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.

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