Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Much soul, very emotion: Why I buy into the cult of Dogecoin

Please note: This piece was originally commissioned by the magazine MCD, and will be appearing in French in their December edition.

I use Dogecoin because I’m emotionally drawn to the dog. Unlike the distant, fossil-like Queen on the Pound banknote, the Shibu Inu is at once transcendent and approachable, self-contained but cuddly, looking into my eyes with a sideways glance, as if it just noticed me and is wondering whether I want to play or be left alone. It’s not an aggressive dog, or for that matter, a bouncy dog trying to lick me. It has self-directed, quirky soul, and it’s almost impossible to imagine this dog being an asshole.

Some people in the crypto-currency community have written Dogecoin off as a joke, or even a scam.  Maybe it’s both, but does this matter? All currency in the final analysis is really a scam, and the real question is which of those scams we want to agree to. I for one would rather pledge allegiance to a mystical pooch than to worship the image of a redundant monarch.

Indeed, Dogecoin, to me, is the best of all of the so-called ‘alt-coins’, the alternative crypto-currencies that have emerged as offshoots from the original Bitcoin source-code. Here is why.

Money isn’t ‘rational’

Run this question through your brain: Why did people invent pottery?

The response from many people is ‘because it must have been useful to store food and water’, an answer which chimes well with our prevailing rationalistic world view. Nevertheless, not only is the assumption that pottery was explicitly ‘invented’ problematic, but evidence suggests that it was originally used to create abstract religious figurines. The details of such archaeological debates don't matter here - what matters is to realise that we often have an automatic bias towards thinking about history in terms of what we're used to in the present.

Why do I bring this up? I do so because there is a similar problem among many economists who attempt to peddle ahistorical narratives about ‘why people invented money’. Their story normally involves people ‘rationally’ designing money as an alternative to ‘barter’. There is very little immediately rational about exchanging real goods for pieces of paper or shiny bits of metal though. Sure, once the social convention of monetary exchange is set up, it’s useful, but the imagined process in which bakers and butchers ‘invent’ money to deal with the awkwardness of exchanging meat for sourdough loaves is an attempt to reverse-engineer history from the perspective of present dogma.

Money is not an object that can be invented. It is a social convention that has to be culturally constructed. The use of monetary tokens only appears rational once we’re party to a collective agreement (or delusion) to imbue those tokens with value, and that collective agreement needs to be constantly maintained.

State power, local trust, meta-national mysticism and labour

In the case of our normal fiat currency, the collective agreement is given strength by the psychological (and real) force of official authorities. Most of our fiat currency is created by commercial banks, but derives much of its ‘reality’ from state endorsement of its legal status.

In the absence of a state championing a currency, you need other factors to induce collective acceptance. For example, a very small community might be able to create and maintain a local currency backed by nothing but the preexisting communal trust network, woven together from mutual friendships, ties of honour and anxiety at facing exclusion from the social group.

To create belief in a non-national currency that is not located in a small community though, is especially hard. Bitcoin provides a fascinating case study of the process. When it first started, Bitcoin commanded almost no value. It had one crucial feature though. At its heart was a mysterious, almost immaterial figure called Satoshi Nakomoto, a focal point for a community to rally around.

The mystique of Satoshi was vital, imbuing what was otherwise a clever but cold piece of cryptography with a soul that people could believe in. Satoshi was the holy ghost in the machine, and the act of mining resembled a ritualistic quest to build on the blockchain started by the ghost. It’s through this process that the imagined value of Bitcoin came to life, and started taking on a reality.

By contrast, imagine if a well-known person, like Stephen Hawking, invented Bitcoin. It would be devoid of all mystery, resembling a science project or a corporate product, rather than an underground movement. The specifics of Stephen’s personality would replace the cryptic symbol that the Satoshi figure once stood for, and what would you have left? A clever piece of cryptography, and a somewhat banal act of using up energy in running computers.

That said, there is something about the pointless nature of randomly churning algorithms through a computer that is psychologically powerful. If you want to imagine that something essentially ephemeral is a useful commodity, it helps if you expend labour in creating it, because labour implies scarcity (you only need to work for things that are scarce), and scarcity implies a potential for an exchange value (if something is abundant there is no need to exchange anything for it).

The computing power (‘labour’) put into the Bitcoin network does not create value in itself, but is a further psychological backer to Bitcoin tokens’ imagined value. If they weren’t valuable we wouldn’t exert all this labour would we, and because we exert this labour they must be valuable, right?

The emergent myth of Bitcoin’s rationality

Interestingly, as the ritualistic process of mining has become increasingly competitive, and the commercialisation of Bitcoin has steamed ahead, new narratives have formed to explain why Bitcoin tokens ‘rationally’ have value.

Chief among these is the idea, touted by the Bitcoin foundation itself, that bitcoins have value ‘because they are useful’. It is part of a broader trend among the Bitcoin elite to rewrite history and claim, in hindsight, that the value of Bitcoin was always self-apparent, and that early adopters were just getting involved due to rational future expectations of increasing societal recognition of Bitcoin’s use value as a secure means of exchange.

In this formulation, Bitcoin tokens derive their value by being part of a potentially useful system, the value of each bitcoin reflecting the aggregate market assessment of how useful it is to have a secure means of exchange. It’s kind of like arguing that containers on train carriages derive the entirety of their value from the usefulness of the rail network. The implicit narrative is this: Hey, these things are useful as transmitters of value for exchange, so let’s compete over them, and in so doing create their market value, which can now be used for exchange.

Circular no? There may be a glimmer of truth in it, but it’s mostly an attempt to describe the essentially emotional and social process of currency creation with the language of cold individual rationality.

Tin-man currencies ain’t got no heart

This thinking has subsequently influenced the way that a lot of alternative crypto-coins have attempted to market themselves. Rather than embracing their own absurdity, many alt-coins have marketed their efficiency, their security, or their application to some specialist use case, as if the usefulness and competitiveness of the design was the most important aspect of why a person accepts a currency.

The crypto-conference has thus become the realm of ‘serious people’ discussing ‘serious business’, not wishy-washing mysticism and emotion. They appeal to rational functionality, rather than inspiring people to use them. They are techno-fetishistic. A guy with a PowerPoint presentation calmly explains the business case for why his crypto-currency is valuable because it uses a state-of-the-art turbo hashing system, but for fuck’s sake, tell me why I should BELIEVE in it!

It’s true that this strategy has worked to some extent for some alt-coins like Lightcoin, Quarkcoin and Peercoin, which have gained some popularity based on design, but think about this question: Why do you use British Pounds or Yen? The answer to that is never, ‘because they’re well designed’, and neither is it ‘because I rationally see how useful it is for me to have a medium of exchange’, and neither is it ‘because I’m intimidated by the state and they force me to use it’.

Our answer is mostly just ‘because everyone else seems to use it and I was taught to use it’. We are born into currencies just like we are born into languages, and we learn to use them in a social context. If you want to convince a person to accept ephemeral electronic records as a currency, you need a story for people to hold on to. You need heart.

Dogecoin is a cult, and that’s how it should be

Which brings us to Dogecoin. I can believe in Dogecoin because it gives me something to believe in. It’s a direct appeal to irrationality, a direct appeal to transcend the banal world of individual utility calculation and submit to something hilariously absurd. It is, above all, a cult, and that is infinitely more attractive than any cold appeal to robust design.

It is the peaceful, playful gaze of the Doge itself that is the mystical foundation of the currency. It doesn’t matter who invented it, because Dogecoin is not experienced as a narcissistic project of a particular person, and it’s the symbol itself that is the leader. The Doge is a figure without ego, with cross-cultural, cross-gender, and yes, even cross-species appeal. We can all get something from the gaze of the Shibu.

