Whuffie, currency and the 'ready-fire-aim' syndrome
The first thread started with a very necessary attempt to distinguish between social-capital and reputation-based ‘currencies’ such as Cory Doctorow’s imaginary ‘Whuffie‘ (as described in his sci-fi novel “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” – the ‘magic kingdom’ being Disneyland, of course 🙂 ). The key distinction that Venessa drew – and I think she’s right – is that social-capital is collective, a ‘network effect’ of the social context, whereas reputation is an attribute within the frame of that social-network, typically attached or attributed to the individual: in other words, they’re not the same, and should definitely not be treated as being the same.
This lead to the second thread, about ‘the future of money’, because much of the discussion in the ‘Whuffie’ thread was about the supposed need for some kind of ‘alternative currency’. (Clearly some people in the thread had hoped that ‘Whuffie’ would be it, but despite the efforts of well-meant initiatives such as The Whuffie Bank, it became evident quite quickly that it wouldn’t and couldn’t work in a ‘currency-like’ way.) There was – and at present, still is – a lot of discussion about various ‘currency-like’ proposals, such as TimeBanks, ITEX cashless payment, ‘Quids’ alternate-currency, and so on.
But what I found immensely frustrating was that almost none of them were thinking in true economic terms – and I wasn’t very popular for pointing out this unfortunate fact. Instead of enquiring what an economy is, what it needs to do, what purpose it serves, and so on – what would seem to be essential first-principles concerns about the context – they’d all assumed automatically, without question, that some kind of currency was ‘the answer’, and hence rushed off to create it. In other words, exactly the same mistake as far too many IT-folks: “here’s the solution – how can we force your problem to fit it?”
Ready? Fire!!! … aim…?
Yeah… really frustrating…
No-one with any sense would doubt that there are serious problems with the present ‘money-economy’ – not so much ‘serious problems’ as ‘close to catastrophic failure’, in fact. Everyone in that conversation recognised this – which is why they were pushing so hard for alternatives. But the catch was that none of the alternatives actually resolved the core reasons why a money-economy won’t work; most of the proposed ‘solutions’ not only replicated those problems, but actually made some of them worse. What was so frustrating was that in each case it took no more than a couple of minutes’ analysis not only to show that it wouldn’t work, but why it wouldn’t work. Yet no-one, it seemed, wanted to hear this: instead, off they want, charging off down their respective blind-alleys in the blind certainty that they’d found ‘the solution’.
What’s wrong with money, then? Short answer is: a lot. To give just a few examples:
- It only deals with point-to-point transactions, not network-effects – especially at a societal level.
- It’s designed to work with ‘alienable’ physical objects, but now no longer has any actual anchor in the real world – instead, we have literally trillions of supposed ‘money’ in imaginary ‘derivatives’ sloshing around the globe.
- It’s very easy to ‘game’ via artificially-constructed price/value mismatches.
- The implied ‘gravitation’ structure of money-based capital means that it tends to create ‘winner-takes-all’ accumulations – exacerbating social imbalances, often in the extreme, requiring separate action to try to redress the balance.
- Attempts to link ‘intellectual property’ into the money-system have resulted in a system which purports to match finite ‘alienable’ entities (physical ‘things’) with potentially-infinite ‘non-alienable’ entities (information) – which by definition cannot balance.
- Many organisations – particularly banks – are legally ‘entitled’ to invent money from nowhere, in effect assigning themselves an ever-increasing share of the society’s resources.
- A currency, by definition, relies on trust in the institutions that manage that currency, which in this case is the banks – yet much of that trust has been lost, and at present remains at an all-time low (hence the strong societal interest in options for ‘alternative currencies’).
- There are no built-in mechanisms to manage assignment of resources to those ‘outside’ of the monetary exchange-system (particularly children, parents, elderly, disabled and their carers, but also artists, scientists, thinkers, futurists, ‘creatives’ of any kind) – these stakeholders can only be served by ‘external’ mechanisms such as taxation (which are clunky and kludge-ridden at best), or by forcing them to do work within the money-economy (which means that their actual needed work can no longer be done).
- There is a very strong tendency towards short-termism.
- There is a very strong tendency to try to force everything into a crude, ludicrously-simplistic ‘double-entry life-keeping’.
- There is a very strong tendency to assume that ‘value’ exists only in monetary terms, as ‘valuations’ of ‘resources’ – hence, for example, a forest supposedly has no value until it is cut down, a mountain has no value until mined for its minerals, and so on.
- There is a very strong tendency to assume that anything which cannot be counted and ‘valued’ in monetary terms either does not matter or does not exist.
The societal impacts of these problems are rapidly approaching catastrophic levels. Yet none of the proposed ‘alternative currencies’ tackle more than a minute fraction of that list: most offer at best a localised kludge that might address a couple of issues whilst creating several more.
Let’s be blunt about this: the present system does not work. It actually never has – and that’s not surprising, because it was only ever intended to deal with point-to-point ‘trade’-transactions between fairly large groups (tribes, communities etc), hence it’s bit unfair to expect it to be able to run the entirety of an economy. But to create something that does work, we do need to go right back up to the level of the entire economy, and work our way back down from there. Which, yes, might – might – include some kind of ‘currency’ to tackle specific types of transactions: but not as the core of the economy itself.
This is actually no different from any other whole-of-enterprise architecture. (The only distinction is that it’s an ‘enterprise’ at the scale of an entire society, but that’s all.) So we would use the same overall approach:
- Who (and/or what) are the stakeholders in this enterprise?
- What are the core values? What is ‘value’ in this context? What is valued, and by whom? In other words, what determines ‘appropriate’ in this enterprise?
- What are the assets, functions, locations, events, capabilities and decisions within this enterprise? – in other words, the resources of the enterprise that need to be managed, distributed, shared and used in the most appropriate manner.
- What are the value-propositions that this enterprise needs to offer to and with its stakeholders?
- What mechanisms and responsibilities would be needed to create, deliver and monitor those value-propositions?
- What governance would be needed to ensure that all activities within the enterprise are optimised to be ‘on purpose’?
- …and so on.
To me, every attempt at a currency will inherently fail because it cannot take network-effects into account: by its nature, a currency is a mechanism for governance of point-to-point transactions, without any direct means to link to whole-of-system impacts. So I honestly believe that all of these attempts at ‘alternative currencies’ are a waste of time: we should be far better served by putting the same effort into understanding how an economy actually works.
And the key to that, to my mind, comes down to perhaps the scariest fact of all: there are no rights. ‘Rights’ are a social fiction; but the mutual, interlocking responsibilities that underpin those purported ‘rights’ are a social reality. If we want those purported ‘rights’, where we need to start is with creating a better understanding the ways in which those real responsibilities need to interlock: a focus on ‘rights’, like a focus on ‘currency’, is at best an unhelpful distraction from this requirement.
Where this gets gets scarier still is that our entire present economic model is based on a concept of ‘right of possession’ – hence a ‘right to personal property’. But there are no rights: only responsibilities are real. And in a network, there is no ‘personal’: only the network is real. Right at the fundamentals of economics, ‘personal property’ is just another fiction – and a very dangerous fiction at that. Yet personal responsibilities for societal resources – the appropriate management, maintenance and use of those resources – are real. And as with ‘rights’, those interlocking responsibilities result in something that looks almost exactly the same as ‘personal property’ – but we now know how we get there, via those responsibilities.
If we turn it this way round, we end up with something that looks very similar to what we have at present: but it resolves all of the structural flaws of a ‘money-type’ economy, and we also know exactly how we get there.
Once we know that that’s what we need to aim for, then we can start talking about ‘intermediate currencies’ and the rest, as part of a transitional ‘roadmap’ towards that more workable model. But those ‘alternative currencies’ are only an intermediate step, and we don’t start from there.
That’s what would change these sad attempts at ‘Ready? Fire! Aim…’ into a more viable ‘Ready? Aim? Fire!’ – and rekindle the fire in our social economy.