“It tells you something about the fact that money right now is being profoundly ungrounded. It is up for question.”

Bill Maurer is an anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine. He is one of a few scientists of the Arts who researched virtual currencies like Bitcoin. In this interview he explains what Bitcoin can tell us about money in the early 21th century – and why he finds it weird to think that money needs to be a commodity.

“ … and from the beginning it was clear that we’d have to research this!”

Hello Bill. You’re an anthropologist researching money and Bitcoin. How does this stick together? What question do the Arts have for Bitcoin?

Yes, I’m an anthropologist. Almost all of my research was about law and economy. I was looking at finance, how the offshore economy was received in local communities in the Caribbean, and that got me interested thinking more deeply about money. How do people understand money? How do they use money to express ideologies or to foster relationships?

In 2007/2008 I researched the interface between money and new technologies. When Bitcoin came along, I was in the middle of a study about mobile phones and money in sub-Saharan Africa. We were thinking about the implications of mobile phones on money. How do digital transactions change the conversations about mobile money, not in terms of security or encryption, but more in terms of cultural effects?

And then came Bitcoin. I remember clearly: I was sitting in a cafe, working on something else with my students. Then someone told us about Bitcoin, we downloaded the original Satoshi whitepaper describing the concept, and from the beginning it was clear that we’d have to research this.

What was the question of your research?

The first questions were: What is it? And why is it so interesting for people? We talked to technologists and scientists and found out that Bitcoin promises a future of nearly real time transactions, but in fact it will never be as fast as credit cards. And yet it is something a lot of people are interested in and invested money in. Why? What can Bitcoin tell us about money in the early 21th century? Why are people talking about money again?

Why in this specific historical moment had money become an issue again? How was Bitcoin capturing so much attention in this moment in the history of money.

“Can we remake money? How can we make it different?”

One of the most disturbing experiences most people make with Bitcoin is that nobody is neutral. Everybody seems to be ideologically and emotionally involved. Did you find an explanation why?

Yes, I feel the same. The high level of emotional investment tells you something about the fact that money right now is being profoundly ungrounded. It is up for question. Since the end of World War II money had been relatively stable in people’s minds. But with the rise of the Internet and mobile and social computing, people are starting to think, if money is just data, just bits and bytes, can we remake money? How can we make it different? How can we think about it and value it?

There have been several different ways of thinking about money, different theories. Bitcoin reflects one of them. For several centuries the state was in the possession of the means of money making, but with the Internet, we can do it ourselves. This is not an idea Bitcoin brought into the world, it has existed for some time. Do you know the LETS movement?

No, what is it?

It stands for Local Exchange Trading System.

Ah, in Germany we call it “Tauschring”, I think.

Yes, wikipedia confirms this. Bitcoin is very similar to them. The LETS usually depend on a central account keeper. Bitcoin is similar in that it depends on accounts-keeping, but it eliminates the need for a central authority keeping track of transactions. So one strand of Bitcoin is very much like LETS, communitarian and mutualistic, but in the same time, and that’s a point of contradiction, Bitcoin is doing this without the need for trust. Community means usually trust, trust in leaders, in the people making up the community, but in Bitcoin it’s just trust in code.

On the other side, what is also interesting with Bitcoin, is that it continues a long history of thinking money as a natural commodity like gold.

What does that mean?

This line of thought thinks that money to be valuable it needs to be a commodity and it needs to be scarce. In the history of money this is a weird decision.

Sorry? What?

It’s weird because money has depended for a long time on credit and debt. In the west we also have over the centuries the imagination of money as a natural commodity.

You think money as a commodity is not a realistic option, but a wish and imagination?