This is reflected in the resultant community that has emerged around Dogecoin, people who refer to themselves as ‘shibes’ and give each other gifts of Doge. While the Bitcoin subreddit has turned into a moshpit of aggressive trolling, Dogecoin forums feel inclusive and accepting, cohering around a surreal world of esoteric slogans and acts of goodwill.

In closing then, a word on design. If there has ever been any clever design in Dogecoin, it’s been in the way the core members have focused on creating a culture from the bottom-up, rather than fetishising currency creation as a technical solution to be marketed from above. The Dogecoin community has grown rapidly in response to community acts that establish a reason to believe in the currency, such as the sponsorship of underdogs like the Jamaican bobsleigh team, and oddball stunts like backing a Nascar racer. 

These are things you can sit in a pub and laugh about, outside conference halls, and that makes all the difference.

4 donashuns plz send luv to DMiqDUR1hzMRFiKRUVuqGqwP7bh2HzVMuZ

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Breaching the monetary Matrix: Five exercises to help you understand money

(Note: I originally wrote this article for the July 2014 edition of Contributoria, and it is republished here under the following Creative Commons licence. If you wish to use the article, please attribute the original)

"Like everyone else you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch, a prison for your mind."

This is a line from The Matrix. Morpheus is explaining to Neo that he’s actually stuck in a nightmare prison-world enslaved to computers. The world is not as you think Neo, but I can set you free, provided you take the red pill.

In some ways Morpheus resembles one of those single-agenda zealots who goes around telling people that they have a certain secret truth that will liberate them, like the guy who corners you in a pub and says, “Don’t you realise we’re trapped in a corporate prison. The Bilderberg Group owns the world’s governments!”

Morpheus, however, is also different to the average conspiracy theorist. The key dynamic in The Matrix is that the power structure he’s trying to reveal is invisible in all ways, an immersive totality that transcends the world of identifiable ‘things’. He spins no tales of illuminati hiding in Goldman Sachs, or secret meetings between elites in Swiss cantons.

The problem with the average conspiracy theorist is that their targets – such as corporations – are too obvious. Corporations may be giant, semi-immortal entities that vaguely resemble autonomous hive-minds bent on cultural hegemony, but they often do it bluntly, pushing cheesy propaganda and brandishing gadgets at us, lobbying politicians, and so on. In the end, there are ways for people to exert influence over them, and they occasionally disintegrate. Corporate power is subtle, but not that subtle.

If anything in the world actually resembles Morpheus’ conspiracy, I’d say it is money itself. Money is extremely subtle. We think of the monetary system like we think of air, or language – as something that surrounds us and that we take for granted. We are born into a monetary system we cannot smell, or taste, or touch, so obviously normal as to be virtually invisible.

Indeed, when we’re asked to describe money, we often give fuzzy, imprecise descriptions, despite the fact that we may use it every day. Even those who work in the financial sector, and who spend all their time designing financial instruments like bonds to steer money from one place to another, frequently cannot tell you precisely what money is. Take, for example, the anti-hero of The Wolf of Wall Street, a hotshot broker immersed in money, but who literally has no idea of what it is, and what’s more, is controlled by it like a puppet.

I find money intensely mysterious, and there are no Matrix-style red pills that can be taken to help one deconstruct it. In August 2013 I published a piece called Riches Beyond Belief in Aeon Magazine, exploring the cultural dynamics of currency. Following that, it occurred to me that it would be useful to develop some more practical exercises and thought experiments to try stimulate thought about particular aspects of the monetary mystery. This article introduces five of those exercises, and I hope that collectively they may help you develop your own ideas. I’ve set them out in a particular order, but you can jump to those that interest you most.

Exercise No. 1: The web of value

This first exercise is a warm up, aimed at situating money relative to other goods. Look around you and try locate a few objects in your immediate vicinity. Perhaps you’re sitting at a desk, and there is a decent Casio scientific calculator, a Parker ballpoint pen, a bottle of Jack Daniels, and an A4 note pad. You’ll also need to have one foreign bank note, and one local bank note.

The challenge, part 1

Pick two of the objects, for example, the calculator and the Parker pen. Your task is to work out a rough exchange ratio between them. How many pens is the calculator worth?

You don’t have to work out an exact ratio, but aim to create a band of likely exchange ratios, testing the outer bounds of plausibility. The calculator is not likely to be worth 10 000 pens, for example, but it’s probably likely to be worth more than 1 pen. Perhaps you say the calculator is roughly worth 4-7 pens, depending on the situation and their relative quality.

You’ll note that you have an intuitive, almost subconscious ability to assess one object relative to another, even if it’s only in very rough terms. What precisely is it about the objects that allows you to make the comparison? Perhaps it’s their perceived utility (‘the calculator can undertake more complex actions that the pen, and it lasts longer’), or perhaps it's the imagined difficulty in creating the objects ourselves (‘the calculator seems to have more complex technology built into it, and is harder to make, requiring more physical or intellectual labour). Perhaps it’s just due to some learned perception of the value (‘Parker is a good ballpoint brand isn’t it?’), or some combination of those factors.

Now that you’ve established one exchange ratio, add another. How many note pads is your bottle of Jack Daniels worth? You will find that these exchange ratios fluctuate even with yourself, depending on what time of day it is and your mood or situation. That won’t stop you being able to make a rough band though: ‘It’s unlikely that I’ll ever exchange a bottle of Jack Daniels for just one note pad, surely it’s worth at least three, but I’d never exchange 200 note pads for a bottle.’

Now create a third exchange ratio, perhaps between the ballpoint pen and the notepad. In doing this, you’re building up a rough network of exchange values, and theoretically there should be some coherence between your perceptions. If roughly 4 good quality pens are exchangeable for a decent calculator, and roughly 3 standard notepads are exchangeable for a good quality pen, it is implied that roughly 12 standard notepads are equal to the calculator. Does that seem plausible to you, or do your perceptions of value have some inconsistencies?

(As a side note, you’ll probably find that your perception of value gets warped by scale, leading to certain inconsistencies. The perceived utility of any object tends to diminish with increased scale, a phenomenon economists call ‘diminishing marginal utility’. For example, you may be able to conceptualise the usefulness that three pens have to you, but it’s probably difficult to conceptualise the usefulness of say, 3000 pens)

The challenge, part 2

Let’s now assume you’ve developed a loose latticework, something like a spider’s web, of these object pairs and the exchange ratios between them. Now take a foreign bank note, a currency that you’re not used to using, and try to integrate it into the network. How many pens would you exchange for 50 Turkish Lira?

Notice something strange? We have some internal intuitive sense that guides us when making a rough comparison between two objects, but there is nothing about a foreign bank note that allows us to make a similar comparison. The truth is that you probably have no idea about how much a Turkish Lira is worth, unless you are from Turkey.

This is something that tourists frequently experience, holding a strange foreign currency in their hands, having little idea of what it should be exchangeable for. What actually happens when you are a tourist? You learn what the currency is worth by observing others and by experience. You slowly calibrate your sense of its worth by seeing examples of goods priced in it.

Now, by way of contrast, take a currency you’re familiar with, perhaps the British Pound, and integrate it into the network. You’ll find that you already have a set of pre-established ideas about the exchange ratios between British Pounds and the various goods. Oh, Jack Daniels is worth about £15 isn’t it? A good quality ballpoint pen is worth maybe £8. An A4 notepad is probably around £3. A scientific calculator is maybe £30-40. Take a look at the ratios between these prices. Do they correspond to the ratios you established in the first part of the challenge?


