0 comments on “Blockchain, Fake News, and Private Money: Cryptocurrency in historical context”

Blockchain, Fake News, and Private Money: Cryptocurrency in historical context

Yesterday, Apple announced that one of the features to be included in iOS 11 was the ability to use their iMessage protocol to send money.

Author Daniel Priestley commented about this on his Facebook page; here is an excerpt:

Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google will issue the money of the 21st century. The Apple Dollar will float against the Amazon Coin the same way the USD exchanges to the GBP. As the world becomes less and less about geography, currency will be issued by the tech giants rather than countries.

It’s a provocative statement, and I’m not sure I am as willing to go so far as Priestly does; Apple is not actually issuing its own currency. Yet Bitcoin, Ether, Ripple, and their like are indeed currencies, existing apart from any sovereign fiat currency, so perhaps in some ways Priestley’s vision is not that far off the mark. But something about the way that Priestley presented this as a 21st century phenomenon got me thinking about historical context, and the more I think about it, the more I am coming to realize that like many recent tech revolutions, cryptocurrency is in many ways not so much something new as a technology-enabled return to something quite old. In this case, that old something is private money.

Most people living on the planet today take for granted the idea that currency is something issued exclusively by sovereign governments, but this has not always been the case. In fact, paper currency for most of its history was issued far more regularly by private banks than by sovereign governments. That is why they are still called banknotes. Some governments did experiment with issuing their own banknotes, Napoleon, for instance. But since its inception in Song Dynasty China in the 11th century, paper currency was mostly issued by banks.

For most of the intervening years, only a few well-established and respected banks issued notes for public circulation. But in 19th century America, the issuance of banknotes exploded. During the height of what is now called the Free Banking Era, almost anyone could issue currency, and many did. Not just banks, but retailers, restaurants, even individuals. There were literally thousands of different currencies in active trade. Nominally, a dollar was a dollar regardless of who issued the note, but in reality the value of each private currency depended wholly on the fortunes of the issuer. If the issuer went bankrupt, as many did, their currency became worthless.  So being a savvy trader in the free banking era meant keeping careful track of the current and projected future value of the currency you held or the currency you traded in.

Eventually, too many people got burned and the government felt compelled to intervene;  the result was the set of federal reserve notes we still recognize today as legal tender. The rest of the world followed suit, and by the start of World War I, almost all currency in circulation was government issued (though some private money survives to this day: the currencies of both Scotland and Hong Kong, for instance, are still issued by banks rather than by the government).

The result of this change was that people no longer had to worry about the provenance of their money. It’s purchasing power might be subject to inflationary pressure, and its value might ebb and flow when compared to the currency of other countries, but you no longer had to worry about whether one dollar was as good as the next.

Until now.

With the rise of bitcoin, ether, ripple, and other altcoins and cryptocurrencies, the one-century or so historical aberration during which we could take the provenance of our money for granted has come to an end. As traders, bankers, and consultants, we once again need to think not only about the most suitable financial product for a given use case, but also the most suitable store of value.  It is in many ways similar to the profusion of fake news. For a brief period in history, we were able to take the provenance of our news for granted, but recent events have caused us to revert to the historical norm of needing to examine the provenance of our news critically.

Why does all this matter, and what lessons can we who work with blockchain, cryptocurrency, or indeed journalism, consider as we plan our future? The Free Banking Era came to an end because it presented enormous opportunities for both arbitrage and fraud, and because those opportunities were enthusiastically exploited by the speculators and criminals of the day. By studying this history carefully, those of us who believe in the transformational benefits that cryptocurrencies and distributed ledgers may be able to mitigate the worst of these excesses, and perhaps avoid the loss of innovation that would inevitably follow from a massive government intervention similar to the one that brought the Free Banking Era to an end. At the very least, if we are able to avoid at least some of the mistakes of the past, we may earn for ourselves the opportunity to make entirely new mistakes. Surely that is worth something.

Sources:

  • The photo from the Apple developers’ conference came from The Verge; the original article is here
  • The Daniel Priestley quote came from his Facebook page, which can be found here
  • The banknote images came from the Wikimedia commons
0 comments on “A Coming Revolution in Physical Addresses”

A Coming Revolution in Physical Addresses

There was an announcement recently that, while it doesn’t have world-spanning impact on its own, may herald what will be a global change in how physical locations addressed in the world: Cote d’Ivoire announced that it would be adopting what3words as its official postal address scheme, making it the second country to do so (Mongolia was the first).

what3words is a physical addressing scheme that divides the globe into tiles of three square meters and assigns a unique 3-word address to each. The words are regular English words; homophones and offensive terms are filtered out, and there is a 40,000 word master list from which the 57 trillion tiles that make up the earth’s surface (ocean areas included). Essentially what3words has assigned a set of mnemonics to numerical GPS coordinates, much in the same way as DNS assigns mnemonic domain names to numeric IP addresses.

