After the euro, the digital euro

Hello. It looks as if the number of currencies in the world is set to go up again. Across the English Channel, satisfaction with supra-national monetary arrangements is waning.

[Marine le Pen] said she could see the EU setting up another currency like the ECU, or European Currency Unit, which the bloc used for internal accounting purposes before the euro was introduced in 1999.

From China Media Warn Trump of ‘Big Sticks’ If He Seeks Trade War

Now, younger readers may be unfamiliar with the ECU, but I’ve written about it more than once on this blog. The idea of restoring the Franc while simultaneously creating a new pan-European currency actually makes sense and I’m rather in favour of it. Which makes we wonder how she got hold of the draft manuscript for my forthcoming book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin: From Money We Understand to Money That Understands Us” that the good people at the London Publishing Partnership have agreed to publish in June? Oh well, since the cat is out of the bag, I may as well give you a sneak preview…

I remember hearing the Chancellor of the Exchequer talking on the radio during the great financial crisis. He referred to the difficulties of currency union and spoke about the problems in Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Cyprus. He spoke about the problems of maintaining monetary policy across currency unions between economies with different fundamentals. All true. But he didn’t explain why this is different for the UK. How is the insanity of trying to maintain a currency union between Germany, Luxembourg and Greece any different to the insanity of trying to maintain a currency union between England, Wales and Scotland? The fact that they are in a political union does not alter the facts on the ground: they have fundamentally different economies. The Chancellor was arguing that if Scotland opted for independence, it would be impossible to maintain a currency union between England and Scotland. But surely that is true now! The best monetary policy for England is not necessarily the best monetary policy for Scotland, and technology means that what was optimal for commerce at the time of the Napoleonic Wars may no longer best for the modern economy.

If the argument for currency union is only about transaction costs within economic zones, then former Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major set out a potential way forward in 1990 (although the idea dates from 1983) with his alternative to the euro, which was at the time was labelled the “hard ECU”. The ECU was the “European Currency Unit”, a unit of account set using a basket of currencies, that was intended to help international business by minimising foreign exchange fluctuations. Major’s idea for the hard ECU was a fully-fledged currency with a “no devaluation” guarantee (Hasse and Koch 1991). Whereas the ECU reflected the weighted average of inflation rates in the countries concerned, the hard ECU would be linked to the strongest currency (which would have been the Deutschmark, of course). This guarantee would be backed by a commitment from participating central to buy back their own currency or make good exchange losses in the event of devaluations.

Imagine what that kind of parallel currency might look like today. It would be an electronic currency that would never exist in physical form but still be legal tender (put to one side what that means in practice) in all EU member states. Thus, businesses could keep accounts in hard ECUs, even in a post-EU England, and trade them cross-border with minimal transaction costs. Tourists could have hard ECU payment cards that they could use through the Union without penalty and so on. But each state would continue with its own national currency (you would still able use Sterling notes and coins in British shops) and the cost of replacing them would have been saved.

The reason for doing this is to minimise the costs of doing business across Europe while giving each country control over its own currency. But the more general point that I want to make is that the advance of technology gives us new choices in the way that money works. The way that money works now is not a law of physics: it is a set of institutional arrangements that could be changed at any time. Thus, if anything, Ms. le Pen is not being radical at all. Why have nation-state control over money? Why not allow regions to have their own currencies? Why not use Google Money? Or Islamic e-Dinars?

I’m not the only one who thinks this, by the way. Check this out from “The Futurist Magazine” in September 2012, where as part of a compilation of pieces envisioning life in 2100, the article asks if we will still have money in 2100, and speculates on what form it may take if we do:

It is quite likely that we will still have money in 2100, but it may not be issued by governments any longer.

[From European Futures Observatory]

I couldn’t agree more. But if not governments, then who? One of the things I discuss in my book is my “5Cs” model for thinking about future issuers: central banks, commercial banks, companies, cryptography and communities. My good friend Rob Allen from PwC was kind enough to use this model in Sydney this week and, frankly, if people like Rob are taking it seriously then I know I’m on the right track.

