Monday, December 28, 2009

Currency and Reintegration With Nature

Non-differentiation, differentiation, dissociation, reintegration. These four steps come up again and again in disciplines as diverse psychology, semiotics, philosophy, ecology, and evolution among others. Spiritual teachings from many cultures describe the ONE slowly breaking into MANY, only to ultimately return to the ONE.

There have been three major economic eras (with a fourth emerging now): hunter-gatherer, agrarian, industrial, and now information. Since we are at the beginning of the information age, it might be useful to have a sense of how our economics will change in the coming years. One lens we have been using in the metacurrency world to look at this question has been mapping these four eras to the aforementioned four steps.

Hunter-gatherers might be considered non-differentiated since their main source of economic well-being was derived primarily from Nature (or land) directly. In the Agrarian Age, labor was mixed with land to produce more food, permanent shelter, domesticated animals, etc. By mixing our labor with the land, the land was able to support a much larger population. During this time we begin to see a clear differentiation of human world from the rest of Nature as well as the emergence of written language. In the Industrial Age, the primary mode of production was capital. Capital is the stuff from which other stuff is made (tools, factories, and ultimately money). While we certainly used tools in the two previous eras, the drive to control the means of production was not the primary economic engine. And, it is no coincidence that the human world became almost completely dissociated from Nature during this era. Before we get into how the information age portends a reintegration of the human and natural worlds, let’s take a quick look at one trait that makes the human species unique on the planet.

Humans, more than any other species, are aware of, create and use symbols. What makes a symbol a symbol is that it signifies something other than itself. The alphabet, for instance, signifies phonemes. If you weren’t aware of how the letters are matched to sounds, you wouldn’t be able to guess by just the letters themselves. This is what makes them symbols. Symbols can have complex interrelationships. Natural language is a means of generating highly complex relationships between symbols to communicate a given idea. While other animals may have a rudimentary capacity for making symbols, there is no evidence that they do so on anything even close to the level of complexity we do.

This ability we have to create and use symbols is EXTREMELY powerful. Symbols are a shorthand for making sense of the world. Since the real world is so unbelievably complex, having a dumbed down set of symbols allows us to gain some degree of mastery over it no matter how ultimately illusory that mastery may be. And this is the key point: symbols are not the things they stand for. As the Buddha said, “Don’t mistake my finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.”

Humans (and especially Industrial Age humans) have a peculiar relationship with their symbols. While having the capacity to manipulate symbols gives us great power, we have become lost in them. And, this is only possible because there is a feedback loop between our symbols and our actions. Put simply, we frequently treat symbols as more real than reality itself, mistaking the finger for the moon.

While there are examples of this kind of folly everywhere in the industrialized world, the so-called Copenhagen Accord really stands out for me. During this two week debacle, we saw how the symbol of money (and the economic growth implied in its design), has become more important to world leaders than the biosphere itself. I could not imagine a more dissociated worldview if I tried.

We tell stories using symbols of all kinds, and the symbols we use to mark flows are what we on this blog refer to as currency. Currencies help us interact with the world around us, and as such are a VERY powerful kind of symbol. Currencies are frequently so powerful that we care more about the symbol than what we are supposedly symbolizing. Because we treat the symbol AS reality, we create a self-perpetuating feedback loop. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; if we didn’t base our actions on symbols to at least some degree, we would quickly suffer paralysis as the real world is far too complicated to make sense of. If the currency symbols we create allow us to engage in healthy feedback loops, that is positively great!

So what about the Information Age? Some folks who claim to be ecologically minded reject information technology as a further dissociation between the human and natural realms. While I sympathize with the urge to heal our dissociation, I fundamentally disagree with the notion that information technology is an obstacle to achieving this goal. In fact, I think it may be the best way we have to effectively reintegrate the human and natural worlds.

In the hunter-gather world, a tribe created their system of symbols together. Since these cultures usually had no writing, each person co-created the culture through the telling and retelling of stories. Collectively, a system of symbols was co-created that helped the tribe make sense of the world around them. What’s more, this system of symbols was constantly evolving with the natural world. While some of these stories may seem anthropomorphic, magical, or otherwise childish to us now, it is important to realize that when there isn’t much differentiation between the human and natural realms, anthropomorphism is an identification with rather than a imposition on the natural world.

Currencies used in hunter-gatherer culture were largely status oriented. A talisman to signify being a masterful hunter, a gift that got passed from tribe to tribe to signify peaceful relations, and so on. These currencies were probably co-created in much the same way that the tribe’s oral traditions were, and probably evolved accordingly to fit natural circumstances.

Writing came on the scene at about the same time as the Agricultural Revolution. In almost every culture that evolved writing, it was originally a way of keeping accounts. For example, I give you two cows this season and we draw two cows on a cliff to record the transaction. Over time, this became a way recording what was said.

Writing was important for many more reasons than we can get into here, but one of the most important things about early writing was that only a few elites were literate. And these elites had the power to make their system of symbols immortal. Can you imagine how powerful that must have seemed to an oral culture? Agrarian culture tended to be ordered very hierarchically as the sets of socially accepted symbols were controlled by an elite few. However, since most of the population was illiterate and living on the land, these symbols lacked the power to fully dissociate the human and natural realms.

The Agrarian era was also when the first widespread use of money evolved. While, originally, money may have been a product of spontaneous organization in a market setting, these Agrarian Age monetary currencies usually evolved into being declared exclusively by the sovereign (or his proxy) and many times had his picture on them. Monetary currencies were primarily used for quid pro quo trades (and for taxes), which were becoming more necessary as human settlements got large enough to have anonymous interactions between the inhabitants.

The dawn of the Industrial Age more or less coincided with the invention of the printing press in 1440, although industrialism didn’t gain full steam until several centuries later. This era saw the spread of science, democracy, and capitalism. These were all HUGE advances in the complexity of human symbol systems. The realm of human symbols started to become so complex that people could forget that humans had anything to do with the natural realm at all. While science made nature its central focus of inquiry, it was only capable of studying nature from the outside as observer, fully dissociated.

The printing press enabled universal literacy, so the written realm of symbols slowly became the purview of the general population. However, the power to create new symbol systems remained fairly concentrated in the hands of an economic elite. And their power increased as more people began to live their lives almost entirely in the world of symbols. The merchant class took over the creation of monetary currency in this era with the invention of fractional reserve banking. Consequently, the use of money in the general population increased exponentially, and people increasingly depended on these symbols for their very lives.

In the Information Age, we have the growing capacity for everyone to generate and disseminate symbol sets as networks gain primacy over hierarchies. We have already seen the popularity of blogs, social networks, p2p file sharing, and so on. While these phenomena have all had profound cultural ramifications, I believe the reintegration of the human and natural worlds will be primarily made possible by how we create and use currencies.

We are destroying the biosphere by participating in deeply dysfunctional and unhealthy flows. Since currency affords us a chance to consciously interact with flows, I believe this to be one of the most fruitful avenues to pursue as we evolve. And, as we pursue new currencies, we must look to nature for successful patterns of flow to emulate. Nature likes variety. Clearly, we can’t replace one mono-currency with another and hope that will somehow solve our problems. Nature forms ecosystems rather than zoos, so the variety of currencies we create in the coming years will have to be able to form rich spontaneous interrelationships rather than be segregated from each other in fits of xenophobia. And Nature finds opportunities to build collective wealth whenever possible by virtue of being “open” (Nature is a commons). The design principles used in creating these systems will be also be open (as we have explored frequently on this blog).

The less people are dependent on industrial age money for their survival, the more they will be able to experiment with new currency symbol sets. Many of these will engender harmonious flows in and between the human and natural worlds. And, I would also guess that these symbol sets will have a much better chance of survival than those that lead to the wholesale destruction of the biosphere. How many more small family farms would there be with currencies that weren’t exclusively interested in the short-term? How many more forests? How many fewer GMOs?

To reiterate, this is not about going back to being hunter-gatherers or about giving up the comforts of modern life. Our development as a species, while often troubled, has NOT been something we can undo. As we emerge into species-maturity in this remarkable time, I celebrate the development that has led us to where we are.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Open POS

On this blog we have spoken much about the design principles that underlie “Open Currencies.” However, there is an aspect of this we haven’t said much about, which I believe has significant implications for on-the-ground currency efforts. So let’s unpack how the principles of Open Currency would apply to the Point-of-Sale (POS).