The point of this is to highlight that the value of modern currency cannot be thought of independently of the economy and people it is connected to. There is nothing about a British Pound in itself that can tell you how many pens it is worth, but once it is installed at the centre of a giant interconnected social network of goods and services, its value gets locked in – at least in part – by that positioning. It becomes like a hub connected to millions of spokes, serving almost as a routing mechanism between them. It cannot exist without them, but also gets much strength from its centrality.

Consider this statement: ‘If bread is worth £1.50 then I’m certainly not paying £10 for a cup of coffee.’ This emerges not from any comparison between Pounds and the goods, but from a known relationship between bread and coffee, expressed via Pounds. In theory then, whether we start off by pricing coffee as £2.50 or £250 doesn’t matter. The absolute numeric value in itself is arbitrary. What matters is whether that in turn plausibly corresponds to the prices of other goods.

The tendency to fetishise the numeric value is one reason why some people fall into the trap of thinking that because 1 British Pound is worth 173 Japanese Yen, the Pound must therefore be worth ‘more’ than the Yen. All it really means is that the starting point of measuring goods in the different countries is different, and when you first arrive in a foreign country, you have to learn the dynamics of the measuring system before you can start to measure goods in it. Thus, in much the same way that choosing to measure something in millimetres rather than centimetres will give you a higher number, the shirt you buy in Japan will display a higher numeric price, but relative to other goods in Japan may present a picture very similar to that in the UK.

Different currencies thus have different baseline price levels. The concept of ‘inflation’ refers to a general change in this baseline, one in which the measurement units become smaller over time, while the ratios between the goods being measured might stay roughly the same. Thus the ratio of £1.50 to £2.50 for bread to coffee becomes £3 to £5 over time. Societies that uphold any currency seem to accept the gradual overall shift as normal, provided it doesn't destabilise the intricate network of relative prices anchored and enmeshed in popular consciousness (most contentious is normally the wage prices that have an unfortunate tendency to stay fixed while overall goods prices rise, leading to worker outrage).

Exercise No. 2: Treasure Island

Some people get concerned by the lack of intrinsic value in the fiat currency described above (It’s not backed by anything!) and instead advocate commodity-based currencies, currencies that are supposed to be valuable in themselves. Gold is the traditional candidate for this, so here is a simple thought experiment to shake up some preconceived notions about the shiny metal.

The setting

Imagine a large island. It has a sizable population, perhaps 50 000 people, but it’s extremely remote and cut off from any trade or contact with the outside world. There is a rich agricultural system built on fertile volcanic soils. There is a good source of energy in the form of underground coal mines. There are ample building materials in the form of timber to build houses. These resources form the basis for a vibrant island economy.

It also so happens that once upon a time, a Spanish raider ship full of gold pieces got blown off course and floated for months before being wrecked upon the island, depositing its a huge stash of treasure. A hundred years later and these gold doubloons have come to form the basis of an island monetary system. They circulate in everyday trade, but a sizable percentage is held by a handful of powerful barons who mostly hoard it in hillside bunkers on the central volcanic cone that overlooks the island.

The scenario

One day the island is hit by a giant hurricane and a tidal wave. 80 percent of the fertile topsoil is washed away, or else soaked with saline water that crops cannot grow in. The coal mines are flooded too, making them largely inaccessible. The trees are broken by the winds. In short, the basis for vibrant economic production is decimated. People are forced to eke out a rough subsistence foraging, or take to the seas in flimsy rafts hoping to find new lands far away.

The powerful barons though, still have their fortified bunkers full of gold on top of the hills.

A question, then. Are the barons still wealthy?


The point of this exercise is to pinpoint where you think wealth is found in society. It is often claimed that gold is a ‘store’ of wealth. In the aftermath of such a storm though, sitting atop the hill, one wonders in what sense any value is stored in the pieces of inert metal that have no immediate utility to the barons. The barons can try to exchange their gold for things, but given the context, are people really going to give away their few precious useful items for pieces of metal?

For much of history, gold has not had much obvious utility value like coal or timber or food might. Ironically, it tends to have most value in situations where it is exchangeable, and it is only exchangeable when there is a general surplus of goods that people need to exchange, and a process of mystification in which elites have imbued the metal with a god-like cultural status. This observation was very apparent to the likes of Adam Smith, who, in The Wealth of Nations, noted that:
‘the poor inhabitants of Cuba and St. Domingo, when they were first discovered by the Spaniards, used to wear little bits of gold as ornaments in their hair and other parts of their dress. They seemed to value them as we would do any little pebbles of somewhat more than ordinary beauty, and to consider them as just worth the picking up, but not worth the refusing to anybody who asked them. They gave them to their new guests at the first request, without seeming to think that they had made them any very valuable present. They were astonished to observe the rage of the Spaniards to obtain them; and had no notion that there could anywhere be a country in which many people had the disposal of so great a superfluity of food; so scanty always among themselves, that, for a very small quantity of those glittering baubles, they would willingly give as much as might maintain a whole family for many years.’

In other words, according to Smith, gold is only valuable in a society where there already are large economic resources built up. Outside of that context, it’s a largely useless decorative item.

Gold thus only ‘stores’ value insofar as it finds itself within a society that upholds a social agreement that it can be exchanged for goods outside of itself that have actual value. In other words, it derives most of its value, or is imbued with value (via a cultural-political process of mystification), from being present in situations where there are large networks of traded useful goods and people who require a medium of exchange. In essence it holds a contingent form of latent or potential exchange value. If the social agreement breaks down, or if the underlying goods disappear, the value of gold largely disappears too, or reverts to its more humble ‘intrinsic’ value of pretty decoration.

To illustrate this once more, let’s imagine the scenario in reverse. Imagine years later you find yourself stranded on this island, now long since abandoned and desolate. You stumble upon the bunkers of gold in the hills. Should you be happy? Perhaps, but only if you’re able to tap into a larger trade network that exists somewhere outside the island. Otherwise, if you want to re-mystify it, you’d better get to work rebuilding a new vibrant island society so that the gold returns to being a ‘valuable’ medium of exchange.

Intrinsic value: Utility vs. labour

Gold fetishists frequently reject what I’ve just said, absolutely convinced that the metal is the ideal form of money because it is scarce whilst having intrinsic value. It sounds superficially plausible, but think about this question: What really happens if something is an intrinsic store of value and is scarce at the same time?

Let’s say rare earth metals for example. Rare earth metals are very scarce, and they are very useful in modern high tech electronics. Does that make them the ideal candidate for being the ultimate form of money? While it’s true that they hold value, it’s also likely that they would soon disappear out of circulation to be used in the things that we normally use them for, like mobile phone parts. The problem about a scarce commodity that is also very useful is that it generally won’t circulate like a currency because people consume it.

Gold doesn’t suffer from this problem because historically it’s not actually been that useful, which is why it can sit in vaults for so long without being sold off for industrial usage. Bitcoin is a more recent example of this, a mystified electronic token that you cannot do anything with in itself, thereby making it strangely useful as a potential means of exchange.

Where gold does differ from fiat currency is in the fact that gold requires labour to create (mining). This does give it a psychological edge in maintaining the appearance of holding value in itself (‘We wouldn’t be mining this if it wasn’t valuable would we?’). Labour implies scarcity, in that you don’t have to work for things that are abundant, and scarcity in turn implies potential for exchange value (sunlight might have infinite use value, but no exchange value because it is everywhere and abundant).

