, as her accountant has explained.
Far from the heavenly situation in Graefekiez, reality seems a bit different. The cyber currency is already present on the financial markets but the absence of a central bank to monitor it makes the exchange rate highly volatile – a situation which is as frightening to some as it is attractive to the adventurous investor. Phylax is a German financial consulting firm that offers its clients technological assistance. In recent years, it has specialised in the bitcoin payment system. "We began to get interested in bitcoins two years ago and we found that it was an interesting experiment. We were won over by the idea of a decentralised currency, without a central bank of reference, where each one is involved in the process of creating a new currency," explains Phylax CEO Fridhelm Schmitt. At the time, the bitcoin was worth €2 and Phylax saw the potential – the company bought bitcoins for €8-10 and sold them all for between €45-85. The volatile nature of the exchange rate triggered the sale.
According to calculations made by Phylax, a "reasonable" rate would currently be €45 per bitcoin. "I understand all the concerns that this experiment raises. It is true that one can lose huge amounts of money today with the bitcoin [by speculating on the financial markets]. But it is not a scam, it is a real currency. It may be that people confuse scam with risk, which is a characteristic of the market," Schmitt argues. The main risk, he says, is that "someday" it will be counterfeited, but adds, "Many studies are currently examining this scenario, but today, counterfeiting is impossible.