The Future of Money

Four surprising ways we might pay for stuff in the next 15 years.


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The dizzying rise of Bitcoin demonstrates that money can be more than just pieces of paper issued by central governments. As decentralized computerized networks proliferate, we have entered an era where middlemen are getting squeezed and consumer choice is multiplying. Governments have always wanted to maintain a strong grip on money-for tax purposes, if nothing else-but the way money is made, distributed, and valued could soon change drastically. Here are four (not mutually exclusive) ways money might mutate as we move into a future where convenience and choice are more powerful than government command.

1. Totalitarian

What Is It?

A single currency that everyone everywhere uses for all legal transactions. All transactions are unavoidably recorded. Try to use another currency? You are ipso facto breaking the law, and you are suspected of using that currency for other illegal purposes.

Such a universal currency need not be created by a global government. It could be a private digital currency closely tracked by a central oversight committee. Or it could run on autopilot, overseen by a nonprofit governance structure including representatives from communities, nations, and corporations-which might make it more palatable (though no less totalitarian) in a decentralized world.

Where Does Value Come From?

Government fiat. Legally, you must use it. With all transactions valued in a single currency, knowing the total worth of your holdings is convenient and easy. Despite centralized currency generation, prices would still be the result of decentralized choices of all currency users, as they are today.

How Do You Get It?

By selling a good or service.

Does Government Control It?

At the very least, government has a powerful seat at the table of the nonprofit producing the currency, with access to flagged transactions. If it doesn't own and operate the system, government will demand that transactions be transparent-or at least fully accessible to its own agents.

2. Hidden

What Is It?

The descendant-or rather descendants-of today's Bitcoin. Rather than a single externally imposed universal standard, a diverse range of currencies follow predefined standards; together they make up an international currency consortium. Users don't have to pay active attention to currency transactions or conversions, because computer systems and algorithms will deal with them automatically. Anyone can create a currency/wallet/payment system as long as it adheres to consortium standards. Businesses decide which currencies they will accept for payment, much as businesses can now choose whether or not to accept Bitcoin.

Transactions happen without your conscious need to tend to them, but with working firewalls so no megacorporation or state can track all of your activity. Searchable records are never accessible to parties outside of any individual transaction.

Where Does Value Come From?

Consumer choice. A multitude of issuers create a multitude of different currencies, which denominate many different types of value.

How Do You Get It?

Given multiple sources with disparate rules, you can obtain currencies via, say, traditional trade or gift. But ultimately, individual issuers distribute them based on whatever criteria the programmers choose. One money might involve investment returns à la dividends paid in a new currency. Another might reward certain individual or corporate behaviors-say, carbon-neutral behaviors like bicycle riding or environmental reconstruction.

Does Government Control It?

Government oversight is minimal, though the authorities would doubtless demand a workable model of taxation for every currency under the consortium standard. A situation could occur where transactions in some currencies have different tax rates. Like other businesses, governments can decide which currencies they accept as payment.

3. Reputation Currency

What Is It?

A currency (or set of currencies) that monetize your own actions, reputation, or role in the world. Similar to Whuffie, the system in Cory Doctorow's novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, users' net worths rise and fall based on their perceived usefulness or goodness. Individuals can reward each other for good deeds (such as writing great music) and punish each other for bad deeds (such a knocking over a little old lady in the street). Users with excellent reputations gain access to scarce goods.

Where Does Value Come From?

From aggregate individual experiences and judgments, reflecting a decentralized assessment of your status along multiple dimensions.

How Do You Get It?

You accrue currency based on sharing accurate information about experiences with products, services, and individuals. The most useful information increases in value based on its use. This increases your reputation currency. Your reputation grows when you co-create other people's reputations.

Does Government Control It?

Government need have no role, but such a currency could be a platform for a transparent "good citizen" reputation system, with the state acting as a supposedly objective reviewer offering judgments on citizens and corporations within its borders. If citizens demanded it, government could also generate a currency of the commons, for instance, to help meet environmental goals-corporations could gain currency by abiding by sustainability or conservation guidelines. This would allow officials to reward "good" behavior without heavily regulating "bad" behavior.

4. Ethics-Encoded Intelligent Currencies

What Is It?

Computer-generated currency with specific ethical values built in. Say you believe it is important to support locally produced food. You can choose to use a currency with that value encoded in it, then use that currency to purchase goods that are in line with those values. Your digital wallet seamlessly conducts exchanges to obtain the right mix of currencies to reflect your beliefs at the moment. And when those beliefs change, those currencies will exchange themselves for others more suited to your current views. There would be a diversity of ethics-encoded money reflecting a variety of political, religious, and social beliefs, from veganism to "fair trade."

Where Does Value Come From?

The ethical value comes from sharing specific beliefs and principles, which can and likely would change over time as our wealth, family, jobs, love lives, and ideals shift.

How Do You Get It?

The intelligent currency is programmed to issue itself to people who fit the criteria of the given values, as determined by the crypto's designer.

Does Government Control It?

Not much, except for tax collection. Such currencies could directly interface with intelligent government systems. But they could also create robust subeconomies outside government's reach.

