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.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Cluetrain Question

In honor of the 10th anniversary of the cluetrain manifesto I'd like to pose a question:

If markets are conversations what language do we speak in them?

We've all heard the phrase "money talks," and despite all 95 tenets of the manifesto that are all about the things we want to say to businesses and hear from them (i.e. the conversations we want to have) it seems to me that by far the loudest voice in the market is still money's. I think that reason for this, is that more and more, the players in the marketplace are not people, they are social organisms. People speak human languages, like English, but corporations and other social organisms do not. We think they do, because we experience ourselves talking to customer support representatives, and sales people, and so on in our everyday human languages. But the social organism itself does not speak our language. It does, however, speak "money." It may be funny to express it that way, but I think that that's actually the accurate syntactic place to put money in a sentence, i.e. anywhere you could put in the word English, or German, or Spanish, when the speaker or listener is a social organism.

Money isn't the only language social organism speak, just as we humans don't just communicate with spoken language. Both types of organisms, social and biological, have evolved many different expressive capacities. Humans have a quite a range of emotional, and physical, phenomenal, etc. expressive capacities with which to communicate with other members of our species, and even with other species. But for us to communicate with social organisms, and they to us, the largest channel is the formal information token systems that encode the social agreements that bring social organisms into being in the first place. We've actually created a huge range of such tokens (besides the monetary ones we are used to): passports, grades, credits, degrees, coupons, airline-miles, tickets, stamps, green-cards, licenses of all sorts, olympic medals, boy scout badges, taxi medallions, permits, buy-ten-get-one-free cards, and so on. All of these things are utterances of the social organisms in which we are embedded. In all cases these utterances are in some way related to the flows that constitute the social organism itself. These tokens systems are about making those flows visible, and about shaping them by creating incentives.

The full promise of the cluetrain manifesto will only come into being when the underlying patterns and structures of all of these different types of utterances are understood and unified into a new expressive capacity. Right now the social organism is like a primitive creature that makes one-off memorized statements about things that matter to it. The promise of a market in which we as humans can have meaningful conversation with the social organisms that share the market with us depends on evolving that expressive capacity of social organisms into something that is much more like a language, where we understand how to create sentences and paragraphs that enable us to more deeply shape the flows that constitute the social being. Though the social organism doesn't understand English, we can understand this new expressive capacity, perhaps not in its entirety, but certainly in how it affects us in our own corner as a part of the social organism. That's the whole point of it.

My hope is not that protocols of the meta-currency project is such a language--it's not--but rather that the meta-currency protocols will provide things at a more lowly linguistic level, i.e. like a parts of speech, or maybe the idea of punctuation or things on that level. The "language" itself will only arise once we start making lots and lots of currencies and learning really how start using them to build the flows that will make us thrive as a social organism. Then, I think, the vocabulary and syntax of that language will emerge. The vocabulary might be entire currency types, and the syntax might be recognized natural patterns of how to join together different currencies that are targeted at shaping particular kinds of flows. And then the actual sentences in that language, the actual expressions in the expressive capacity, will be when we use those grouped currencies to actually solve the flow problems we need to solve, to limit the flow of CO2 into the atmosphere, to sustainably be able extract flows of fish from the ocean or add flows of nutrients into the farmlands that grow our crops, or manage the flows of people in and out of cities, children through education systems, etc. etc.

So thanks to the cluetrain for the conversations. And here's to the emergence of the new expressive capacities that will allow us to really have them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Another Level of Wealth

The name of this blog evokes a feeling of pioneers seeing a new landscape for the first time. This is appropriate because the currency landscape that is coming into view from over the horizon is indeed completely new, but a big part of pioneering is not just about discovering the new, but also in discovering that the familiar itself is also subject to being re-seen. The light of such re-seeing yields much of the newness the new currency frontier.

Wealth, is one of these familiar concepts that I've been re-seeing over and over again and have recently seen yet another part of that I'd like to share in this post.

A few years back, Jean-Francois Noubel introduced me to the idea that there are three levels of wealth: tradable wealth, which is a subset of measurable wealth, which is itself a subset of acknowledgeable wealth. If you assume the simple definition that wealth is well-being, then these levels are readily apparent: 1) There is tradable stuff I need to maintain my well-being, things like food & shelter. 2) There is non-tradable stuff (which is however objectively measurable) which accounts for a large part of my well-being, things like health, and education, productive capacity, etc. 3) There is non-tradable and non-measurable stuff (which is however subjectively acknowledgeable) which also accounts for equally large portions of my well-being: my friendships, the beauty I experience, civil society and culture, etc.

In thinking about what's behind these level, what makes it so that they exist, what occurred to me is that these levels arise out of some very simple truths about systems. This understanding, this re-seeing of wealth, from a systemic perspective, was crucial for me to be able to put together and actually understand what I was seeing in the emerging currency landscape. I first wrote of this here: but I'll summarize it again:

Systems have boundaries through which inputs to the system and outputs from the system must pass in order for the system to be able to maintain itself. Systemic well-being depends on maintaining a flow these inputs and outputs. Tradable wealth corresponds with this aspect of systems. In living biological systems, the food and water are two of the most essential inputs to the system. For cities as systems, the inputs include raw resources for building it's structures. For corporations as a system, humans are part of the inputs necessary for survival.

