Professor Jem Bendell

notes from a strategist and educator on social and organisational change

Archive for January, 2014

Healing Capitalism

Posted by jembendell on January 31, 2014

Jem Bendell is a guru in the world of Corporate Social Responsibility and Corporate “Voluntarism”. And you need to be a guru to know just how empty and inadequate these concepts have now become. So prepare to have your cherished illusions unceremoniously set aside, and be forced to acknowledge that, when it comes to capitalism, there is no healing without a lot of pain.
Jonathon Porritt, Founder Director, Forum for the Future; author,Capitalism As If The World Matters

Radical thinking par excellence! Drawing on insights from multiple disciplines and ideological perspectives, Profesor Bendell shows how the corporate social responsibility agenda not only deployed an extremely blunt instrument – voluntary action – to reform capitalism but also missed the boat by ignoring core questions of economic governance. He directs our attention to the perverse nature of conventional monetary systems and the exciting potential of recent financial innovations to transform capitalism.
Peter Utting, Deputy Director, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)

Professor Bendell is a deep thinker among CSR experts and his last book was widely influential in helping practitioners understand CSR as a “social movement”. This new book completes a decade of analysis of initiatives in responsible business and finance. It is a useful resource for students new to this area, and an important source of reflection for those buried in the day-to-day work of CSR initiatives. It’s an opportunity for the reader to step back, look at the big picture and think about what has worked and what has not over the past decade. He argues that the “corporate responsibility movement” described in his last book must now address core questions of economic governance, including monetary systems, or be irrelevant in the tide of history. Some of his conclusions are radical, but they are usefully thought-provoking. Therefore, I recommend this book as an important addition to thinking on the topic.
Dr Anthony Miller, CSR Focal Point, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); co-founder, Sustainable Stock Exchanges Initiative

….Thanks to Ian Doyle of Lifeworth Consulting for writing this book with me 🙂

Hear me talk about it at the Ways with Words Festival.

Posted in Academia and Research, Corporations, Sustainable Development | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Davos Conversations on Bitcoin

Posted by jembendell on January 29, 2014

In Davos this year, things were different for me. In previous years delegates had looked confused when I explained I worked on currency innovation for sustainable development. This year, all I had to say is “I work on things like Bitcoin” and the conversation would flow. After all, people come to Davos thinking they will hear about big interesting things, and Bitcoin has some of that mystique now. Although the topic wasn’t on the official agenda, two big hitters brought it up and the media immediately conveyed their musings. Richard Branson said it was incredible.. while Shiller said it was probably a bubble. A case of seeing what you look for, perhaps, as Branson is the expert in looking for media savvy opportunities to make money, and Shiller is an expert in bubbles.

I was in Davos as one of their Young Global Leaders. I’m a critic of the Forum, but recognise its unique role as a meeting place and have benefited. By the end of Davos, Id given two media interviews about it and organised a Digital Currency Roundtable at the Hub Culture Pavilion. I even started to be introduced to people as Professor Bitcoin, so found it difficult to talk about anything else! The useful thing about such conversations is they help you to realise what people’s issues are and how to explain things in simpler terms. It was also good training for then going on ITV, RT and BBC to discuss Bitcoin. So here are the main questions and my typical answers.

What is Bitcoin?

It is best understood as two things. First, it is a big database of all transactions in the world using the bitcoin system, which any computer running the bitcoin software interact with. That’s called the blockchain, and it records who has got what and who is paying whom. This is effectively what the banks do for us already, but with bitcoin people can do it peer to peer via computers.

Second, is the bitcoin unit, which is traded for about 500 pounds per bitcoin at the moment. These units are what computers are rewarded with for maintaining that global database of transactions. The bitcoin unit is divisible by many decimal places, the smallest being called a Satoshi. That the bitcoin unit has increased in price so much has made bitcoin famous, but the real innovation that can transform payment systems and monetary systems in future is that global database.

The software that is behind the system was designed to only issue 21 million bitcoins. About 12 million of these are “mined” already. It is no longer possible for us to mine them without specialist computers running the fasted microchips. There are concerns that this form of issuance is neither fair nor very useful.

Is it really money?

