With the backdrop of tumultuous financial markets, I did a presentation on a history of currency at Web 2 Expo in New York (In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably also mention that I was on the advisory board for the conference). None of the fundamentals I highlight in this will change as a result of the recent events in the US financial markets because most of the new drivers I highlight are emerging outside of the US and will probably have their first impact outside of the US too. With that said, I wanted to continue the discussion and expand on it with the readership of TNL.net and other people who may not have been able to make it to the presentation. I look forward to any comments.
So without further ado, here are my prepared remarks:
I know many of you are probably wondering why a history of currency would be on the program at a Web 2.0 conference. So let me first dispel a few concerns you may have:
So, in the next few minutes, I’m going to take you on a trip through roughly 60 centuries of history (just the highlights, I promise) and will show you how each major shift in the evolution of currency reflects what we consider pillars of the Web 2.0.
Having done so, I will attempt to take you through the next 25 years and project how Web 2.0 may fundamentally redefine how we think of currency, and present some of the challenges and opportunities this historical change may present.
So here we go…
About 4000-5000 BC, the basis of most trading was something called barter. Barter is simple to understand, really. At its most basic level, it goes something like this: “I have fish and you have some chickens. How many chickens will you trade me for my fish?”
The other guys says he will give me 5 chickens for my 10 fish and, if I feel it’s a fair trade, we make the exchange.
So that’s all good but one can’t live off fish and chicken alone. And eventually, I go back to the guy and he tells me he’s not interested in fish but if I can find a cow to sell him, he’d be willing to exchange 50 chickens for it. So now, I’m out looking for someone who will give me a cow in exchange of some fish.
That may work for a couple of goods but you can see how inefficient an approach it is.
Back then, people started realizing the same thing and so there was a move to find some way to simplify things. Communities started gathering around some goods that they would agree were useful as a basis for trade: grain, honey, rice, etc…
And, through these actions, the concept of money was born… and with it, the basis for what defines a currency was established:
Let me get into those points in more details before we move on.
A currency provides a standard measure of value for good and services. If I go back to my example of chickens and fish, I can look at currency as a go-between. By establishing that a fish is worth 1 pound of grain and a chicken is worth 5 pounds of grain, I can then extend the model to a cow is worth 100 pounds of grain and a house is worth 1 ton of grain. From this data, I can infer that a house is worth more than a cow, which is worth more than a chicken and so on…
However, none of this can happen if there isn’t an agreement amongst everyone that a particular currency has value. You could call that a certain wisdom of the crowds and that’s where currency starts overlapping with web 2.0. We’re going to get to more details about that later.
The second point is that a currency serves as a medium of exchange. Because everyone agrees that grain is a great way to make those comparisons, I don’t have to go around and try to make conversions from one item to another. I trade the item against grain and then can use the grain to â€œbuyâ€ something else. In that sense, I can exchange any good for grain and grain can be exchanged against any other goods.
Once again, this only works if people agree on it as a medium of exchange. And that, in turn, represents a form of metadata about a trade. Sort of like if people were to tag an item with the same term. And once again, we get to a position where it overlaps web 2.0 as the crowd is now working together to establish value and therefore define markets.
And because currency is metadata, it can also serve as a way to store value for future use. For example, if I fish, there’s only so long I can keep my fish before it spoils. By selling it immediately (ie. Trading it for its currency equivalent), I can avoid that spoilage and store its value for future use. So, in a sense, currency serves as a storage medium.
But the fact that it works as a storage medium can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. As storage for value, the currency itself become valuable. And when something is valuable, well, some people try to acquire it through means other than production. From here, we end up with theft, pillage, war, etc… And from all this carnage, we get to the point where people try to find ways to protect their currency (and, almost as often, their lives).
In around 3000 BC, in ancient Egypt, some people come to the insight that, by storing their currency together and agreeing to share the cost for an army to protect that currency (which, at the time, is grain), they may be protecting themselves from loss. Along the banks of the Nile, granaries start to appear and they become a place for storing currency: people come in with the grain they received as a form of payment for whatever it is that they sold. And the first accountants appear, keeping track of what amount of currency people have in their accounts.
Everybody is happy and celebrates as they have discovered a fantastic way to store their currency and keep people from threatening them. Across Egypt, people pat each others on the back until, well, until the first currency crisis.