To understand the amazing potential of what this can accomplish, let’s look at the first national adopter of what3words, the Mongolian postal service. Much of Mongolia is open steppe, an endless horizon of rolling grassland for which words cannot convey the sense of immensity, and much of the population still lives out on the steppe — I had the privilege of visiting in 2006; the vista cannot possibly be captured on film and will remain with me for the rest of my life. Getting from one place to the next is not difficult, either by vehicle or, more traditionally, on horseback; so much so that the network of roads that developed in many countries over the prior two centuries was neither required nor particularly desired. Imagine the challenge, then, of trying to send a parcel to someone living on the steppe. But with a what3words address, everyone living on the steppe is now easily locatable, allowing them to communicate by post, participate in e-commerce, and start businesses that, prior to this innovation, would have been logistically impossible for them to operate from their homes.what3words started up in 2013, and a number of travel concerns and NGO’s have adopted their addresses, but, it was the Mongolian announcement last year that first made me aware of them, and I have been watching them since. The potential of this solution is enormous, for global logistics, for financial inclusion, and even for more diverse and trivial use cases like finding friends and family at large music festivals, theme parks, or sporting events. Most startups fail though, and while the Mongolian use case was a key success (and an obvious win given Mongolia’s unique geographical challenges), to me one of the key indicators that what3names might actually succeed was adoption by a second, preferably African, country. If the Cote d’Ivoire adoption succeeds, as I believe it is likely to, I could see any number of African countries with similar challenges (e.g. entire villages with no postal address) adopting it in rapid succession.

If this takes off, the impact cannot be overstated. Everything else we are trying to accomplish in fighting poverty and improving the human condition – financial inclusion, educational access, universal broadband, targeted humanitarian aid — will become that much easier.

Oh, and if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of belong.enjoyable.delay, do feel free to drop by for a cup of coffee and a chat.

Links:

The CNN article on Cote d’Ivoire that appeared today:

http://cnn.it/2iA0fjC

You can visit the what3words site itself and find your own three word address at:

http://cnn.it/2iA0fjC

The mobile app (free) is available on from the Apple App Store and Google Play:

https://appsto.re/gb/c4MnN.i

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.what3words.android

0 comments on “Blockchain for Social Good”

Blockchain for Social Good

A great deal is being written lately about blockchain and while only a few of the world’s current 10,000+ blockchain-based start-ups are likely to succeed, hype exists for a reason, and the core truth remains that distributed ledger technology has the potential, and probably the destiny, to completely transform how the world records and shares business transactions. Most cited use cases for blockchain come from the financial services industry, but blockchain is beginning to be taken seriously by other sectors as well, such as energy, manufacturing, and especially health care.

We could brainstorm some good use cases where the application of blockchain would yield transformational results in socially oriented Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) however by approaching these challenges in a more structured way, and starting with the more abstract changes that distributed ledgers bring, we can think more systemically; this will improve our ability to use blockchain to creatively and effectively address larger universe of problems.

Systemic Transformations From Blockchain Adoption

Consensus

When multiple parties in a business network share a single ledger of transactions, the amount of time spent establishing and verifying the details of any transaction can be significantly reduced. In a social context, this would allow charities and NGO’s to deliver goods and services with much greater efficiency.

Identity 

Getting assistance to the right recipient is one of the biggest challenges of any social enterprise; this can be as true in mature economies as it is in the developing world. A framework for identity management that was flexible enough to work across different countries, processes, and technologies would not only reduce misdirected aid, it would significantly reduce the percentage of budget a charity or NGO would need to spend on compliance.

Provenance 

From blood donations to organ transplants to diamonds to industrial waste, the ability of a social enterprise to accurately identify the source and chain of custody of key material goods is critical. Blockchain by its very nature provides an immutable chain of provenance. By immutable we mean that once a transaction is recorded it cannot be deleted or denied – its record is unchangeable.

Transparency

By some estimates, as little as 40% of the world’s material aid reaches its intended destination. In some parts of the world, the percentage of monetary aid reaching its final destination is far lower than this. Through the application of the consensus, identity, and provenance capabilities that are native to distributed ledger technology, social enterprises can envision a new operating model. Not only one in which its ability to operate with transparency and efficiency is transformed, but one in which that transparency and efficiency are directly visible in real time to its managers, regulators, donors, and above all, its beneficiaries.

Real-world Use Cases

With a solid understanding of these systemic transformations, it becomes a fairly straightforward exercise to envision very concrete, KPI-driven business cases for a wide variety of social goals. Some quick examples:

  • Tracking the flow of refugees through conflict zones and porous borders, to ensure they receive the humanitarian aid they need. Also, ensuring that cohesive medical histories follow such refugees in their migrations
  • Identifying sources, inventories, and locations of tainted foods, faulty components, or toxic waste
  • Ensuring that material aid such as food or clothing reaches the intended recipients
  • Real-time tracking of blood or organ donations

In addition to these direct examples, social enterprises would also stand to benefit from adopting some of the core financial services use cases for blockchain:

  • Cheaper and faster currency remittance
  • More efficient trade finance, letters of credit, and logistics
  • Innovations in funding and business models

Next Steps

A distributed ledger, by its very definition, must exist across a network of enterprises and individuals for any of these benefits to be realized which requires that those enterprises and individuals agree on a common standard or protocol for sharing data and modelling transactions. In most cases, the organizational challenges of agreeing such a protocol within a business network will dwarf the technological challenges of implementing that protocol on blockchain. As a result the social enterprises who will be the most likely to succeed with blockchain will be the ones who:

  • Are the first to agree a protocol with their networks of donors, beneficiaries, and logistics providers
  • Define those protocols, and the technology needed to use them, in a way that makes it easy and inexpensive for other participants in the business network to adopt them
  • Have the focus and influence necessary to obtain approval for their transformed business models from the relevant regulators

Note: This article first appeared as a blog post from Russam GMS, an an excellent interim executive sourcing firm. I would highly recommend following their Insights section, which features updates from some very interesting senior business leaders. You can link to their insights page at: https://russam-gms.co.uk/insights