[Originally published in the Autumn 2022 issue of BSFA’s Focus magazine.]
Money itself could be the next major disrupter to our society. To inform a new novel and a project with the thinktank CyberSalon, I have been researching a variety of theories, predictions and propositions around the future of money, including work by David Graeber, David Birch, and Mark Carney.
For over fifty years, traditional currencies such as sterling have been useable in a digitised form, that is without physical form. This is often referred to as the cashless society. Bank transfers and credit cards are technologies so old that we now take them for granted. More recently, we’ve seen the introduction of cryptocurrencies into our lived experience. A cryptocurrency can be defined at its most basic as a digital currency that uses technology to record transactions. These exchanges then take place across a computer network with no central authority to uphold or maintain it. Cryptocurrencies rely on a blockchain technology to operate. A blockchain is a growing list of records, called blocks, that are linked together using cryptography. Each block contains proof that the transaction data existed when the block was published and each new block reinforces the ones before it. This makes the chain resistant to being altered retroactively without altering all subsequent blocks. This eliminates the need for a central database of transactions or ownership. Some cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, choose to create a finite number of coins. This means that their value is dependent on how much someone is prepared to pay and hence are more akin to investing in shares or a pyramid scheme.
Importantly they all have the capability to record the history and provenance of goods, services and transactions. However, cryptos are unregulated and not underwritten by a lender of last resort – a feature that sterling enjoys through the Bank of England. In nineteenth century Britain, private banks such as the one owned by Jane Austen’s brother issued their own banknotes. Often exceeding what their assets could withstand and, as in the case of Henry Austen, they went bankrupt leaving their customers out of pocket. In 1844, the English government introduced the Bank Charter Act which barred any new banks from issuing banknotes and constrained the Bank of England with a direct correlation to its gold reserve. The risk of a similar private currency crash still exists today for the users of unregulated cryptocurrencies.
Another way of implementing a cryptocurrency is to use stablecoins. These are designed to be stable by using assets outside of the currency itself to establish their value. One of the advantages is that these digital currencies would be stable enough to be used in everyday life and free the user from having to use national state currencies, such as sterling. With a huge caveat. If they are unregulated, they could still collapse and take your money with them.
Also, they are a real worry for national governments. If a population shifts to private digital currencies, such as Meta’s currency (now reportedly abandoned) or a more localised Town Pound, the state’s ability to collect and spend tax, and set interest rates is significantly reduced. This limits its ability to control and manipulate its economy.
Whether you consider that to be a good or a bad thing depends on your world-view.
For the science fiction author this is a rich source of inspiration. It’s the age-old struggle between control and freedom. Control the currency, control the citizens. It’s the fight for the soul of society.
On the horizon are digital programmable currencies run by algorithms according to a set of rules that determine how that currency is used and how it interacts with other currencies. This opens up the possibility for citizens to make ethical decisions about their currency of choice, and adds further speculative ground for the SF writer on what effect this might have in society and its relationship with its government.
So, where does a central bank fit into all this? Well, the Bank of England and other central banks are considering Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) as the underpinning glue of this multiplicity of private currencies. It would decide which currencies to endorse, and hence underwrite and legitimise. Imagine the national bank as a top layer across all the private currencies. It decides which currencies are suitably stable and then sets the exchange rate between them. Taken a bit further, what if that central bank also decides which to back based on whether it agrees with the rules of that programmable currency or not?
For example, there could be money that will not allow itself to be used in any way connected to the arms trade—validated by blockchain ledgers. If the Bank of England rejected that currency as legitimate, it would keep it in the non-regulated space. Or, maybe the central bank only supports the arms trade with certain countries? That might not seem much different to our current situation. However, if it becomes a citizen’s choice because they can decide which currencies they use, and they choose to be anti-arms trade and take the risk of using an unregulated currency, the state loses control over the part of the economy relating to that currency. In short, the power we currently associate with voting, lobbying and protesting becomes baked into how we, as individuals, use our money. If a sufficiently large number of us chose to make an ethical stance in favour of a non-state-backed currency this could force a change in government policy.
Imagine a scenario where the English government is selling arms to the newly independent Northern Ireland. In support of its invasion of the Republic of Ireland. It decides to only underwrite digital currencies which allow this trade. The public are angry and fearful of retaliation from the EU. A large protest takes place with a call to resist by refusing to use any of the regulated currencies. All the protestors switch to unregulated currencies causing a media frenzy which ripples across the country until fifty-percent of the population have joined the boycott. Not only has the public spoken, but the government has now lost half of its tax revenue and withdraws its support of Northern Ireland’s invasion.