Around 2200 BC, severe drought made grain more scarce. The result was that disbursements (taking grain out) started to move at a higher rates than deposits (putting grain in). And some people found themselves in a situation where they had spent all the grain they had and had a hard time producing anything they could sell. In this case, the value of the currency (grain) increased because the currency became more scarce.
Eventually, the problem affected the top of the economic food chain, aka. The pharaoh and, as a result, local people started opting out of pharaoh rule and attempting to take control of their own currency. When all was said and done, about 200 to 300 years later, grain was abandoned as a currency as it was considered that a currency that can be eaten is a currency that can have a problem. So metals, which could be turned into tools, which themselves could be melted again to turn them back to metals, started emerging as the dominant form of currency.
This is important because it finally moves currency to something that is more abstract. Metal may be a commodity that, without any work, could be considered of little value but, as an abstract construct of value, it works. And for the next few centuries, that’s the case.
Some interesting alterations in terms of the ways money is stored and carried happen during that era. For example, in a number of countries like China and Sweden initially, people realize that metal may not be the most portable of currency for large transaction and so places where currency is stored (now called banks, because, initially they were sitting on river banks) start issuing the equivalent of paper receipt for storage and people start trading those receipt. Here, we see the emergence of two key components of a more modern system:
With the move to paper, currency becomes sort of an I.O.U., representing a certain value but not possessed of that value in itself. This shift, called the shift to representative currency, is important because it establishes currency as an even more abstract concept. The piece of paper you receive is basically a receipt that can be redeemed for some equivalent amount of metal but it isn’t the metal in itself. So here, we see currency basically becoming free-floating metadata, asserting worth without necessarily showing it.
The problem is that the distance from a bank where the paper note can be redeemed becomes a factor in terms of exchanging the banknote.
Enter John Law.
Law is an interesting character: he’s a Scottish economist who, at age 23, shoots a man, is tried and found guilty of murder. He’s thrown in jail, manages to escape and lands in France. While there, he gambles a lot and comes upon two major observations:
From there, he deducts that whoever could control the flow of paper bills could start issuing more IOUs than they have metal for.
With this, he comes up with the concept of a reserve bank, assuming that he could have a bank with only 75 of the cash reserve needed to cover the IOUs it had issued. But there’s a problem with that: in order to control the flow of paper bills, he needs support from a government. And initially, most people think it’s a crazy idea and won’t go for it. But Law convinces some more junior people that it’s a good idea and, eventually, one of his patrons hits the jackpot: Philip D’Orleans rises to power and quickly realizes that he’s running a country where the government has a substantial deficit. So he puts Law in charge of creating a national bank and law sets out to create the first government controlled reserve bank, issuing more paper than it has metal currency for.
It’s a pretty radical idea. Law is dealing with a society where everyone agrees that what you see is what you get as far as currency goes but then he leverages the agreement that paper is a representation of what you get and, after having taken over control of the currency flow, he turns that into what you see is what you get if no one rushes the bank.
Because with his second insight, John Law creates the concept of fractional reserve banking, which basically means that the bank, at any given time, only holds a fraction of its obligation.
But fractional reserves can be a little scary: they work well as long as people trust that the bank can repay them. And most of the time that’s not an issue because while a person needs to pick up their gold or silver or whatever other metal the currency is traded against, another person probably doesn’t need his or hers. So it balances itself out in some sort of common good.
Where the system can fail is when everyone decides to take their metal out at the same time: remember, the bank doesn’t have enough metal in its safe to cover all the currency it’s distributed. That problem is actually an echo chamber problem.
A run on a bank, the situation I’m talking about, generally begins with a whisper: somebody has heard that the bank is having problem and concludes that money you’ve deposited there is no longer safe. That whisper starts spreading and, thanks to an echo chamber type of effect, people worry that their money is no longer safe in this bank. Since they don’t want to lose that money, they run to the bank and withdraw all their money from the bank. Problem is, they are not alone and quickly tens of thousands or more people start doing the same. Because of that massive onslaught, the bank no longer can meet its financial obligation and actually does fail.
This happened in the 1920s with the great depression and it’s happening now (that’s why the government is busy bailing out a number of financial institutions.
But let’s return to history. In the 1940s, after World War II, the Bretton Woods accord established some global rules for currency exchange against gold. But most of the reconstruction of Europe ended up being backed by US dollars to the point where the US held somewhere around 65 percent of the global gold reserves. In 1960, an economist called Robert Triffin figured out a problem with what had happened: there were more dollars in the marketplace than there was gold to back it up. In the early 60s, an ounce of gold was worth about four to five dollars more in London than it was in New York.