Fiat currency doesn’t seem to require labour to create, and yet does this matter? You might say ‘the British Pound is backed by nothing’, and yet I’m inclined to say ‘Well, nothing apart a network of 63 million people in a productive economy who will accept it, a powerful state, and a banking system with a huge vested interest in keeping it that way. Is it really ‘weaker’ than gold?’

Exercise No. 3: Exiled from Main Street

Here’s a thought-experiment to think about when you’re in a confined space with other people, perhaps your office block. Let’s say it’s a medium-sized building, and you are with 49 other people. For the sake of the thought-experiment, imagine that you have access to a large rooftop space, where there is a rooftop gardening system.

Now let’s imagine that – for whatever reason – all your wallets are taken away as you enter the building, that the doors are then locked, and that the building is then cut off from the outside world. You find yourselves trapped in the space for several months without any access to money.

The question, then. Has your wealth disappeared?


What has effectively happened in this situation is that you’ve been exiled from a broader economy, and placed into a much smaller one, consisting of only 50 people and a small set of resources. You thus find yourself in the very situation that many small-scale communities have found themselves in over the course of history.

In the isolated space of that building, your wealth does not lie in your bank account. In the context of being in the same boat together, your wealth lies in the potential resources available, and in the collective labour and ingenuity that people can bring to bear in obtaining them. Perhaps some people in the building put effort into creating water tanks to capture rain, while others work on the rooftop farm. Some tend to those who are sick, and some create entertaining acts to lighten the mood and improve wellbeing.

Collective human labour might be required to get all the resources necessary for the society to survive, but human labour is situated in individual people, and thus informal systems of ‘keeping score’ emerge in such a society. I did the cooking, can you do the washing later? This gets called ‘reciprocity’. It’s the idea that, provided you’re able to, you’ll pull your weight over time. And if you don’t, people will start to get pissed off with you and try to exclude you from the communal resources.

A healthy system of reciprocity tends to both rely upon and create systems of trust (like the way your local pub landlord might allow you to keep an informal tab based on trusting you). If you so wish, though, you can begin to formalise this reciprocity by explicitly writing down people’s obligations on a collective ledger or list, perhaps a central whiteboard in the building.

Maybe you can even try to quantify the work done, perhaps in terms of hours. I did 5 hours of work on rooftop farming. I thereby claim credit for 5 hours, and it’s written down on the ledger so everyone knows. In essence, that ledger entry is now a claim on the product of the collective labour of the group. My personal ‘wealth’ may come to lie in the recognition that others in the building will pay to that claim, and in their acknowledgement that I ‘own’ it.

Now imagine taking that claim to 5 hours of the society’s labour, currently written up on the whiteboard, and writing it down instead on a piece of paper that can be passed around, traded and owned.

Wait a moment, isn’t that just normal paper currency?

Exercise No. 4: Cracking the commodity illusion of credit money

Note what just happened in the exercise above. A ledger entry – essentially a claim backed by a community – was turned into an object by being written down on a piece of paper that can be owned, and subsequently traded. Our ability to imagine that social (or perhaps political) claim as an object that can be owned, and our subsequent ability to exchange it for an actual good, allows us to imagine monetary transactions as if it were akin to exchanging two commodities.

This imagined physicality of money is perhaps what allows people to believe that it is a ‘store of value’. For something to be a store of value it must be physical right? Even the term ‘money’ sounds physical, a noun used to describe an object, rather than a verb used to describe a process. Here’s an exercise to help destabilise that.

The challenge, part 1

Try to become aware of every time you mention the word ‘money’ in conversation, in thought, in emails, and in general.

Now, try to not use the word ‘money’ for a few days. Instead, every time you’re about to say it, insert into its place a description of its form. For example, when you hand over coins at a store, ask ‘is this enough little pieces of metal?’, and when you’re paying by card, ask ‘do you accept these electrons, travelling through wires?’ You’ll see the cashiers looking at you strangely, because in some sense you’re breaking a taboo by drawing too much attention to the material form of the money.

The challenge, part 2

Now move to a description based not on money’s physical manifestation, but rather on what it can achieve. Regardless of your perception of what money is, we know that you can use it to claim goods and services within a certain geographical boundary. You go into a shop, take out a note, and claim a sandwich, and in so doing pass the claim to someone else.

So try this for a few days. When you see a person driving in a Lamborghini, and you’re about to say ‘that person must have loads of money’, you instead say ‘that person must have loads of claims on goods and services’. When you're borrowing cash from a friend, say, 'hey, do you have some claims on goods and services I can use?' It sounds a bit silly perhaps, but the words are breaking away from the physical form, and instead referencing money to things external to itself. In so doing you are actually pointing out its position in the centre of a socio-economic network.

Of course, you don’t want to have to say ‘claim on goods and services’ all the time. I rather use the acronym COGAS (‘Claims On Goods And Services’). COGAS-UK is what I use for British Pounds, meaning ‘claims on goods and services within the geographic boundary of the United Kingdom’. It’s a claim I can use to draw on the productive power of the 63 million people who accept it. This might seem like a fairly small action, but naming money differently helps you to become aware of the immense cultural and political system that underpins its value.

Exercise No. 5: Fractional electronics

There’s one big elephant that’s left in the room. All the above exercises are aimed at trying to focus in on what money might be to us. This though, is a different question to how money is actually created in modern society. The question ‘how is money created’ is different from the question ‘what is money’, in much in the way that the question ‘how is art created’ is different to ‘what is art’. Monetary reform groups like Positive Money deal with the question of ‘how is money created’ rather than ‘what is it’, and this is a deep political issue. I left this for last because it’s often an issue that distracts people from thinking about the more basic social nature of money, which is required before the creation process can occur.

This exercise really just involves reflecting on three questions:

1) What form does the money in your bank account take?

2) If you were really depositing it into the bank so that they can then lend it out to others, how come it’s still there for you to get?

3) If the bank suddenly took it away from you, would you have legal recourse against them? (e.g. if you woke up to find that Barclays had eliminated your bank account and the money in it, would you be able to sue them?)


The money in your bank account is electronic money, which is to say that it is simply a ledger entry stored in the huge datacentres of commercial banks (imagine huge excel spreadsheets recording account numbers and how much is attributable to each one). They could do the same thing in a giant book if they wanted to – and that is what banks used to do – but electronic ledgers are more efficient, a digital equivalent to the clerks who used to carefully write down how much people deposited, and how much was given out to those who the bank granted loans to.

Now to the second question. Textbooks often claim that banks take deposits and then lend them out to people, but if that were entirely true then your deposits would not be sitting there waiting for you would they? How is it that you can have access to your money when it’s ostensibly being lent out to others?

This is where we get into the realm of fractional reserve banking, the process whereby commercial banks take the base money created by the central bank (technically called M0, which includes the physical cash you may carry around) and amplify (or multiply) it by extending credit greater than the initial deposits they're given, thereby creating new money that exists nowhere else except as an entry in their accounting system (technically called M1-M3). Indeed, electronic money does not exist outside of the banks’ IT systems, but it is the main form of money we use in society, claims which can be passed around, but that cannot leave the system.

Sometimes people are bewildered by the notion that ‘commercial banks create money’. It seems to make it sound like they can create it and destroy it at will. If you have money in a Barclays account though, recorded as a data entry in their IT system, they cannot just take it away from you. It might have originally been created via the process of bank lending, but once it’s released as a legal claim into society, it cannot just be destroyed, any more than an artist can suddenly make an artwork disappear once you’ve got it hanging on your wall. There is a legally-backed reality to the money once its created, and this provides a check against complete surreality of the money supply.