So what is the primary function of a POS device? A POS device must be able to securely send and receive data to and from a server. Usually this data is in the form of a monetary transaction, and records a customer buying X dollars worth of merchandise from the merchant. It must be noted that the current technological ability of devices to provide this service in a secure manner in such volume is, to say the least, awesome. However, despite my personal awe at what is already possible, I must draw attention to an even more amazing future waiting in the wings.

Right now, these devices require stand alone applications that are capable of talking to one (or a specified group of) server(s). This means that if a start-up currency group wants to get access to the POS, they must develop (or license) and install an application on the device that will talk to your server so transactions in your currency can be recorded.

How we treat the POS is analogous to if Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix all had to develop separate stand alone applications for your computer. Obviously, this approach is incredibly inefficient. Had this been the approach 20 years ago, I am quite sure there wouldn’t have been widespread adoption of the Internet. Widespread adoption of the Internet was enabled by the web, and the web was made possible, in part, by a browser which could talk to ANY server using a common protocol.

What if instead of a stand alone application, we had the equivalent of a browser at the POS? This would mean that ANY currency group that needed access to the POS would be able to do so by simply declaring themselves in the space (like registering a domain). No one’s hands would be on the tap. There would be NO middleman. We heartily support net-neutrality, but incoherently accept the non-neutrality of the POS.

Let’s remember that on this blog we define a currency as being “a formal system that allows a community to perceive and interact with flows.” We have named grades, reputation scores on Ebay, driver’s licenses etc. as included in this expanded definition of currency. Think of the UNBELIEVABLY large variety of currency data that could be gathered at the POS (obviously with the full consent of all participants). Merchants could ask customers if they had received good customer service, allowing them to know more about the performance of employees. An endless variety of loyalty point systems that encouraged various shopping behaviors could be devised and implemented. Customers could track their own carbon footprint. And, of course, monetary currencies that aren’t based on scarcity could finally get the access to the POS they need. The possibilities are literally endless.

For some very strange reason, we haven’t yet approached the POS like this. Having tried to pitch this idea to currency groups of various sorts, here are what I think the mental and emotional barriers to this concept might be.

  1. Scope. Most currency projects have fairly narrowly defined mission statements. While a tightly defined mission can be a good thing to keep focus in a group, in this case it seems to hinder perception of the larger ecosystem. Sometimes it’s good to think outside the mission.
  2. Competitiveness. Some groups don’t think that spending resources on an application that may be helpful to their perceived competitors is a good idea. While few seem actively focused on keeping their competitors down, many would be loathed to waste their own scare resources in this manner.
  3. Territorialism. POS providers make most of their profit by being the middlemen. Embracing an Open POS would mean that a large part of their business model would simply be irrelevant. However, I would argue that this evolution is inevitable. The sooner smart merchant services companies embrace it, the sooner they can position themselves as leaders of the next paradigm.
  4. Fear of the cyber boogie-man. For some reason, upon hearing the word OPEN, some people conjure images of cyber villains lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce on unsuspecting grandmothers. Let’s remember that we do LOTS of transactions over the web, and the web is an OPEN network. In fact, most security breaches happen because of human error. People use their own birthdays as passwords for their bank accounts, yet weirdly think the technology itself is what is making us vulnerable. Of course, security must be considered, but there is nothing inherently less secure about an open network.
  5. Fear of too many choices. Believe or not, I actually heard this argument recently at a meeting with the City of Portland where we were discussing the possibility of a municipally funded Open POS. A consulting group that was at the table claimed that unless we restricted the number of currency groups with access to the POS, merchants and customers alike would be overwhelmed with choice. Clearly, these people don’t understand the last 20 years of cultural evolution. And, more importantly, this mindset is completely antithetical to both democracy and the free market. I suppose there are those that would have claimed 25 years ago that an open hypertext network would be quickly filled with porn, false claims, and criminality. While they would have been right, they would have completely missed the point as well as the benefit of the web. Taking personal responsibility for your web experience is a learned skill (one that some still struggle with), and the same will be true of any Open Currency network.

Each of these hang-ups are, in their own way, remnants of a dying economy. At their root, all of these fears lead back to the fear of scarcity. New business models that leverage the power of networks bypass the threat of scarcity by finding innovative ways to create value through autonomous collaboration. Again, think about what makes open source work so well.

One of the key advantages for any currency group taking this approach in concert with other groups is the ability to cross-market. Right now, each group has to hawk its own proprietary POS technology. If instead these groups were selling an OPEN POS device, they would be helping each other get access rather than forcing businesses to choose a POS technology before they had any experience with the currency. Obviously, this would make marketing the POS technology MUCH easier. Some people got online to buy books from Amazon. Some people got online to rent movies from Netflix. But once they were online, it was pretty easy to find and use other services. By embracing an OPEN POS, other groups could join this effort by simply plugging their currency in. No barriers. Only autonomous co-innovation.

So what can we do now? Let’s start by declaring our intent. I propose that those who represent currency projects that might want to adopt an Open POS approach comment on this blog with your intent. I certainly don't pretend that there is a functioning technology ready to use right now, and the challenges we will face in building this kind of network will be significant. But, it would definitely help build momentum for each of us to see that there were other currency groups ready to jump in. Let’s build a truly functional ecosystem at the POS where we can support each other through autonomous collaboration rather than continue to fight over non-existent territory.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Membrane Currencies

In the previous post, Arthur talked about expanding the range of how we think about currencies. We are all familiar with trade currencies, and more and more people are becoming comfortable with the term "reputation currency" (a Google search for "reputation currency" reveals almost 4000 hits, many of which point the Whuffie), as well as "loyalty currencies," which are token systems like airline miles, and buy-10-get-1-free cards. Other types of currencies we've talked about include "voting currencies" and "performance metric currencies" like grades/credits/degrees and nobel prizes which incentivize and guide participation.

But today I want to share about one of the hot topics in the meta-currency lab: the membrane currency.

As you probably know if you've been following this blog, we think of a currency around here more as a "current see," i.e. something that lets the social organism see and interact with a current, a flow. When looking at natural systems and the flows that course through them (that in fact are their very essence) there is a completely ubiquitous phenomenon that is often hidden in plain sight: the membrane. Membranes are somewhat tricky to define and understand, because in the end, where the membrane of any particular system starts and where it ends, is a matter of how you choose to look at it. This fact, that the boundaries of a membrane are somewhat fuzzy, is particularly interesting because that's exactly what membranes themselves are: boundaries. They are the component of a system that makes it appear to be a separate, complete, and integral system in the context of some environment. Membranes can be seen as that which creates a context, or environment, in which subsystems can be coordinated to into being an integral whole. This is not-withstanding the fact that all membraned systems are themselves embedded in an context or environment which is itself bounded by a membrane.

Membranes are permeable. One of the most important features of any membrane, is exactly the form and shape that it gives to permeability. This permeability, is clearly a mechanism for regulating flows in and out of a system, of coordinating how the inside of the system will see the outside, of limiting/enhancing/controlling/shaping/transforming what gets in and out. Sound familiar? By our definition of currencies, a membrane certainly is one. In fact, I now suspect that membranes are one of the foundational currency types.

In some living systems it's very easy to see the membranes as they map one-for-one with the very things we see. This is simply because they are the physical boundary that makes those systems "things" to our eyes. Animals have a skin. Cells have a "cell membrane." Without them, they would cease to be integral living things. It's harder for us to see the membrane in other living systems. What's the membrane of a bee-hive or an ant colony? The examples of social insects are an important step to understanding membrane currencies. Social insect colonies build both physical structures, but also have functional/behavioral structures that create the integrity of the colony as whole. Wasps build paper shells around their nests, but also guard them from intruders. Bees and ants, not only have specialized casts to ward off invaders, but also have complex identification systems to recognize bees and ants from other colonies. All of these aspects are part of what make the membrane of the colony.