 Money is a claim of future value from those who will accept it. So it is a unit that enables exchange, within a system of assumptions, norms, agreements, and beliefs. “All money requires belief” said Adam Smith. Per day, there is more money being transferred around the world via bitcoin now than by Western Union. Millions of users and tens of thousands of firms now accept it. So it appears to behave like a form of money. However, many governments are treating it like an electronic asset, rather than a currency.

For me, a currency is any metric denoting value in ways that enable exchange. Reputation points are a currency, for instance, as they can help you transact. Therefore in this way, bitcoin is also a currency.

 If you hear anyone saying “it isnt money” that’s a great chance to ask them “where does money come from” – if you know the answer, then you can help them realise their unfounded assumptions of the nature of our current money system. If you don’t know what Im talking about, see my 18 minute speech on the topic from a couple years back:

Is it secure and safe to hold?

The global database or ledger is cleverly designed to be a secure system. It uses cryptography to prevent hacking. 51 per cent of computing power using that global database has to agree on transactions for them to be confirmed. This is meant to stop double spending of the same coins.

If you are storing the bitcoin on a physical device then that could be lost or stolen. Therefore some are using safety deposit boxes or offline storage services. The same goes for cash or precious metals.

 (In future we will likely see systems where you could register your own wallet with your personal ID and sign up to a service that would help you trace it, if stolen. There are opportunities for banks and others in this area. Law enforcement would also need to begin to recognise theft of bitcoins as something important.)

If you store it on a service provider then there are other issues. Access depends on you maintaining your password and key, and the quality of the company behind it, where it is based, how solvent it is, how sophisticated it is to protect against hacks. This is the same for your pounds in a bank account – where actually the pounds aren’t even yours (they are the value of the banks promise to you).

Some computer specialists believe that hacking of the global blockchain is inevitable as computer systems improve. Or, that if it’s not inevitable, there is still a risk at some point in the future. I do not know enough about cryptography and computing power to make an assessment of this. The idea that it could be hacked one day would suggest that a future version of bitcoin might have trusted well-governed and well-regulated institutions that regulate access to the global database in the interests of the users. Some would doubt our banks fit that profile at present, and so other organisations might need to be trusted guardians. Others might suggest other means of adding additional security, and spreading risk by using multiple currencies, or agreeing systems for how to recover from hacks.

By the way: are national currencies secure and safe? It depends where you are storing them, and all of the issues Ive described above apply to them as well. To some, the inflation associated with national currencies at a time of low interest rates is a form of ongoing theft.

Is it the future?

The internet changed the business of music firms, video stores, newspapers and publishers. Why would banks and currencies not be next? The implications here could be huge, so we need to study it, and bring more people to understand it, and help shape things for the better.

I think the concept and the technology of a global distributively-maintained database or ledger, enabling transactions peer-to-peer without the traditional banking sector doing that for us, is here to stay. Whether it’s the bitcoin system or not, we don’t know. Bitcoin is just the first application in a whole new generation of technologies which are going to decentralise trust mechanisms and disintermediate a whole class of institutions. I have listed a number of limitations of the bitcoin system on my website, and so we can look to see whether the new innovations in cryptographic currencies improve on that system. Some of the new initiatives that take inspiration from bitcoin appear to have massive potential, such as Nextcoin, Etherium and Ripple. Other initiatives, like Solarcoin, could also be very interesting, as they connect issuance to activity that we want to support, such as renewable energy generation. Some other innovations appear to not progress the technology significantly and instead seek to cash in on interest.

For the bitcoin unit, we don’t know what the market price will be whether it might settle to some price range and therefore be more useful as a currency, providing a unit of account, a store of value, and a means of exchange. But it is also here to stay and play a role.

Ultimately we need currency systems that are more connected to communities issuing the credit to each other, rather than a fixed amount of currency being issued to fortunate people. Such credit currencies will be possible with the newer designs of blockchains. In the meantime, the open source non blockchain software for community currencies, from Community Exchange Systems and Community Forge, the most exciting community level initiatives, and the TradeQoin system based on the latest Cyclos software is the most exciting b2b real economy mutual credit system.

The most important thing for people to understand is the difference between currencies that are “things” issued separately from a community agreement about extending credit to eachother, and those that are simply metrics for accounting of promises between members of the same system for exchange. For anyone who has studied the history of currency, in books by Graeber, Greco, Lietaer, Riegel, or Zarlenga, then this difference is clear, and credit currencies are the key. I explain this with Greco in our joint paper, Currencies of Transition:

Is it a bubble?