It’s time to start thinking about the future of money and not just because I have a book about it coming out in June (did I mention that before?) but because the current industrial age monetary arrangements do not support the post-industrial economy.

The Wall

The American President recently re-iterated his plans to build a “beautiful” wall along the border with Mexico, for no reason that I can fathom except to provide stimulus to the Mexican economy at a difficult time. As a good friend of mine says, we should not get too exercised about what is after all nothing more than a harmless public works project of the kind often undertaken by national leaders to secure a place in the national imagination.  

I don’t think it will become an object of awe and admiration, though. This 1,000 mile long, 40 foot high barrier, a vanity project of unusual cost and complexity, may never become a tourist attraction to rival the Great Wall of China (the most astonishing man-made object that I have ever seen in my entire life, and I’ve been to the City of Manchester Stadium) but it may become a new Maginot Line for future generations to study.

Who knows. All I can say with absolute certainty is that it will make no long term difference to smuggling, immigration or the security of American citizens.

How do I know this?

Well, we Brits have been there and done that. We built a wall. We built a wall that was twice as long as Mr. Trump’s wall. And there is nothing left of it today. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Dronning victoria

In the days when Her Majesty Queen Victoria was not only our ruler but also the Empress of India, the British administration in the subcontinent had, amongst other depredations, increased the hated salt tax (which later spurred the noted insurgent and rebel Mahatma Ghandi to begin his campaign against the many benefits of British rule with the Dandi March). The salt tax was particularly despised because hundreds of millions of people in India’s interior were dependent on salt from the coast to survive.

The British salt tax was not the first (under the Mughal Empire, for example, there was a salt tax of 5% for Hindus and 2.5% for Muslims), but it became a cash cow under British rule and the price of salt more than tripled. The natural result was that salt was smuggled from the Bay of Bengal to the interior.

Other things were smuggled too — opium, people and such like — but it was the smuggled salt that upset us Brits the most. So the East India Company decided to do something about it. Remember, India was ruled by the Company until 1858, when it was taken under the wing of the Crown following the rebellion of 1857.

The Company decided to build a wall down the middle of India. A big, beautiful wall. And they made the Indians pay for it.

This wall, or the “Inland Customs Line” as it was called, turned out to be quite hard to build. In large parts of India, there wasn’t the rock needed to build it or bricks to build it from. But a British civil servant thought laterally and came up with an amazing solution. Allan Octavian Hume, a man who remains unknown to the masses but who should be as celebrated and revered as a Barnes-Wallis or a Dyson, was appointed Commissioner of Customs for the North West Province (1867-1870) and the Line was officially his problem.

Allen Octavian Hume A British innovator: political reformer, ornithologist, botanist and one of the founders of the Indian National Congress.

Hume had noticed that along various sections of the Line, thorny hedges had taken root. In 1869 he began to experiment with different shrubs. As a result of his work, the British were able to grow a thorny barrier that stood in for rock, bricks and other traditional materials. A green alternative had been found!

From Above Top Secret.

Yes. You read that correctly. The British built a 12 foot high thorny hedge to stop the smuggling of salt, opium, cannabis, sugar and who knows what else. This living wall, as described in one of my all-all time favourite books, Roy Moxham’s The Great Hedge of India, eventually extended for some 800 of the Line’s 2,500 miles 

Now, it wasn’t only smugglers who found the Company’s Line  inconvenient. The British Viceroys of India didn’t like it either because it was an impediment to trade. They did not feel that the tax collected to the benefit of the East India Company would compensate for the reduction in trade and, in the end they won. You can read about it in “The Economic History of India Under Early British Rule: From the Rise of the British Power in 1757 to the Accession of Queen Victoria in 1837”, where Romesh Chunder Dutt writes:

The East India Company would not willingly sacrifice even a revenue of £220,000, or any portion of it, for the prosperity of the internal trade of India. Professing the utmost anxiety for the material welfare of the people of India, they were unwilling to sacrifice a shilling to promote that welfare.

