Dive into the groundbreaking exploration of digital currency in Rachel O’Dwyer‘s ‘Tokens.’ This thought-provoking journey examines the future of money in the age of platforms, shedding light on the transformative power of tokens in reshaping our financial landscape.
Explore the future of finance with ‘Tokens’ and discover the untapped potential of digital currency. Continue reading to gain insights that will redefine your understanding of money and its evolution in the digital era.
‘Tokens’ by Rachel O’Dwyer delves into the profound impact of digital tokens on the future of money. O’Dwyer navigates the complex landscape of cryptocurrency, exploring the role of tokens in reshaping economic systems. From blockchain technology to the rise of decentralized finance, the book provides a comprehensive overview of the transformative journey toward a token-driven economy.
O’Dwyer’s ‘Tokens’ is a thought-provoking exploration of the digital revolution in finance. The book adeptly demystifies the world of tokens, offering a comprehensive understanding of their potential implications. Whether you’re a seasoned investor or a curious observer, O’Dwyer’s insights into the evolving landscape of digital currency make this book a valuable resource. ‘Tokens’ not only decodes the intricacies of cryptocurrency but also highlights the broader societal and economic shifts fueled by the rise of tokens. A must-read for anyone seeking to grasp the future of money in the age of platforms.
Cryptocurrency, Digital Economy, Finance, Technology, Blockchain, Fintech, Economic Transformation, Digital Innovation, Platform Economy, Monetary Systems
In this tour of the world of alternative currencies, scholar Rachel O’Dwyer considers a wide variety of scrips, such as food stamps issued by the US government, V-bucks deployed in the video game Fortnite and vouchers used at brothels. It’s a fascinating look at what qualifies as money and what doesn’t. O’Dwyer analyzes these shadow forms of money – which now include bitcoin, Ethereum and even Amazon gift cards – within the context of an everchanging human society. The topic itself is sprawling, but readers will find this an illuminating overview.
- Tokens have long been a part of commerce.
- Tokens have morphed from the physical world to the blockchain’s virtual realm.
- Money is liquid; tokens, less so.
- Barter-based systems are an extreme example of tokenization.
- The meme-stock craze introduced a new type of social investing.
- Tokens are all about trust and a lack thereof.
- Tokenization makes the illiquid, liquid.
- During the NFT craze of 2021, tokenization reached its zenith – or nadir.
- Tokens play a central role in the metaverse.
Tokens have long been a part of commerce.
In ancient Greece and Rome, physical tokens granted holders something of value – food or wine or access to a party. Tokens were especially useful in the sex trade. Because paying for sex with a coin featuring the image of an emperor or a head of state qualified as treason, it made sense that sex workers and their clients would find a different form of currency. Brothels would require that customers buy tokens and then exchange those tokens for sex. In the modern world of sex-based streaming, paying with a token rather than cash extends the fantasy that the relationship is romantic rather than merely transactional.
“Tokens draw the edges between work and nonwork, legitimate and illegitimate economic activity, payment and gift.”
Tokens operate in a murky area. They’re a sort of currency, but they exist in a closed system. Tokens often occupy a gray area on the edge of the black market. They’re like money, but they’re not quite money. For a time after the Great Recession, some cash-strapped universities purportedly paid their adjunct professors in gift cards, Amazon vouchers and book tokens. Such payment also became a common currency on sites like OnlyFans, Twitch and Chaturbate, where streamers and models accepted compensation via Amazon gift cards. Amazon pays some of its own employees in Amazon gift cards, a nod to the times when workers were paid with scrip good only at the company store. In another example of “tokenization,” Dogecoin was invented to facilitate microtransactions on Twitter and Reddit. The currency was used for tips and shows of gratitude. The joke became real, as Elon Musk invested in Dogecoin in 2021 and its value soared.
Tokens have morphed from the physical world to the blockchain’s virtual realm.
The earliest recorded tokens were used in Mesopotamia in 7500 BC. Clay markers of varying designs and shapes symbolized specified quantities of commodities like barley or silver. As recently as the 20th century, national currencies were tied to a gold standard, meaning physical gold served as the underpinning for paper money’s value. The rise of cryptocurrency has redefined what tokens can be. Virtual currencies exist outside the physical realm and entirely within the digital ether.