We should separate the two things that bitcoin is when discussing if it’s a bubble. The global database of transactions, maintained by many different computers, that bitcoin blockchain, that’s a new technology that has incredible potential. That’s not a bubble.

The bitcoin unit, how much people are buying it for, it’s a matter of opinion on whether it’s a bubble. We will see more facilities for people going short on bitcoin, at which point doubters can come in and if right they can make money from their bets against bitcoin if it falls. But its early days of its adoption so the price could also go far higher.

Some people who are saying it’s a bubble don’t understand the value of the technological innovation, the new functionalities it offers, and the multiple intentions of the user. Some are interested in it for remittances, some as a new way to receive payments quickly and cheaply especially from abroad, some as a hedge against the next financial crisis, some as a quick way to speculate to make money, some as an experiment to understand and adapt for better things to come, some to generate interest in their own activities, while others see it as a protest vote against the current banking and money system, a small peaceful act in line with the kind of revolutionary change that Russell Brand has caused some buzz about recently.

Speaking about bubbles is popular right now due to the last Nobel prize for economics going to researchers who analysed why bubbles occur. Im not a monetary economist but any economic analysis of asset price inflation that doesn’t examine the key role of credit creation, for those assets such as housing, is completely flawed.

Why is it useful?

It is very fast, very cheap (almost free), global, can serve the unbanked (as many people in the world don’t have a bank account), as well as offering a platform for innovation of new payment, accounting, and financial applications. Its success in the past year also has led to the early adopters now being able to fund new innovations, such as Ripple.

The reason I presented about Bitcoin to Oxfam last year is that I think that it has major potential for cheap cash transfers. The impact on the remittance business could be huge, and the start ups in Kenya and Philippines on this show the way. That bitcoin can also be integrated into sms payment systems mean this could be useful on the street in low income countries. If interested, check out things like Pikapay and Bitpesa.

I also see how bitcoin is having a positive educational effect, encouraging more of us to think about basic questions like what is money and currency, and why does it have to be this way? As I explain in my next book, Healing Capitalism, we need to change the monetary system to achieve a fairer, more stable and more environmentally sustainable economy and society:

We often think that money is wealth. But let’s not forget that we are the real wealth – our communities, technologies and the environment. Currency and money are actually just a way of keeping score. The current economic difficulties started out with a credit crunch. That meant less money or currency in our economy. Is it not odd that with less ability to keep score of our transactions, we had less ability to transact? Seen that way, it does seem odd. So some are waking up to this reality and thinking, why not create a new scoring system, a new currency, so people can transact? I sometimes say money is like the speedometer not the petrol, yet we treat it like the petrol, and slow down when suddenly there are less miles per hour on the clock, rather than miles in the tank. Keynes knew about this, of course, but his solution was to get the government and tax payers into debt. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Is it criminal?

All currencies and payment systems can be used by criminals, as the recent settlement by HSBC on money laundering shows. All technological innovation poses new challenges. Bitcoin presents new regulatory and law enforcement challenges.

Some think bitcoin provides anonymity, and therefore could enable crime. Yet it doesn’t easily provide anonymity. The blockchain is public and it would be difficult to remain anonymous once transacting regularly. That is why law enforcement agencies have been able to prosecute people associated with the website Silk Road.

In the UK, we need the Senior Fraud Office and the Financial Conduct Authority to be able to enforce existing laws on all our financial service providers. Bitcoin is no different in that respect.

There are broader issues of what is an appropriate level of privacy and anonymity at the individual level. Cash provides anonymity, for instance, and many consider it important for individuals to maintain some privacy of their financial transactions, whereas organisations should not have such privacy. These issues need to be examined from various perspectives, and that is not helped by incorrectly simple associations between bitcoin and anonymity.

The arrests of some people running bitcoin firms in connection with money laundering has been represented in some media as suggesting bitcoin is itself illegal, even though the law enforcement officials have made a distinction between criminal activity and bitcoin. Such reporting is unprofessional and misleading.

