When was the last time you thought about money? Sure, you pay your monthly bills—and budget and track of all relevant balances. But how often do users of money allow themselves to wonder about the nature of the medium of exchange the world is built around? Rachel O’Dwyer, a lecturer in digital cultures at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, has given the topic a lot of thought. She’s spent years talking to finance industry experts about and researching the dynamic history of financial exchange media. And she’s now condensed those insights into her new book Tokens: The Future of Money in the Age of the Platform.
The upshot: Although cash—i.e. notes and coins—once upon a time revolutionized the way the world conducted business, it’s only part of the story of modern commerce. Another tectonic shift is today underway as technology changes the way transactions are carried out. So are the old, reliable paper notes, as a result, destined to become just a historical footnote? IEEE Spectrum spoke with O’Dwyer about her book and what might be in the offing as transactions go digital and money ventures out beyond the nation state.
“This is something that really fascinates me about these tokens: they’re money or money-ish, but they’re also a kind of social currency or social media.”
—Rachel O’Dwyer, National College of Art and Design, Dublin
Rachel O’Dwyer on:
IEEE Spectrum: In your most basic definition, what is a token?
A token for her thoughts: Author Rachel O’Dwyer delivers new perspectives on the ancient medium of money.
Rachel O’Dwyer: Well, my definition of a token might not be everyone’s definition, but I understand token to be something that is kind of more and less than money. So, the standard economic definition of money is something that is a means of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value. And I feel like tokens are more, and they’re less than this. They’re less because money is designed to be fungible. It’s designed to be liquid and a means of exchange. Tokens tend to come with strings attached that place limits on their fungibility or their liquidity—special conditions about who can spend them or when or where. Amazon, for example, pays its Mechanical Turk workers outside of the U.S. and outside of India in gift card balances that can only be spent by the worker and only be spent on the Amazon store.
This is an example of a token—an example of them being less than money. But in some ways tokens are also more, in that people will use tokens, particularly in online communities, not only to spend, but also to communicate with one another, to brag, to troll, to “flex.”
In the U.S. you have Venmo, an extremely popular payment program where people obviously send each other money for things like rent. But they also “flex,” showing off about what they’re spending. They troll their ex-girlfriends and use it for stalking.
Dogecoin is a speculative currency, but it was also initially a token that users used to reward each other for socially valuable content online. And this is something that really fascinates me about these tokens: they’re money or money-ish, but they’re also a kind of social currency or social media.
“The earliest forms of exchange media weren’t money as we know it; they were tokens.”
In the book, you say tokens are like a genus, a taxonomic rank. Sort of like primates—which are, of course, an order. But following the primate analogy, money could be the homo sapiens among primates—part of the set, yet different in significant ways. If you see it differently, could you tell me how my analogy is flawed?
O’Dwyer: No, I think that’s a good analogy. Sometimes people think of tokens as a limited form of money or tokens being a subset of money. Whereas, if anything, I think of money as being a subset of tokens.
We tend to think about tokens being something that’s quite contemporary—something that reared its head with NFTs. But actually, tokens have always sort of ghosted the monetary economy and have been around before sovereign money, before publicly mandated money, before state-backed money. The earliest forms of exchange media weren’t money as we know it; they were tokens. Mesopotamian grain tokens featured the earliest forms of writing; they were these sorts of clay tokens that kept account of stored grain that was stored in these shared warehouses. And that’s not only the first examples of writing, but it’s also the first form of, I guess, accounting—and the first form of exchange media. They’re writing, they’re sort of proto-money, and they’re also tokens. People used the tokens to calculate what sort of shares you had of stored grain in these warehouses as a way of going into debt with other people.
Tokens are now smart or programmable, which is to say, the conditions governing their use, redemption, and transferability are hard-coded in an object.
So, tokens have been doing the job now mainly carried out by money since long before money existed.
O’Dwyer: Exactly. Tokens have been around, as I said, for millennia. We had alms for the poor in medieval Europe. So, these were relief tokens that were given to the poor to be exchanged for things like bread and charcoal and wine. And if you had this token, it not only gave you access to these subsistence goods, it also sort of marked you out as somehow being worthy of subsistence. There’s a whole long history of these sorts of relief tokens, where charitable institutions find ways of turning cash, which was seen as being a dangerous form of relief, into some kind of a special token with strings attached. So, this was a token that came not only with value, but with values or morality attached to it. In other words, How can we teach the poor about and good spending habits or good morals?
“We have increasingly programmed tokens, and they are encoding particular values into spending.”
In Ireland in the 1980s and the 1990s, alongside social welfare payments, we had a token called the butter voucher, which allowed people who were receiving social welfare payments to access butter. And what’s kind of interesting about the butter vouchers… When you talk to people over the age of 40 in Ireland, they’ll tell you all the things that you could access for a butter voucher besides butter. So, a shop would take them for cigarettes, for alcohol, and all sorts of things. Even though there was an attempt to encode different kinds of values and morality into food stamps or into these special tokens for the poor, often the poor and other everyday people had their own ways of getting around the terms and conditions of the tokens and making them work for themselves. And what we see today, obviously is that a lot of the times these conditions are now hard coded or programmed into tokens, because the tokens are increasingly digital. In the U.S., for example, now instead of food stamps, you have the EBT card. It’s an electronic card that basically just prevents people from buying things that aren’t sanctioned by the U.S. authorities for purchase through the food stamp program. So, you can’t buy hot deli meals, for example. You can only buy cold food. You can’t buy hygiene products. You can’t buy cigarettes or alcohol.
And there is there’s really no wiggle room in these new kinds of tokens. So, we have increasingly programmed tokens, and they are encoding particular values into spending. So, it’s an economic model that’s not just about who has access to credit or finance or money. It’s also encoding values at the point of transaction and the point of spending.
“We’ll probably continue to see platforms take money in more unexpected directions.”
You wrote that private money is inevitable, and the state’s role in money issuance will be absorbed by platforms with a legacy in processing data and programming behavior. So what do you see as the consequences of private entities such as Facebook being more and more in control of identity and commerce at that level?
O’Dwyer: I’m surprised if I said that it was inevitable, because I think what was very interesting about Facebook’s attempt to issue its own currency was the pushback by the state against private currency. When Facebook announced that it was going to issue its own token in 2019, I think a lot of people thought that battle was then fought and won—that we were witnessing a battle for control of money, and payments between the state and the platform, and the state prevailed. And at the moment that Facebook and other big platforms were poised to take control of currency issuance, stronger regulation and the development of proposals for state-backed digital currencies, or CBDCs, worked to suppress the expectation that platforms will issue and guarantee money in the future.
But I think where the balance falls is still very much unclear. In China, for example, Alipay and WeChatpay, which are two incredibly powerful and popular payment apps, have experienced very strong regulation by the Chinese government in recent…