Crypto-Current (058)

§5.8 — Whether history ‘in general’ is anything other than the history of money remains an open question. Certainly, the distinction between ‘history’ and ‘pre-history’ seems to have been decided by monetary innovation. The earliest digital recordings are accounts.[1] In the beginning was the registry. If this distribution of emphasis seems unbalanced, the fact that – in our own time – a distributed ledger manifests primarily as a monetary innovation tends, nevertheless, to vindicate it. Commentary in the “Bitcoin is about much more than money” vein, while copious, also comes later.[2] The monetary model sets the matrix.

§5.81 — A bitcoin, or part of a bitcoin, is a number of numbers, or several. In this it reproduces an abstract structure that is essential to the nature of money, in any of its variants, although realized at very different degrees of formalization. The semiotic complexity of money is expressed by a multiplicity of numerical dimensions. (Money not only quantifies, it quantifies multiplicitously.) Even prior to the introduction of allocation as a topic, monetary numbers divide by signification and designation. They function arithmetically as counting numbers and indexically as registry numbers (indices). The distinction is illustrated by the coexistence of a denomination number and a serial number on every bank note. The final term in the semiotic triad – the allocative number – corresponds to a tallying of bank notes, for instance – most concretely – through their bundling into ‘bricks’. These dimensions are primeval. Yuval Noah Hariri writes (in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, p.182): “The first coins in history were struck around 640 BC by King Alyattes of Lydia, in western Anatolia. These coins had a standardized weight of gold or silver, and were imprinted with an identification mark. The mark testified to two things. First, it indicated how much precious metal the coin contained. Second, it identified the authority that issued the coin and that guaranteed its contents.” The coin bears an index of composition and a sign of credentials. The third semiotic dimension is added in a counting house, and introduces – from the beginning – the ledger.

§5.82 — Every commercial transaction involves a conversion into numbers. There is no primordial difference between monetary circulation and digitization, recognized as the historical process. In its narrower, electronic sense, however, the digitization of money does not date back very far. The first electronic money precedes Bitcoin by no more than half a century. Precursors are retrospectively identifiable, including charge coins, charge cards, ‘charga-plates’, and air travel cards. Western Union began issuing charge cards to frequent customers as early as 1921, but the runaway electronic ‘derealization’ of money is a far more recent phenomenon.[3] The first credit card[4] – accessing a bank account by means of a plastic identification document – was the BankAmericard, launched in September 1958 (and renamed ‘Visa’ in 1977). It took another eight years for the system to be extended beyond the United States (to Britain, with the ‘Barclaycard’, in 1966). The spread of electronic banking outside the English-speaking world was far slower still. Widespread adoption of the new monetary medium in Continental Europe, for instance, did not take place until the final decade of the 20th century. Most of the world skipped this stage of monetary evolution altogether.

§5.821 Electronic monetary transfers – as required by credit cards – are not yet an online payment system. The former involves electronic settlement, but not yet digital cash.[5] Electronic bank credit operates exclusively between trusted parties. The cash-like aspect of the transaction takes place offline, between the cardholder and the goods or services provider. Even here, some basic characteristics of cash are sacrificed, most notably anonymity. It is ‘cash’ in this reduced sense that is translated online by the first consumer-level digital money services, exemplified by PayPal.[6]

§5.83 — It was not the personal computer that set the frame for the next stage of money’s technological evolution, but the mobile phone. Within this new epoch of consumer electronics, ‘personalization’ is intensified, through heightened communicative-orientation and the massive distribution of computational capability.[7] It is easy to miss the full complexity of the mobile phone as a technological nexus. Not only does it serve as a telecommunications and Internet-access device, but also as a scanner, and a personal identity hub. In combination, these features enable convenient, efficient, and passably secure monetary transactions. The serendipitous contribution of an in-built camera to the mobile phone’s function as a monetary platform is especially worthy of note. A facile photographic shot closes the transaction. The era of the bar-code thus passes into that of the QR-code.

