Last week, my wife and I organised the second edition of the Brussels Meetup on Complementary Currencies. It’s a fascinating subject. As a short and simplistic primer, just think of a complementary currency as a combination of:
- a specific community;
- a means of exchange;
- a need that is not addressed by the official currency;
- some abundant resource.
The latter is the most interesting in my opinion: to cut a long story short, currency thinkers have analysed that recent events in the financial sphere have been caused by the combination of our current monetary system’s infinite growth hypotheses on the one hand and the accelerating depletion of our planet’s natural resources on the other hand. Historically, our economies have been built on the model of the Gold Rush: is has been designed to structure society around the appropriation of some key, readily available by-products of our planet’s geology by a lucky few, and the necessity to organise the rest of society in a way that guarantees some apparent public order. Our current economic system is predatory by nature.
Alternative currencies offer an opportunity for mankind to create prosperity out of abundant resources that we are slowly coming to identify as equally important to our well-being (if not a lot more) than petrol, cheap labor and earth metals. They mostly come in the form of information and they are a proxy to such invaluable items like friendship, love and good health, technology and culture, ideas and education.
Our connected and mobile devices are pointing us to new kinds of such resources every day. The combination of the URL, “Unified Resource Locator” and HTTP, “Hypertext Transfer Protocol”, make up for a very powerful way to give access to and/or exchange these resources between the members of existing or emerging communities. “Monetization” is the process by which digital entrepreneurs find ways to incentivise those exchanges and tie them up to the traditional money system.
But sometimes monetization is not possible. I am of the opinion that all truly alternative currency systems are signalling the presence of a new kind of resource that is fundamentally not translatable to dollars or euros. That’s where it gets liberating: everything doesn’t absolutely need to benefit the bottom line.
I believe that, for good or bad reasons, and at least until the current financial system is fixed, it is very likely that you and I will end up using a handful of complementary currencies alongside our familiar paper money and credit cards. I say “for good or bad reasons” because the things we are most likely to use complementary currencies for belong to those areas of the economy that are generally perceived as “loss-generating”. I’m talking about health, solidarity, culture and education.
In today’s world, access to these fundamental pillars of a well-functioning society is not allowed to an increasing number of people. Not because of a formal interdiction but because of the overarching urgency to earn a minimum amount of a currency that has been designed to be in short supply. As a result, we are wasting the most precious and yet the most abundant of all resources: human creativity.
Smartphones and Tablets are immensely popular because they provide momentary escapes off the treadmill and into a world of wonderful promises: there’s an app for a free education, better health, access to countless books and videos,… And all this wonderful gadgetry is cheap, so cheap in fact that, thanks to Moore’s law, its commercial value literally tends to zero.
All this activity can certainly sound a bit vain. The opposite is true: we are collectively re-inventing the very foundations of our society. A new economy is shaping up, one that exists in a global mind that stems from the daily choices of countless individuals, and yet has an existence of its own. At this point in time, it still lacks a consciousness but we, as a species, are working on it. Big Data, the Quantified Self Movement and Complementary Currencies research all are self reflexive efforts that aim at reconciling the community with the individual, the universal with the specific and vice-versa.
Rooted in a technology that only gets cheaper and more accessible to all and tapping on the infinite power of our imagination while constantly reflecting on our collective creations and willing to be fully aware of their consequences, we are on the brink of the invention of an economy whose foundations are at the exact opposite of our current monetary system.