In some countries, however, government officials are communicating that they think bitcoin might be illegal itself, or at least that financial firms should not be using it. Recent communications from India, China, Thailand and Russia, are examples. However, other countries have provided guidance on how it is legal and how it will be regulated and taxed, such as Finland, Germany, Singapore and USA. My view is that many government officials sound very confused and therefore need better information and advice in providing guidance or future regulation on currency innovation. For instance, many alternative currencies are already in operation for decades in countries where officials have suggested that non national currencies might be illegal. Infact, I reckon many such officials have even used or benefited from such currencies… airmiles, for instance.

Some are concerned bitcoin might enable tax evasion. Clarity is required on tax, and is something being worked on right now by the UK government. Some other countries have clarified it will be treated like gold, and therefore be exempt from VAT if you buy it, but if you profit from it you will need to pay capital gains tax. Ultimately regulation should occur through global collaboration, so that we don’t have bitcoin firms seeking out the most lax regulatory and tax environment. However, most merchants that accept bitcoin receive it as national currency, and declare the national currency income.

Is it environmentally friendly?

Is the current banking system environmentally friendly? Via its carbon footprint or via the effect it has on society? The carbon footprint of all the computers, the transportation of cash and metals, the physical buildings and the staff, and their profligate lifestyles, is huge. In addition, the overall effect of current banking on the environmental is problematic.

If we look at the direct footprint of the bitcoin database system, then the energy consumed is quite high, and the system could be improved with new adaptations of the code. However, I met some bitcoin transaction processers, or miners, who are now off grid, to save electricity, having bought their own solar panels.

Do we assess wind turbines on the basis of the carbon footprint of their manufacture? No, we look at their lifecycle. That’s a difficult thing to assess for bitcoin, because it is unclear what influence it will have on the banking system. Many people are into currency innovation because they want to change the dominant position of banks in our economy. My research has led me to conclude that the current banking and monetary system is not conducive to fair, stable, and sustainable societies. It took me sometime to understand that academically though it may seem quite obvious, what with all the scandals, the boom bust cycles, the gross inequality and the inability to invest in shifting quickly to a more climate friendly economy.

So for social progress we need more monetarily literate people, who then may choose to say to central bankers they don’t like the monetary system and want something better or they will use alternatives.

The recent creation of SolarCoin, which uses a blockchain but where 99% of coins are premined and awarded to those creating solar generated power, is another interesting innovation.

Ultimately for as fairer and sustainable economy we need to restore the credit commons we had many centuries ago, where we issue credit to each other, and so we as communities decide who gets to realise their dreams and who can be trusted, not the bankers. Those environmentalists who then question whether we want to make it easier for people to transact, are making a category mistake, thinking that our ability to transact will necessarily mean more consumption of natural resources – the key difference is that if we create credit for each other, what is funded is more likely to be what communities want.

I discussed this in some detail on Sea Change Radio.

What are you learning by accepting it at the University?

The conversations across different departments were really helpful to understand how larger organisations relate to this innovation. For instance, our finance team needed to look at how to make sure our acceptance of bitcoin aligns with our compliance with anti-money laundering laws.

We have also discovered how different people respond to unusual innovations. Some are excited, some confused, some sceptical. The nature and content of those responses is important. We will see if there is uptake of the new payment service, and we will write it up at the end of the year.

Most entrepreneurs and management gurus say that to learn something new in life you have to be prepared to make mistakes. Yet most managers don’t approach their work like that at all, and focus on being as cautious and boring as possible. We need to innovate in ways where we seek to minimise risks yet not avoid all risks. Universities shouldn’t just be museums of old ideas but actively engaged in the challenges and trends of our time. Newer universities can and should innovate, not just emulate.

We have also discovered that there is interest in this topic worldwide. Our acceptance of bitcoin payment has been covered in mainstream news in Australia, Philippines, France, Hungary, Singapore, Indonesia, India, USA and Latin America.

What should my company do, and what should I do?

For an individual, how to respond to currency innovation depends on your risk tolerance, how tech savvy you are, how politically engaged you are and whether you might benefit locally. I recommend we all look for local mutual credit currencies, whether time banks, or mutual credit systems. Some may wish to earn, buy or mine crypto currencies, and I think it important to experiment but not to risk too much.

