China’s eight centuries of experiment with paper money is coming to a close

The Chinese were first with the great transition from commodity money to paper money. They had the necessary technologies (you can’t have paper money without paper and you can’t do it at scale without printing) and, more importantly, they had the bureaucracy. In 1260, the new Emporer Kublai Khan  determined that it was a burden on commerce and drag on taxation to have all sorts of currencies in use, ranging from copper coins to iron bars, to pearls to salt to gold and silver, so he decided to implement a new currency. The Khan decided to replace metal, commodities, precious jewels and specie with a paper currency. A paper currency! Imagine how crazy that must have sounded! Replacing actual stuff with apparently worthless paper! It’ll never work!

Crazy or not, it worked and just as Marco Polo and other medieval travellers returned along the Silk Road breathless with astonishing tales of paper money, so modern commentators (e.g., me) are tumbling off of flights from Shanghai with equally astonishing tales of a land of mobile payments, where paper money is vanishing and consumers pay for everything with smartphones. China is well on the way to becoming a cashless society, with the end of paper money in sight. Something like one-seventh of China’s population relies on mobile payments to get around, carrying no cash, according to a survey conducted by Renmin University of China. The natural step from there is to create digital currency so that settlement is in central bank money and there are no credit risks.

This thinking has been evolving for some time. Back in 2016, the Governor of the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), Zhou Xiaochuan, set out the Bank’s thinking about digital currency, saying that it is an irresistible trend that paper money will be replaced by new products and new technologies. He went on to say that as a legal tender, digital currency should be controlled by the central bank and after noting that he thought it would take a decade or so for digital currency to completely replace cash in China, he went to state clearly that the bank was working out “how to gradually phase out paper money”. Rather than simply let the cashless society happen, which may not led to the optimum implementation for society, they were developing a plan for a cashless society.

As I have written before, I don’t think a “cashless society” means a society in which notes and coins are outlawed, but a society in which they are irrelevant. Under this definition the PBOC could easily achieve this goal for China. But should they do this? Yao Qian, from the PBOC technology department wrote on the subject in 2017, saying that to “offset the shock” to commercial banks that would come from introducing an independent digital currency system (and to protect the investment made by commercial banks on infrastructure), it would be possible to “incorporate digital currency wallet attributes into the existing commercial bank account system” so that electronic currency and digital currency are managed under the same account.

This rationale is clear and, well, rational. The Chinese central bank wants the efficiencies that come from having a digital currency but also understands the implications of removing the exorbitant privilege of money creation from the commercial banks. If the commercial banks cannot create money by creating credit, then they can only provide loans from their deposits. Imagine if Bitcoin were the only currency in the world: I’d still need to borrow a few of them to buy a new car, but since Barclays can’t create Bitcoins they can only lend me Bitcoins that they have taken in deposit from other people. Fair enough. But here, as in so many other things, China is a window into the future, because Alipay, WeChat Wallet and other Chinese third party payment platforms use financial incentives to encourage users to take money out of their bank accounts and store it on their platforms. If commercial banks cannot fund loans from deposits, we are in a new place, economically speaking.

Thus you can see the potential problem with digital currency created by the central bank, even if it is now technologically feasible for them to do so. If commercial banks lose both deposits and the privilege of creating money, then their functionality and role in the economy is much reduced. Whether you think that is a good idea or not, you can see that it’s a big step to take. Hence the PBOC position, reinforced at the beginning of this year by Fan Yifei, Deputy Governor of the People’s Bank of China writing that the PBOC digital currency should adopt a “double-tier delivery system”.

Following this line of thinking, then, the PBOC is saying that it is not going to issue cryptocurrency and that it is not going to issue digital currency either (at least in the foreseeable future). But what they might do is to allow commercial banks to distribute digital currency under central bank control (this what they mean by “double tier”. You could have the central bank provide commercial banks with some sort of tamper-resistant smart chip or cryptographic permission that would create digital commercial bank money under the control of the central bank. (This, by the way, is exactly what was attempted a generation ago with the Mondex electronic cash system.)

(Note that this is entirely removed from the issue of whether to use shared ledger technology to manage the money in circulation. I’m open minded about this. I can certainly see how a system in which POS terminals were nodes in a shared ledger, thus obviating the need for a central system — that could, and does, go down — might be rather attractive but whether the resilience would be worth the expense of moving away from current solutions remains to be established.)

Not also that there is no implication in any of the PBOC’s comments that they will be issuing digital cash. Would any central bank go for this? Some form of digital cash that can be passed directly from person to person like Bitcoin rather than some form of digital money like M-PESA, using hardware rather than proof-of-work to prevent double spending? Well… yes. In fact the Uruguayan central bank has said it will test precisely this approach, having digital cash in the mobile phones pass person-to-person directly between the devices. This is not, I am sure, what the PBOC has in mind. On the contrary, the want to see every transaction, and consistent position adumbrated by last year’s decision to make mobile payment companies route transactions through a central switch.

