Something got missed amongst the giddiness that accompanied the pump-’n’-dump, stack-‘em-pack-‘em-and-HODL-’em headlong rush to board the bitcoin rollercoaster.
It’s an important question, and yet it’s one that most are ready to scoff at, or at best, ignore.
It’s this: is it not important that we have something physical to spend?
And even if it’s not important, is it still really useful?
And even if it’s not really useful , what if it’s just… nice? Human? Real?
Do we lose something meaningful if we’re no longer interacting with each other using small brassy tokens, objects, or cyphers?
Money Money Money
Forget the currency we’ll be spending in the future for a moment - and picture tomorrow’s transactions where buying a tub of yoghurt or buying a yacht involves the same moribund tap of a card or a phone against something that eventually bleeps in confirmation.
And yes, yes, of course we’re almost there already.
Except for places like Berlin where cash is still, dubiously, king — a place where not only are attempts to pay with a contactless card met with bewilderment, but trying to pay with an Apple Watch is greeted with the kind of suspicion you may reserve for people who talk to lampposts — you can buy almost everything without hauling notes and coins around.
But you still own a wallet, because you still need cash: at market stalls, or when tipping, or when paying for black market goods or services.
But cryptocurrencies promise an intangible future: the currency is entirely non-physical at every point between inception and the heat death of the universe. No gold, no banks, no printing presses, no cash registers, no nothing.
And while Bitcoin itself may not be much cop to be used for small change transactions, other currencies like Ripple and Litecoin are designed for processing smaller transactions much faster, and ideal for buying, for instance, yoghurt. But it’s just more of the intangible same.
So before we enter into a terrifyingly pixellated world of QR codes, we should really ask if we want this - and what the other options are.
The desire for coins is bone-deep, even among Crypto enthusiasts. What else could explain the existence of physical-coin.com, where you too can buy an actual metal “bitcoin”? It's an enjoyable thing to roll between your fingers as you contemplate the utter meaninglessness behind your purchase of a gold-plated “bitcoin” for $12.99.
In fact, the most fascinating thing about companies trying to make a fast buck by firing up their mints one last time before crypto makes them obsolete is exactly how complicated things seem to get when you make physical cryptocoins.
Denarium is a company bravely bridging this particular gap, by not only making their Bitcoins out of solid gold, but also by making each physical coin a Bitcoin wallet that holds - yes - a Bitcoin.
It’s such a bonkers idea that it kind of makes sense: you hand over a load of money (on the day of writing it’s about €8,500) and they give you a nice solid gold coin and a bitcoin. Surely at least one of them will hold their value, right!?
Frankly, in 2018: who knows? It’s also worth noting that right now three-quarters of the price of the Denarium coin is for the Bitcoin, which sounds like the final paragraph of a morality tale waiting to be written.
Still, Denarium are selling plenty of them, and why not, because as they breathlessly assert on their website, this is their, “latest coin, which we believe to be one of the greatest physical bitcoins of all time… we believe bitcoin is digital gold and this coin is a great way to combine both traditional gold and digital gold.”
See - if the efforts of these companies can’t kill off physical coins, then surely it stands to reason that it must be because we humans want shiny things to hold and collect.
Love don’t cost a thing
One of the attractive things about cryptocurrencies is that they’re “anonymous” - you can use them to buy drugs and no-one knows it’s you! Except that they’re kinda not antonymous at all, as this Bloomberg article makes clear:
“Bitcoin has already turned out to be in some ways uniquely bad at hiding money, because the blockchain is a ledger of every transaction; if you can trace an account to a real person, you know exactly what they’ve bought.”
And not unlike the Stasi operatives who reassembled shredded documents to find out what people had really been doing, it just takes someone with enough patience to draw the lines between these transactions.
So it’s only really cash — cold, hard, used, greasy, non-sequential, stacked-and-stuffed-into-a-suitcase, laundered-through-a-strip-club cash — that’s truly anonymous. I don’t know who has had my €10 note before I use it, what they did with it, who they gave it to, or what they’ve transferred onto it with their fingers, and I don’t want to either.