By 1872, the Line had a staff of 14,000! There were customs posts every mile, and in order to pass through you had to pay the tax. No tax, no deal and you would be detained. Many of the customs posts had a police cell where smugglers could be detained on the spot. These were called “chowkis”, the Indian word for a police station (from the Hindi cauki). This is why English people of my parent’s generation (my grandfather served in the British Army in India in the 1930s and my mother lived there as a small girl) still refer to prison as “chokey”, the anglicisation of the word.

So what happened to the smuggling? In some places the smugglers just drove laden camels through the hedge, in other places they threw the salt over it. Smuggling was reduced, but at what was eventually seen as an unacceptable cost because apart from the running costs it led to clashes between smugglers and custom officers (including an event in 1877 when two customs men attempted to arrest 112 smugglers, with predictable results) as well as stimulating bribery and corruption. Dutt again:

evils had grown under British Rule as compared with the state of things under the Nawabs of Bengal; manufactures were killed and internal trade paralysed by the Customs’ Officers who were paid so low that it was possible for them to live only by extortion; travellers were harassed and the honour of women passing through the lines of customs houses was not safe; and that this huge system of oppression was maintained for the sake of an insignificant revenue.

In the end, the Viceroys won. After all of the work it took to build this incredible artefact, in the end it was abandoned. Work stopped in 1879. When India became independent in 1947, the remnants of the hedge were torn up. In some parts of India, the Inland Customs Line provided the only surveyed straight line and so it was used for the route of highways in the new country, which is why nothing remains of the Great Hedge of India. No Ozymandian testament stands as a reminder.

The wall was an exercise of corporate power, not a sane economic proposition, and what eventually ended the smuggling was tax reform, as it always has been and always will be, but that’s a story for another time.

 Sir John Strachey, the minister whose tax review led to the abolition of the line, later described it as “a monstrous system, to which it would be almost impossible to find a parallel in any tolerably civilised country”.

So, my advice to Mr. Trump is to create a cheap, green and sustainable wall out of thorny cacti, which flourish in abundance in places like Texas and New Mexico. After all, since the wall won’t make any difference, why waste money.

P.S. I notice that there are expert tunnellers in Mexico, so the wall needs to go down about 50 feet and I’m not sure cacti can really help with that, sorry.

My new favourite property is “everywhereness”

I’ve been reading The Four-Dimensional Human by Laurence Scott. It’s subtitled “Ways of Being in the Digital World” and I found it thought-provoking in a very positive way. I particularly like the core conceit of social media as another dimension, outside our normal time and space, a dimension we are able to traverse as starships are able to traverse our universe through wormholes into parallel spaces. Think of it as a kind of Flatland of our time, explaining spheres to squares, so to speak.

Everywhereness” describes how it feels when there is no longer any experience – meeting a friend, looking out of a window, feeling momentarily exasperated or exhilarated – that is particular to that moment, that place, those people. Social media make each moment four-dimensional.

This makes complete sense to me, and makes much more sense than Interstellar did (that was dreary in all four dimensions, and I especially hated that stupid robot TARD). Everywhereness. What a great word.

Of course, since the days of Flatland we’ve had Einstein and the idea of space as the fourth dimension. Perhaps it’s time to readjust the paradigm. Scott makes me that that as I traverse the mundane plane, tracing out a four-dimensional time-space trajectory as envisaged by Einstein, I’m also tracing out a five-dimensional time-space-media trajectory. You may not know my exact location and momentum simultaneously, but you may be able to deduce strong approximations from my Twitter feed.

The official blockchain quatrain

The moving finger writes; and having writ

Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit

shall lure it back to cancel half a line,

Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.

 

#Blockchain

 

OK, I added the hashtag, but the rest is from Edward Marlborough’s 1859 translation of the Rubáiyát of mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and poet Omar Ahayyám (1048-1131).

Hello world!

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Small is beautiful

In 1657, Blaise Pascal made a comment in a letter. In English, it translates as

“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter”.