Yes, it goes back to our origin story of money in the west. In our origin story, it begins with bartering, but barter becomes difficult, when I don’t have what you need. So the idea is that we need some kind of standard of value everyone can agree to. Here it gets tricky, for people who believe in money as a natural commodity, that people like something like gold and silver as money, because it’s rare and shiny …

Die Babyloner haben die Keilschrift vor allem verwendet, um Schuldverhältnisse festzuhalten. In diesem Beispiel geht es um Bier. Bild: Pictographs Recording the Allocation of Beer. Von: takomabibelot via flickr.com. Lizenz: Creative Commons

Die Babyloner haben die Keilschrift vor allem verwendet, um Schuldverhältnisse festzuhalten. In diesem Beispiel geht es um Bier. Bild: Pictographs Recording the Allocation of Beer. Von: takomabibelot via flickr.com. Lizenz: Creative Commons

“That money needs to be scarce however is an idea from goldbugs.”

But gold and silver have been used for a long time as money.

It was not used as much as people think. All you need is a system of IOUs [= I Owe U], what means debts. The Babylonians mostly recorded transactions on tablets, without the need for gold and silver. They used a system of receipts, without needing money. They did start valuing this things with silver only because silver was brought to temples and useful for this purpose. Money is really more about accounting than about having a natural commodity to use in exchange.

And Bitcoin? Is it not money in this sense?

What’s really interesting now is that Bitcoin, as a currency, is scarce and follows the same kind of logic than gold, but on the other side, we have the blockchain, that is like an ancient recording system. Like the early Babylonians used. But Bitcoin itself, the currency, the way Satoshi designed it, he designed it as scarce, and that captured people’s imaginations because it reminded them of our origin story about gold.

So Bitcoin the commodity-money is more like a chimera of money?

I don’t know if I would use that word. I think that Bitcoin is really a store of money. That money needs to be scarce however is an idea from goldbugs, you know the term? Bitcoin is money for digital goldbugs. But the blockchain itself is pretty interesting. It’s not a chimera, it’s an interesting contractual technology.

Goldbugs is a term for people that only trust scarce resources like gold but not fiat-money. Mostly they are rooted in libertarian ideologies, which are also strong in Bitcoin communities. Did you research the connection between libertarians and Bitcoin?

Bitcoin started with people imagining money without a state. That is a libertarian idea. Even PayPal was founded by libertarians, by people that thought PayPal will be the start of the end of state’s money. Then it met the idea that the Internet can unleash a world without a state, which is silly, because the Internet is a product of the state.

We are in a historical time where libertarians are on the rise, they gain traction in a generalized discourse about theories of economic crisis.

This may be in the US. In Europe it seems more that some kind of right-wing gain traction, but they are not necessarily bound to libertarian ideas. In Germany the new right-wing are connected to libertarian ideas, while in France the Front National is more socialistic …

Really? Europe is crazy. In the US we have a strong movement for libertarian ideas as a result of explanations of the economic crisis, what is crazy, since it was a result of the free market …

How about other ideologies in Bitcoin communities? Is it only libertarianism, or do you see other strong ideologies?

I guess libertarians are really the dominant strain of participants in the Bitcoin world. But there also are people re-imagining property itself, like Ethereum, and this seems related to but different from the libertarianism of others in the Bitcoin communities. There is also a more communitarian strain. The ideologies are not necessarily restricted to libertarianism, but in general I would say, Bitcoin reflects the imaginations of the Internet: the idea that the Internet allows us to build things ourselves. This ignores the fact that we build things not by ourselves, but through Google and Facebook and internet service providers and the like, and these companies in fact support the state and are supported by it. People know this but they still think and say, yes, we are directly connected to one another through the Internet and we can do it—whatever we want—ourselves.

About Christoph Bergmann (1136 Articles)
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1 Comment on “It tells you something about the fact that money right now is being profoundly ungrounded. It is up for question.”

  1. Libertär heisst einfach ” Tue was immer du möchtest, solange du niemand anderen dabei schadest” . Fertig, das wars, mehr nicht.
    Viele Leute denken, ich habe kein Recht jemand anderes auszurauben, es sei denn, ich mache alle 4 Jahre ein Kreuz gebe anderen das Recht, was ich selber nicht habe.

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