So what does this have to do with currency? As with many things about currency, I credit Michael Linton with being first into deep insight about this. When I first met Michael in 2004 at the E.F Schumacher Society Local Currencies conference he was describing his vision of a multi-currency open money system that included a concept he was calling "domains." Here's one of the images he showed: What Michael was describing in that picture was a network of currency systems. The circles are people, and the colored networks are the different currency system used by the people. But the key thing in the picture is that people are grouped in those gray areas: domains. Michael realized that for a self-organizing resilient currency network to form, there had to be a self-declared boundary system by which currencies and accounts in those systems could be declared and named, such that they would be visible and known to the entire network, but also such that any such group had it's own autonomy and control within that domain. This is a profound insight: naming is one of the key elements that creates the membrane of the social organism. Names are part of what creates the boundary that make a social organism distinguishable as an independent whole. And it's related to the identification mechanisms of ants and bees to know if any particular ant or bee they come across is part of "self" or not.

I went on with Michael to build two functional implementations of the open money system one at and another at, both of which include a naming system to create contexts for currency accounts. The second implementation is described at: and you can see there how namespaces (which is what I started calling them instead of domains) were even conceived of as one of the fundamental entity types in the "Mesh".

That work has evolved into the meta-currency platform where again we continue grappling with the naming questions for the network. How will entities be made visible to other entities on the network, i.e. what will currency account addresses be? How do you name a currency? How will that namings be delegated? You can see the design document for our early ideas. But this all came to a head in working on the flowplace. The flowplace design included the notion of a "circle," which was a way to group users and currencies. The circles were completely separate from the currency network addresses (which we were now calling wallets). We conceived of circles as providing a context for action. So any group that wanted to use free currencies to build wealth together, could come to the flowplace, and start by creating a circle, and a bunch of currencies that it would use to measure it's wealth. When you have such circles, immediately you need to address the "security" questions of who gets to add new members into the circle. And then also the question of who gets to create currencies in a given circle, and so on. So I sat down to code these "administration" features into the flowplace, when it hit me that the meta-currency infrastructure we were using to create the currencies in the flowplace, was exactly what I needed to implement these permissions structures for the circles.

How is this possible? Lets go back to our definition of currencies: A formal system for shaping, enabling, and measuring currents (or flows). Well, the meta-currency infrastructure provides a language (XGFL) for creating those formal systems, and in the flowplace I'd already used it to create some trade, performance metric, and reputation currencies. I saw that I could use this same language to specify the permissions that participants of the circle have in regards to the currencies that the circle uses, and that that very specification could simultaneously serve as a naming, i.e. a mapping, between people, currencies and roles in the context of the given circle. After talking this through with fellow currency geeks, we realized that the membrane currency also has a broader naming function in that it is also responsible for creating names for all the currencies in use by the circle, be they currencies that are created by circle for internal use only, or be they currencies created externally. The membrane currency brings such currencies "inside" the circle, by virtue of giving them a local name. Arthur came up with the word "namescape" to describe the resulting naming that the membrane currency accomplishes. This reflects the idea that it's not just a static namespace, or direct mapping, that the the membrane currency accomplishes, but rather that for the social organism, the membrane uses a dynamic naming process to create the shape of the relationship between those currencies and processes that "inside" and "outside" of the social organism. Geeks can check out the progress of the developing membrane currency for the flowplace on github.

So let me try to sum this all up: I am engaged in this work because the social organisms that we are embedded in are destructive of us, the planet, and therefore themselves. Thus our social organisms must evolve, they must be radically transformed. I believe that for this to happen, we must come to see the social organism from the point of view of all the myriad flows that literally are what it is made of. But what gives any organism a level integrity, of self, wholeness, and difference from other organisms? It is a membrane, which is the systemic component that both separates and connects the organism from its environment. The membrane is not so much a static physical barrier, as it is an active process that mediates between "inside" and "outside." In the case of social organisms, the central process that accomplishes this is naming by assigning of roles. (Think of all initiatory ceremonies of social bodies where individuals get new names, or formal markings that assign them to roles). This "membranic" process is itself a currency as it a formal system for shaping, enabling, and measuring these flows of participation.

Perhaps we shouldn't call such currencies "membrane currencies" but rather "integrity currencies." The former is a name for the component in the system. The later is a name for what that component accomplishes.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Critical to expand perception of Currencies

On the Complementary Currency Skype channel we've got going, there was brief but old standard debate going on about fiat vs. mutual credit currencies.

I chimed in with:

When you expand your perspective about currency beyond only medium of exchange / monetary currencies the need for fiat currencies becomes clear.

For example, debiting a University for granting a college degree as reputation currency starts sounding awfully silly. There are quite valid reasons for fiat currencies.

However, if your goal is to create sustained monetary value, that form of issuance tends to be "bad tech." I think we might be able to transcend some of the dogmatic Mac/PC or Fiat/Mutual-Credit posturing if we consider these broader applications they create sharper contrasts and clearer hues so that we can learn which adjustments effect what outcomes.

Imagine analyzing breeds of apples. There are a lot of differences between them, but mostly a lot of similarities when you compare them to all other fruits. It may be that if we want to nourish ourselves effectively, that we shouldn't rule out all other fruits. They each have their own value and there are things to learn from them that may even teach us a few things about apples.

(Yes... You might accuse me of making an apples to oranges comparison here.)

Later Ernie asked: “I would like to know what you mean by this: ...if we consider these broader applications they create sharper contrasts and clearer hues so that we can learn which adjustments affect what outcomes.”

After a few days I responded:

Sorry about my delayed response. Let me try using what I think is an apt metaphor. The design of any currency establishes a range of possible behaviors of the individuals participating in it as well as a trajectory for the user community as a whole (as a sort of collective entity or organism).

I think this is very similar to the role that DNA plays in living creatures.

A currency organizes connections and interactions between groups of people into a kind of collective behavior which creates a kind of living social organism. The design of that currency (the rules about issuance, transaction, conversion/co-function, retirement/expiration, participant classes, governance, etc.) are the DNA of this social organism.

DNA doesn’t tell us exactly what each individual biological critter will do, but it does define a particular range of possibilities and tendencies. We know pigs don’t fly, bats don’t “see,” fish must live in water, and most humans develop language capacities. That doesn’t tell us what sentences a particular human will say, just like the design of a currency doesn’t determine exactly what transactions individuals will do.

Suppose you want to understand human DNA – map the human genome. Scientists have found it VERY useful to learn from non-human creatures for many reasons. Simpler combinations of variables (fewer chromosome pairs), easier experimentation (eugenics / experimental breeding of humans is frowned upon), greater variety (difference between different animals create contrasts which help identify patterns that might be harder to see between humans who are so similar), etc.

I’m suggesting that as currency designers (even if what you want most is to understand monetary currencies) that expanding our definition of currencies to include non-monetary configurations helps in the very same ways that considering non-human DNA helps in mapping human DNA.

  • There is greater variety. Contrasts stand out much more starkly. Postage stamps fill a very different niche than grades on tests or bus passes. There are patterns amidst that variety that are direct outcomes of the design of each currency.

  • People participate more freely. Consider how many hundreds of millions of people are freely participating in currencies like five-star product ratings, eBay reputation, user participation metrics, certifications, college degrees, performance reviews, stocks, stamps, movie tickets, etc. in contrast to how few are participating in general purpose money substitutes (LETS, Berks, local currencies, and even commercial barter).

  • Failures are less costly. The impact on people’s trust, ability to sustain themselves and willingness to participate in another “experimental” community venture are less severe when people don’t expect to make a living from the experiment. With non-monetary currencies, we can experiment without people losing their retirement funds.

  • Results can be evaluated faster. One of the things people often expect from a monetary currency is long-term stability as a store of value. But non-monetary alternatives can be used to solve specific problems or meet specific goals then be retired. Even the WIR has barely been running long enough for many to consider it in long-term analysis.

This is what I meant in prior statement you asked about. I think there are many more reasons to consider these non-monetary currencies (such as gift economies are fundamentally more efficient than market economies).

Getting out of the rut of thinking that new “money” is the only real answer yields many opportunities for us. And yes – these broader “currencies” solve real problems that real people are grappling with every day. Money isn’t the only solution to our problems. And as we all know, it is in fact the source of many of them.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Money Simply Facilitates Trade?