[From If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter | Quote Investigator]

I love this quote, and I’ve heard it many times. The first time I heard it I think it was attributed to Lord Palmerston or Teddy Roosevelt, but that’s by the by. It’s a great quote, and it came to mind when I was talking to someone about Twitter. I enjoy being forced to squeeze a thought into 140 characters and it makes me work and it makes me appreciate the work of others. As Pascal was saying, it’s more work to make a point that way, but it’s better.

Supposedly US President Woodrow Wilson said something along the same lines in 1918 when asked how long it would take him to write a speech. I’d heard this quote before, and it is one of my favourites, but it accords so closely with my own thought processes.

“That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President. “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”

[From If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter | Quote Investigator]

If you’re wondering why I bring this up, it’s because there is going to be a TEDxWoking! Oh yes, Woking is finally on the post-modern intellectual map. And what’s more the organisers have asked me to be one of the speakers, which I’m very excited about, partly because it’s flattering and partly because it’s an opportunity to sit down and (as Wilson indicates) spend around a week working on a great talk. So now, whereas I would have no problem at all giving a an hour long talk on half-a-dozen different topics at the drop of a hat, I’ve got to think about picking one topic and squeezing it down into 18 minutes.

Now, as you may know, I’ve given one of these talks before. (And to be honest, if I’d known how important it was to get on the TED home page for a weekend I’d have put more effort into !) It’s still online at TED and you can watch it here if you like:

So. I’m not sure what I’m going to talk about in Woking in January, but I think I might do something about the future of money. Something about communities and cities and decentralisation. Something about the economy and London and Jane Jacobs and Gill Freehand and the C50. I’m considering “Never mind the Euro, get us out of the Pound”. What do you think?

In the future, everyone will be
famous for fifteen megabytes

Identity is the New Money

Well, the book has been published. Identity is the New Money (London Publishing Partnership: 2014). I’m very excited about it. By the time I finished it, I was sick of it. Writing a book turned out to be much more work than I’d thought. But having done it, I’m ready to do it again and this time I think it will be a lot easier – I made a lot of mistakes, but I think I learned from them.

Birch cover for LPP site border

If you are curious about the subject, but can’t be bothered to read a book, here’s a nice two-page spread from Financial World magazine [PDF, 1.4Mb].

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

What does the fox say? You won’t find out here

I heard an interesting piece on Radio 4 a while back when an interviewer was talking to Nate Silver, the author of The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction, who used the familiar fox and hedgehog framing when discussing the way people deal with information. Foxes (ie, people who scrounge for tidbits of information) make better predictions than hedgehogs (ie, people who have one big idea). As a corollary he also said that we should be suspicious of overly precise or accurate predictions as they are very likely to be wrong. I was discussing this with someone recently and he said, quite accurately, something along the lines of “yes but the last time I heard you on the radio, you sounded like a hedgehog”. A fair point.

The thing is, when you are called by the TV or radio or newspaper folk, they’re not looking for foxes. Foxes are dead air. They’re looking for hedgehogs.

Many years ago, when I was not long in the consulting business, I went on a media training course. It was run by a couple of ex-journalists (one of whom, if I remember correctly, worked for the FT and one for radio) and although I don’t remember too much about it, I do remember their advice on press comment. We did an exercise where we pretended to work for a big company (it may have been a bank) and in response to a couple of different kinds of press enquiry we had to compose a comment for journalists. I can remember agonising over my response to the imaginary press enquiry and getting told off by the course leader who pointed out to me that my goal was to get the company name into the paper in a non-negative context — I wasn’t being judged on my spelling and grammar — and he said something to the effect of “in six months time, no-one will remember what the story was or what you said, but when one of your guys walks into a client’s office, the client will think ‘oh right, Consult Hyperion, I read something about them in the FT / saw something about them on Sky News / heard something about them on Radio 4’ and that’s your job”. Or something similar. But I got the message.

I took the message to heart. So if a journalist calls and says, for example, “why is UK card fraud up 17% in the first six months of this year”, I don’t respond with a very detailed (and very accurate) account of trends in card usage, technology roadmaps, chargeback management and such like”. You get one sentence, one soundbite. So, in this case, you might say something like “well it is largely due to the rise in online fraud” or whatever. And that will get the company name on screen.