For organisations, then accepting alternative currencies is useful marketing, as we have seen with the Brixton Pound, Bristol Pound and now Bitcoin. In addition, for some institutions that expect another financial crisis soon, then crypto currencies can be a hedge, in terms of asset value, but also an alternative means to make payment if there is a freezing up of the banking systems. Its part of their business continuity planning.

Some sectors, like financial services, telecoms and software, firms would be almost negligent not to actively experiment in this field. At Davos I spoke to the CEOs of two of the world’s largest software and web firms, and they confirmed they weren’t looking at this. In Summer Davos the boss of Western Union said they aren’t either. Bad mistake, but fairly usual for incumbent organisations.

For other firms, becoming actively engaged in currency innovation can be part of their corporate responsibility and sustainability activity. To understand why, managers need to understand the role of monetary systems in causing so many problems in environment and society. Ive got bored of explaining why that is, so I recommend my TEDx which is only 12 mins long:

What next?

There is a lot of misunderstanding. So we need to professionalise. It is also massively important, so we need to pluralise the stakeholders involved in the conversation about its future, its role, and regulation. We can’t leave this field and it’s regulation to leave it to bankers, techies, telecoms, treasury departments and traditional economists.

Therefore, at IFLAS we’ve launched a course, we are supervising research, and planning with UN agencies to host a second event on the question of the potential and limitations of currency innovations for sustainable development.

Interested people can follow developments by reading CoinDesk or the Bitcoin Magazine.

When did you get into this topic, why and are you an economist?

I consider myself a currency sociologist, who is studying this area through both action research and discourse analysis. I began working on this at the end of 2009, when I outsourced myself to India to learn about currencies with the team of programmers working for Community Forge to create free open source software for communities to create their own exchange and currency systems.

My work on corporate responsibility and sustainable development since 1995 led me to understand that our current monetary system is a barrier to social and environmental wellbeing, and that incremental change or political representation wouldn’t encourage the level of change needed. Instead, I turned towards what technological innovation could do to encourage change. Im hoping to help a peaceful incremental revolution in our monetary and exchange systems, so that monetary systems serve us not dominate us. That is an essential part of the design challenge for economies to thrive for all for the long term. I describe this in my book Healing Capitalism.

I’m not an economist. I take my monetary economics lessons from the writings of economics Professors Steve Keen and Professor Richard Werner as well as the brilliance of Dr Bernhard Lietaer, EC Riegel, and Thomas Greco. It is funny how economists think they can talk about any subject but if someone speaks about an issue of economy or money, many economists prefer to doubt arguments on the basis of whether one claims to be an economist. That leads to massive confirmation bias amongst the economics profession.

Do you have bitcoin?

I’m not investing in bitcoin. I like having my money in the local Cumberland Building Society, which lends it to local businesses. I see bitcoin as part of a broader area of promoting more sustainable exchange, and for me the best approach is to put what money we have into activities we want to see happen, and to support more community-owned approaches to currency innovation, such as that by CES, Community Forge and Timebanks.

Posted in Academia and Research, Corporations, Sustainable Development | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Crypto at the OK Corral

Posted by jembendell on January 6, 2014

I’ve just finished a lecture tour of Australia on Bitcoin. I’ve been working on currency innovation since 2010, but it’s the rise of Bitcoin that has generated far greater attention, with my recent lectures even making national news. But Bitcoin is only a small part of the story. There are now over 140 adaptations or forks of the Bitcoin open source code to create new “coins.” Every week new ones are released. Some appear to be interesting innovations, some seem more like get-rich-quick schemes, and others may even aim at debunking the whole idea of cryptographic currency. The recent BBC article on a coin idea that would borrow rap star Kanye West’s name does seem like an attempt to lampoon this area of innovation, as there is no news value in that one idea amongst over 140 cryptographic currencies.

Currency innovation is so important to the future of not only money and finance, but the economies and societies currently shaped by our existing unfair monetary system (if you want to know why, read my chapter with Tom Greco). We need crypto to grow and propel reform of our fractional reserve banking system. That’s why the famous monetary critic Bill Still has become so enthusiastic about this field of innovation, and why we should applaud him for that bold move, while most monetary critics think more conferences and letters to politicians will achieve a change.

