The Future Of Money: Bruce Sterling

When you are interested in magic, you might want to talk to a witch doctor, so when I started to think about the future of money, I thought I should talk to a science fiction author. Who better? As it so happens, I know one.

Bruce Sterling is a well-known science fiction author, perhaps best known for his contributions to what is now known as “cyberpunk”: near future, post industrial, dystopic settings with alienated loners struggling against megacorporations and artificially intelligent machines. He won Hugo Awards for “Bicycle Repainrman” and “Taklamakan”.

Sterling is responsible for a lot of neologisms, like “Spime” which he coined in 1994:

[via Word Spy]

The next stage is an object that does not exist yet. It needs a noun, so that we can think about it. We can call it a “Spime,” which is a neologism for an imaginary object that is still speculative. A Spime also has a kind of person who makes it and uses it, and that kind of person is somebody called a “Wrangler.” At the moment, you are end-using Gizmos. My thesis here, my prophesy to you, is that, pretty soon, you will be wrangling Spimes.

The most important thing to know about Spimes is that they are precisely located in space and time. They have histories. They are recorded, tracked, inventoried, and always associated with a story.

Spimes have identities, they are protagonists of a documented process.

They are searchable, like Google. You can think of Spimes as being auto-Googling objects.

—Bruce Sterling, “When Blobjects Rule the Earth,” SIGGRAPH, August 1, 2004

There are a lot of spimes in the world today: soda machines that dispatch trucks to refill them, xerox machines that diagnose paper jams and text message people to unjam them, and the Challenger space shuttle that twitters its position in space. Bruce saw all that coming.

Among a long history of projects and writing, he is now author of a blog at Wired Magazine, called Beyond The Beyond, where you can see the video of his talk from the recent Reboot conference in Copenhagen, which comes across as something like a graduation day speech. (I thought i was hilarious, but it incensed quite a few of my more serious techie friends.)

We chatted in Copenhagen over breakfast, and then we caught up a few days later, when I was back the States and he was in Torino, Italy.

Some highlights:

  • Bruce pointed me at Experientia and its head, Mark Vanderbeeken, an Italian group that has been exploring alternative money, and the website they have set up working with Heather Moore and the Vodaphone User Experience group, called KashKlash, for which Bruce provided the name. I plan to explore that site in depth.
  • Bruce uses two of his definitions to characterize two ends of the spectrum of possible scenarios.

    The first is Gothic Hightech, and he uses the example of Bernie Madoff, who wormed his way into the convention world of investment and banking, and boiled off $50B, leaving thousands wrecked. He seems to imply that this endlessly possible, and that an episode could be much more devastating. Or perhaps he’s suggesting the current Econolypse is no different? That handing over our money to the system is inherently dumb, a form of institutionalized and voluntary slavery?

    The second term is Favela Chic, decidedly low tech approaches taken by the dispossessed, outside the orbit of bourgeois society. These folks don’t line up with the world of banks, so they opt for paracurrencies, like cell minutes. He points out that the transfer of this sort of currency does not necessitate handing something over physically, like paper money. Like electronic fund transfers, you can give cell minutes to someone by just telling them a code to use. So it is an anonymous transfer. “No tax. Crosses international borders.”

  • He talked about Bernard NotHaus, the guy behind Liberty Dollars, a form of precious metal alternative currency. He attracted the interest of survialists, gold currency nuts, and so on. He’s been arrested by the Feds.
  • Bruce isn’t too big on the local currency movement, suggesting that there is something anti-immigrant and protectionist about it – an “aggressive regionalism” – that has sinister purposes. “It’s usually people who have lived there a long time, trying to make it hard for outside businesses to get in.” (This is one of the places where Bruce and I don’t see eye to eye, and it was obvious that my arguments about a more resilient local economy fell short of convincing him.)
  • It was interesting that Bruce compares the making of money in virtual worlds with Web business in general.
  • In response to me asking about the possible Big Brother overtones of having digital money – where all transactions could be traced by the state – he mentioned a Thomas Disch short story where after Mom cooked a nice meal for her husband and kids, they each tipped her “75¢” (with his unfailing ear for a detail that pushes the story by making it concrete). “At this point, every sort of human interchange has been rationalized into an economic activity, and there is no room left for an act of kindness.”

    Bruce suggests that a return to a feudal honor society could come about. I asked about a world of the near future with less governance, more rogue cities and regions. Will fiat currencies fall in use, and be replaced by commodities, like cell minutes, energy credits, or the like? Bruce argues that these regoins are parasitic on the more well-off, better managed areas that surround them or abut them. Bazaars emerge, he says. “I look to the Chinese model, by which I mean the offshore Chinese, not the communists.” He argues that they set up clan-based banking or production businesses, based on petty bourgeois activities. “There’s a certain rough justice in it [transactions in the bazaar sealed with a handshake], because you see the guy every week when your wife is there buying rutabagas.”

  • Bruce suggested that governments worldwide might drop all conventional taxes, and simply make their citizens pay fees for environmental impacts: for their CO2, their wastewater, the trash they make that isn’t recycled. That, he suggests, would lead to a rapid behavioral change.
  • My favorite Sterling quip follows an observation I made, where I suggested that in a future where paying via cell phone becomes commonplace then a large part of the economy might be streaming through cell networks. At which point, governments might want to step in and nationalize the cell networks since they threaten their control of the economy. Bruce said, “Or the phone companies may turn around and take over the government.”

A truly enjoyable experience, and thought provoking in unexpected ways, which is pretty much what I expected from Bruce Sterling, I guess.

The Future Of Money series is sponsored in part by

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