Once the enfant terrible of the monetary marketplace, Bitcoin has become achingly mainstream. The square-jawed Winklevii, (identical) poster-children of the 1%, now control 1% of the Bitcoins in circulation and, while money can’t buy you love, Bitcoins can get you an A-list OkCupid subscription.
Whether you’re bullish about Bitcoin or can’t bear the thought of it, the recent flurry of coverage around the virtual currency has highlighted the extent to which technology is disrupting our relationship with money, and changing our attitudes toward who should be creating and controlling it. A recent survey commissioned by Contagious, the trends consultancy I work for, found that 45% of 25-34-year-olds in the U.S. would be happy to use a currency issued by a private entity or brand and 36% of them would be comfortable if sovereign currencies were replaced altogether.
A future in which Dannon Dollars jingle against Pepsi Pesos and RuPaul Rupees may sound farfetched but it is far from fantastic; we are already beginning to see branded currencies gain traction. Last year, for example, Nike created an online auction in Mexico in which the only form of payment accepted was the miles you’d run. The distances logged by the Nike+ system were converted into “money” you could buy Nike products with. While the auction may have been limited in scale it offers a glimpse into the potential of NikeFuel, the brand’s proprietary data metric. And, as wearable fitness devices proliferate, more currencies related to physiological and behavioral data could be on their way.
It might be some time before we’re all buying our groceries with NikeFuel, but other forms of branded currency are already ingrained in the payment landscape. In parts of Africa, pre-paid mobile airtime acts as a de facto currency, with its attractions mirroring those of Bitcoin: It isn’t linked to an individual government’s stability, and it can often be traded anonymously. Like Bitcoin, the use of airtime as money has raised the shackles of regulators, worried about the ramifications of networks effectively issuing their own currency.
The use of airtime as money is particularly prevalent in Zimbabwe, where rampant hyperinflation forced dollarization in 2009. The effect of this is a shortage of small denominations, meaning shoppers are frequently short-changed: A situation that has resulted in shouting matches and physical fights. “I have been slapped a few times for not having change,” one bus conductor told AFP last year. Coming to the aid of bus conductors across the nation, Harare-based startup Yo! Time launched a service that let people redeem change as mobile phone airtime. As of January, Yo! Time was processing more than 9,000 payouts a day for clients; six months previously the figure was 2,000.
Egypt’s retail landscape suffers many of the same denominational difficulties as Zimbabwe, with shop owners routinely substituting small change with low value items like gum. Noting the frustrations this frequently caused, mobile network operator Vodafone advanced its Micro Recharge pre-pay cards, priced between 5 and 30 British Pence, as a solution. Dubbing them “Fakka”–Egyptian for small change–and designing the cards to be small enough to fit into cash registers, Vodafone went about positioning them as an alternative form of cash.
A future in which “one country, one currency” is replaced by “one corporation, one currency” may sound like something out of an abandoned David Foster Wallace fiction, but the idea is not particularly novel. Until 1913, and the advent of the Federal Reserve Bank, much of the money circulating in the United States was privately issued. It is estimated that in 1860 there were more than 1,600 private corporations issuing banknotes in the U.S., and over 8,000 varieties of notes. Meanwhile government-issued currency accounted for less than 4% of the total money supply. While this period of free banking was once considered an era of “wildcat” banks, it is now generally acknowledged that price levels then were actually quite stable as compared to recent times.
Back in 1976, Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek advocated a complete separation of money and state, noting that there “is no justification in history for the existing position of a government monopoly of issuing money. It has never been proposed on the ground that government will give us better money than anybody else could.” Recent years and multiple debt crises have made this statement even more relevant. With faith in governments and central banks dipping we could very well be at the dawn of the privatization of money.
While “privatization” is a word that tends to immediately make social liberals foam at the mouth, allowing people to choose whichever form of currency they trusted most could well be a very good thing. In the best-case scenario it would function as a check against the government, forcing them to regulate money more responsibly. At the very least, it would add some color to the nation’s wallets. Forget dead white men on greenbacks….Beyonce Bucks anyone?
—Arwa Mahdawi is North American strategy director for Contagious Communications, New York. She also regularly contributes articles to The Guardian on technology and communications. Follow her on Twitter at @ArwaM.
More information about Contagious’s survey on attitudes to new currencies can be found here.
[[i]Image: Flickr user Hardchessesandyou]