My view on this field of currency innovation is that new innovations need to effectively address some of the limitations of the bitcoin system. There are many benefits from bitcoin as an innovation in payment technology. The ability for people to maintain a global ledger of who has what and who pays whom without the need for banks to intermediate is a very powerful innovation. The ability for it to enable global fast transactions with very small fees (or even no fees) means the average person paying international remittances to poorer relatives back home will soon be able to save a lot of money. No wonder Bitpesa launched as a remittance service for Kenya just recently. At the “Summer Davos” World Economic Forum in China last September I heard the head of Western Union say they aren’t getting involved in bitcoin. Upon hearing that, I’d rather hold shares in Bitpesa. However, there are many limitations to the bitcoin system that people are working on addressing. Sadly in the rush to get rich quick by launching a new crypto, combined with the Public Relations backlash against crypto currency from threatened incumbent firms and confused governments, it is difficult to have clear analysis about what innovations will be useful to society. It is like a Wild West, replete with robust exchanges on facebook and twitter, as people make various claims and accusations around crypto. Therefore I type this blog post…

Below I will list some substantive drawbacks of bitcoin that have been mentioned by commentators, so that its clear where I think innovations are needed. Then I’ll examine one new crypto that made news by gaining the backing of a famous monetary system critic, Bill Still. I’ll conclude with some suggestions as to where I think the best innovations are, including many projects that have been building slowly and away from the limelight brought by wild speculation.

First, here are 15 problems that people have mentioned about bitcoin as a payment technology and currency system, that I think have some merit rather than being confused:

  1. Issuance – the issuing of the currency is iniquitous and mining is not possible without specialist resources so it privileges  those with wealth, while it is not connected to work of value beyond database processing
  2. Fees – miners now set transaction fees so in time this could increase and serve to extract rent from everyone using it as their means of exchange
  3. Speed – the blockchain is  growing to a size where it is slower to confirm transactions, so not suitable for all transactions
  4. Asset-like & deflationary – the currency is treated as more important  than real wealth, yet we need currencies that are in sufficient supply to enable us to transact as we choose
  5. Illicit trade and tax evasion – Unless wallets are registered to an ID
  6. Enabling surveillance due to public blockchain – Becomes an issue if more wallets registered to ID (a converse issue to the one previously, it depends on your views on anonymity)
  7. Volatile – Not suitable for the risk averse or as a unit of account
  8. Manipulation and Gaming –  Market manipulators can sell to themselves to affect volumes, & algorithms could calculate highs/lows from movements between wallets on latest blocks
  9. Misinformed buyers – Some may buy in as a “gold rush” beyond their ability to take a loss
  10. Many unregulated Exchanges – People could lose money by hacking or uninsured collapses
  11. Unbacked – If confidence falls, there is no backing of bitcoin units by demands for it as tax, or contracts with institutions, or legal tender laws, or deposit insurance
  12. Carbon footprint – Massive computer processing power required
  13. Computing power rules – The majority of miners choose upgrades to the software, whether or not all agree: perhaps best but not always? Also 51% control would allow double spend.
  14. Internet dependency – A  problem when phone lines are down.
  15. Disruptions Ahead – The monetary system needs reform and replacement but the way this is done will have wider effects on Government finances and personal savings, so a lack of good response by Government to prepare society and economy for the changes would be a problem.

With these limitations in mind I’ve been observing the innovations in crypto throughout 2013. One that made the news is Quark, by being backed by the leading monetary critic Bill Still who then talked about it on Max Keiser’s popular TV show. I rate these people, so bought some Quark very early on, despite there being no detailed technical specification. However, as I looked closer, I realised that Quark isn’t effectively addressing the limitations of bitcoin. As such it is a good case study for how this field now needs much better analysis and impartial advice. Let’s look closer at their claims.

Quark and Bill Still have claimed it is better than bitcoin due to more encryption than bitcoin. First, I had come across no one saying the level of encryption of transactions in bitcoin is insufficient, partly because the decryption process is about making “mining” more difficult rather than securing transactions. Second, for the reasons given in a detailed Bitcoin Magazine article, more encryption does not appear to make quark more secure, and from my internet searches I haven’t seen quark’s tech respond to that specialist critique (I’m not a cryptographers so can’t conclude but an absence of response is not promising). Third, the encryption works for processing blocks on the block chain, rather, not making transactions secret, as everything is published on the blockchain, so more encryption has nothing to do with avoiding surveillance.