Recently I've had some discussions about our MetaCurrency work with folks trained in economics. For some reason it seems particularly hard for some of them to grok what we're up to. More than once I've been told that working on changing the money system "hooey" and is barking up the wrong tree because "money simply facilitates trades," and that's it. Well, here's another statement: "cars simply facilitate moving stuff." Like the idea that "money simply facilitates trades" it is true for a narrow range of inquiry. But for even a slightly broader range of inquiry both of these statements are false. What's so interesting to is how hard it is in the case of money, to see that that statement is being made in a narrow context at all!

In the case of the technology of cars we know that the details of the technology itself has huge systemic implications. The CO2 produced by the internal combustion engines they run on has large consequences to the health of the planet's ecosystems. The specific effects of cars as a facilitator of moving stuff around vs. for example trains & and various other communal methods, or horses and buggies for that matter, have large consequences to the health of human social ecosystems.

You can't ignore the details of the technology in the case of cars, nor can you in the case of money. Both are technologies who's specifics make huge difference. What's weird is that by and large people don't even seem to think that money HAS any specifics. But it does. The currency alphabet that we've talking about (or currency literacy) is about getting the semantic and conceptual tools in our heads to see those specifics re money, so we can actually create forms of them that don't have the pernicious side effects. On top of that we're claiming that the best way to use such an alphabet is in an open, distributed, and democratic context, not a centralized one.

I see this situation is as if we lived in a society where we had invented cars, but we still had absolutely no idea how the production of CO2 by internal combustion could be responsible for climate change. We have created money, but we don't realize that the form of issuance of that money (debt based issuance), has very large side-effects. We don't really know why there isn't money for health care and education, we don't know why fundamentally our financial systems crash all the time. But it turns out that there are lots of other ways of issuing money into circulation (as there are other types of engines for cars), that don't have the same side-effects. My claim is that many, many of the fundamental patterns of our society are largely driven by the systemics that spin out from that basic axiom of debt based central issuance. If you change that one thing, lots of other things change. But it goes further than that too, just like in the case of cars as "facilitators of moving stuff." You can change out the engines to all be fuel cell electrics and thus solve the CO2 problem, but if we keep cars in place as our main way of moving people around we still have a huge range of social problems created by traffic, commuting, segregation of life into bedroom-suburbs and business centers, etc. And it goes even further, we pave over thousands of acres of arable land for cars. There are safety issues in using cars. They kill people and animals in ways that other transportation systems don't. They consume a scarce fuel resources which sets up other dependency relationships. They are built of metals which are getting increasingly scarce. They change the way people not in cars behave while moving around the world, and the list goes on. Just as it does with money, when you start to dig in deeper.

So I can see how all of this would seem to some economists as "hooey." If you are a traffic engineer, then any talk of switching out engines in cars as if it were meaningful is indeed hooey. It doesn't make a difference in that narrow context of getting cars to flow through intersections.

So although it may be true that money "simply facilitates trades," oversimplifying it in this way completely ignores other very real effects which emerge from money and our decisions about how we issue it, manage it and transact it. Different currencies change the rules about those things and although they may still facilitate trades, they can completely change all the ancillary "side-effects."

Intentional design of currencies is about waking up to the fact that these things are indeed not just "side-effects" but "actual systemic effects" and we should be responsible for them in similar ways that we need to be responsible for all those "side-effects" of using cars to move stuff.
We can't ignore those these "side-effects" and have a livable planet, livable economies or livable communities.
Yet looking at money in this way is completely (and possibly intentionally) outside the scope of traditional economics. Traditional economics seems to look at things like this in terms of "externalities," and certainly there is a loud cry from within traditional economics for accounting for externalities and moving them into the system. And some economist seem to get the deeper issue. Here is a great answer by environmental economist Neva Goodwin to a question about externalities in an article in grist:

The problem I have with classical microeconomics is the failure to account for "externalities" that relate to fundamental human and environmental values. What do you propose to do to incorporate the breadth of human activity and resource use into the economist's paradigm and avoid us living out the "tragedy of the commons"? -- David Hohmann, Bexley, Ohio

Many people who are critical of economics say that the problem is that economists don't take account of externalities. In fact, this is one of the most hopeful areas of agreement between economists and environmentalists. Externalities are costs or benefits that are "external" to the market system -- that is, they don't come back to affect the economic actor that caused them. This is very distressing to economists, because the presence of an externality means that the market is not working as theory says it should. Economists used to mostly ignore the prevalence of externalities -- they can justly be criticized for that -- but since environmentalists discovered the word and began to bring examples to the attention of economists, they have been working hard to figure out ways to "internalize the externalities." If this effort could fully succeed, we would have a world in which any polluting firm would bear the full cost of its pollution, rather than leaving individuals to bear the cost in terms of ill health, etc., and every family whose children grow up to be constructive members of society would be fully compensated for the foregone earnings and other costs involved in devoting time and resources to raising children.

That's the positive part. The negative is that, even while mainstream economists are actively (and sometimes successfully) wrestling with efforts to internalize (into the system of market signals) the costs of economic activity that have been externalized to the natural world or onto societies, there's something bigger going on -- which I suspect is behind your question. There are "meta-externalities" -- unwanted side-effects of the whole economic system on its physical and social contexts -- which continue to be invisible to the theory. Critical meta-externalities show up in the impact of the economic system on the social context. Productive enterprises need a workforce that has been socialized to be able to defer gratification, to think independently and sometimes creatively, and to be honest and responsible. Citizens and politicians need to care about the long run, and to be able and willing to address intelligently the myriad highly complex issues that face modern societies. But the sales efforts within modern enterprises are focused on a different set of requirements. From the sales point of view, the self-interest of business is served by a culture of instant gratification and simplified thinking that urges material purchase as the answer to any discomfort. A serious, as yet insufficiently recognized, set of meta-externalities are the selfishness, short-term thinking, cynicism, and impatience with complexity that are cultivated in the populace at large -- even though these are not characteristics that will best contribute to a healthy society or a healthy economy.

The heart of the difficulty in seeing this issue, I think lies is in the fact that traditional economics rests exactly on that "system of market signals" as the central feedback loop necessary for governing flows of goods and services. It's fairly easy to see how pollution is an externality, and how by pricing mechanisms like cap & trade, it can be brought into the market signal system. But as Neva Goodwin says, what about the meta-externalities of the very information signaling system you use to bring those externalities into the system? They will necessarily remain invisible without a level jump.

That's the idea behind the MetaCurrency project. It's a level jump that allows the side-effects of the signaling system itself to be taken into account, by putting the signal system itself into play.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Currencies are Numerical

I am going to make another soft claim about currency. Namely, that all currencies are numerical by nature. Now, having said this, I fully endorse the idea that things like marriage licenses and USDA Organic Certification are currencies through and through. IMHO, both of these instances are numerical since they describe binary states. I either have been certified organic by the USDA or I haven’t. 1 or 0. I either have a marriage license or I don’t. Again, 1 or 0.

With USDA Organic Certification, there is a long and complex process before the currency can be issued. The USDA inspects a variety of things about a given farm /product, and, based on a formula, determines whether what is being inspected deserves the USDA seal. However, the seal itself does not tell the whole story. The USDA seal is a shorthand for the public, so we may efficiently take in information about our food and base our purchasing decisions on it. If the USDA produced a ten page document for every farm / product it inspected detailing the complexities of how that product is produced, we would have much more complete information at our disposal, but most of us would not have time to make sense of it all.

I would assert therefore, that a currency streamlines information into a numerical representation, so sensible decisions can be made on the fly without knowing the whole story. While currency can profoundly increase the coordinative capacity of a group, some of the potential perils should be obvious.

However, before we get deeper into this, let’s take a moment to ponder the nature of counting. What is it about the eggs on my kitchen table that allows me to count three of them? Why do we apply the term “three” to these eggs? I would suggest that counting anything presupposes that we are able to filter for similarity of both pattern and context.

First, these things on my table all match the pattern “egg.” A piece of wood in the shape of an egg does not count since it doesn’t fit several of the key egg criteria. If I had two chicken eggs and an ostrich egg, I would still count three eggs (assuming I knew what the ostrich egg was). The ability to count presupposes my ability to recognize a given pattern as distinct from another pattern. It also presupposes that I can make adjustments to the pattern I am counting to fit my needs. For instance, I want to make a cake, so I am counting chicken eggs and not ostrich eggs.