The fundamental nature of the claim that you now own is precisely what we’ve discussed in the earlier sections – a social claim that has value insofar as people will accept it in exchange for goods and services. This would not be any different if the government or god or your neighbour George was creating the money. The politics of fractional reserve banking sometimes get cast as questions about the fundamental nature of money, but to me they are actually questions about whether letting private banks be primary creators of that money is responsible or fair, whether it will eventually undermine faith in currency, and whether it confers on them too much political power.

Red pill

You’re in an electronic money world largely existing in the data centres of commercial banks, and held in place by collective consciousness and power. Whether you think there is anything wrong with that is really dependant on your view of reality. If you truly do believe that money is ‘supposed’ to be gold, and if you truly do believe that only gold has ‘intrinsic’ value, then you’re likely to shit yourself at the prospect of modern money. On the other hand, if you like me see money essentially as having always been a strange, somewhat irrational social contract, your mind should rather move to the political and psychological tradeoffs involved in different forms and creators of money, and the economic distribution effects of different variations on the monetary theme.

Further reading

I hope these exercises have been useful, even if you don’t agree with my conclusions. If you want to go further down the rabbit hole, here is some potential further reading.

My piece Riches Beyond Belief in Aeon Magazine was pretty popular and generated a lively discussion. It explores alternative currencies, and what they reveal about normal currency. If you want to look at how Bitcoin interacts with modern money, and the politics around that, check out my piece, Visions of a Techno-Leviathan: The Politics of the Bitcoin Blockchain, which has also been pretty well received.

For some serious reading, check out David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years. It's is on its way to becoming a monetary classic. It’s very good at obliterating classical economic myths of barter as the origin of money, and pointing out the deeply intertwined relationship between money, debt, and money-as-debt. Adam Smith is the founder of the outdated myth of barter that Graeber dismantles, but it’s worth delving into Book 1 of the Wealth of Nations to see his ambiguous treatment of gold as money, at once admitting that it’s a construct whilst trying to simultaneously claim that it actually is a bearer of intrinsic labour value. Another classical take comes from Karl Marx, who carries forward some of Adam Smith’s theories of commodity money in Capital (check out Ch.1), but who gets more sophisticated by pinpointing how the money form is locked into a network of other goods, and elevated by them, taking on a certain mystical status.

From that point monetary theories have abounded, but I'd recommend trying to read anthropologists and psychologists rather than the bland rationalistic explanations of the mainstream economics profession. Above all though, the real red pill takes the form of undertaking your own explorations of money, exploring its orthodox and unorthodox forms, and cracking the deceptive shell that society cloaks it in.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Visions of a techno-leviathan: The politics of the Bitcoin blockchain

(Please note that I originally wrote this essay for E-International Relations, and I have republished it here on a Creative Commons licence. If you wish to republish this piece, please respect E-IR's republishing guidelines)

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic 1993 sci-fi novel Red Mars, a pioneering group of scientists establish a colony on Mars. Some imagine it as a chance for a new life, run on entirely different principles from the chaotic Earth. Over time, though, the illusion is shattered as multinational corporations operating under the banner of governments move in, viewing Mars as nothing but an extension to business-as-usual.

It is a story that undoubtedly resonates with some members of the Bitcoin community. The vision of a free-floating digital cryptocurrency economy, divorced from the politics of colossal banks and aggressive governments, is under threat. Take, for example, the purists at Dark Wallet, accusing the Bitcoin Foundation of selling out to the regulators and the likes of the Winklevoss Twins.

Bitcoin sometimes appears akin to an illegal immigrant, trying to decide whether to seek out a rebellious existence in the black-market economy, or whether to don the slick clothes of the Silicon Valley establishment. The latter position – involving publicly accepting regulation and tax whilst privately lobbying against it – is obviously more acceptable and familiar to authorities.

Of course, any new scene is prone to developing internal echo chambers that amplify both commonalities and differences. While questions regarding Bitcoin’s regulatory status lead hyped-up cryptocurrency evangelists to engage in intense sectarian debates, to many onlookers Bitcoin is just a passing curiosity, a damp squib that will eventually suffer an ignoble death by media boredom. It is a mistake to believe that, though. The core innovation of Bitcoin is not going away, and it is deeper than currency.

What has been introduced to the world is a method to create decentralised peer-validated time-stamped ledgers. That is a fancy way of saying it is a method for bypassing the use of centralised officials in recording stuff. Such officials are pervasive in society, from a bank that records electronic transactions between me and my landlord, to patent officers that record the date of new innovations, to parliamentary registers noting the passing of new legislative acts.

The most visible use of this technical accomplishment is in the realm of currency, though, so it is worth briefly explaining the basics of Bitcoin in order to understand the political visions being unleashed as a result of it.

The technical vision 1.0

Banks are information intermediaries. Gone are the days of the merchant dumping a hoard of physical gold into the vaults for safekeeping. Nowadays, if you have ‘£350 in the bank’, it merely means the bank has recorded that for you in their data centre, on a database that has your account number and a corresponding entry saying ‘350’ next to it. If you want to pay someone electronically, you essentially send a message to your bank, identifying yourself via a pin or card number, asking them to change that entry in their database and to inform the recipient’s bank to do the same with the recipient’s account.

Thus, commercial banks collectively act as a cartel controlling the recording of transaction data, and it is via this process that they keep score of ‘how much money’ we have. To create a secure electronic currency system that does not rely on these banks thus requires three interacting elements. Firstly, one needs to replace the private databases that are controlled by them. Secondly, one needs to provide a way for people to change the information on that database (‘move money around’). Thirdly, one needs to convince people that the units being moved around are worth something.

To solve the first element, Bitcoin provides a public database, or ledger, that is referred to reverently as the blockchain. There is a way for people to submit information for recording in the ledger, but once it gets recorded, it cannot be edited in hindsight. If you’ve heard about bitcoin ‘mining’ (using ‘hashing algorithms’), that is what that is all about. A scattered collective of mercenary clerks essentially hire their computers out to collectively maintain the ledger, baking (or weaving) transaction records into it.

Secondly, Bitcoin has a process for individuals to identify themselves in order to submit transactions to those clerks to be recorded on that ledger. That is where public-key cryptography comes in. I have a public Bitcoin address (somewhat akin to my account number at a bank) and I then control that public address with a private key (a bit like I use my private pin number to associate myself with my bank account). This is what provides anonymity.

The result of these two elements, when put together, is the ability for anonymous individuals to record transactions between their bitcoin accounts on a database that is held and secured by a decentralised network of techno-clerks (‘miners’). As for the third element – convincing people that the units being transacted are worth something – that is a more subtle question entirely that I will not address here.

The political vision 1.0

Note the immediate political implications. Within the Bitcoin system, a set of powerful central intermediaries (the cartel of commercial banks, connected together via the central bank, underwritten by government), gets replaced with a more diffuse network intermediary, apparently controlled by no-one in particular.

This generally appeals to people who wish to devolve power away from banks by introducing more diversity into the monetary system. Those with a left-wing anarchist bent, who perceive the state and banking sector as representing the same elite interests, may recognise in it the potential for collective direct democratic governance of currency. It has really appealed, though, to conservative libertarians who perceive it as a commodity-like currency, free from the evils of the central bank and regulation.

The corresponding political reaction from policy-makers and establishment types takes three immediate forms. Firstly, there are concerns about it being used for money laundering and crime (‘Bitcoin is the dark side’). Secondly, there are concerns about consumer protection (‘Bitcoin is full of cowboy operators’). Thirdly, there are concerns about tax (‘this allows people to evade tax’).