The coin Anoncoin claims to enable more anonymity but upon inspection I find that it doesn’t offer anonymity on the blockchain, so at present the only way to do this would be to download TOR and mask your IP address when browsing the web to download a wallet onto your computer. However, becoming active in transactions would reveal your ID. Using cloud provided wallets, such as, which can be safer for large holdings of crypto than just having it on your own computer, is also not anonymous. Selling your cryptos for national currencies through an exchange is also not anonymous. More work needs to be done on anonymity if this is a goal.

Quark and Bill Still have claimed it is better than bitcoin due to speed. The slowing down of bitcoin transaction confirmation time is a significant issue. Nearly all forks of bitcoin should be faster than bitcoin as the blockchain is smaller, there are less transactions to compute, and there are less hard computer problems to crack for a “mining” computer to be able to complete a block of transactions (if a close fork, which means that the difficulty of decryption grows over time). This will change once a currency becomes widely used, unless dealing with this future size is built into the design. Quark suggests it has, by seeking 30 second transaction times. Yet if reaching the same amount of transactions as bitcoin, e.g.  80,000 a day, it’s unclear to me how quark would be faster, as quark requires more decryption to take place. In addition, the analysis in Bitcoin Magazine suggests this speed of transaction increases the likelihood of mistakes being made in the blockchain.

Litecoin is currently functioning with swifter processing times than bitcoin and without creating new weaknesses, but this speed-at-scale issue appears to need additional design innovations to overcome. Peercoin claims to attempt a solution by employing a proof of stake model for mining rather than only a proof of work model. This also promises the benefit of less computing power to be used to run massive amounts of meaningless decryption.  I am not a cryptographer so I don’t know the veracity of these claims and await a technical challenge to them. I also question whether a proof of stake model could benefit those with large holdings. Therefore more work needs to be done on speed issues, and some of that work is being done on bitcoin itself, or with platforms that base themselves on bitcoin but offer additional payment mechanisms, such as pikapay, where you can send bitcoin via twitter. Others are starting from scratch with new code to attempt a solution, e.g. Nextcoin. Im not able to say whether nextcoin is better yet, as it is still being designed, but it appears a serious attempt to address these limitations, rather than a quick-to-market fork of bitcoin.

Quark and Bill Still have claimed it is better due to being more distributed. I’m not sure what they mean by this. As the Bitcoin magazine explains, most Quark had already been issued within 3 weeks. This means extremely high concentration in the hands of a few – the inventors, friends, early adopters and spokespeople. Bitcoin is highly unequally distributed, and quark’s form of issuance makes this problem worse, not better. Quark does not incentivise mining, as so few quark are mineable now, so the fact that quark mining is not dominated by specialists like bitcoin is an irrelevant and misleading argument. If the early adopters of quark cash out and sell their quark then this may increase distribution, but the key is whether a currency is designed well for distribution. The problem of issuance is one that Freicoin have sought to address right from the start, by seeking social organisations to receive donations of freicoin. It is early days for the project, but it appears a genuine attempt to deal with two of the design problems with bitcoin that I list above. They address the issue of bitcoin being asset-like and deflationary by adding demurrage into the design, based on the ideas of Silvio Gesell (1918) and the experiment in the Austrian town of Worgl in the late 1920s. They are also sought to address the problem of unfair issuance. The developers contacted me in 2012 to discuss design issues around demurrage, and I had the sense it has been a well worked project.

Bill Still claimed on the Keiser Report on that quark will be less volatile in price due to being more distributed. The volatility of bitcoin is a problem. It’s the speculation, lack of day to day users, and lack of backing in the form of acceptance as tax, that enables such volatility. Interestingly the speculation around bitcoin is what brought it to global attention and has driven adoption, so could eventually help reduce the volatility. Quark is much less used as a means of payment than bitcoin and is much more concentrated/unequal in its ownership, therefore it is likely to be more volatile not less. The bitcoin millionaires would do well to begin systematic philanthropy to give bitcoin to social projects that commit to spend the bitcoin as bitcoin, rather than cash out, and therefore spread the usage of bitcoin to more users and reduce the volatility that arises to large transactions by a few (the average value of a bitcoin transaction is about 3000 dollars at present).