Second, the eggs I am counting are on my kitchen table. I am not counting all the eggs in my house, in my community, or in the world. I am making a semi-conscious choice about the context of my counting. And that context is also adjustable. If I don’t have the right number of eggs on my table, I can expand my count to my house. If I don’t have the right number of eggs in my house, I can expand my count to the store, and so on.

So a necessary prerequisite of currency is the ability to count instances of a given pattern in a given context, but that is not the only characteristic of a currency. I can count eggs on my table, but how do I communicate that information to my community. Does the community agree on the definition of an egg? On a trusted “egg”spert to determine if what I am counting are really eggs? On whether the egg is on or off the table? And so on. Implicit in a currency therefore is a community agreement on how to count.

In the case of the number of eggs on my table, probably no one cares that much. But in the case of USDA Organic certification, a great many people care. So how to count involves an authorized issuer of the currency, i.e. the farmer can’t issue his own USDA seal. And, hopefully, there is openness about the pattern of what is being counted (i.e. the standards that the USDA has for its seal). And, there is openness about the context (i.e. the USDA is looking at my farm and not my neighbor’s).

Let’s look at one more example of how this numerical definition of currency works. An 18 year old is home for the summer from college and needs some pocket money to go out with his friends. The elderly woman next door needs her lawn mowed and offers to pay him a little to do so. While, the money isn’t very good, he has always liked his neighbor and agrees to do so. After the lawn is mowed, she invites him in for a lemonade. They talk a little about college, life, girls, etc. She gives him a hug, thanks him, and he is on his way. Let’s think about what value is created in this transaction and what currencies we might use to express it.

The most obvious value created is that the lawn is mowed. Our 18 year old does not do as good a job as a landscaper would, so he is paid less for his labor. Using dollars as our only metric, less value is created than would have been with the landscaper. However, a social bond is reinforced that wouldn’t have been otherwise. And, more importantly for the purposes of this discussion, this social bond may have implications for the rest of the community. For instance, the more connections with her neighbors the elderly woman has, the less resources from the community at large may be needed to care for her. She may even be healthier since she is happier. The benefit of our 18 year old having good relations with his elders may also have community benefits. He may be less likely to commit crimes, or more likely to accept helpful suggestions from his elders in other contexts.

So, let’s think about how to encode this important value for the community in a currency. We have already encoded the value of the lawn being mowed through the use of a monetary currency, so let’s look at some of the others. What about the value society receives by having to put up less resources to care for this elderly woman?

Perhaps there is an acknowledgment currency that is issued by the elderly for positive experiences they have with their neighbors. A simple public thank you. We count the number of thank yous received from the elderly, and are able to provide some benefit in return (perhaps a free bus token for x number of thank yous). Perhaps we don’t offer anything in return, other than public acknowledgment. If, later on, the 18 year old tries to get a job working with the elderly, this would be a useful metric to have. In either case there is an authorized issuer: the elderly. And we COUNT the number of thanks issued thereby.

Or perhaps we track the number of hours people put into caring for the elderly. We might be able to use these hours as a partial payment for care of our own parents (Japan currently has a system very similar to this).

Or perhaps we offer tax breaks to those who have amassed a certain number of hours since they have alleviated the public burden of care.

As you can see there are a number of ways to measure the value created in this transaction, but I think you will find that they all involve counting in some way or another. If they didn’t, the elderly woman could simply post a blog entry telling the story of her experience. While that might be a valuable thing to do, I do not believe it is currency until we have counted it using our filter of pattern and context.

In the case of counting thank yous, even though the thank you itself may be subjective, we are counting instances of it in a given context, and so have a number that has some quantitative meaning. We may apply different filters to our counting these thank yous so our data takes on fuller meaning. For instance, we may count only so many thanks yous from a given person a month to prevent cheating. And so on.

How we count what happened gives us the ability to adjust our actions to fit the story being told.

Friday, September 18, 2009


The following is a reprint of an email I recently sent to some of the other metacurrency folks. I would love to hear thoughts.

Lately, I have been reading some pretty amazing books on
games and game design. These books have really helped get my thoughts in order about currency, games, and so on. So I would like to take a minute to go deep here. These are some pretty foundational questions I think we must address (or at least consider).

First, after reading these books I have come to a soft conclusion (meaning I could be argued out of it :) ) that currencies and games are NOT the same thing. Some (but not all) games USE currencies, and some currencies exist outside the context of a game. So let's revisit our definition of currency: a formal system that allows a community to interact with a flow. I still think this definition is accurate, but let me restate it from a different perspective:

A shorthand way of recording information about something that HAPPENED in such a way that other people who understand (or use) that currency can adjust their future actions to appropriately fit the story being told.
So, there is WHAT HAPPENS and THE STORY WE TELL ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS. There are two categories of rules in games. Rules that tell us what may happen. Rules that tell us how to record what happens.

Many of the first kind of rules have nothing to do with currency. For instance, in baseball, for a pitch to be counted as a strike, it must be in the strike zone (between the knees and the shoulders). That is a rule that is outside any currency. For the purposes of the currency, we just need to know that the umpire issues strikes. The umpire is the person who may officially tell the story of the pitch. That story is then recorded in a currency: the strike. There are also rules about how the story that can be told. The umpire cannot, for instance, tell the story that "the pitch was pretty good but kind of a cheap shot since the pitcher looked like he was throwing a fastball but didn't." The umpire may only say strike, ball, etc. The game of baseball FLOWS from the stories we are allowed to tell about it.

What is complicated about this situation is that the rules about what MAY happen are often contingent upon the STORY we told about WHAT DID HAPPEN. This is the marvelous interplay and feedback loop between currency and action.

So, games MAY employ currencies. To me, the currencies in the game of baseball are things like runs, hits, errors, strikes, balls, outs. They are the things that tell the story (in shorthand) of WHAT HAPPENED. In other words, what are the important things to record in the game of baseball so that other players know what to do next?

So, by this definition, I am doubtful whether chess employs any currencies at all. What do we count in the game of chess? What story do we tell about the game that allows the players to adjust their next actions? There is a board and pieces. That is sufficient in and of itself for the player to make their move. They don't need to know the history of the flow. There is no story other than what is on the board now. We don't keep track of how many pawns are lost, what their relative value is, what the SCORE is. There is NO SCORE. Therefore there is no currency.

I have been struggling for a while to figure out why the entire legal code isn't a currency. I think this explains it. The legal code is about what may happen. Currencies are about how we record what did happen and communicate it to others. There may be rules about how we record what happened. There may be rules about what we may do that are contingent about the story we tell, but they are external to the currency.

Let's take a simple example. I try to make a purchase with a credit card, and my card is declined. There is no rule about what may happen as a result that is internal to the currency. The vendor may decide without breaking the rules of the currency to give me the product anyway since she knows me and trusts that I will get her back tomorrow. Or the store may have a strict rule about not giving people stuff when they can't pay. But again, the rules about what happens as a result of the story are EXTERNAL to the rules that govern how the story is told. The whole of the game includes the rules that are both internal and external to the currency. So a currency CAN be part of a game. And a currency may not have a game associated with it at all (i.e. the card is declined and the store doesn't really care since the owner just won the lottery and is feeling generous).

There is lots more to say about all this, but that may be sufficient to ponder now. :)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Currency Quips for later development

I wrote these responses in the comments thread on this article about The End of Social Movements. There are some currency issues in them that I want to capture for later deeper discussion, so I'm reposting here so I'll know where to find them.

Money and Power Pathologies

Will – I think you make a good point that they’re ability to fool us, does not make them the same thing in essence. And I even like your lunch money metaphor.

So consider this: We start making alternative lunch money. It is only accepted at our own food carts, and participation is completely voluntary. The corporate theives/bullies/thugs/raiders can only use it for lunch in that community and there’s only so much lunch they can eat.

However, if they can’t use it to buy up real estate, bribe politicians, make speculative investments, build their empire of power an anonymity, then it isn’t worth their time and energy to steal.

Humans are susceptible to a particular kind of magical thinking that verges on pathological. Specifically, it has to do with having a magical item that give you a kind of universal power. For alchemists and conquistadors it was gold. For modern Americans it is MONEY.

You can hold it in your hand, and use it to get ANYTHING! This is a temptation that attracts the greedy, the power hungry, the corrupt. Heck, it attracts almost all of us, but some go too far while under its spell.