Oh, and speaking — as we were — of strip-clubs, before you even ask - yes, Rule 34 applies, and there are enterprising dancers at Las Vegas’ Legends Room Strip Club wearing temporary QR code tattoos on their thighs in order to receive payment in Crypto. And such is the fluctuation of the currencies that your three-minute dance could be a bargain, or a rip-off, by the time “Pour Some Sugar On Me” finishes. Trust crypto to find a way to make a lap dance more thrilling.
While the idea of dancers getting paid a lot more for their work is A Good Thing in MONTAG’s book (assuming the crypto markets start rocketing again), and scanning a dancer’s butt to pay her in magic money might sound fun, wouldn’t all parties involved simply prefer to use paper money?
Let’s get physical
There’s something to be said for the innate sense of consequence that comes with paying with objects like coins and notes. The difference is easily… tangible: your wallet is that bit thinner, your pocket that bit lighter, the jingle just that bit quieter.
It’s simply a bit easier to spend money when payment is a mere card-tapping intangibility. If this is something we have all experienced to a degree when buying something expensive with a debit card (“24-month extended warrantee for an extra €45? Sure!”) then imagine paying for large things with crypto. At least with a debit card, you can picture a stack of bills vanishing from your bank account. This is a lot harder with a crypto transaction - does any mental image appear at all? What does a blockchain look like?
One company wants to make your payments more physical. NewDealDesign’s Scrip is partly designed with this in mind - using the Scrip is “something inefficient that people really do have to pay attention to, that’s quite literally trying to stimulate the pain receptors in your body.”
”Scrip perfectly bridges the gap between the convenience of digital and the need for physical, bringing fiscal responsibility back into our hands.”
The Scrip is a beautiufl obvject alright.But it's also painful. NewDealDesign’s boss, Gadi Amit, says that, as studies show that spending money triggers actual, measurable physical pain in the brain, he was aiming to design a product that causes a small amount of pain: “something inefficient that people really do have to pay attention to, that’s quite literally trying to stimulate the pain receptors in your body.”
The Scrip is a hypothetical device, but if made, it could be immediately connected to your boring old bank account - the tech is not really any different to tapping your contactless card.
Until the Scrip becomes real, dull, impersonal contactless payments remain the norm. So is there really no way to bridge this gap between our desire for tactility and convenience? It turns out that, if you look back into some of the main conceptual ideas behind crypto, there might be a solution.
The Funds Of Brixton
If crypto can be considered to be fundamentally the same as old-fashioned physical currencies, why can’t physical currencies ape cryptocurrencies?
The Brixton Pound is by most measures, just as far removed from “real” money as much as a cryptocurrency is — down to how you buy it, spend it, and what it represents. But it works.
Like buying a cryptocurrency, you take fiat currency (pound sterling) and buy Brixton Pounds with it. And the wider point of the Brixton point is not too dissimilar to that of an ICO. The Brixton Pound has a mission that is ring-fenced around a project: in this case, to keep money within Brixton, and grow the community, in which the Brixton pound spender has an investment.
And how does the paper money feel? Well, it looks great: like a tiny piece of art that you carry in your pocket. And that’s because it is: notes are designed by local, Brixton-based artists like the Turner-Prize-winning Jeremy Deller. They celebrate the region by featuring socially-important landmarks and embrace the roots of the local culture, sporting the images of activist Lenford Kwesi Garrison and basketball star Luol Deng.
The Brixton Pound has a lot of the benefits of both worlds and it wouldn’t take a genius to fork off a Brixton Bitcoin.
So keeping the ultra-anonymity of paper money might be a prudent idea, because as Bloomberg noted recently, "perhaps the biggest weakness [of crypto coins], however, is that if bitcoin really turns out to be a good way to keep governments from controlling their economies and their citizenry, then governments will crush it.”
Would governments really do all this scary crushing? Yes, they sure would, says futurist Michael Spencer:
“Let’s face it, the decentralized blockchain and the Crypto singularity is one of the most dangerous ideas to centralized states and threats to monopolized governments, big players in the financial system and some of the richest and most powerful people on the planet.”
So: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Your coins might jangle or they might be an incomprehensible string of ones and zeros, but be sure that your government wants to keep a close eye on them. And if you care about that you might want to stuff some piles of money into your mattress - while you can still get your hands on them.