“Digital tokens flatten the difference between money as instrument and money as information, but these tokens also expand what kind of information is recorded in a transaction.”
In contrast to the anonymity of transactions in physical cash, digital payments leave behind a vapor trail of information. Venmo, the popular payment system owned by PayPal, for a time allowed users to view other users’ recipients. This feature might have gone unnoticed had not The Washington Post reported in 2021 that President Joe Biden had sent money to his grandchildren by Venmo; the company was compelled to tighten up its disclosures. Before that, an artist used Venmo’s public data to illustrate the lives of strangers, including a cannabis dealer and a food cart operator.
Money is liquid; tokens, less so.
While money can be traded by anyone for any purpose, tokens are more limited. They’re designed for special reasons. Government-support programs offer one example of how special-purpose tokens convey values as much as value. In the United States, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides an example of a token that filters out many types of uses. SNAP benefits are loaded onto electronic benefits cards, and these tokens can be used for fresh food and produce, but not for alcohol, tobacco or pharmaceuticals. In a quirk of tokenization, SNAP recipients can use their benefits to pay for cold deli meats but not for hot items, such as a rotisserie chicken. Convenience, it seems, is not approved for the poor.
“Tokens, rather than legal tender, are the route exchanges take when normal channels are closed.”
The paternalistic view of benefits for the poor holds that poverty results from lapses in moral judgment. Taxpayers should give the poor money to spend only on upstanding goods. This bias played out in Maine, where an investigation of spending by recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) showed about 10% of transactions were at unsanctioned merchants. That led to Republican calls for TANF recipients to submit a year’s worth of receipts for scrutiny. This sort of moral judgment isn’t new. For centuries, governments have worried about giving unrestricted cash to the poor, opting instead for tokens designated for certain uses.
Barter-based systems are an extreme example of tokenization.
In a pushback against globalization, some communities have developed mutual credit systems that allow participants to bow out of money-based transactions altogether. One example of a local exchange trading system (LETS) operated in Ireland’s West Cork. Members traded such items as eggs and homemade baskets. The exchange attracted mainly expatriates who wanted to check out of the global economy and find a way to be self-sufficient.
“Money, as an interest-bearing token, is replaced by a giant community ledger.”
Another twist is time banking, in which participants perform a task to earn a credit that can be traded for another task. Common types of work include child care, cleaning, accounting and legal services. In a Marxian twist, time banks value all types of labor equally. Both the LETS and time banking have the unspoken goal of making money more social. In transactions denominated in currency, once the payment clears, the relationship is over. But in social exchanges, there’s a sense of give and take, and the possibility that one party might reciprocate in the future.
The meme-stock craze introduced a new type of social investing.
During the pandemic, bored millennials embraced day trading of nonfungible tokens (NFTs) and GameStop shares. Robinhood was the trading platform of choice. Unlike traditional investing, this brand of speculation was about far more than the monetary bet itself. Those playing the market took to social media and sites such as WallStreetBets to extol their wins and to commiserate about their duds, a practice that became known as “loss porn.” A share of GameStop became a surreal token of its own, a security that projected an indifference to risk and a defiance of fundamental measures of value.
“The value, at some meta level, is the bet itself.”
The GameStop craze eventually cooled, but it was followed by a bubble in NFTs, such as the Bored Ape series of drawings. Other tokenized systems, including time banks and bitcoin itself, grew from utopian ideology: Perhaps by improving money, society as a whole might grow more egalitarian. The meme stock and NFT bubble, on the other hand, was entirely dystopian; its ethos was individualistic and chaotic. In the end, the GameStop hype didn’t overturn Wall Street. It simply made a lot of money for the market makers used by Robinhood.
Tokens are all about trust and a lack thereof.
Bitcoin grew out of a crisis of trust. The 2008 global financial crunch eroded confidence in governments and central banks, and bitcoin’s innovation of using the blockchain as a ledger to record payments created the idea of “trustless” technology. Consumers no longer needed to have faith in a treasury or a bank — they only had to know that the code underlying a cryptocurrency functioned properly. Bitcoin brought the concept of complete transparency to transactions. A peer-to-peer verification process made fraudulent transactions all but impossible.
“Tokens are promises. Their value hinges on the belief that these promises will be kept.”
