ZCash and The Glass Bank

Interesting to see the cryptocurrency ZCash in the news today, since it’s one of the ones I focussed on in my new book (in case I haven’t mentioned it, it’s called Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin and you can buy it from all good booksellers). As I said about Zcash in the chapter “Counting on Cryptography” written toward the end of 2016, “people, companies and governments will not use the underlying anonymous currency but instead use the privacy-enhancing kinds of money built on top of it”.

This is indeed what J.P. Morgan just announced at Consensus 2017 (see “JP Morgan Chase to Integrate Cash Technology to its Enterprise Blockchain Platform“). Or, as American Banker put it in their story “So, just to be clear: JPMorgan isn’t using Zcash”. As was set out by the parties themselves, what they intend to do is to use the Zcash technology of zero-knowledge proofs on their own Quorum blockchain to deliver privacy into financial markets where the participants want the advantages of shared ledgers but do not want to disclose the contents of transactions to all participants. I think this is quite a big deal, but that’s because the institutional use of these new technologies to create markets that work in more efficient ways accords with my own mental roadmap for shared ledgers. 

In a paper I co-wrote a couple of years ago with Richard Brown, the CTO of R3, and Consult Hyperion colleague Salome Parulava [published as Birch, D., R. Brown and S. Parulava (2016). “Towards ambient accountability in financial services: shared ledgers, translucent transactions and the legacy of the great financial crisis.” Payment Strategy and Systems 10(2): 118-131.], we adopted the term “translucent” to mean transactions that are transparent for the purposes of consensus (in other words, we can all agree that the transaction took place and the order of transactions) but opaque to those not party to the trade or the appropriate regulators under the relevant circumstances. I gave a talk introducing these concepts at NextBank Barcelona back in 2015.

It seems to me that the JP Morgan / ZCash announcement takes us another step forward in this direction and moves use towards the era of “The Glass Bank” (something I used in client workshops for many years and that I first blogged about back in 2011), an era in which translucency develops as a response to the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) and as a fundamental improvement in the way that financial markets operate, and which I have already decided will be the title of my next book!

Mo’ identity, mo’ money, mo’ book

In his book “Sapiens — A Brief History of Humankind”, the historian Yuval Noah Harari writes perceptively and entertainingly about things that are fundamental to our economy and indeed our society: money, trust, reputation and the like. I found his description of the “cognitive revolution” quite compelling, especially where he talks about human beings gaining the ability to communicate information about relationships and therefore reputation (or, as I might simplistically label the basket of concepts linked together here, “identity”). He talks about the ability of the neolithic clan to remember the mutual obligations that bind people together when they can grasp the idea of a future, and how memory does not scale into the settlements of the agricultural revolution, thus necessitating the invention of money. He writes that

When trust depends on anonymous coins and cowrie shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values.

Yet we needed them. The problem, as Harari framed it, is that trade cannot exist without trust, and it is hard to trust strangers (but easy to trust their money – indeed he later talks about this saying “if they run out of coins, we run out of trust”). As society scales beyond the ability of individuals the local (including the money) is given up to the global.

In short, then, when we cannot share memories about information about identity, relationships and reputation we have to come up with some other way of making payments to support trade and increase prosperity. Which leads me to speculate that if there is indeed an identity revolution, a new way of sharing memories, underway because of the transition to online-centric life then we might need to rethink the modus operandi founded on central banks, nation states and fiat currency. As Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England wrote in his End of Alchemy, banks and central banks “are man-made institutions that reflect the technology of their time”. 

Perhaps their time is coming to an end. The way that we think about identity today is simply not working (identity fraud in the UK is at an all-time high and still rising). We need some different ideas. The always fascinating Jan Chipchase pointed me to this section of a very thought-provoking Medium piece on identity by Dan Hill:

“How might we be able to think more richly of ‘both/and’ in terms of identity, of being part of nations, cities and the world, of respect for both the local and the global?”

For more identity, not less – Dark Matter and Trojan Horses – Medium 

Yes, yes, yes. More identity, not less. In my previous book “Identity is the New Money” I wrote how social media and mobile phones and cryptography restoring the reputation economy of the neolithic clan but at scale, making the point that while our ancestors lived in one community, we live in many. Community is no longer geography.

In my new book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin” I explore the intertwined evolution of technology and money, which I hope will provide the general business reader with some useful structure for thinking about the future of banks and Bitcoin, leading to an exploration of community and value. I finish by putting forward the idea that the multiple monies of the future will be linked to the multiple communities we will inhabit and, as the quote above makes clear, the multiple local and global identities of the future.

“Our identity is framed in terms of street, neighbourhood, region, nation, biome — all are meaningful, alongside various forms of communities of interest” 

For more identity, not less – Dark Matter and Trojan Horses – Medium 

My personal suspicion is that while this is certainly true and that these identities will all be meaningful, a generation from now the city identity will be the most important. Indeed, Dan Hill goes on to say that

“Europe has functioned via urban centres for millennia, rather longer than our modern understanding of states. In some respects, this is a more meaningful form of organisation than that relative latecomer, the nation state, for all the benefits that the latter has accrued.”

For more identity, not less – Dark Matter and Trojan Horses – Medium 

Dan makes the point that Manchester and Estonia are similar in population size and while we are all familiar with e-residency of the latter perhaps, rather as Gill Ringland suggests in her financial services scenarios for 2050, e-residency of desirable cities will become a valuable right and the basis for one of a number of demographic asset classes. He goes on to speculate, as I have done, on whether a new Hanseatic League or a new Mediterranean Economic Union might be viable structures. I’m not sure I agree with his views on EU e-residency (because the EU is rather an artificial structure) but it’s certainly an interesting position to discuss, not least because it forms a money-issuing community of the kind that I discuss.

My general view is that we are returning to Harari’s “local traditions, intimate relations and human values” as the basis for trade because those new technologies (mobile phones, social networks and so on) mean that we can recreate the clan, the widespread and diffuse memory of obligations, on a population scale. Hence it is not implausible to imagine that new forms of money will arise that map more closely to the values of the communities they serve.

One last thing. Those communities will not be limited to people. Much if not most trade will be between machines, between my car and your garage door, between my flying car and your Amazon drone. We might see communities of robots developing their own money to reflect their own values. Will we be allowed to use it? I don’t see anyone in Star Trek using money, but something must be going on in the background to allow my starship to use your scarce crystals for power. I don’t claim to have all, or indeed any, of the answers but I hope that my framing of the questions will help you to think more clearly about an inevitable future of more identities and more monies.

By the way, you can buy an advance copy of the new book (which will be launched officially at Money2020 in Copenhagen next month) for the giveaway price of £17.50 if you can put up with having a copy signed by me. The pristine, signature-free copies are £22.50. Run, don’t walk, over to London Publishing Partnership and reserve your copy now.