Quark is an interesting case study because it highlights how the world of crypto is all about impressions. Celebrity endorsement and buzz is extra powerful in the absence of any agreed standards, codes, professional institutes and qualifications, or related regulations. This is especially so in an area that is so new to most people and where understanding it requires some knowledge of currency design and computing, so most people just accept other “expert” sources.  I consider myself a currency sociologist, so I will never be able or interested in delving deep into the code of a crypto. However, one can assess the logic of any arguments made and when grand claims are made then look for dissenting opinions.  Yet as this field grows it is clear we will need to professionalise.

It’s currently a Wild West of currency innovation, where jokecoins and quackcoins all attract attention and funds and their proponents to fire off at each other will not lead to a positive social and economic outcome unless there are more forums for understanding. I fear that in the future we will hear of scams that fleece pensioners of thousands of their savings on crypto currencies. We must do what we can to reduce the risks. We can help shape a responsible and professional field of currency innovation. That is why it is important to see how groups like the Bitcoin Foundation evolve as well as the new self-regulatory initiative called the Digital Asset Transfer Authority.

I come at this issue from a background in sustainable development and local currency innovation, such as the mutual credit system in Kenya that helps poor entrepreneurs trade without money. As such, I’m not that excited about crypto currencies as they do not enable us to issue credit to each other, and maintain the delusion that money is a thing of value, rather than a means of exchanging things of real value, like our time, skills, produce, and land. That’s why, in the crypto space, I’m most interested in Ripple. I’m not interested in their XRP currency, but in the payment infrastructure it creates whereby each of us can create credit for people we trust and therefore credit can flow through a network. If you don’t trust me for 20 dollars but you trust Paul for 20 dollars, and Paul trusts me for 20 dollars, you can post me that 20 dollar book and Paul goes negative to you by 20 dollars but up 20 dollars to me, and I go down 20 dollars to Paul. No dollars may need to change hands because in a network of thousands, these positive and negative balances can be cancelled out.  Or in other words, you can use your 20 dollars credit from Paul to buy something else. Therefore the availability of currency does not limit what we do for each other, unlike the current national currency models or the asset-like crypto currency models. People who criticise Ripple as a debt model don’t understand currency theory or monetary history, and that debt is the origin of money, whereas asset currencies, like gold, were used originally by armies not communities.  Compound interest is the problem not debt, the control of debt creation by the few (i.e. private banks) is the problem, not debt. Instead, we need to reclaim the credit commons, the ability to issue credit to each other, as I explained in my keynote to the Berlin conference on the commons last year, and as we discussed after with  Michel Bauwens.

There are some concerns around how Ripple is now controlled by one company, and how the XRP system will relate to the credit clearing system, so more work needs to be done on this space. For the socially minded, who want to make currencies serve humanity, not the other way round, then the most exciting currency innovation right now is the partnership between Jnana and Community Exchange Systems. They have received funding from a state Government in Australia to upgrade and open source the software that hundreds of local level community currencies use worldwide. These are mutual credit systems, that use currencies like hours. No one gets rich on such systems, they simply enable communities to trade more and help each other more. Once such systems use the latest technology and can interoperate with each other, then we will see a new monetary system that is attuned to the needs of communities, resembling those that existing before armies and empires imposed precious metals as our means of exchange. This, friends, is our coming freedom in the 21st century.

Meanwhile I hope more people who work in this complementary currency space, hitherto working at local level, become more sophisticated in their understanding of cryptographic currencies and begin to influence its evolution in ways that could then better serve society. At the moment many who work on local pounds or timebanks or Local Exchange Trading Systems simply dismiss cryptographic currencies as involving people with no community intention. Yet the combination of crypto approaches and community approaches could be truly powerful. The need to improve understanding in this broad field is why at our Institute we have launched a Masters-level “Certificate of Achievement in Sustainable Exchange” which will explore currency innovation in the context of monetary theory, the sharing economy and sustainable development. We are even offering scholarships.

I wrote this post after my talk on current innovation at in Bali, while sipping on my tumeric juice.

Jem in Hubud, Ubud, Bali

Jem in Hubud, Ubud, Bali

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