§5.831 — The age of mobile payments dates back only to 2007. In that year, Safaricom and Vodacom, the largest mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania respectively, released their M-Pesa mobile-phone based finance application, developed by Vodafone. ‘M-Pesa’ abbreviates ‘mobile money’ in hybrid tech-jargon and Swahili. The application was designed to support elementary banking services on wireless telecommunications, in drastically under-banked societies. It enabled monetary exchanges between users, with the additional capability to facilitate microfinance credit. Anybody with identity certification (such as a national ID card or passport) could use M-Pesa to deposit, withdraw, or transfer money through their mobile device. Its rate of adoption exceeded all expectation, resulting on social, cultural, and commercial success on a now already legendary scale. From its take-off point in East Africa, the service was subsequently expanded into Afghanistan, South Africa, and India, reaching Eastern Europe in 2014. It has been in China, however, that the new fusion of money and telecommunications has developed most explosively. China’s mobile payment market has been opened by its Internet giants Alibaba and Tencent. Up to late 2015, Alipay dominated, accounting for over two-thirds of mobile purchases by value. Tencent’s competitor system, based upon its WeChat[8] social media application, consolidated its position through a highly-successful marketing campaign themed by digital emulation of traditional ‘red-envelope’ monetary gifts. By the first quarter of 2017, Alipay and WeChat between them were servicing 94% of the country’s mobile payment market. Chinese late-mover advantage has enabled the country to leap-frog plastic, transitioning directly from paper to wireless. By early 2017, US online payments amounted to scarcely 2% of the Chinese figure (which had reached the equivalent of US$8 trillion).

§5.84 — The story of electronic money is not exhaustively subsumed into that of banking. In has various quite separate lineages, of greater and lesser independence. One of the most important of these passes through online multi-user environments and games. The fictional quality of in-game monetary systems has shielded them from regulatory scrutiny, to a degree that cannot easily be philosophically defended. They thus open a zone of special interest in regards to the ontology of money.[9] What is the relation of ‘real’ money to simulated money? Virtual currencies, such as the Linden Dollars (L$) of Second Life, made this question ineluctable. If online ‘pretend’ currencies had an exchange value denominated in offline ‘real’ currencies – as they soon did – how solid could any ontological discrimination between the two be? It began to dawn upon commentators that a new age of private currency issuance had been surreptitiously initiated. It is perhaps a matter of mere historical contingency that far more consequential developments have not yet been catalyzed in this zone. There are few obvious limits to what might have come.

§5.841 — The industrialization of virtual currency production in the crypto-epoch was partially anticipated by the phenomenon of ‘gold farming’ in the world of MMORPGs (or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games). Many of the most popular MMORPGs permit trading in items of in-game value. For instance, a special weapon acquired at the cost of much (in-game) effort and peril, and therefore scarce enough to be precious, might be surrendered by one avatar to another in exchange for an out-of-game payment between their respective players. Such arrangements called out for economic rationalization, through specialization, concentration, and Internet-enabled geographical labor arbitrage. China’s business renaissance during the reform-and-opening period coincided with the emergence of this opportunity, and its new entrepreneurs moved nimbly to take advantage. Tedious game play was quickly transformed into commoditized labor, as cheap, capable, Chinese youngsters were organized by upstart businesses to undertake grueling virtual activities. Such ‘gold farms’ thus functioned as exchanges. Through them, game currencies could be laundered into ‘real’ money. A Möbian economic circulation now crossed seamlessly between the virtual and the actual.

[1] See Denise Schmandt-Bessera, The Earliest Precursor of Writing (1977 / 06): “Evidently a system of accounting that made use of tokens was widely used not only at Nuzi and Susa but throughout western Asia from as long ago as the ninth millennium BC to as recently as the second millennium.”

[2] Morgen E. Peck writes: “… money is only the first, and perhaps the most boring, application enabled by Bitcoin technology.”

