The Future of Digital Currencies

“Ah but it’s Digital now”. “Digital” a word whose origins lie in the latin digitalis, from digitus (“finger, toe”); now it’s use is synonymous with computers and televisions, cameras, music players, watches, etc, etc, etc. But what of digital money or even digital democracy?

The printing press caused a revolution in its time, hailed as a democratic force for good by many. Books available to the masses was indeed a revolution; and now we also have e-books and technological devices to read them with. The fact that the original words have been encoded into a numerical form and decoded back to words electronically does not mean we trust less the words we are reading, but we may still prefer the aesthetics of a physical book than a piece of high-tech plastic which needs to have its battery charged to keep working. Can digital currencies such as bitcoin really provide a contribution to positive social change in as spectacular a way?

To answer this we must ask what of money, how are we to understand it, use it and incorporate it into a sustainable model of a ‘better world for all?’ Money, unlike any other form of property, is unique in that it may be used for anything prior to an event even occurring. It implies nothing, yet can be used for great good or great evil, and yet it is only what it is despite its many manifestations and consequences. It is a unique but much misunderstood and misused commodity. Money has the simplicity of facilitating buying and selling, and a mathematical complexity as demonstrated by the financial markets; and yet it has no notion of egalitarianism, moral or ethical decision making. It acts as an autonomous entity, yet it is both endogenous and exogenous to the global community. It has no personality and is easily replaceable, yet it is treated as a finite resource in the global context, its growth governed by a set of complex rules which determine the way in which it may behave. Yet despite this the outcomes are never completely predictable and, furthermore; a commitment to social justice and an aversion to moral turpitude is not a requirement of its use.

In order for a currency to effectively perform the financial functions required of it, the intrinsic-value of money has to be a commonly held belief by those who use it. In November 2013 the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs acknowledged that virtual currencies are a legitimate means of payment, an example of such is Bitcoin. Due to the very low transaction fees charged by the ‘Bitcoin network’ it offers a very real way to allow the transfer of funds from migrant workers sending money back to their families without having to pay high transfer fees currently charged by companies. A European Commission calculated that if the global average remittance of 10% were reduced to 5% (the ‘5×5’ initiative endorsed by the G20 in 2011), this could result in an additional US$ 17 billion flowing into developing countries; the use of the blockchain would reduce these fees near to zero. These money transfer companies who extract wealth from the system may become dis-intermediated through the use of such an infrastructure.

Probably the most important point to note about cryptocurrencies is the distributed and decentralised nature of their networks. With the growth of the Internet, we are perhaps just seeing the ‘tip of the iceberg’ in respect of future innovations which may exploit undiscovered potential for allowing decentralisation but at a hitherto unseen or unimaginable scale. Thus, whereas in the past, when there was a need for a large network it was only achievable using a hierarchical structure; with the consequence of the necessity of surrendering the ‘power’ of that network to a small number of individuals with a controlling interest. It might be said that Bitcoin represents the decentralisation of money and the move to a simple system approach. Bitcoin represents as significant an advancement as peer-to-peer file sharing and internet telephony (Skype for example).

There is very little explicitly produced legal regulation for digital or virtual currencies, however there are a wide range of existing laws which may apply depending on the country’s legal financial framework for: Taxation, Banking and Money Transmitting Regulation, Securities Regulation, Criminal and/or civil law, Consumer Rights/Protection, Pensions Regulation, Commodities and stocks regulation, and others. So the two key issues facing bitcoin are whether it can be considered as legal tender, and if as an asset then it is classed as property. It is common practice for nation-states to explicitly define currency as legal tender of another nation-state (e.g. US$), preventing them from recognising other ‘currencies’ formally as currency. A notable exception to this is Germany which allows for the concept of a ‘unit of account’ that can therefore be used as a form of ‘private money’ and can be used in ‘multilateral clearing circles. In the other circumstance of being considered as property the obvious discrepancy here is that, unlike property, digital currencies have the capacity of divisibility into much smaller amounts. Developed, open economies are generally permissive to digital currencies. The USA has issued the most guidance and is highly represented on the map below. Capital controlled economies are effectively by definition contentious or hostile. As for many African and a few other countries the topic has not yet been addressed.

Starting from the principles of democratic participation it is immediately apparent that bitcoin does not satisfy the positive social impact component of such an objective in so far as its value is not one it can exert influence over but is subject to market-forces. However any ‘new’ crypto-currency may offer democratic participation when the virtual currency has different rules of governance and issuance based upon more socially based democratic principles.

So what if a “digital” currency could provide a valid alternative to existing forms of money in performing the role of contributing positively to: the goals of promoting a socially inclusive culture, the equality of opportunity and the promotion of mutualism; which as their very name implies are alternative and/or complementary to an official or national sovereign currency? Virtual cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin are a new and emerging dynamic in the system; though in their infancy, the pace of innovation in the field of cryptocurrencies had been dramatic.

There are many factors which determine the ‘effectiveness’ of money to bring about positive social and environmental change; pervading political ideology, economic environment, the desire of local communities and individuals to pursue alternative social outcomes whilst seeking to maximise economic opportunity, building of social capital, and many others. If a local digital currency could be designed to build extra resilience into a local economy and improve economic outcomes then introduction on a more widespread basis merits investigation. When the current economic system fails to deliver it is manifested in such ways as: increased social isolation, higher crime rates, physical dereliction, poor health, a lack of a sense of community, amongst other undesirable social impacts.

The future is digital?