Screenshot 2013-12-16 19.23.55

When you are working for a client, though, you are a fox. You have to be careful to assemble all of the relevant information and try and make sense of it, to glean a plan from the pickings. Is Bitcoin the currency going to succeed? Who knows, but here are the factors we think are relevant and on balance we think unlikely. However, there may be some opportunities to use Bitcoin or Bitcoin-like technology in your business to create a new product. And so on. Is our mobile wallet secure? Well, here are the results of our detailed risk analysis and the key countermeasures that will reduce exposure to management levels. This sort of thing won’t get you on the telly, but it’s what we do and it’s why we have been successful.

At a charity event I attended earlier in the month, a friend came me up to me and asked if had been on BBC radio in the last couple of weeks. I told them that I had and asked them what show they had been listening to and what the topic of discussion was. “I don’t remember”, she said, “probably Radio 4. It was something to do with the internet. I thought you sounded very knowledgeable. Does your company do a lot of that sort of thing?”. In actual fact I’d been on the BBC World Service talking about Bitcoin. But it doesn’t matter what the programme was or what I was talking about, exactly as predicted by the hacks that trained me all those years ago. What matters is that I sounded like I knew what I was talking about!

There’s a similar dynamic around blogging. This blog is, I hope, a good example. We try to make it interesting and relevant to clients and potential clients, but we also try to make it entertaining. This is more difficult than it seems, because we want to post fun stuff about exciting applications or new technology in the secure electronic transaction space but on the other hand we don’t want to give away anything we are actually working on for clients until they decide to go public with it. This can be quite a conundrum: looking at the recent example if HCE, we’re we’d been working on projects for a couple of years before any of clients said anything about it in public.

Foxes and hedgehogs. Case closed.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

The best thing since… oh, that’s not on the list

The Atlantic magazine published one of those articles based on the latest that I really should ignore and not take too seriously but can’t help reading — Fallows, J., “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since The Wheel” in “The Atlantic” p.56(9) (Nov. 2013). This time it was the 50 greatest breakthroughs since the wheel. They asked various scientists, historians and technologists to rank a list of innovations for the article, and then put them together into a nice feature.

I’ll spoil the ending for you by telling you that number one on this list was the printing press! I was surprised that the telegraph only made it as far as position 26 because as an acolyte of the Economist writer Tom Standage (“The Victorian Internet”), I do think that the step change between being unable to communicate faster than physical matter could be propelled and being able to communicate at the speed of light represented some fundamental cusp in human history rather than any kind of marginal improvement, so think I would have pushed it further up the list. Damn. There I am getting caught up in thinking about the list again.

Oh and one more thing. The most amazing fact that I think I saw in the article concerns the sequencing of human DNA. The article notes that in the past 12 years the cost of sequencing human DNA has fallen to a millionth of its previous level. That’s an astonishing six orders of magnitude cost reduction in a decade. Now I can’t decide whether DNA sequencing or 3-D printing will feature in some future list as the most important technological breakthrough of our current era.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Smart watches and dumb watchers

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the technology world is excited about the prospect of smart watches.

Now that rumors suggest Google and LG are both planning on jumping into the smart watch war to compete with Samsung and Apple it’s time to stop thinking of this thing as a time-telling piece. Yes, these gadgets will go around people’s wrists and probably display the time.

[From The Smartwatch Is Not a Watch – Rebecca Greenfield – The Atlantic Wire]

I have to tell you this story. Some years ago, I was at a dinner at IBM in Zurich. A chap from their research labs was showing off a Linux-powered watch. The chap was Swiss, and I imagine unfamiliar with the British sense of humour. When he’d finished demoing the watch’s ability to show some news and contacts, or whatever, he asked if we had any questions. “Yes”, I said, straightfaced, “does it tell the time?”. I’d said it as a joke, of course, and expected a laugh. But… ”No,” he told me, entirely seriously, they couldn’t load the “clock” programme because they’d run out of memory!

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes