Re-Designing Money

An article in The Mint originally published on 2/4/19
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When someone tells you not to re-invent the wheel they mean you are wasting your time. Admittedly, as a design philosopher, my concept of money will seem, at best, eccentric. My thoughts about money came from trying to understand how a leader can promote a policy that will cause so much collective self-harm that their own children will be affected. In thinking about these complex matters I wondered whether the fundamental nature of money might be unsuited to our cognitive capacities, as humans.

16 year-old environmental champion, Greta Thunberg's recent speeches about “sacrificing priceless values” remind us that mainstream economics has persuaded some of us that money is more important than nature. For example, although the Bank of England's primary duty is the long-term security of the UK, it declines to halt its fossil fuels investments. Apparently, money is merely a medium of exchange, a unit of account, a store of value, or a way to defer payment. To a non-expert, these definitions raise as many questions as they answer. For example, what is a unit? Where and when, exactly, does value exist? How is it that our fear of distorting financial markets can override the existential threat of climate change?

It is not my place to offer a perspective on economics. From what I understand, unlike barter, money works without a double coincidence of wants. It can also catalyse endeavours that might otherwise be lost to collective pessimism, or to natural calamity. However, in my view, it also dissipates willingness by converting goodwill into numerical codes that are profoundly inert and forgetful. Hence, the monetisation of the sharing economy and the digitisation of the charity sector are both minimising face-to-face collaboration. Money has enabled us to glimpse paradise, but it has also helped to shape the Anthropocene era. This is because it was designed to help us to live beyond our intellectual and emotional means.

Five million years ago, some of our human ancestors parted company with their chimpanzee cousins. Look at us now. We are so clever that we have permanently changed the Earth's climate and killed half of its wildlife. My design brief is simple. I want to re-invent money as an attractor to local, convivial lifestyles. Although the word convivial came from the old Roman idea of feasting, celebration and social inclusion it also implies the more ecological notion of life forms supporting one another. This notion seems to resonate in non-western contexts, where Chinese terms, such as guanxi (關係) or wu wei (無爲); Korean words such as jeong (정); and the African word, ubuntu, all, in similar ways, describing the presence of informal, tightly-bounded interpersonal ties that enable local networks to collaborate and survive.

Whereas chimpanzees live in groups of up to thirty, humans can sustain convivial relationships of up to one hundred and fifty. Some researchers exploring the reciprocal grooming habits of bonobos have described it as a kind of currency exchange. This seems to reveal a rather technocentric viewpoint. Grooming has a complex regulatory social purpose that rewards participants immediately and directly. Money is so simple that even monkeys can use it, but its indirect nature reduces its potential for conviviality. Whereas monkeys love to spend it on berries and sex, some humans spend their time acquiring more zeros than anyone else.

Perhaps our fascination with money derives from its unfathomable simplicity. All of us are bemused by large numbers and we confuse quantities with qualities. We allow money to trickle-up, instead of down, because economists assure us they understand the black hole that is its destination. According to Oxfam (2017), just eight billionaires own half of the world’s wealth. Unfortunately, someone is airbrushing externalities from the big picture. We also love the narcissists who corner financial markets and hold the world to ransom. The weird thing is that most of them are making money by manipulating money. Recently, we are beginning to understand how dopamine in the brain is sustaining individual habits, such as trading.

Actually, the biggest elephant in the room is upscaling. Indeed, it was money’s original raison d’être. After the last Ice Age, greater productivity in food production allowed hunter-gatherer communities to grow. Five or six thousand years later, emperors issued promissory notes that enabled soldiers to travel beyond friendly territories. Fiat money emerged as a tool of tools for managing armies and colonies. By instructing legislators and accountants how to manage payments, tributes and spoils, imperial authorities were able to exercise power at a distance. Today, the same crude implement allows ordinary citizens to build, alter, acquire and despatch things without touching anything physically.

There was a downside to this approach. When we scale up teams or social groups we create managerial hierarchies. As growth continues, subsequent layers of management filter out more and more local knowledge. Sooner or later a greater dependency on rules means that accountability trumps responsibility. This de-sensitisation process leads to a net reduction in what I call organisational consciousness. Another way to explain this is to note that, within the affordances of money, allopoietic and autopoietic systems are incommensurable. Whereas living systems are unquantifiably unique and synergy-seeking, money is summative and devoid of local signifiers. As sociologist, Georg Simmel, put it, money's essential quality "consists exclusively in its quantity".