The general status quo bias of regulators, who fixate on the negative potentials of Bitcoin whilst remaining blind to negatives in the current system, sets the stage for a political battle. Bitcoin enthusiasts, passionate about protecting the niche they have carved out, become prone to imagining conspiratorial scenes of threatened banks fretfully lobbying the government to ban Bitcoin, or of paranoid politicians panicking about the integrity of the national currency.

The technical vision 2.0

Outside the media hype around these Bitcoin dramas, though, a deeper movement is developing. It focuses not only on Bitcoin’s potential to disrupt commercial banks, but also on the more general potential for decentralised blockchains to disrupt other types of centralised information intermediaries.

Copyright authorities, for example, record people’s claims to having produced a unique work at a unique date and authoritatively stamp it for them. Such centralised ‘timestamping’ more generally is called ‘notarisation’. One non-monetary function for a Bitcoin-style blockchain could thus be to replace the privately controlled ledger of the notary with a public ledger that people can record claims on. This is precisely what Proof of Existence and Originstamp are working on.

And what about domain name system (DNS) registries that record web addresses? When you type in a URL like www.e-ir.info, the browser first steers you to aDNS registry like Afilias, which maintains a private database of URLs alongside information on which IP address to send you to. One can, however, use a blockchain to create a decentralised registry of domain name ownership, which is what Namecoin is doing. Theoretically, this process could be used to record share ownership, land ownership, or ownership in general (see, for example, Mastercoin’s projects).

The biggest information intermediaries, though, are often hidden in plain sight. What is Facebook? Isn’t it just a company that you send information to, which is then stored in their database and subsequently displayed to you and your friends? You log in with your password (proving your identity), and then can alter that database by sending them further messages (‘I’d like to delete that photo’). Likewise with Twitter, Dropbox, and countless other web services.

Unlike the original internet, which was largely used for transmission of static content, we experience sites like Facebook as interactive playgrounds where we can use programmes installed in some far away computer. In the process of such interactivity, we give groups like Facebook huge amounts of information. Indeed, they set themselves up as information honeytraps in order to create a profit-making platform where advertisers can sell you things based on the information. This simultaneously creates a large information repository for authorities like the NSA to browse. This interaction of corporate power and state power is inextricably tied to the profitable nature of centrally held data.

But what if you could create interactive web services that did not revolve around single information intermediaries like Facebook? That is precisely what groups like Ethereum are working towards. Where Bitcoin is a way to record simple transaction information on a decentralised ledger, Ethereum wants to create a ‘decentralised computational engine’. This is a system for running programmes, or executing contracts, on a blockchain held in play via a distributed network of computers rather than Mark Zuckerberg’s data centres.

It all starts to sounds quite sci-fi, but organisations like Ethereum are leading the charge on building ‘Decentralised Autonomous Organisations’, hardcoded entities that people can interact with, but that nobody in particular controls. I send information to this entity, triggering the code and setting in motion further actions. As Bitshares describes it, such an organisation “has a business plan encoded in open source software that executes automatically in an entirely transparent and trustworthy manner.”

The political vision 2.0

By removing a central point of control, decentralised systems based on code – whether they exist to move Bitcoin tokens around, store files, or build contracts – resemble self-contained robots. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook or Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase are human faces behind the digital interface of the services they run. They can overtly manipulate, or bow in to pressure to censor. A decentralised currency or a decentralised version of Twitter seems immune from such manipulation.

It is this that gives rise to a narrative of empowerment and, indeed, at first sight this offers an exhilarating vision of self-contained outposts of freedom within a world otherwise dominated by large corruptible institutions. At many cryptocurrency meet-ups, there is an excitable mix of techno-babble infused with social claims. The blockchain can record contracts between free individuals, and if enforcement mechanisms can be coded in to create self-enforcing ‘smart contracts’, we have a system for building encoded law that bypasses states.

Bitcoin and other blockchain technologies, though, are empowering right now precisely because they are underdogs. They introduce diversity into the existing system and thereby expand our range of tools. In the minds of hardcore proponents, though, blockchain technologies are more than this. They are a replacement system, superior to existing institutions in every possible way. When amplified to this extreme, though, the apparently utopian project can begin to take on a dystopian, conservative hue.

Binary politics

When asked about why Bitcoin is superior to other currencies, proponents often point to its ‘trustless‘ nature. No trust needs be placed in fallible ‘governments and corporations’. Rather, a self-sustaining system can be created by individuals following a set of rules that are set apart from human frailties or intervention. Such a system is assumed to be fairer by allowing people to win out against those powers who can abuse rules.

The vision thus is not one of bands of people getting together into mutualistic self-help groups. Rather, it is one of individuals acting as autonomous agents, operating via the hardcoded rules with other autonomous agents, thereby avoiding those who seek to harm their interests.

Note the underlying dim view of human nature. While anarchist philosophers often imagine alternative governance systems based on mutualistic community foundations, the ‘empowerment’ here does not stem from building community ties. Rather it is imagined to come from retreating from trust and taking refuge in a defensive individualism mediated via mathematical contractual law.

It carries a certain disdain for human imperfection, particularly the imperfection of those in power, but by implication the imperfection of everyone in society. We need to be protected from ourselves by vesting power in lines of code that execute automatically. If only we can lift currency away from manipulation from the Federal Reserve. If only we can lift Wikipedia away from the corruptible Wikimedia Foundation.

Activists traditionally revel in hot-blooded asymmetric battles of interest (such as that between StrikeDebt! and the banks), implicitly holding an underlying faith in the redeemability of human-run institutions. The Bitcoin community, on the other hand, often seems attracted to a detached anti-politics, one in which action is reduced to the binary options of Buy In or Buy Out of the coded alternative. It echoes consumer notions of the world, where one ‘expresses’ oneself not via debate or negotiation, but by choosing one product over another. We’re leaving Earth for Mars. Join if you want.

It all forms an odd, tense amalgam between visions of exuberant risk-taking freedom and visions of risk-averse anti-social paranoia. This ambiguity is not unique to cryptocurrency (see, for example, this excellent parody of the trustless society), but in the case of Bitcoin, it is perhaps best exemplified by the narrative offered by Cody Wilson in Dark Wallet’s crowdfunding video. “Bitcoin is what they fear it is, a way to leave… to make a choice. There’s a system approaching perfection, just in time for our disappearance, so, let there be dark”.

The myth of political ‘exit’


But where exactly is this perfect system Wilson is disappearing to?

Back in the days of roving bands of nomadic people, the political option of ‘exit’ was a reality. If a ruler was oppressive, you could actually pack up and take to the desert in a caravan. The bizarre thing about the concept of ‘exit to the internet’ is that the internet is a technology premised on massive state and corporate investment in physical infrastructure, fibre optic cables laid under seabeds, mass production of computers from low-wage workers in the East, and mass affluence in Western nations. If you are in the position to be having dreams of technological escape, you are probably not in a position to be exiting mainstream society. You are mainstream society.

Don’t get me wrong. Wilson is a subtle and interesting thinker, and it is undoubtedly unfair to suggest that he really believes that one can escape the power dynamics of the messy real world by finding salvation in a kind of internet Matrix. What he is really trying to do is to invoke one side of the crypto-anarchist mantra of ‘privacy for the weak, but transparency for the powerful’.