Due to many political and economic events throughout the 60s, the possibility of a run on gold and a run on the dollar started increasing and on March 17, 1968, the possibility became reality, creating a substantial money crisis. The whole financial system teetered on the edge of collapse during that era and eventually, the Bretton Woods accord was abandoned. On August 15, 1971, US president Richard Nixon announced that the US would no longer convert dollars to gold. In fact, he added the US would not convert dollars to anything.
That announcement is appropriately called the “Nixon Shock” because with it, Nixon puts an end to the concept of a representative currency established by John Law. In its place is now the concept of a Fiat currency, a currency that is traded not because it has a guaranteed value but because the government says that this currency MUST be accepted as a form of payment.
And so currencies now float, not based on a physical value but based on what people think that value ought to be: today, dollars, euros, pounds, and yens have a particular value not because it is set against actual goods but because people believe that the government that backs those currencies will continue to do so in the future.
So let’s go back to our fundamentals of currencies: they have to be an agreement and that’s where we get to web 2.0 and its impact on currency.
Which gets us to more recent times. During web 1.0, a number of companies starting thinking that the internet, because it was global in nature, needed a global type of currency. So technologies like Digicash, Cybercash, Ecash, Flooz, Beenz, appeared in an attempt to mirror cash and create new currencies.
But they had many problems. First of all, the different systems were hard to use, often requiring software to be installed on the users’ machine. That limited participation and, if you remember one of the fundamental rules of currency creation is that users generally agree on using a common currency.
The second part was that the systems actually went too far in trying to emulate cash. So, just as you need to go to an ATM to get cash today, most of the system used the concept of a purse that was to be refilled from a different area. But why go to an ATM to withdraw cash when you’re on the Internet? Why not say, “I have money in my account, refill my wallet if it’s empty. ”
The third, and probably most important part, was that once spent, the currencies were transferred back into some real world currencies like the dollar or pound sterling (and no euros because this is all happening before the euro became a consumer currency.) That was the biggest mistake because currencies weren’t really traded.
The dotcom bubble crashed and, along with it, most of the virtual currencies that had been introduced. It wasn’t a very big deal because people didn’t hold much money in those currencies.
Meanwhile, a parallel development having absolutely nothing to do with currency creation took form across the internet: because of its global outreach, the net was a perfect place for people to play games together. At any given time of day or night, there was always someone interested in a game of chess or backgammon or something else. Some games went beyond the basic board games and leveraged the concept of role playing games that had been so attractive to so many computer geeks.
And over the years, as computers became more powerful, the quality of the graphics improved. And as the games improved, new point systems were created for each quest allowing to trade work (game-related achievements) for goods (better weapons, magic potions, housing, etc..)
Those points took various forms. So games like World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings online, which are set in a medieval-like type of environment, turned to gold as their achievement point systems. Linden Lab, with created Second Life, created the Linden Dollar, and so on and so forth.
But then… then something really unexpected by most of the game makers happened: people started exchanging those virtual currencies for real world ones. Looking back now, it seems to make total sense: the challenge, for a lot of those games, is that it takes a lot of time to acquire virtual currency.
Here, in the developed world, time tends to be at a premium. Most of us are multitasking constantly because we just don’t have enough time to do everything that we would like to. But because we spend a lot of time working or doing other things, we don’t have much time to play games. On the other hand, we tend to have more disposable income than people in underdeveloped countries.
For example, in 2005, the average annual salary (and let me make this clear, I’m talking average annual salary) for a Vietnamese worker was 1200 dollars. That’s 1200 dollars a year. That same year, in the Guangdong province of China, that number was $2,778.
Some of those people are in their early 20s and when they get out of work, they go out and spend some of their money to play video games. At some point, a few entrepreneurs around southeast Asia realized that if they paid ANYTHING to those players, they might be able to get past some of the more boring tasks and resell the accounts to people with little free time. A new economic model was born and all of a sudden, World of Warcraft gold started getting traded against US dollars and euros.
Students of currency history could have predicted this. Remember, currency is a social agreement on the value of something and here, those virtual currencies became an agreement on a value of time.
While initially the phenomenon was one of supply arising from southeast Asia to meet North American and European demand, it eventually went around full circle. When China decided to start requiring that people register their work occupation as “virtual workers” for people dealing with that type of trade, over 750,000 people applied in the first quarter. That’s three quarters of a million people in China alone claiming to make the majority of their living from creating goods they sell against virtual money.
