Open Source Currency

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 13 October 2004

Or, how mobile phones can break the money monopoly.

In the midst of discussing wireless data business plans, cell phone technology developments, and the moment-to-moment success of the mobile media industry, it’s sometimes easy to forget the bigger picture. Just as early Internet enthusiasts seemed to focus on ad banners and animated GIFs instead of what turned out to be the much more momentous power of blogs to influence the direction of culture, those of us covering mobile data may have also taken our eyes off the bigger prizes in store for this new medium.

It’s easy to talk about how handheld, networked computers (that’s what our cell phones are, after all) promote the decentralization of content creation, file exchange and even culture – but what about the stuff that’s so centralized we stop thinking about it as even up for discussion? That’s right: I’m talking about money.

Handheld wireless technology stands ready to enable what’s known as the “complementary currency” movement in ways so powerful that the dominance of national currencies such as the dollar and the euro may soon be called into question.

This is not as preposterous a scenario as it sounds. After all, it’s only been since the Renaissance that nation-states have been powerful enough to corner the money market. Before then, most municipalities developed their own currencies, often basing them on very different principles than the ones we use to justify our currencies today.

For example, many earlier currencies were based on commodities. A person would bring grain to the store (not the shop, but the grain storage facility), and receive a note in exchange listing how much grain it represented. This note was a tender, and could be traded for other goods and services, whether or not the person accepting that note really needed grain or not.

Unlike most currencies today, these commodity-based currencies usually devalued over time. After all, the storage guy needed to be paid, and there was always some grain lost to rats and rain. This cost was passed on to whoever was holding the money, making money something you didn’t hold on to. Uninvested money was money lost. That’s why so much capital went into preventative maintenance on windmills, and the construction of all those giant cathedrals.

Money today, on the other hand, is issued by what’s known as “fiat.” This means it is literally created out of nothing. Our money is all borrowed from the central bank, and must be paid back, with interest. If you get, say, a $100,000 loan, you must pay back $200,000 or more, over time. Where do you get that extra money? By competing for it. The ground rules for a certain kind of competitive marketplace are dictated by this relationship to currency.

Over time, many communities have seen fit to challenge the monopoly of single currency systems by developing their own. This works particularly well during periods of recession or depression, when centralized currency is hard to come by but people are still ready to do work and anxious to get the food and services they need. Complementary currencies, such as Ithaca Hours, allow communities to set a value on the goods and services they supply one another, and then exchange an agreed upon number of local currency units. Such systems have allowed, for example, people in cash-poor Japan to provide health care for their relatives in distant cities by doing chores for people in their own.

Who gets left out of this system? Why, the central bank, of course, as well as the tax man. But it does allow communities to provide for themselves, even over great distances, as long as the credits and debits can be properly recorded and managed – and trusted.

Instead of printing money, most local currencies of today rely on centralized bookkeeping. While a physical accounting book might work for a small town - it still requires everyone to come in to the accounting office and register what they’ve bought or sold. The Internet has served a number of other communities as a more modern way to enter and verify transactions, and then tally everyone’s accounts. The LETSystem is a free system for doing just that.

But going home to the computer to record transactions online is still something of a burden, and requires a bit of trust.

That’s where cell phones – as well as a conversation that began in a forum here on TheFeature between me and futurist Paul Hartzog – come in. What if we could use our cell phones to confirm transactions with one another as simply as pressing a button? We don’t even need to shake hands with each other, only with the central server, which can confirm that both parties have agreed. As Paul put it in an email, “enabling the back-end for a truly decentralized marketplace with buyers, sellers, traders, and sharers is the open-source ‘killer app’ of the next century.”

Killer app of the century? He may not be overstating the case. After all, if people can conduct transactions efficiently with alternative currencies, then they may look for those that have lower premiums than the US dollar. Cheaper money, anyone? The race is on, as Paul explains, “PayCircle is a non-profit organization that is working towards open APIs for payment systems based on XML, SOAP, Java, etc…There’s even a Yahoo Group for the discussion of the ‘emerging array of community currencies.’”

So watch out, Alan Greenspan, the wireless bubble may be coming – but it could be the dollar that gets popped.