The sooner we learn that we actually do NOT want our currencies to be universal power objects, the sooner we can get back to having those currencies be designed to fill different niches and meet the needs of our distinct communities and repel the conquistadors.

Rushkoff didn’t say it in this piece, but much of this boils down the the corporatization of our money. It’s time to think for ourselves about currency. The bill of goods they’ve sold us about it is bogus and is designed to feed their hunger and increase their wealth.

We can learn a lot from from nature. Notice that each organism has its own currency / circulatory system. And that the lifeblood is mostly not interchangeable. Human blood is not the same as dog blood or tree sap. The more universal items of value (such as water and air) are not scarce.

What would currencies and economies look like if instead of being designed to benefit a few power-mongers, they were designed to support diverse communities and people?

On Gift Economies

Mika, Rushkoff isn’t saying Pirate Bay doesn’t function well as distribution system, but that it is more anonymous than he’d prefer. He already has the Internet as an efficient distribution system and will give the book to whoever asks for it.

This whole article is about being connected on a human level, staying grounded, not being swept into abstract movements or corporate entities. So his desire to be connected as a human to the people that want his book is completely consistent with his thesis.

I can't speak for Douglas on this point, but I can speak for myself.

Gift economies function according to different principles than commercial economies. In a commercial transaction no relationship is required nor inherently created. Anyone with 3 bucks can buy a box of nails at the hardware store and remain anonymous if they choose to. It is a tit-for-tat exchange which ends the moment it is done.

However, if I walk across the street and ask my neighbor for a handful of nails, it is a completely different transaction.

- It requires relationship. If I'm a bad neighbor he may not go out of his way for me.

- It is a GIFT, not an exchange. Don't fall for that lazy thinking that *everything* is an exchange. He doesn't want me to hand him 3 bucks or to bring a handful of nails back next week after I bought more. He's not trading it for the "feel-good" or to have me personally indebted to him.

- It is an investment in a SOCIAL CONTRACT. Gift economies function by social contract. If you're a good "citizen" according that contract, then we're good with each other. My neighbor is investing in a neighborhood ethos where we do this stuff for each other. It's a pay it FORWARD, ACROSS and only occasionally BACK economy.

So... why does this matter. Because social contracts exist between PEOPLE WHO KNOW EACH OTHER. Given our current paucity of robust reputation currencies, they have not traditionally scaled beyond family/tribe/village.

But this is a core part of the economic shift we are undergoing! We are using information age technology to create wide-scale social contracts, reputation currencies and gift economies! This completely breaks out of the box of all traditional "economic" models which assume everything is about exchange.

Anyway... these are my words not Douglas', but I'll bet the spirit of it is at the core of his desire to have an actual connection with people he gives his book to.

Anyone who wants to remain anonymous and disconnected can feel free to BUY a copy. But... What's possible if we stop hiding behind money *pretending* to be independent and start acknowledging our joyous interdependence?

When we set the money-making aside, we tend to take pretty good care of each other.

Money and Anti-Inflation

Lastly, this one is a response on a Facebook discussion to a question about value reference currencies.

One of the primary applications of money is as a MEASURE of value. All other measures have a reference standard which define them. That is why we don't worry about inflation or deflation of meters, inches, liters and grams every year.

By pegging a monetary currency to some standard (whether a sophisticated basket of commodities like the TerraTRC or an everyday commodity like an egg or loaf of bread) we can eliminate one of the vagaries of today's fiat currencies (value fluctuation). This is the primary reason that so many people (Austrian School of Economics and more) want a gold standard.

However, there is a difference between requiring that money actually be backed by a scarce commodity and pegging a currency to a value reference. Just because there is an official meter rod kept in a controlled environment in a laboratory, doesn't mean that you can trade your own meter stick in for it.

When we make a shift toward currency models designed for sufficiency instead of scarcity which don't vary drastically in supply, then currencies can be pegged in practice to eggs without having to actually be redeemed for them. (e.g. mutual credit systems which always have a net zero units in circulation yet the "supply" expands or contracts based on demand as we extend credit to each other).

Specifically to your original question, I find it difficult to believe that corporations will use actual Terra because of its demurrage aspect. You could write an international contract and use Terra as a value reference without ever needing to be in possession of a basket of commodities which is decreasing in value. I think that approach may have greater chances of success in being adopted.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Portland Pursues an Open Platform

Very exciting news from Portland, OR! City Hall has declared interest in building an "open platform" to enable multiple different currency efforts. In the last week three currency related efforts (CEN|PDX, The MotiveSpace Coalition, and the PDX Timebank) have collaborated in drafting a document that defines some basic requirements for such a platform. The city hasn't agreed to these requests yet, but they want to know more. I will most likely be meeting with them next week to discuss it further.

However, even if the city doesn't end up supporting this effort financially, I believe this is still a significant step forward. These three efforts have very different missions and currency designs. And, despite these differences, all have recognized the potential in having a common, open platform upon which to build their systems.

While this specific effort is currently in Portland, I see no reason for it to be limited to any geographic area. I would like to see these basic requirements endorsed by a wide variety of currency efforts around the world, so we can build a strong use case for this approach. Currencies (in the broader sense of currencies) will be stronger when they exist in a global context interlinked in a rich ecosystem of processes rather than as stand alone clubs.

What follows is the text of our document. Please feel free to express support in the comments section if you think this approach would be useful to you.

The Challenge:

Dozens of groups around Portland, including CEN|PDX, the MotiveSpace Coalition, and the PDX Timebank, are developing innovative programs which measure and mobilize resources and capital. We refer to strategies, systems, or programs such as these as "wealth building processes" - that is, as innovative new processes which track the creation and exchange of value, within a specific community of users.

Examples of wealth building processes:

  • Buyer loyalty programs (such as choose local programs, point systems, rebate systems, etc.),
  • Reputation systems (such as user reviews, consumer ratings, etc),
  • Exchange systems (such as commercial barter, CEN|PDX, Time-banking),
  • Asset sharing systems (bike sharing, tool library, car sharing, office space sharing),
  • Cooperative asset building programs (such as MotiveSpace's Community Asset Funds program).
Each of these processes track flows of economic activity, and structure incentives which reward community friendly behavior. One of the largest costs common to all of these processes, is the development of a robust, secure, and user-friendly information infrastructure which enables their programs, and maximizes their reach.


To create public infrastructure (a Community Wealth Building Platform) for the city of Portland that reduces the technical costs for groups developing wealth building processes, and allows groups to easily interact with one another in a rich ecosystem of processes. We believe the city of Portland can leverage its interest in creating an open platform to the benefit of numerous groups by embracing the requirements outlined below.


  1. The Community Wealth Building Platform must be able to address the specific requirements of existing initiatives such as CEN|PDX, MotiveSpace, PDX Timebank, and others.
  2. It must minimize the cost of adoption by participants, in particular merchants and end-users, which implies leveraging mobile phone, POS payment, and web infrastructures.
  3. Beyond its initial development costs, the Community Wealth Building Platform should look to its own community of users for its administration and maintenance costs.