And Asia is where it actually gets very interesting because frictions between the government and virtual currencies are becoming more common.
Meet Tencent. Cute little penguin, right? Well, that little penguin is currently at war with the Chinese government. It started relatively innocuously. Tencent provides an IM system and offered a virtual currency, the QQcoin, to be used so one could upgrade their online avatar (an avatar is basically what your online character looks like) and allow for people to give gifts to other avatars. Not a big problem until a few other web sites started accepted QQcoins as payment for services, and eventually for goods. In May 2007, the Chinese authorities started issuing warnings about the QQcoin. By November 2007, they were blaming it for impacting the Yuan, the national currency.
That industry, which people have called the virtual world economy, real money trade, or RMT, currently represents anywhere between 2 and 4 billion US dollars of transaction flow a year. That’s up from inexistent less than 5 years ago.
So let’s keep that number in our minds and move to the next set of influences Web 2.0 is having on currency. As you know, Web 2.0 in increasingly about giving power to the user and increasing peer to peer relationships.
I talked earlier about the virtual currencies that popped up during the web 1.0 phase. There was one company which, at that time, came up with the idea of moving currency from one Palm device to another. For those of you in the audience who may not remember that time, Palm devices where the spiritual grandfathers of the iphone or most smartphones today. Well, the Palm thing didn’t work out for them, so they figured they’d start moving money via email. Oh, and they renamed the company around the name of the product: Paypal.
I think everyone here knows the rest of the story. Paypal has become a leader in moving money on a person to person basis with something as simple as an email address in terms of identification. That simplified transactions and many people around the world are actually using paypal today to move money from one currency to another.
And while many may snicker at the idea that moving money from something as ridiculous as the Palm, well, it was just a question of timing and marketplace. Currently, in Kenya, M-PESA is doing the equivalent of 10 million US dollars in daily person to person transaction on mobile.phones. That 3.6 billion dollars a year.
That’s real currency right now but why does it have to be a real one? After all, it’s just virtual money as it moves from an electronic device to another.
Meanwhile, marketplaces like prosper.com and zopa have started allow users to make loans to each other via a web interface. It’s called peer-to-peer lending, basically, people lending money to other people, or as most of those companies claim, they’re Ebay for money.
According to the online banking report, it will be a US$9 billion a year business by 2017.
That’s real currency right now but why does it have to be a real one? After all, it’s just virtual money as it moves from an electronic device to another.
So if we take the trends we’ve just explored:
We may be able to come up with the conclusion that where this is going, in the long run, is an area where exchanges could be set up either online or on mobile devices to use virtual currencies are real currencies.
And if we assume that this first step is possible, then it’s not too far away from the next step, which is an explosion in the number of currency offerings we may see in this world.
What we’re seeing here is the first shot in what I think is the next evolutionary step in the history of currency and it’s an evolution that could either be a transitional phase without major disruption or a massive change in the way people are interfacing with currency: this could be our generation’s Nixon Shock.
The issues around this new world are significant.
The first issue is around who is controlling those currencies. For most of history, currency was under the control of the currency issuer. But in the last couple of centuries, there’s been an increasing trend towards government control of currency.
How will government react when their own currency is challenged? And will their reaction matter? After all, the Chinese governments actions to date, as far as the QQ is concerned haven’t stopped trading.
What will happen in terms of tax collections? Will government have to start accepting currencies beyond their own as agreed form of payments? And if they accept other forms of currency, will they have to accept other government-run currencies as form of payment?
How will criminal behavior be dealt with? Today, criminal elements can be tracked because whenever they have to deal with some currencies, they have to eventually deal with banks. And because banks are regulated, criminal behavior can be intercepted. What happens when those money flows move outside of the financial institution control? Shouldn’t governments think about regulating those institutions as money transfer operations ?
What happens when the number of currency explodes? Sure, computer systems can do the conversion without problems but how will WE assess the worth of a currency?
And, as currency initially proliferate, there will eventually be a move towards an agreed upon set of new currencies because remember that currency is ultimately, about an agreement value by all of us. But when some of those currencies die, what will happen to the people holding them? Will the dead currencies be converted to emergent ones? And what happens if the dead currencies are ones that were controlled by governments? Will they fight for survival?
I unfortunately don’t have any of the answer to those questions but if there is one thing I know, it is that where questions exist, opportunities abound.
And with that said, I would now like to open up the floor for discussion.
© Tristan Louis 1994-present Some rights reserved.