NEXT: Brickbat: Honor the Vets

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  1. I’ll stick with the good, old-fashioned barter system, thank you very much.

    1. try finding a gas station that will take 5 chickens for a tank of gas.

      1. I like my commerce as I like my diet. Paleo.

        1. Paleo commerce is a very restrictive system that was upgraded to better models ages ago. How do you gather the capital assets required to build a nuclear plant under the paleo economy? (ignoring government interference for the moment)

          1. Well that’s easy. Just trade 4 cows for a Mr Fusion… Silly mammal

    2. What is a bitcoin? A miserable little pile of secrets! But enough talk… Have at you!

      1. A Castlevania quote on a Bitcoin article? Did not see that coming.

  2. The dizzying rise of Bitcoin

    Citation needed.

    Until any of the business I do business with accept it as a form of payment, I can’t really say I’ve seen anything but the fluttering murmour of idealists and speculators.

    1. Georgia Tech concessions take bitcoin now.

      If you can spend btc at a college football game, that is more than just idealists and speculators.

      1. Who watches college football? Especially in person?

        Wake me up when Amazon accepts it, I’d bet they’ll be the first of my business partners to adopt it.

      2. Is it one of three options?

    2. Businesses that accept bitcoin. There’s almost 10,000 there. Your personal experience is irrelevant.

      1. Quite the contrary, my personal experience is all that matters to me.

        1. But it says nothing about Bitcoin.

    3. A divorce client paid me in bitcoins about a year ago. I still have them.

  3. Let’s go all out and bring back Pieces-of-eight.

      1. A good concept for now, but when asteroid-mining corporations take off in the next couple of generations, the gold standard will get teh Spain/New World treatment.

        I’m not sold on Bitcoin, but an evolved 10th generation descendant of BTC seems like a good bet compared to unpredictable gold inflation via asteroids, and I’d think the markets would choose the deflationary, stable currency.

        Filing this under Things Mises Never Dreamed Of, Still Human Action.

  4. users’ net worths rise and fall based on their perceived usefulness or goodness. Individuals can reward each other for good deeds (such as writing great music) and punish each other for bad deeds (such a knocking over a little old lady in the street). Users with excellent reputations gain access to scarce goods.

    Not only would that subject your economic viability to internet trolling, but it would require collating vast sums of subjective data about large numbers of people, and it severely penalizes introverts, and otherwise useful, private crumudgeons. I can think of few nightmares worse than having my economic status determined by the fickle whims of the mob.

    1. *While you could claim that anyone selling a product to the people has their economic status determined by the mob, the key difference is you don’t have to interact with them, and you are instead judged by the product provided and not that fact that you’re a miserable cuss.

      1. I’d say the free market works quite well ,’this is what I’ll pay for your product or labor’.What’s needed is a stable currency that’s not a toy for the fed to play with.

    2. Your value will be determined by Facebook. Submit to your new master.

      1. If that’s the case then I’m priceless

  5. “we move into a future where convenience and choice are more powerful than government command.”

    Lol. Silly peasant. Bitcoins are now illegal. Children. Terrorism. Drugs. FYTW.

  6. Goddamn domestic terrorists and their fucking currency theorizing.

  7. Dear Reason,

    More like this please. I look forward to more articles by Heather Schlegel.

  8. Totalitarian

    The mutation that excludes all others. Hidden currencies can only exist if they don’t consume water, electricity, gas, real estates, or soon, bandwith. Good luck with your hidden currency that is tattooed on the shaven heads of slaves. Reputation and ethics-encoded currencies are only meaningful when legislators can ignore bullshit statistics that magically converts one in five women on college campuses into rape victims overnight and people can manage to stop being afraid of the < 0.0001% of handguns that have been 3-D printed nationwide.

    Not to say that BTC and alternative currencies don’t shouldn’t be explored, but the notion that they should be explored for the good of mankind smacks of socialist notions that if we can just find the right way to redistribute money, societies ills will be cured.

    1. “society’s” dammit.

    2. Hidden currencies can only exist if they don’t consume water, electricity, gas, real estates, or soon, bandwidth.

      This is fatalistic nonsense. You know you can hide the consumption of those things right?

  9. Re: Totalitarian:

    With all transactions valued in a single currency, knowing the total worth of your holdings is convenient and easy…

    Except that is as false as believing that the US Dollar has the same spending power / value regardless of which US city it is spent in.

  10. my roomate’s step-aunt makes $77 every hour on the computer . She has been fired for five months but last month her payment was $20090 just working on the computer for a few hours. site here…..


  11. Where Does Value Come From? As long as taxes are coerced, at least part of the value of whatever other alternative, non-government exchange medium, hidden or not, is going to come from its ability to buy the tax medium in order to ransom freedom from state violence.

  12. We could pay by lowering costs if money is still in effect.

    Cannabinoid medicine if fully exploited could ultimately save the US $1 trillion a year. I’ll give you two diseases to start:

    Cancer at $85 bn a year. About 2/3rds of diabetes at $115 bn a year. I’m sure I could find another $800 bn if I went through the whole list.

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