That is a healthy radical impulse, but the conservative element kicks in when the assumption is made that somehow privacy alone is what enables social empowerment. That is when it turns into an individualistic ‘just leave me alone’ impulse fixated with negative liberty. Despite the rugged frontier appeal of the concept, the presumption that empowerment simply means being left alone to pursue your individual interests is essentially an ideology of the already-empowered, not the vulnerable.

This is the same tension you find in the closely related cypherpunk movement. It is often pitched as a radical empowerment movement, but as Richard Boase notes, it is “a world full of acronyms and codes, impenetrable to all but the most cynical, distrustful, and political of minds.” Indeed, crypto-geekery offers nothing like an escape from power dynamics. One merely escapes to a different set of rules, not one controlled by ‘politicians’, but one in the hands of programmers and those in control of computing power.

It is only when we think in these terms that we start to see Bitcoin not as a realm ‘lacking the rules imposed by the state’, but as a realm imposing its own rules. It offers a form of protection, but guarantees nothing like ‘empowerment’ or ‘escape’.



Technology often seems silent and inert, a world of ‘apolitical’ objects. We are thus prone to being blind to the power dynamics built into our use of it. For example, isn’t email just a useful tool? Actually, it is highly questionable whether one can ‘choose’ whether to use email or not. Sure, I can choose between Gmail or Hotmail, but email’s widespread uptake creates network effects that mean opting out becomes less of an option over time. This is where the concept of becoming ‘enslaved to technology’ emerges from. If you do not buy into it, you will be marginalised, and that is political.

This is important. While individual instances of blockchain technology can clearly be useful, as a class of technologies designed to mediate human affairs, they contain a latent potential for encouraging technocracy. When disassociated from the programmers who design them, trustless blockchains floating above human affairs contains the specter of rule by algorithms. It is a vision (probably accidently) captured by Ethereum’s Joseph Lubin when he says “There will be ways to manipulate people to make bad decisions, but there won’t be ways to manipulate the system itself”.

Interestingly, it is a similar abstraction to that made by Hobbes. In his Leviathan, self-regarding people realise that it is in their interests to exchange part of their freedom for security of self and property, and thereby enter into a contract with a Sovereign, a deified personage that sets out societal rules of engagement. The definition of this Sovereign has been softened over time – along with the fiction that you actually contract to it – but it underpins modern expectations that the government should guarantee property rights.

Conservative libertarians hold tight to the belief that, if only hard property rights and clear contracting rules are put in place, optimal systems spontaneously emerge. They are not actually that far from Hobbes in this regard, but their irritation with Hobbes’ vision is that it relies on politicians who, being actual people, do not act like a detached contractual Sovereign should, but rather attempt to meddle, make things better, or steal. Don’t decentralised blockchains offer the ultimate prospect of protected property rights with clear rules, but without the political interference?

This is essentially the vision of the internet techno-leviathan, a deified crypto-sovereign whose rules we can contract to. The rules being contracted to are a series of algorithms, step by step procedures for calculations which can only be overridden with great difficulty. Perhaps, at the outset, this represents, à la Rousseau, the general will of those who take part in the contractual network, but the key point is that if you get locked into a contract on that system, there is no breaking out of it.

This, of course, appeals to those who believe that powerful institutions operate primarily by breaching property rights and contracts. Who really believes that though? For much of modern history, the key issue with powerful institutions has not been their willingness to break contracts. It has been their willingness to use seemingly unbreakable contracts to exert power. Contracts, in essence, resemble algorithms, coded expressions of what outcomes should happen under different circumstances. On average, they are written by technocrats and, on average, they reflect the interests of elite classes.

That is why liberation movements always seek to break contracts set in place by old regimes, whether it be peasant movements refusing to honour debt contracts to landlords, or the DRC challenging legacy mining concessions held by multinational companies, or SMEs contesting the terms of swap contracts written by Barclays lawyers. Political liberation is as much about contesting contracts as it is about enforcing them.

Building the techno-political vision 3.0

The point I am trying to make is that you do not escape the world of big corporates and big government by wishing for a trustless set of technologies that collectively resemble a technocratic crypto-sovereign. Rather, you use technology as a tool within ongoing political battles, and you maintain an ongoing critical outlook towards it. The concept of the decentralised blockchain is powerful. The cold, distrustful edge of cypherpunk, though, is only empowering when it is firmly in the service of creative warm-blooded human communities situated in the physical world of dirt and grime.

Perhaps this means de-emphasising the focus on how blockchains can be used to store digital assets or property, and focusing rather on those without assets. For example, think of the potential of blockchain voting systems that groups like Restart Democracy are experimenting with. Centralised vote-counting authorities are notorious sources of political anxiety in fragile countries. What if the ledger recording the votes cast was held by a decentralised network of citizens, with voters having a means to anonymously transmit votes to be stored on a publicly viewable database?

We do not want a future society free from people we have to trust, or one in which the most we can hope for is privacy. Rather, we want a world in which technology is used to dilute the power of those systems that cause us to doubt trust relationships. Screw escaping to Mars.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Crowdfunding critical journalism, and why it's good for democracy

(Note: I originally wrote this article for Contributoria as Crowdfunding Critical Thought, and it is republished here under a Creative Commons license. To republish please attribute original)

Greg Palast’s approach to investigative journalism can be summed up in one phrase: Stand up for the underdogs, and take on the fatcats. His hard-hitting reports on corporations like ExxonMobil, politicians like Bush, and shadowy institutions like vulture funds stem from an impulse to challenge those players with the power to bend the rules to their private advantage. That’s why functioning democracies need people like Palast.

Such a role faces two unique challenges though. Firstly, powerful institutions and individuals tend to hide behind walls of secrecy that extend over vast geographical space. Investigating a corporation, or a government spy programme, requires a lot of time, a lot of travel, and a lot of prying into hard-to-access information sources.
Secondly, it entails a lot of risk. People like Palast by necessity must make corporations, governments, and powerful individuals very angry, but those are also the parties that have the most ability to hire expensive legal teams to intimidate challengers. They also frequently own the media outlets, or have the most ability to buy the advertising space that media outlets rely on for income.

Therefore, not only is investigative journalism the most expensive style of journalism, but it is also the most likely to incur further liabilities once a story gets published. Providing finance to underdog investigative journalists – fronting them money to go off in search of stories – has always been a risky undertaking.

In an era when media groups are under increasing financial stress then, the position of the investigative journalist is under threat. Pressure to deliver advertising click-throughs, for example, drives online publications towards shallower stories with limited shelf-lives. I call this FMCJ, for ‘fast moving consumer journalism’. Like fast moving consumer goods, the aim is to create a high volume of low cost media product to be quickly consumed and discarded.

Rather than prioritising investigation and analysis, FMCJ journalism rewards content that draws short-term attention whilst inspiring minimal reflection. It thus has much in common with the field of marketing, with the same use of catchy taglines and graphics to churn social-media sharing. Most journalists don’t want to be marketers though. They want to do meaningful reporting that makes a lasting impact. To do this, they need new outlets for publishing, and new ways to finance themselves.

Alternative model 1: Project-based journalism crowdfunding

So where does Palast get his financing from? He draws at least part of it from the Palast Investigative Fund, a non-profit fund that individuals donate to in order to support his ongoing muckraking. In essence it’s a personal crowdfunding site, enabling him to remain independent.

Drawing on one’s readers for direct financial support has grown much easier in an age of digital communication, and established crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo have been used to this end already. For example, Peter Jukes recently raised £14 552 on Indiegogo to live tweet the UK Phone Hacking trial. Likewise, journalism startup Matter raised $140 201 on Kickstarter, allowing them to fund long-form pieces to be published on the Medium platform. Indiegogo and Kickstarter are generalist platforms for raising money, but even more interesting are those sites that offer niche services and support for journalism in particular.

