A quick recap of how we got here — about a week into last year’s “Polar Vortex”, we had both decided that our third winter in Chicago would be our last. We had some extra credits to play with and wanted to explore the southern hemisphere, but had already done the aimless backpacking thing and wanted to get involved with a more immersive, long-term project.

Developing a research project was a long process. We went from “Let’s go study gentrification of favelas in Brazil!” to “nah, too dangerous, don’t know portuguese, screw research, let’s just go biking in Thailand” to “nah, but research would be really cool, what about that whole black market for US dollars thing going on in Argentina” to “damn that would be cool but people involved with the black market probably aren’t going to want to talk to us”. At this point, we were admittedly a bit lost.

And then we came across an article on Bitcoin’s potential for Argentina.

Quick primer on Bitcoin–if you don’t know much, no problem, neither did we a few months ago–the digital currency launched mysteriously in the wake of 2008’s global financial crisis as a peer-to-peer electronic payment system that is backed by computer software rather than governmental authority. The open-source software’s cryptographic design principles allow it to avoid centralizations of power that could let a single person or organization take control.

This all sounds cool, but if you’re like most Americans, you probably don’t worry about the value of your currency decreasing or the government taking control of your bank account. You have no reason to. In fact, it is fairly easy to break down the early American adopters of Bitcoin into four general groups:

  • Super techy folks who are fascinated by the software
  • Speculators using Bitcoin as an investment (the price of 1 BTC skyrocketed to over $1,000 USD late last year before falling back to around $350 where it stands today)
  • Wacky libertarians who are afraid of the government
  • People looking to buy drugs online

Bitcoin proponents always point to places like Zimbabwe, where inflation was recently 231,000,000% (not kidding, google it), as locales that would obviously benefit from freeing citizens from the government through a peer-to-peer currency system. The problem with this is that most citizens of Zimbabwe do not have computers, let alone the advanced technological knowledge needed to adopt Bitcoin.

Old meets new in Palermo, Buenos Aires

This is where Argentina comes in. We see Argentina as an ideal test tube for large-scale Bitcoin adoption due to a few unique factors: in many ways Argentina is a developed country — Buenos Aires is known as “The Paris of the South”, technology penetration is strong (with far and away the most internet users in South America according to PEW research) and education levels high — however, the nation has suffered through a century of economic instability and prolonged crises.

In short, Argentina may be one of the few places in the world currently with both the need for Bitcoin and the capacity to adopt it at a large scale. That’s the essence of what we’re researching. We’ll be integrating ourselves into the Bitcoin community in Buenos Aires and discovering who the early-adopters really are, asking them about their goals and motivations, and evaluating the current success and future potential of the movement.

We’re dealing with some pretty big stuff here — dissecting complex new technology, assessing the strength of global financial systems, uncovering the economic and political psyche of an entire nation, etc. It’s a tall task undoubtedly, but we’re thrilled to have been given the opportunity to take it on.

Like everyone at Northwestern, in Evanston we’re sometimes overwhelmingly busy. Four classes, extracurriculars, job hunting and social lives can make it challenging to really ever focus one hundred percent on anything. That’s why we’re incredibly excited to become fully immersed in this project and unique community over the next few months. Stay tuned here for updates on our progress!

¡Hasta la Primavera! — Eli & Kate, Dec. 26, 2014

Originally published at blog.undergradresearch.northwestern.edu on January 7, 2015.

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