[3] Conceived as a popular cultural theme, the guideline to the plastic phase of money was invisibility. In this respect it evidences a teleological model, defining an axis of progress. Monetary improvement is sublimation, or dematerialization. In accordance with classical precedent, finality is identified with the pure idea, beyond all contamination by, or compromise with, particular substance. As previously noted, something more than a convergence with mathematical Platonism is at work here. The history of money – whether actual or fantastic – does not draw upon idealism as an extrinsic inspiration. Rather, it idealizes practically, and even preemptively. Elimination of friction – as implicit and later explicit goal – serves as a convenient proxy for the monetary ideal. Keynesian derision of the “barbarous relic” – the primitive lump sum – is once again the critical reference. Progress – conceived implicitly as financial dematerialization – is projected into space as a ripple pattern. Differential adoption rates and patterns of diffusion mark out stages of development, organized by a definite telos (distinguishing advanced from primitive money). According to this schema, at the end of money, the transaction coincides exactly with its Idea. The medium is then nothing. If the notion of a direct private relation without frictional mediation carries certain historic-religious associations, these are probably not coincidental.

[4] The term ‘credit card’ seems to have first been employed by Edward Bellamy, in his utopian-socialist novel Looking Backward (1887). 

[5] Marc Andreessen says of Bitcoin, in a Washington Post interview (May 21, 2014): “…if we had had this technology 20 years ago, we would’ve built it into the browser. […] E-commerce would’ve gotten built on top of this, instead of getting built on top of the credit card network. We knew we were missing this; we just didn’t know what it was. There is no reason on earth for anybody to be on the Internet today to be typing in a credit card number to buy something. It’s insane …”

[6] PayPal was created from the merger of Confinity (founded in December 1998 by Ken Howery, Max Levchin, Luke Nosek, and Peter Thiel) with (founded in March 1999 by Elon Musk). The new company was established in March 2000, acquiring its name the following year. PayPal went public in February 2002, in an IPO that generated over $61 million. The company was sold to eBay in July of the same year for $1.5 billion. (The resulting Musk and Thiel fortunes have been among the most nourishing seed-beds of 21st century capitalism.) The extreme synergy between eBay’s online market-making business and PayPal’s secure digital payment service propelled its initial growth, first in the US, then through eBay’s international business, and finally beyond eBay. PayPal was spun-off from eBay in July 2015, following the firm recommendation of hedge fund manager Carl Icahn. It began to accept bitcoin in September 2014, announcing partnerships with Coinbase, BitPay, and GoCoin. While PayPal has been rewarded by the market for its pioneering role in facilitating financial transactions over electronic networks, its limitations are severe, and in the age of cryptocurrency increasingly obvious. Its users are entirely unprotected from the company’s radical discretion, and receive no exit benefits from the service in respect to the national-financial regime in which they operate. Essentially, PayPal adds a new ‘trusted third party’ to the financial ecology, and one of minimal autonomy. Nothing very much has been disrupted by it.

[7] The resonance between mobile consumer technology and portability as an essential monetary quality cannot be coincidental to the emergence of mobile currency. A desktop wallet is patently inconvenient. By its abstract nature, money is destined to eventual convergence with the communicative situation in general, which it tends to haunt as an accessible semiotic dimension. Wherever speech can occur, the potential for contractual execution will finally follow. Only in this way is Homo economicus completed. At the confluence of these currents lies the inevitable formula: Money is speech. It not only assumes, in the Anglosphere cultural context, informal and formal constitutional protection in the cynical culmination of liberalism. The claim extends further – into identity with the claim as such. Money – the pure power of acquisition – seizes for itself the mantle of realizable logos. The conceptual fusion of the smart contract is reversible. Transactions can be augmented by machine intelligence because intelligence is inherently transactional. Minds and market-places tend to convergence.

[8] The scale of WeChat (微信, Wēixìn) can be hard for those outside China to appreciate. With over a billion regular users, the application is truly ubiquitous. WeChat messaging accounts for over a third of the country’s (massive) mobile phone usage.

[9] Given the striking philosophical importance of (ludic) virtual currencies, the social under-development of the problem is remarkable. An obvious exit ramp from the Macro financial regime has been almost entirely ignored.

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