The Myth of Virtual Currency

File this one under “what is at stake” when we talk about the digital dualist critique. Bitcoin, the Internet’s favorite way to buy pot and donate to Ron Paul, hit an all-time high this week of around $900 to one Bitcoin (BTC). The news coverage of Bitcoin and the burgeoning array of crypto-currencies (according to the Wall Street Journal there’s also litecoinbbqcoinpeercoin,namecoin, and feathercoin) has largely focused on the unstable valuation of the currencies and all of the terrible things people could do with their untraceable Internet money. What hasn’t been investigated however, is the idea that crypto-currencies are somehow inherently more “virtual” and thereby less susceptible to centralized control the way US dollars, Euros, or Dave & Buster’s Powercards are. Both assumptions are wrong and are undergirded by the digital dualist fallacy(more…)

The Perfect Place: What's Really Disturbing About Retailers Tracking Your Every Move

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran yet another hilariously digital dualist piece on a new surveillance system that lets retailers follow customers’ every move. The systems, mainly through cameras tied into motion capture software, can detect how long you stared at a pair of jeans, or even the grossed-out face you made at this year’s crop of creepy, hyper-sexualized Halloween costumes. The New York Times describes this as an attempt by brick and mortar stores to compete with data-wealthy “e-commerce sites.” (Who says “e-commerce” anymore? Seriously, change your style guide.) Putting aside the fact that most major retailers are also major online retailers, making the implicit distinction in the article almost meaningless, the article completely misses the most important (and disturbing) part of the story: our built environment will be tuned to never-before-seen degrees of precision. We have absolutely no idea what such meticulously built spaces will do to our psyches.

Bondsy and the Modern Myth of Barter

In the first chapters of every Economics 101 textbook there’s a misleading hypothetical about the origins of money. David Graeber, in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years calls it “the founding myth of our system of economic relations.” This myth is so pervasive that even people who have never taken an Economics 101 class know, and believe in, this myth. We tend to assume that before money there was this awkward barter system where you had to keep all your chickens and yams with you when you went to market to buy a calf. If the person selling the calf didn’t want chicken or yams, no transaction would take place. Money seems to fill a very important need: it lets us compare and exchange a wide variety of goods by establishing a common metric of value. The problem with this construction—of simple barter being replaced with cash economies—is that it never happened. That’s what makes Bondsy, an app that let’s you effortlessly barter with a private set of friends, so interesting: It takes a modern myth and turns it into everyday reality. What has existed for centuries, according to Graeber and other anthropologists, are debt and credit systems utilizing some sort of value measurement. Some societies might measure the value of objects in terms of other objects (e.g. clams, feathers, buffalo skins, beads) but those are measurements, not actual bartered objects. They act more like money than barter. There are far too many different credit/debt systems to generalize accurately but lots of them operated on the premise that gifts carry some promise of reciprocation. Stiffing your neighbors was a good way to starve to death unless you were totally self-sufficient.

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