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.

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

TEDdy bear

A few years ago, while banging my head against the brick wall that was Her Majesty’s Government’s ID Cards scheme, I had an idea for trying to explain what technology could do to deliver a better national identity infrastructure for the 21st century: use Dr. Who’s “psychic paper” as the narrative pivot, much as the technologists of a previous generation used the Star Trek “Communicator” as the template for the mobile phone.

What was an amusing notion for a talk at a small conference took hold and I developed the concept in a paper that was published in the Journal of Identity in the Information Society back in 2009 [here] and evolved the idea of the “Psychic ID”.

what started off as an idea in a discussion — basically, trying to visualise 21st-century digital identity management using Dr. Who’s psychic paper as a reference point, having given up on trying to explain keys, certificates and all the rest of the crypto-infrastructure — became a presentation and then a paper and finally a peer-reviewed paper that I’m rather proud of. I’ve found a way to explain to non-technical audiences — well, British non-technical audiences at least — that the combination of widely-available devices and intelligence can deliver an identity management infrastructure that can achieve much more than they imagine.

[From Digital Identity: I can see an article of some sort. Anyone called David?]

The idea went down tolerably well, so when I was very kindly invited to give my first TEDx talk at Sussex University I thought I’d give it a try. It was actually very difficult to know what to present. We ran through it a couple of times at the office, but I wasn’t sure who would be in the audience or what they would be interested in so it was hard to judge to contact. Anyway, it seemed to go down OK on the day, and I was quite excited when I got a link to a video of the talk.

When I saw the video, I was horrified! Points not made properly, interrupted trains of thought, stupid jokes in the wrong place (or half completed, including a good joke about banks having problems with id management), a series of distractions, key points not made properly, too many slides with variable pacing… I could go on. I rather pride myself on presenting as my only comparative advantage and contribution to Consult Hyperion, so I was, to say the least, not very happy with it.

Hence I was astonished, and genuinely flattered, to get an e-mail informing me that my talk was one of the less than one in a hundred of the TEDx talks that are shown on the main TED site. And as of today, there it is.

I won’t get over this for a while.


In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes

Identity — A Story

[Dave Birch] Here’s a story about identity, just to show you how identity infrastructure works in the “real world” and how we aren’t wise to use what is alarmingly known as common sense in order to import this infrastructure across the virtual world boundary into our online future.

My son and I were out in the car one evening and we decided that since we had the lounge to ourselves that evening that we’d watch a movie together. Normally, we either buying movies through Apple TV, rummage around in the badly organised pile of DVDs in the living room, or go on Pirate Bay if we can’t find what we want through the preceding two mechanisms. But since we were out and about, we thought we go to Blockbuster. They were having a special offer whereby you could rent three DVDs for £10 for the weekend, so we decided to take advantage of it. After having spent the obligatory half an hour wandering aimlessly around the store and arguing about every single potential movie choice, we settled land on DVDs. When we got to the counter I realised that I’d forgotten my wallet but luckily we scraped up £10 between us in cash.

The actual Blockbuster video card that I was given when I opened the account, something like 15 or 20 years ago, has been long lost. For the last several years, on the odd occasion when we ventured in for a DVD, I’ve just given my surname and address and then paid using a credit card in that same name. This has served as adequate identification infrastructure for tens, if not hundreds, of visits. But this time I didn’t have my wallet, so when a guy asked me for my card and told him that I didn’t know where it was, he then asked for a credit card in the usual fashion and I told him that we didn’t have one of those either. So he said we couldn’t rent the DVDs. I was a bit annoyed because I couldn’t be bothered to drive all the way home, so I was just going to give up. But then the guy said have you got anything in the car that could be identification, like an insurer’s document or something, or even a letter addressed to you from someone official? I frankly doubted that I did, my son grasped at the straw and we went back to the car. Just as I’d imagined, there were no identification documents of any kind. They’re in the back of the car were half a dozen copies of the Digital Identity Reader 2010, the indispensable volume for all concerned with the topic of identity.

Over my son’s protestations, I went back into the shop with a copy of my book. I showed it to the guy and said “there you go, that’s me”. “Hold on”, he said, “have you got something with a picture on it, or is there a picture of you in the book?” I was forced to admit I didn’t, and there wasn’t. But son to the rescue with his raised-on-the-inter-web sensibilities. He held out an iPhone, and said “just googled him”. Fortunately under that search term, under Google images, the third picture along was me. We had our DVDs.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes