The future of money? Back to social anthropologists again

In my book “Before Bablyon, Beyond Bitcoin” I made the point that I had turned to the work of social anthropologists to help me to make sense of the impact of new technology on money and the relationship between social, economic, business and technological pressures on the various functions of money. I found the perspectives of the discipline indispensable in formulating scenarios for the future that would be useful for banks and others developing their strategies. This is why I was absolutely delighted to be invited to the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) Annual Conference 2020. I’m going to take part in Panel 057, “Digital encounters, cashless cultures: Ethnographic perspectives on the impact of digital finance on economic communities”.

This panel explores new approaches towards value, economy, money, debt, finance and fiscal relations. In doing so, it discusses how global turns towards digital finance (e.g. mobile wallets; credit and debit cards) impact cash dependent and marginalized groups, communities and families worldwide. In particularly interested in following the narratives around these issue because, as I have long maintained, we need to being to develop strategies toward cashlessness rather than simply allow cashlessness to happen and we need to develop strategies for bringing new kinds of money into existence to serve society more effectively than the current international monetary and financial system does. I am not smart enough to know what all of those strategies should be, although I am smart enough to know that they require knowledge that it far beyond that of the technology and the business model, so I am genuinely keen to learn.

Just to show the variety of topics that will be discussed, here is the list of papers in the session:

  • Economy of lies: Drunk husbands, digital savings and domestic workers in Kolkata, India.

  • Cutting the wire: financial exclusion and online work among Syrians in Lebanon.

  • Debt economies as urban survival strategies in the collapsed economies: examples from post-Soviet economies and Turkey compared
    Spheres of exchange 2.0: Conversions and conveyances in Bitcoin economy.

  • Accessing Cash(lessness): Cash-dependency, Digital Money and Debt Relations Among Homeless Roma in Denmark.

  • Self-making stories: Accounts of cryptocurrencies from the ground
    An ethnography of unsettled debt. Cashlessness and betrayal in Brazil.

  • An ethnography of Italian Bitcoin Users.

  • Coercive Political Economies, the Anthropology of Risk and Social Financing. Ethnographic notes from North India (Rajasthan).

  • Banking on digital money: Swedish cashlessness and the fraying currency tether.

The authors of the papers in this session have produced a series of blogs that explore a fascinating variety of perspectives on money and what it means, from financial inclusion and cashlessness to risk and cryptocurrencies, that will certainly add significant input to the debates that I am involved in around digital currency. In particular, the social anthropologist perspective will help me to explore the key question of whether digital currency will be driven forward by evolution or intelligent design. Are we going to use new technology merely as a band-aid to cover up the flaws in the existing system or are we going to do something different?

(Ozark Series 3, Episode 1. Mom “Mining virtual gold isn’t a real job”. Son “You know that all money is imaginary, right?”)

J.P. Koning came up with a lovely way of thinking about this, with the added bonus of evocative imagery and a core analogy that holds true: money is indeed imaginary. As he put it, “Like Inception, our monetary system is a layer upon a layer upon a layer… Monetary history a story of how these layers have evolved over time”. Great movie, with the wonderful line “yes, but how did you get here”. Physiology recapitulates phylogeny, as they (used) to say. In other words, the structure of the monetary system shows its evolution, just like our knees do. It did not arise by intelligent design. In fact, quite the contrary: it demonstrates some pretty unintelligent design on a daily basis (like having people instruct speed of light instant payment transfers by typing in account numbers and sort codes).

Things, however, could be about to change. Suppose that we apply intelligent design to create forms of money that are grounded in a world of mobile phones and shared ledgers and such like to operate in a fundamentally more efficient way.? Then what would that money look like? That’s precisely what we should be listening to social anthropologists about! In intelligent design, we ought to start out by deciding what is best for society as whole rather than what is best for (say) banks. We want to have regulations that are good for society but we do not want regulations that are expensive, beyond cost-benefit analysis and a burden on stakeholders. Nor do we want regulations, as we have now, that have spiralling costs with no end in sight. We might ask, for example, in the case of America whether it makes sense to have one virtual currency regulator or 50?

In this case the current sub-optimal situation is, I would imagine, a byproduct of state regulation of banks and it perpetuates because regulators at the state level mistakenly imagine money to be something to do with banking. And, I suppose, they are currently underemployed, what with everything being so stable and efficient in the financial services world. Our first step to a better system, then, is not based on fintech but on regtech and  co-ordinated efforts to make ‘sustainable asset classes more investible at lower cost’. If we look at the patten of the co-evolution of money and technology what we see (yes I know this is a gross simplification) is a history of sustainable asset classes as a mechanism for deferred payment that in time become a store of value and then a means of exchange. The means of exchange then becomes a currency that denominates other transactions.

If that is a useful model to work with, then what would these assets be? In the article referenced above, Richard Roberts goes on to identify candidate currencies based on “flows”, which is a useful way of thinking. He points to four key flows — you could also think of them as currencies — that he believes will underpin the next economy: money, data, carbon and genes. This accords with another perspective that I have written about before, the Long Finance perspective. In Gill Ringland’s examination of plausible financial services scenarios for 2050, she talks about the key assets being a person’s identity, credit rating and parking space (alluding to a new demographic asset class of residence). I think that there will be many more currencies, because I see currencies linked to communities, but I agree with the general thrust, so let’s imagine that there is a framework in place for creating the currencies (a privacy-enhancing framework with all sorts of goodies such a homomorphic encryption and zero-knowledge proofs baked in to it) and that it has been intelligently design to meet the goals of society.

Now this is where fintech (in the form of digital assets that can be traded without clearing and settlement) comes into things, by answering some of the questions and solving some of the problems set out by the authors in my EASA session. Not the problem of helping college kids in San Francisco to split a bar tab without talking to each other, the problem of helping everyone (and I mean everyone) to better financial health though better management of assets. One way will be to turn investible assets into money (or, at least, new kinds of assets that function in money-like ways in certain circumstances). This seems to me to be a much more realistic vision of the future than the “Star Trek” alternative, even though I do enjoy that version:

One of my favorite moments from Star Trek is in ST IV: The Voyage Home, when Kirk and the gang are stranded in 1980s San Francisco. They try to board a Muni bus and are promptly turned away.

Spock: What does it mean, “exact change”?

Kirk: They’re still using money. We need to find some.

Not only is money a foreign concept to the crew, it’s so foreign they didn’t even remember it was used in the Twentieth Century.

From Why Star Trek’s Future Without Money Is Bogus — Brain Knows Better

It’s tempting to imagine a post-scarcity future where money (as a system for allocating scarce resources) has vanished and the vast communist galactic super state takes care of everyone’s needs. But like the writer here, I don’t buy it. Some things will always remain scarce and desirable, like your attention span, and money will remain necessary. But it won’t be the same money that we have today. And if you want to see how it might be different, then come and join me tomorrow in listening to some perspectives that go far beyond technology to deliver important ideas about the future of money.

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