Shanghai bw  1

I’m fascinated by China’s long experiment with paper money and its imminent conclusion. Whatever you might think about their position on monitoring transactions, the PBOC has been strategic in its thinking.  Their comments on the topic from 2016, 2017 and now 2018 have been consistent. Digital currency is coming and China will take the lead just as it did with paper currency.

Here’s bibliography from “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin”

In case anyone finds it useful, here’s the full bibliography from Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin…

Birch, D. (Ed.) Digital Identity Management–Technological, Business and Social Implications. Gower (Farnham, UK: 2007).

Birch, D. Identity is the New Money. London Publishing Partnership (London, UK: 2014).

Boyle, D. The Money Changers. Earthscan (London: 2002).

Bray, H. You Are Here. Perseus (New York: 2014).

Brown, J and P. Duguid. The Social Life of Information. Harvard Business School Press (Boston: 2000).

Chittenden, O. (Ed.) The Future of Money, Virgin (London, UK: 2010).

Christensen, C. The Innovator’s Dilemma—When new technologies cause great firms to fail. Harvard Business School Press (Boston: 1997).

Cohen, B. The Future of Money. Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ: 2006).

Conway, E. The Summit—The Biggest Battle of the Second World War. Little, Brown (London, UK: 2014).

Coyle, D. Paradoxes of Prosperity—Why the new Capitalism benefits all. Texere (New York, NY: 2001).

Coyle, D. Sex, Drugs and Economics—An Unconventional Introduction to Economics. Texere (London, UK: 2002).

Coyle, D. Sex, Weightless World: Strategies for Managng the Digital Economy. Capstone (Oxford, UK: 1997).

Davies, Prof. G. A History of Money from Ancient Times to the Present Day. University of Wales Press (1994).

Del Mar, A. A History of Money in Ancient Countries from the Earliest Times to the Present. George Bell & Sons (London:1885). Reprint Kessinger Publishing.

Desan, C. Making Money—Coin, Currency and the Coming of Capitalism. Oxford University Press (Oxford, UK: 2014)

Eco, U. Travels in Hyperreality. Picador (London, UK: 1987).

Edgerton, D. The Shock of the Old—Technology and Global History Since 1900. Profile (London, UK: 2006).

Friedman, F. Money Mischief. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (Orlando, FL: 1992).

Goetzmann, W. Money Changes Everything—How finance made civilization possible. Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ: 2016).

Hart, K. The Memory Bank. Profile (London, UK: 1999).

Hock, D. One from Many—VISA and the Rise of the Chaordic Organisation. Berrett-Koehler (San Francisco, CA: 2005).

King, B. Bank 3.0. Marshall Cavendish International (Tarrytown NY: 2013).

King, M. The End of Alchemy. Little, Brown (London: 2016).

Lanier. Who Owns The Future. Allen Lane (London, UK: 2013).

Lewis, M. Moneyball. W.W. Norton (New York, NY: 2003).

Mayer, M. The Bankers—The Next Generation. Plume (New York, NY: 1998).

Nocera, J. A Piece of the Action—How the Middle Class Joined the Money Class. Simon & Schuster (New York: 1994).

Omwansa, T. and N. Sullivan. Money, Real Quick: The story of M-PESA. Guardian Books (London: 2012).

Sargent, T. and F. Velde. The Big Problem of Small Change. Economic History of the Western World series. Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ: 2002).

Schewe, P. The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World. Joseph Henry Press (Washington, DC: 2007).

Schneier, B. Secrets and lies—Digital security in a networked world. Wiley Computer Publishing (New York, NY: 2000).

Seabright, P. The company of strangers: a natural history of economic life. Princeton University Press (Woodstock, UK: 2005).

Seidensticker, B. Future Hype–The Myths of Technology Change. Berrett-Koehler (San Francisco, CA: 2006).

Shenton, C. The Day Parliament Burned Down. Oxford University Press (Oxford: 2012).

Slegin, G. Good Money—Birmingham Button Makers, the Royal Mint, and the Beginnings of Modern Coinage 1775-1821. University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI: 2008).

Sofsky, W. Privacy—A Manifesto. Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ: 2008).

Solomon, E. Virtual Money—Understanding the Power and Risks of Money’s High-Speed Journey into Electronic Space. Oxford University Press (New York, NY: 1997).

Solove, D. The Future of Reputation—Gossip, rumour and privacy on the internet. Yale University Press (New Haven, CT: 2007).

Standage, T, Ed. The Future of Technology. Profile (London, UK: 2005).

Watson, R. Future Files—A Brief History of the Next 50 Years. Nicholas Brearley (London: 2010).

Weatherford, J. The History of Money. Three Rivers (New York, NY: 1997).

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.




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!

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start writing!

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