Basic Requirements:

  • Accessibility: An "open" platform is one where the means by which wealth building processes are created and transacted in are open to all, and not contingent upon participation in any given program. Any organization or individual wishing to devise and track a wealth-building process must have equal access to all Community Wealth Building Platform user interaction interfaces. These interfaces may include but are not limited to, magnetic swipe cards, smart cards, SMS, web interface, and RFID chips. Community buy-in will be leveraged by engaging a broad swath of groups.
  • Configurability: An Community Wealth Building Platform must encourage the creation of new wealth building processes rather than predefine the scope of what is possible. A wealth creation process should be defined by the types of accounts within it, and the relationships and interactions that are possible between those accounts. In the interests of making this platform as easy to use as possible, predefined options should be available, but users wanting to innovate must not be limited by them.
  • Skinability: Not every group will share intent, style, or values. It is therefore paramount that this platform allow groups to brand their use of it however they like, without forced association with other groups.
  • Integratability: Data generated with these wealth building processes should be able to be seamlessly integrated into existing portals.
  • Openness: In addition, the platform itself must be able to evolve to suit the needs of its users so that it can stay relevant in the long run. Making the platform open source and creating open APIs for third party innovation are key to realizing this goal.
  • Organic Cross-Referencing: In order to build the richest possible ecosystem, wealth building processes should be enabled for cross-referencing. In other words, groups or individuals should be able to build wealth-building processes on top of other wealth building processes through reference. For instance, one group’s reputation system measuring a business's performance in sustainability might effect the credit limit of that business in an unaffiliated commercial barter system. Users and groups can choose whether or not and how much of their data to make open. By allowing the users to define the way wealth building processes interact, a rich fabric of interrelated wealth building tools can emerge.
  • Group-specific authentication schemes: Access to the Community Wealth Building Platform should not be contingent upon hard authentication. Rather, authentication should be defined by the groups who use the platform. For instance, a user may be required to give their SS# or EIN# to participate in a commercial barter network, but not have the same requirement for joining a loyalty program or time-bank.
  • Integrated Marketplace Connector: Groups will have specific needs for enabling their marketplaces. For instance, a marketplace for a tool library will have different needs from CEN|PDX. However, these marketplaces should be connected using standard formats whenever possible. This would allow search between marketplaces. An API for third-party developers would allow data to be filtered in a variety of ways. The level to which an offer or request is open to the public should be up to the users.
  • Privacy levels: Data in the system should be able to be restricted to people who are participating in a specific process, or made be open for all to see. Choices about the openness of data should be left to the users and groups. Groups should be able to define multiple layers of privacy specific to their needs.
  • Dollar Cost to Users: Access to the platform should not be contingent upon a fee structure. Individual wealth building processes may have pay-per-use structures, but the platform itself must be entirely free and open to both users and innovators.
  • Maintenance and Administration: The Community Wealth Building Platform provides multiple avenues by which to remunerate administration, and maintenance of the platform. Contributors to the platform should be incentivized using the same processes the platform enables.
  • Distributed Architecture: The Community Wealth Building Platform should be resilient, in that if a single server crashes, this wouldn't affect other servers or the ability to interact within the system as a whole. Similarly it should be easy to add new technologies (POS, 3rd party add-ons, etc) to the platform without affecting other portions of the platform.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


This post is part two of a four part series about OPEN CURRENCIES. In part one, I talked about the need for an "open transport network." For the purposes of this post I will assume that as a base.

So what happens after we have a transport network in which any currency is allowed to make transactions? That sounds great, but as we all know there are countless different types of currency. How can we make sure the transport network knows how to deal with them all?


Before getting into how a transport network could interact with rules, I want to make an assertion. On this blog, we define currencies as "
formal information systems that allow communities to interact with flows." Doesn't that sound a little like "keeping score?" When we keep score, we measure a flow of something that happened in a game. We then base our game play on the record of those flows. With this in mind, we make the assertion that the rules that define a currency share a deep structure with the rules that define a game. A currency is a game we play together to build wealth (thanks Eric for that insight). Our community decides to count things in certain ways that make visible the things that our community values. From this point of view, monetary currencies make up only a tiny part of the currency spectrum (thanks Art for that analogy). The currency spectrum includes everything from voting, grades, diplomas, Fair Trade Certified badges, movie tickets, etc.

So why go into a rant about the expanded definition of currency here? Because, what really makes all these currencies interesting is how they interact. My credit score tells the bank how much and under what terms to lend me money. Two currencies interacting in a formal structure. So let's consider this in the light of OPEN.

The first aspect of OPEN RULES is that the users should know the rules of the games they are playing. Do you know how your credit score is calculated? I don't. I didn't agree to that game, and I don't even know the rules. In fact, how could I legitimately consent to play a game, unless I knew the rules?

Consider this: there are two types of games. One is where knowledge of the rules is not expert knowledge, and mastery comes from understanding the patterns of the game. Chess is one such example. The rules are pretty simple, but mastery is not. The other type is when the rules of the game become so complicated that mastery of the game is synonymous with mastery of the rules. Are these fun or even fair games? This how bankers (and lawyers) gain their power. They know more about the rules than the rest of us.

So, the first part of OPEN RULES is the premise that in order for people to legitimately consent to be part of any social game (or currency), the rules must be readily available and relatively easy to understand (not in legalese).


Let's return to the analogy of chess. Chess did not always have the same rules. In fact, it has been evolving in stages since the 6th century. It wasn't until the late 15th century that the rules of chess, as we know them today, came into being. Consider how this evolution happened. Did a monarch decree that all chess must be played a certain way? No. Did an official "chess committee" form, research the best possible rules, and then impose them on the rest of us? Clearly not. Instead, the players themselves were constantly experimenting with new rules, and sometimes these experiments caught on because they made the game more fun. Chess has open rules. I am free to use a chess board and make up any rules I like. If enough people like my new rules, they will play the game that way. The game of chess is still evolving to this day. Check out these modern experiments: four-player chess, 3d chess

Currencies need to be able to evolve in the same way: not controlled from a central committee, but emerging from the creativity of the users. Open source software allows programmers to "fork" a piece of software if they want to change something. If the changes are liked by the community of users, they are adopted. Open Rules in a currency allow users to "fork" a currency in the same way. If I don't like the rules of a given currency, I can start a new currency with rules I do like and invite others to play with me. If those rules allow us to build more wealth, they will catch on in the same way that new rules of chess caught on. It might also be the case that the currency evolves to fit two separate niches, and that's fine too. There will be an endless variety of currencies that fill specific niches.

Another reason why Open Transport is paramount is to ensure that new experiments aren't excluded. But how can an Open Transport network accommodate an endless stream of new rule sets? There clearly needs to be a standard (and extensible) language in which we can express rules. This is analogous to HTTP and HTML. HTTP transports resources, and HTML is the language browsers understand that tells them how to display resources. We need a "currency browser" that gives users the ability to play in any type of game they choose. This "browser" or client, could live on a cellphone or a computer, but wherever it was, it could interact with other clients. Think about it, I can use my iPhone to post a picture to Facebook, and Firefox on my laptop allows me to see the picture later.

This language for expressing currency must not be owned by anyone. It must be completely open to all, so evolution in the language itself can proceed in the same way as evolution in the currencies that are expressed within it.

The MetaCurrency project is germinating just such a language. For more information click here.

In short, we believe allowing people to self-determine when generating, choosing, and adapting rule sets will unleash an unprecedented wave of social creativity. We clearly need new and creative approaches to counting, valuing, and exchanging resources if we are to solve 21st century problems. We must not shoot ourselves in the foot by making closed rules that don't allow for evolution. The "complementary currency" community must not make the mistake of turning itself into a specialized class who exclude new approaches from closed systems. We need to let in any and all rule sets and trust that durable solutions will emerge over time. We need OPEN CURRENCY NOW!

To be continued...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


What exactly is entailed with making currencies open? It turns out, quite a bit more than simply making currency accounting software open source. In order to understand what makes a currency truly open, we may need to let go of some preconceptions about currency design and implementation.

First, what do we mean by “open?” Open refers to a common space that cannot be enclosed by any individual, organization, or government. A common space is owned by all, regardless of nationality, affiliation, employment, or ideology. A common space may refer to something tangible, such as air, or something intangible, such as knowledge. Free speech could be thought of as an "idea commons." In other words, a commons is a space which, by definition, is not enclosed or controlled.

We assert that the “currency commons” refers to the capacity that communities have to agree on how to measure and interact with flows of resources that matter to them. We also assert that the right of groups of people to agree on how to measure what they care about is as inalienable as the right to free speech. However, without intending to, most currency projects end up enclosing this space in some way. What follows is a four part piece on how we can have truly OPEN CURRENCIES.
Thanks Eric Harris-Braun, Arthur Brock, and Michael LInton for the solid education in these matters!


Let's assume that all currencies are formal structures for gathering / sharing information about flows of resources. What those flows are, how they are measured, and what we do with that information are the rules that define the currency. For example, a twenty dollar bill encapsulates the information that the bearer is entitled to twenty dollars worth of goods or services from any vendor in the United States (presumably because the bearer provided a good or service worth twenty dollars to someone else). The paper note simply transports this information. The same information could be transported by a check or a card reader. The information is what counts; having twenty dollars means something. What it means is, of course, dependent on the rules that make up the USD.