While bitcoin pioneered the proof-of-work approach to credibility, Ethereum in 2022 moved to a proof-of-stake model. In proof of work, cheating is prevented through a series of complex calculations. In proof of stake, the idea is that those who hold more coins have more skin in the game and therefore have a greater incentive to root out bad actors. By doing away with complex calculations, Ethereum was able to reduce its energy consumption.
Tokenization makes the illiquid, liquid.
Tokens exist partly to make unwieldy physical objects more portable. In a digital world, the tokenization of physical assets expands exponentially, and it is a concept that the art world has embraced. In 2018, a 31% stake in an Andy Warhol print went to auction, with shares of the work sold for cryptocurrency. In 2022, a Swiss crypto bank sold shares of a 1964 Pablo Picasso work: Some 4,000 tokens were auctioned at 1,000 Swiss francs each. In that way, the ownership of a physical good was divvied up and spread across the world, even as the underlying asset remained very much in the physical world.
“For much of history, tokens have been used to overcome the frictions associated with securing and transferring real assets stored in real places.”
Much of the art that’s tokenized is held in free ports – secure locations in tax-advantaged locales like Switzerland and Singapore. The free port in Geneva houses some 1,000 works by Picasso, among other valuable pieces. Tokenized art upends the old model of high-quality works being housed in museums, where they can be enjoyed by the public, or in private homes, where at least someone appreciates them. The notion of sharing physical assets isn’t just for the art world, of course: Zipcar’s business model revolves around car-sharing, while Airbnb shares houses.
During the NFT craze of 2021, tokenization reached its zenith – or nadir.
The cryptocurrency craze of 2021 was accompanied by a bubble in NFTs. The value of bitcoin and Ethereum rocketed, and so did NFTs. One NFT fetched $69 million at auction, making it the third most valuable artwork ever sold. NFTs went mainstream. The National Basketball Association sold NFTs of video highlights from games. A bot operating at @tokenisedtweets automatically generated NFTs from celebrities’ Twitter feeds.
“It felt that, as the future looked dark, culture became a farce, a meme of a joke.”
NFTs were designed as “rare, one-of-a-kind collectibles,” Ethereum instructed. And there is precedent in the art world for a smart-aleck ethos: Marcel Duchamp’s 1919 L.H.O.O.Q. was simply the famed Mona Lisa defaced with a fake mustache, and the Dada movement of the 1920s was nothing if not a rebellion against the status quo. A century later, NFTs tapped a similar vein of disillusionment. The Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs were of monkeys that had presumably made big money from crypto and spent their days getting stoned. Values of the NFTs soared; buyers posted them as their Twitter profile photos.
Tokens play a central role in the metaverse.
The popular video game Fortnite illustrates tokens’ evolution. In Fortnite, players parachute onto an island for a fight to the death. While the game itself is free to play, Fortnite publisher Epic Games makes its money through in-game transactions. Using V-Bucks – which can be earned or bought – players can purchase weapons, characters and “skins” that change their appearance. These purchases are all but expected. Players who are too cheap to pony up are known by the derisive name “no-skins.” Intriguingly, the extras afford no overt competitive advantage to their owners. But the no-skins are easy targets for other players, so buying a tattoo or other extras might confer an edge after all. At any rate, Fortnite players are more than willing to spend real-world currency on tokens that give them status in an entirely virtual world.
“In a game economy, digital items are entries in a database on the server.”
Video game commerce is an obvious prelude to transactions in the metaverse. In Decentraland, a virtual world built on the Ethereum blockchain, all manner of virtual items are for sale. Land is for sale, but so are earrings, hoodies, tie-dyed shirts, wizard robes and sneakers. The most venerable of the metaverses is Second Life, which started as a game in 2003. In Second Life, the official currency is known as Linden dollars. The virtual tokens soon mimicked real-world chicanery. One bank dangled 70% interest rates on Linden dollars, spurring suspicions of a Ponzi scheme. By 2007, Second Life had shut down gambling, and in 2008 it prohibited virtual banks from offering interest-bearing accounts unless they held real-world bank charters. Even before bitcoin, the US Internal Revenue Service feared the possibility that game tokens could be used for money laundering or tax evasion.
About the Author
Rachel O’Dwyer is a lecturer in digital cultures at the School of Visual Culture at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin. She was a Fulbright Scholar at UC Irvine and a Government of Ireland research scholar.