Although coins and tokens have been around for only four or five thousand years, the logic of accountancy is probably much older. After all, we have been extracting shiny stuff from the ground for three million years, so it is likely that our numeracy skills evolved along the way. Fashioning tools and weapons would have imbued some with a magical status, which explains the perennial appeal of monetary tokens. A few hundred thousand years ago, our brains expanded and we learned to re-map our collector habits onto numbers and categories. Simmel researched the habits of collectors, noting that “regardless of the amount, the liveliness of attached hopes gives money a glow”.

Maybe accountancy emerged from the mathematics of mining. After all, when minerals in the ground are sufficiently homogeneous and abundant, rigorous rules can apply. By reducing their complexity to a single (numerical) unequivocal dimension we can apportion and distribute it without controversy. However, the market value of the shares will increase with scarcity. When extraction costs rise to the market price of the product, a predictable path to depletion will render the venture uneconomic. Unlike the convivial, capricious and fragile world of living systems, this process will attract speculative endeavours that are too indirect to enrich its synergistic value.

The good news is that blockchain technologies can rescue us from this Stone Age thinking. Interestingly, some cryptocurrency developers still use anachronistic terms such as tokens, work, mining, and units. This is disappointing, as money needs to enhance conviviality. Where our mining and industrial mindset led us to shrink complexities into arbitrary standards, we now have the technology to survive in more localised and convivial ways that reduce the need for money. For example, media theorist, Stefan Heidenreich, has envisioned a non-monetary economy in which unwanted surpluses are matched with unmet needs.

It is hard to see how Heidenreich’s idea can fully replace money as we know it. Perhaps it would be like introducing more virtual accountants in more places. This would make externalities more visible and reveal new ways to (re)combine stranded assets. As architect, Richard Buckminster Fuller, pointed out, "...the people who let the sulphur go into the air are not in the sulphur business”. Perhaps, new forms of local money would help us to value “micro-diversities” that are only accessible at local levels. Such a system could be designed to catalyse a global synergy of “micro-synergies”.

To achieve this, we might need to replace the logic of things with one of relations. As this challenges the current mindset of data and ownership, it might take time to work. As long as our language tells us that the world is atomistic, we will see atoms everywhere. The first step is to acknowledge that things are always less abundant and valuable than the relationships that sustain them.

In 1730, pioneering economist, Richard Cantillon, coined the term, entrepreneur, which, in literal terms, invokes the relational idea of taking from between. However, we have yet to harness the full implications, as people tend to visualise relations in pairs, rather than in more complex configurations. Hence, although mediaeval tally sticks have been described as distributed ledgers, their design limits normal use to pairs of participants. Here, it is important to acknowledge that the duet is not a natural default mode for creativity.

Although the summative thought process can manage ratios, it overlooks the synergies within relationships (see box, Teamwork is non-summative). This is lost within the schools’ syllabus, which still poses questions, such as: if it takes two men half an hour to dig a hole, how many holes could they dig in two hours? This is distressing for some students, as they know that collaboration is neither rational, nor symmetrical. Although the commitment of both parties is needed to set up an effective duet, only one is needed to terminate it.

Teamwork Is Non-Summative

In a team of two, each member is responsible for 100% of all relations. Following the same relational logic, in a team of three, each team member is responsible for 66.6% of all relations. Likewise, in a team of four, each team member is responsible for 50% of all relations.

If we are to make money more synergistic we must reconcile two conflicting requirements. One is the desire to maximise the number of combination that might produce beneficial synergies. The second is to manage this creative process without getting flummoxed, as humans struggle to chunk information in clusters of more than four interdependent things. Physicist, Leonhard Euler's formula for polygons (1751) is useful, as it illustrates how an enterprising quartet has six times more potential for bringing value to stakeholders than an enterprising duet. (my TEDx talk explains this in more detail).
square-50cm-spacer.jpg JW Mint 2019 Fig 1 Small
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Fig. 1. Euler's conclusion derived from geometrical figures

Whereas the genre of invention is represented by the 'duet' (one-dimensional) model in figure 1, we can design money to as a ledger system using the quartet model as a default mode. It would attracts bids from would-be members of the quartet. The aim of an enterprise quartet would be to achieve at least six beneficial outcomes (see below).

square-50cm-spacer.jpg JW Mint 2019 Fig 2 Small

square-50cm-spacer.jpg Fig. 2. Euler's formula can be illustrated by asking four participants how many clinks their glasses will make

square-50cm-spacer.jpg JW Mint 2019 Fig 3 Small

Fig. 3. A set relational synergies (inspired by John Ruskin's 1885 description of a craft-worker)

John Ruskin's description of relations shows there to be multiple stakeholder and benefits that is similar to my four-fold model of synergies (see figure 3).


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