We frequently forget to differentiate between how we transport (or transact in) a currency, and the rules of a currency. For example, there is NO differentiation in the case of the twenty dollar bill. The paper transports information which is generated under the USD rule set. It would be impossible to instead transport another currency generated under different rules on that piece of paper. The transport medium necessarily includes a specific rule set.

Now, consider the bank's funds transfer network. You can’t use it to transfer time-dollars, because US dollars are the only currency allowed in the network. In fact, how the Fed defines who has access to the transport network is synonymous with the definition of the dollar. If you want access to the transport network, you HAVE to agree to their particular set of rules. Therefore, the currency is CLOSED.

Consider how detrimental this is for a second. I could opt out of the banking network, but to do so would mean I couldn't transact. If I want to retain the ability to transact, I have to play by their rules. The banks have made adherence to the USD rules a precondition for making transactions. They have me over a barrel by virtue of their currency’s monopoly of the transport network. I have no choice but to accept those rules if I want to make transactions using their network.

What's strange is that almost all community currency projects to date have done EXACTLY the same thing. Sure, I can find a well-intentioned time-bank run by a co-op or non-profit, but I can't use the time-banking network to transact in any currency other than that network's time-dollar. Sure, I can join a commercial barter network, but I can't use their point-of-sale readers to transact in any currency other than their trade credits. Inadvertently, we seem to have exactly duplicated the closed pattern of the USD.

In these closed community currencies, if I want the ability to make transactions, I MUST use the the currency for which the network was created. I cannot generate my own rules and invite others to play using the same transport network. I would have to invest the resources to build a completely new transport network if I wanted to transact in a new currency, and, for all but the most zealous, doing this is highly cost prohibitive.


In contrast, an OPEN transport network would allow transactions to be made in ANY currency. The rules of the currency would be SEPARATE from the ability to transact. I would be free to stop participating in a given currency if a new and better currency appeared on the transport network (or choose to participate in both). I would no longer be COERCED into adhering to a particular set of rules by virtue of needing a way to transact. I would be free to choose the rules that made sense to me, since access to the transport network is not in question.

I have been an active participant in the currency community now for four years (both as a documentary filmmaker and as a currency practitioner). I have been struck by how deeply the scarcity mentality is embedded in our community despite what we know about money. When I think about the fact that currency practitioners have to invest countless hours in implementing a network for ONE currency, it’s no wonder that they get contentious about what currency design is the best. They are putting their reputation and a whole lot of resources behind ONE idea, so they MUST convince people it works, sometimes even to the detriment of other perfectly viable currency designs. Add this to the fact that ~85% of currencies fail, and you have a pretty bleak picture scarcity-wise. What if we dropped the ideological arguments, and came together to create a truly OPEN TRANSPORT NETWORK where there was room for ALL types of designs? Wouldn’t we all gain? Wouldn’t we transcend the artificial scarcity of transport?

Right now, the most tangible manifestation of an open transport network is the wikiwikimoney project by the Twollars folks. Twitter is the transport network, and wikiwikimoney lets you track transactions in currencies you define. However, you can choose how to structure your currency (within limits) and what it is supposed to be for. Access to the transport network is not dependent on obeying the rules of A particular currency. For a more powerful taste of what’s to come check out THE METACURRENCY PROJECT.


We also need open data, open rules, and open identity, but those are discussions for another time. Stay tuned!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Blog Keywords by wordle

Wordle: New Currency Frontiers Blog Wordle: New Currency Frontiers Blog
I like some of the random phrases which emerge. They present a nice summary.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Open Letter to the folks at River HOURS

Today I received an email from the good folks at the Gorge Local Currency Cooperative in Hood River OR. They had just finished putting on a public screening of THE MONEY FIX in their community. Their currency, the RiverHOUR (modeled off of IthacaHOURS), is featured in THE MONEY FIX. For those of you who haven't seen the film, there is a clip of Francis Ayley (of Fourth Corner Exchange) criticizing the fact that these types of currencies have a central issuance, and as such may accidentally create scarcity. It seems that some members of the GLCC steering committee were concerned about the negative portrayal of their system.

I struggled with how to respond to this. I have the deepest respect for this group, and learned a great deal during the process of filming them. It was certainly not my intention to cut down any of their efforts, but rather to foster open and frank discussion about what sorts of social contracts (aka currency) people choose to live under. I believe the response I ended up writing might also be of value to the broader currency community, so in the spirit of openness, I am sharing it now:

"...There are several points to make here that might help illuminate my reason for putting in Francis Ayley's less-than-glowing critique of RiverHOURS. I offer these in the spirit of building towards what I am assuming is our shared goal of creating a space in which the dysfunction in our social body caused by the monetary system (and in particular artificial scarcity) might be collectively addressed and healed.

"I have observed that the currency community at large usually frames its discussions in terms of comparing the relative merits of different currency designs. This is, IMO, a very healthy thing to be discussing as long as it is within a broader context of embracing multiplicity. However, this debate usually takes place within an unconscious assumption that there is A single best alternative to FRDs. In other words, currency designers compete to create THE alternative to money. As a result, fierce ideological, and often less than friendly, competition emerges within the currency community.

"I believe that this competition emerges from the shared (and largely unquestioned) perception that there is a scarcity of early adopters, and that we in the currency world must compete for their attention. Sometimes there are several groups doing currency within a given community, and they enter into a competitive relationship for capturing "market share" (people willing to adopt a new form of currency). This type of competition leads to sectarianism and group-think where basic assumptions often go unchallenged and all involved systems stagnate. This, in turn, leads to what I call "mutually assured irrelevance." To put it simply, I have observed that the same fundamental assumptions about scarcity are often just as rampant inside the currency community as they are anywhere else.

"IMHO, one cannot replace a monoculture with a monoculture. One of the primary dysfunctions of our current system is that it discourages creativity. We get our money from THEM. THEY are the experts. THEY tell us what social contracts to live by. Replacing one THEM with another THEM is of no interest to me. I think it is fair to say that no one has figured out how to do currency on any kind of wide scale. The VAST overwhelming majority of currency systems quickly fail. It would be enormously misleading to pretend otherwise. Instead, I see new forms of currency as being in their infancy (perhaps akin to early aviators who were viewed by the general public at the time as doing something curious, but of no great value). Seen from this point of view, early plane designs were quickly shed in favor of THOUSANDS of more effective designs.

"So, to me, rather than using THE MONEY FIX as a form of advertisement, which attempts to hide the dysfunction of most of these early systems, I revamped the film with the goal of inspiring people to imagine new forms of collective social agreements (aka money). I believe we in the currency community can no longer afford to be committed to AN alternative or A particular design. Instead, I see our role as supporting the emergence of THOUSANDS of new designs that will form healthy ecosystems as they interact.

"Why have an assumption about the scarcity of people willing to adopt new ideas? We use credit cards, frequent flyer miles, movie tickets, bridge tokens and hundreds of other forms of currency every day without even noticing. I don't see why community currencies should be any different unless they are couched in ideologically off-putting rhetoric. From the context of multiplicity, negative critiques of a given design are no problem at all, but rather help foster the emergence of better designs.

"For an expanded discussion on this point I recommend you read this blog post:

"I put in the remark about RiverHOURS because statistically, systems patterned after IthacaHOURS don't tend to last that long. RiverHOURS seems to be one of the most successful of this kind in the world (which is a testament to the awesomeness of all of you). However, systems based on mutual credit have had a higher success rate (although also quite low), so I wanted to encourage people in the direction most likely to succeed based on the data we have so far. That having been said, I believe systems based on mutual credit are not the be all and end all. I am actually most interested these days in currencies designed to foster scalar gift economies such as has been exhibited on Wikipedia (but that is a whole other discussion).

"But rather than be drawn into a debate about the relative merits therein, I would invite everyone (HOURS based, and mutual-credit based alike) to drop the notion that there is AN approach, and embrace the fact that there can and should be MANY approaches to building healthy social agreement structures for exchange within the communities that they serve. As currency practitioners, I believe it is our job to support the empowered collective emergence of AS MANY AS WE WANT OR NEED..."

I go on to say that I hope that THE MONEY FIX can be part of fostering an ongoing conversation within any and all communities as they look towards adopting new social agreements that allow them to build wealth together. It seems to me that the conversation about multiplicity is one that is long overdue in the broader currency community.