Over the summer I have been watching, open-mouthed, at the news of Worldcoin. At first appearance this is a common-or-garden cryptocurrency, promoted by the OpenAI guru, Sam Altman. But it comes with a uniquely dystopian method of verification: The Orb, a sleek, shiny sphere that holds a digital lens that your level with your eye in order to record your biometric data. Basically, it is a radical method in order to find out that you are not a machine. There is a stomach-churning moment when you realise what is actually going on here. it was not about the coin at all, but a means to gather a global harvest of bio-data. This is a mirror world, where money-ish tokens have taken the place of currency, and the value of the transaction is often the data that the exchange produces.
Just last month, it was announced that Tokens had been longlisted for The Financial Times Business Book of the Year, 2023. This is not just a testament to Rachel’s brilliant work to explain this new wonderland, one that seems to exist on the other side of the mirror. But as she would often tell me as we were editing, this was not a business book. It was a book about our cultural moment, where the marketplace has saturated every corner of our lives, warping our every interaction. This includes all the parts that money – coins and notes – do not reach.
This is a world I find utterly bemusing. I knew I was no longer in Kansas when I read this line on the first page of the book about a Twitch streamer:
‘For Amouranth, a popular hot tub streamer with a side-line in equestrianism, 2000 bits will see her don a horse’s head mask and trot around the set astride a sweeping brush.’
Bits are the currency used on the Twitch platform. Its money, but not: money-ish, if you like. But used as a means of exchange that seeps between the cracks of the online economy.
Wherever you look money is being replaced by tokens. These are digital assets, issued by the platforms, that can be traded, but also offer news types of relationships, forms of ownership and governance. Bitcoin, Dogecoin, Twitch bits, as well as other forms of value such as airtime, special access, data are the new money within an evolving economy. Platforms are now paying in tokens rather than cash - academics are now being given amazon gift cards rather than pay rises. Performers create Amazon wishlists where customers buy you things instead of payments. How can we value WeChat’s system of red packets? Or the madness of crypto-currency? Is this a liberation or a dangerous warning of the future?
When did you last feel the weight of coins in your pocket, or the fold of notes in your wallet? Since COVID 19, it feels as if money has disappeared. Was this the result of the pandemic or is something else going on here?
This is a book about the future of currency. That money is now being replaced by all different types of tokens. This is not just a new form of money but a revolution in the way that we interact with each other. The consequences of this are profound, however: what role does the state have if it can no longer regulate the economy? Are digital tokens a form of programmable surveillance? As crypto crumbles around us, is this new economy anything more speculative than sports betting? And, finally, who the hell is buying NFTs and why? Slurping Apes, anyone?
This mirror world needs unpacking, and Rachel has proved to be the perfect guide. She is a lecturer in Digital Cultures in the National College of Art and Design, Dublin. She was previously a Research Fellow in Connect, Trinity College Dublin, a Government of Ireland Post-doctoral Research Scholar and a Fulbright Scholar at UC Irvine. It is this suite of different areas of interest – design, technology, politics – that are needed to make sense of what’s going on.
The book raises the question of who is in charge when you replace money with money-ish instruments. The crypto economy remains unregulated – and the ever-expanding list of criminal court cases, true crime podcasts, and damning CEO profiles – shows that this is worse than the wild west, it is a shark-infested dumpster fire that should be left to burn. But even if you prefer not to throw your money away on crypto, it is increasingly impossible not to be involved in the tokens-economy. The Platforms are dictating the use of currencies that they can monitor, sucking data as well as a user’s fee on each transaction. But it is not just private surveillence. In the UK the Home Office issues prepaid cards to UK asylum seekers that cannot be used to get cash; the AZURE card could only be used at certain shops.
When it comes down to it, money, as Rachel tells us, is based upon trust. I give you something and you pay for it with something that has an agreed value. That can then be used for the same amount elsewhere. What Tokens does brilliantly is to allow us to rethink our relationship to trust and value in surprising ways. But the book is also packed with fascinating stories – this is anything but a dry, business book. Brett Scott, author of the ground-breaking Cloud Money called it ‘A must read for anyone exploring the politics of Big Tech and Big Finance.’ While Mark O’Connell named it ‘endlessly fascinating . . .written with engaging style and deep intellectual rigour.’
For me, this is an essential book for Verso readers. It does that very difficult thing of being both engaged and entertaining – and very urgent. I think about it every time that I pay for something by tapping my phone and forget to think about the consequences.
Leo Hollis, Editorial Director
London, September 2023
Tokens: The Future of Money in the Age of the Platform by Rachel O'Dwyer is one of our October Verso Book Club reading selections! Find out more about the Verso Book Club here.
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