Take, for example, Indie Voices, which aims to match up independent journalists in the developing world with readers – or ‘social investors’ – who wish to fund them. The Indie Voices team curates the process, only allowing media projects (including documentaries and articles) that seek to improve the media landscape in developing countries. Projects can then seek contributions in the form of donations, and, in the future, in the form of no-interest loans, low interest loans and equity investments (where funders buy ‘shares’ of ownership in a media project such as a film).

A second example is Inkshares. Unlike Indie Voices, which is explicitly political in nature, Inkshares is open to anything from science writing to children’s stories. Initially set up with the aim of creating an equity crowdfunding platform for books, Inkshares now also provides a donation-based crowdfunding platform for thoughtful long-form articles. And unlike normal publishing, the author retains the rights to the work that gets funded, which means they can also publish the material elsewhere.

Alternative model 2: Subscription-based crowdfunding

The shortcoming of sites like Indie Voices though, is that they’re really geared towards once-off projects. What if you wish to run a year-long investigation of tax havens, during which time you plan to run a series of 12 articles? Do you try raise the whole lot in one go, or run 12 separate crowdfundings?

One startup with an interesting solution for this is Beacon Reader. Rather than funding a once-off project by a particular writer, Beacon Reader is a platform for writers to collect paid subscribers who will offer an ongoing stream of support. While a normal crowfunding project only succeeds if a minimum amount of money is raised, a Beacon Reader crowdfunding campaign succeeds if a certain amount of people (normally 25-100) pledge to pay you $5 a month on an ongoing basis, in exchange for ongoing access to your stories, but also access to all the other stories on the site.

Backing a particular writer on Beacon is thus a gateway into a broader subscription to the work of the whole Beacon writer collective. It feels loosely like a kind of writers co-operative, but a competitive one in which writers have to earn their place (and a share of the resultant income stream) by securing a certain number of new subscribers (and to continue building more subscribers over time). Writers get 70% of their subscribers’ cash, and the surplus goes into a collective bonus pot to reward those whose stories receive the most recommendations, thereby incentivising consistent high quality writing.

Crucially though, the writer still owns the rights to the pieces produced, and they can be published elsewhere or sold on to media outlets to further monetise their work. This might be a great option for a writer looking to work through a big issue in small chunks, and who needs stable baseline support to cover their basic costs whilst waiting to get the pieces accepted by bigger publications.

A second attempt at a subscription model is Uncoverage, which is being set up by Israel Mirsky. Mirsky, recognising both the increasing marginalisation of investigative journalism, and professional journalists’ need for ongoing financing (‘serial funding’), is explicitly targeting the site at professional investigative journalists. Like Beacon, the goal is to establish a subscriber base for individual journalists, but unlike Beacon the ambition is also to create an ‘open, lean newsroom’ that provides a suite of key services like fact-checking, editing, legal support and technology solutions.

Alternative model 3: The ‘credit union’ approach

In the examples discussed above, the ‘crowd’ is mostly conceived of as readers who wish to financially support the quality journalism they enjoy. What if the crowd was given a closer role in the actual article production process though? That’s what Contributoria attempts to add in. When one becomes a member, you get the right to pitch articles to be funded, but also to financially support other’s articles, and to offer editorial advice to those who you’ve backed.

It thus has the feeling of a true writers’ co-operative, or perhaps a credit union for journalism in which members support each other. This very article, for example, was originally pitched on Contributoria, but in joining I got to vote for other articles I want to see, including Joel Benjamin’s guide to Freedom of Information requests, and Dom Aversano’s exploration of city soundscapes. This also gave me the right to provide input into those articles. As a user of the platform I am thus a hybrid between a receiver of funding, and giver of funding, a receiver of editorial services and giver of editorial services.

Right now though, Contributoria is in beta phase, and is free to join, which means it still hasn’t started asking members to pay dues. It will be fascinating to see how the process is managed going forward. Could it become a vibrant self-sustaining community of writers, readers and editors, or will members’ dues need to be supplemented with money from external sponsors? Another key question is how to incentivise members to devote time to checking each other’s articles. Could editors and writers team up to be funded together?

Democratic commons in commercial context

The diverse crowfunding platforms discussed above have a number of common themes. Firstly, they set themselves against both corporate-backed media (in developed countries) and state-backed media (in developing countries) by offering a technological means to decentralise funding, and thereby to ‘democratise journalism’.

Their claim to democratisation rests on the assertion that they both maintain independence of journalists, but also give voice to journalists that might otherwise be ignored. This message is complemented by the claim that this can be a sustainable way of financing high quality journalism (after all, a platform might be democratic, but that’s no guarantee of quality or long-term viability).

Secondly, the platforms are converging on a model of prepayment by some, for the common benefit of all. In contrast to the buyer of a magazine, who purchases content once it is produced (and thereby pays back the original financiers and publisher), the crowdfunding backer in essence prepays for material that will be developed in the future, and thereby brings production of the material into being.

That said, although the core body of funders bring an article to life, they frequently do not have exclusive access to the material, but rather subsidise the broader public who will get access to the stories too (via, for example, the articles being published elsewhere on a Creative Commons license). In essence, private individuals are holding the commons open for others to use, in much the same way as Wikipedia gets supported by donations from a small percentage of its users.

Interesting, and potentially conflicting, commercial dynamics emerge from this. We could argue that what the crowd is actually doing is shielding a writer from normal media commissioning processes – whether those are corporate or state led – maintaining the independence of the journalist to the point where an article is ready to be released into the public. In the cases where the journalist retains the rights to the article though, and the resultant piece is then sold on, we could also argue that the crowd is subsidising media companies who would otherwise have to take on the risk of commissioning work.

If this was to become widespread practice, we could begin to see a separation of journalism production from distribution. Platforms like Uncoverage might begin to serve a role analogous to a literary agent, providing a platform to develop quality journalism which is then cherrypicked by publishing outlets. We could conceivably even see the emergence of journalism ‘offtake agreements’, media companies offering advance guarantees to publish content if it gets initially funded by the crowd.

The reader as creative producer

But what kind of reader is prepared to fund articles which may then be used by the broader public or potentially even commercial media outlets? Perhaps it is a new sort of reader, seeking a more active, creative role.

The irony of our information-saturated era is that in the face of overwhelming amounts of content, people feel a sense of ‘opportunity cost’ to engaging with it, the perception that committing to reading anything must entail not reading something else which is also available. Thus, many people find themselves skimming a lot shallowly but reading very little deeply. It’s questionable whether a person browsing websites every day absorbs any more information than a person in 1897 with a single weekly newspaper.

The real question then, is how to create a society with wide access to diverse media, but one in which people actually engage with such media meaningfully. One might imagine, as a thought experiment, a giant benevolent foundation that funds all manner of amazing content, only to dump it into people’s already saturated Facebook newfeeds. True democratisation is not just about what content gets created. It’s about how people use and act on that content. Is an article about corporate fraud just another dramatic item in a stream of flickering entertainment passing by you each day, or is it actually something that might make you get out onto the streets to protest?

Creating a decentralised crowdfunding infrastructure perhaps offers one means of combining the creation of diverse content with a new means of connecting with it. People who have prepayed for content in the knowledge that they are helping to bring forth unique critical voices, are also people who wish to move past being mere passive consumers of media. Instead, they are hybrid producer-consumers with an interest in critically engaging with the content they helped bring to life. And perhaps it is in the development of this new type of participatory reader that the true democratic potential of crowdfunding lies.