Systems also have emergent patterns that are properties of the system as a whole. In biological systems one of the most familiar such emergent patterns is health. Health is not something you put into a system, it's something that emerges as a property of the whole. We can objectively measure health in many ways, i.e. how well can the system perform certain functions (can you run 1 or 10 miles), how much abuse of certain types can the system withstand (how often do you get colds, i.e. how often do you fail to repel invading viruses), etc. For cities and corporations as systems we can measure things like productive capacity. These systemic properties are one of the major indicators of the well-being of the system. All systems work very hard to do things that help maintain and strengthen these patterns, in fact you can think of the inputs and outputs to systems all being in service of maintaining these emergent patterns.

Systems never exist in a vacuum. They are always part of an environment and they exist in relation to other systems in that environment. The pattern of those relationships is also part of the well-being of any particular system. The quality and beneficiality of those relationship to a system will vary from system to system. There is no objective measurement of the well-being of the pattern of relationships, rather it is system specific, or we could say that it is a subjective experience of a given system. But systems can certainly acknowledge, and in many cases even rank the qualities of these relationships from their point of view. We are intuitively familiar with this: we can acknowledge and even rank our friendships, our experiences of beauty, etc.

So, the levels of wealth correspond with these basics of systemics. Tradable wealth is about system's inputs and outputs. Measurable wealth is about the properties of systems as a whole. Acknowledgeable (and rank-able) wealth is about relationships between systems. True wealth exists when all of these levels of systems are in harmony. None is primary over the other. It is interesting to note out have direct experiences of systems that have differing wealth at each of the levels. Many well "wealthy" people who travel to poor countries to do service projects come back astounded having learned of their own poverty of relationships after experiencing levels and qualities of community richness. This a case of a deep mismatch between tradable and acknowledgeable wealth.

This re-seeing of wealth allowed me to more deeply understand the currency landscape. Currency is the primary tool we use to facilitate wealth building in general. Whereas money is a specific version of this tool we invented to facility tradable wealth-building. But we've been trying to apply it to building measurable and acknowledgeable wealth. There are deep problems in trying to do so. The properties of money as we know it now, are keyed (more or less successfully) to the properties of inputs and outputs to systems. What ever you want to say about debt issuance of money, and the Federal Reserve, at least it is intelligible to think that it makes sense to match the scarcity of the information tokens to the scarcity of the stuff that the tokens facilitate in exchanging (inflation is a marker of a mismatch between them). But it is entirely unintelligible to think that you should use the same scarce information tokens to facility the building of non-scarce systemic properties like health and education. And the fact that we try to do so sheds light on why there is never enough money for health-care and education, to say nothing of the arts, and civic-society and all those other parts of our society that are about inter-systemic relationships themselves, rather than systemic inputs or outputs.

This re-seeing is also what led me to understand the fundamental importance of the multi-currency universe. Even though there are clear discontinuities between the different levels of wealth, there are also many many shades of gray within and between them. Relational wealth goes from clearly rank-able (as in friendships) to only acknowledgeable (as in love). Tradable wealth comes in many different types, as in material stuff of varying scarcity, and time, which is scarce but all of us have the same amount of it. We need specific tools geared to building wealth at each of these shades, and more importantly in coordination with each other. I.e. related currency complexes that simultaneously allow for trade, measurement, ranking and acknowledgment so that we can build integrated wealth. Once again: understanding wealth in this new way has thus allowed me to deeply see how money is just an example of the greater pattern of currency, which are the tools we use to build wealth at all levels.

So all of this I've understood for a while, and is what led me to building the Meta-Currency project as an embodiment of a platform for creating such integrated wealth building tools. But in a conversation with Arthur Brock last week, we had yet another re-seeing of wealth. A new level of wealth became apparent as part of further thinking about what seems true about systems in our universe.

It appears that our universe is set up so that new entire types and levels of systems are continuously emergent. Systems not only have inputs and outputs, have patterns that are properties of the system as a whole, and exist in relation to each other in an environment, but also, entirely new systems constantly emerge out of smaller systems. Atoms emerge as sub-atomics complexes, molecules emerge from as atom complexes, single-celled life emerges as molecular complexes, eukaryotes emerge as procaryote complexes, all the way up to societies emerging as cultural complexes which emerged from tribal complexes which emerged etc.

At any given moment in a systemic complex, there is possibility of the upward spiral of emergent systemic newness that will be beneficial to the whole of that systemic complex. Possible Wealth is thus the next level of wealth. So what is the currency of possible wealth? What helps facilitate the building of possible wealth? Elsewhere in this blog we've defined currencies as "formal information systems that allow communities to interact with currents or flows." So a currency that facilitates possible wealth should be one that is built to interact directly with all those flows that lead to emergence. But I'm pretty sure I haven't understood the ramifications of this, and that the currencies of possibility are still over the horizon. More newness to come!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Alan's done some great work putting together movies that describe the MetaCurrency project. Here they are for your delectation:

Introductory Video (with multilingual subtitles)

Thanks so much to all the contributors who have helped translate our video!

In more detail...

Open Transport

Open Rules

Open Data