Another aspect you might consider is whether currencies could be the democratic mechanism for your SF world? How would a battle between a national government and a corporation or community play out? Could this be a way of exploring anarchy as a community running things as opposed to the traditional top-down way we have now?
The points I’ve discussed above reveal a well-known fundamental truth about money. The value associated with it is really only a matter of trust. Does trust present itself in your futuristic world through how you use your money, your accumulated wealth, or who you trade with?
You could explore which resources are finite and hence could be used as an asset to underpin the currency? This is where NFTs (non-fungible tokens) become interesting. An NFT is a unit of data stored on a blockchain and often associated with digital files such as photos and videos. Each NFT may represent a different underlying asset with a different value and hence they are not mutually interchangeable, not fungible, unlike cryptocurrencies. Could a currency be based on portions of a finite asset such as a piece of art? Could the art treasures of a stately home form the asset base of an NFT? Could the public space in a locality be the underpinning asset for a local currency?
Whichever future we get, it’s likely to be more complex and different to those familiar science fiction themes of a post-scarcity world with no need for money or a world government with a single currency. Life is messy, especially when it involves humans and technology and we are more likely to find less-idealised versions of these extremes. For example, we already live in a post-scarcity world, it’s simply that the distribution of resources is not equal. As the UN states, ‘enough food is produced today to feed everyone on the planet, but hunger is on the rise in some parts of the world.’ So, how about a world where varying rates of exchange are applied to individuals to ensure there are no significant wealth gaps between any global citizens and nobody has to worry about food, clothes and shelter? Alternatively, rather than a world government how about common principles that underpin all programmable currencies to create a global set of ethics?
You can imagine a not-too-distant future where you’re standing at the counter buying your early morning coffee. The coffee shop accepts a multitude of currencies, at least a dozen of which you use too. As you pay, your ‘in-pocket’ app selects from your chosen currencies and negotiates the best deal possible with the app of the coffee shop. A process that would be completed in micro-seconds and without us needing to know the details—we set our own personal parameters at the outset and let the apps do the rest. Without compromising anyone’s ethics.
Blockchain could be used to make a record of the provenance of goods and services and the heavy lifting of decision-making on where to spend your money ethically could also be outsourced to an app. To go one step further, the data held by the big tech companies on our identity and interests means we could outsource the identification of our core principles from our online presence, and hence our choice of currencies.
You could see this as an extrapolation of the small community trade. Where an exchange might have been, ‘I’m told you need potatoes so I’ll give you a sack of mine now and I know you well enough to trust you to give me some of your pig when you kill it.’ However, the future I am extrapolating to is one where trust between each other in relation to fair and honest trading is based on data and algorithms, and on a global scale. In the extreme, the outsourcing of our moral position to the processors of big data could be seen as placing the ultimate trust in who we are and who we want to be.
What is emerging is a world where our morals, our identity and our money become intertwined in a way that they haven’t been previously.
When identity and money are inextricably linked and an individual falls foul of the controlling body—government, bank or corporation—there is potential to be excluded from the economy as well as society. Imagine not being able to buy any food or heating, not because you don’t have the money but because of your moral stance on wider issues. I explore this in my stories, “The Downward Spiral of the Disenfranchised Consumer” and “In Trust We Trust.”
In “Failing Fathers,” I suggest the government might create a currency to re-balance the abuses of their colonial past. By using the British Museum’s assets to underwrite a currency that sets its value higher for those whose heritage is from a nation whose assets were stolen by the British. Of course, the story explores other aspects of that scenario, such as whether all of British society can be held responsible for the exploitation by a few.
In conclusion, programmable money based on data and linked to our digital identity could be as disruptive and formative as the development of communications technologies has been over the past thirty years.
The time to explore our futures is always now, and I wonder which one your money is on?
 Cybersalon.org is a UK-based collective and think-tank, focusing on the process and effect of the digital revolution in industry, society and its emerging digital cultures.
 “Crypto is new instruments and institutions, not new money” – David G. W. Birch (https://blog.dgwbirch.com/?p=1105)
 “The Art of Central Banking in a Centrifugal World” – Mark Carney (https://youtu.be/XAC_Ll9QyGU)
 “The time to embrace central bank digital currencies is now” – Martin Wolf (https://www.ft.com/content/7a93fb0a-ae95-44fc-a3d2-1398ef0ce1af)
 “The History of NFTs & How They Got Started” – Portion Marketplace blog (https://blog.portion.io/the-history-of-nfts-how-they-got-started/)
 UN News (https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/10/1048452)