Altcoins and alt-societies
Neal Stephenson’s visionary sci-fi novel The Diamond Age is set in a world of intermingled, distributed “phyles”: powerful, trans-national societies defined by their customs, culture, and commerce – all connected through trade and a sprawling global infrastructure – locked in aggressive, often subterranean competition.
Stephenson’s future world is, of course, very much rooted in the present: today our national boundaries are dynamic and multidimensional, far-flung geographic regions enmesh in vast networks of communication, capital, and cultural interchange.
Still, government-decreed fiat currencies act as the overwhelmingly dominant medium for commerce and exchange, even within our proto-Stephensonion age. Through nearly impenetrably opaque mechanisms of national and corporate management they form the underpinnings of economic systems that tend to be fundamentally unsustainable and unjust, reinforcing inequality and domination.
Bitcoin and the blockchain challenged this. Through the blockchain – bitcoin’s central innovation – it became possible to create systems of decentralized value exchange free from parochial systems of governance. This has made possible many other systems for digital transaction have emerged. Dubbed “altcoins”, each of these has its own unique features, objectives, principles, and communities.
Bitcoin and similar blockchain cryptocurrencies are rather like gold, a commodity currency. Like gold, they promise an independence from political control, but unlike gold, they offer a networked sophistication capable of acting as the basis for complex financial instruments and systems. For this reason, Bitcoin was an early darling of online libertarians and anarcho-capitalists: it espoused exactly what they held dear.
Most of the time we hear talk about alt-coins as competitors, and usually only to Bitcoin. “Which one will win and become the gold standard of the 21st century?” ask articles in the financial press. But what if that question misses the point? What if cryptocurrencies are not merely the next domain of speculation and extraction?
There’s no reason for there to be only one cryptocurrency. The different technologies underlying each of the alt-coin types offer distinct advantages for specific use cases. With the advent of cryptocurrencies, we might see a much looser binding between nation, monetary system, and society.
If we think of each of these new “altcoins” as having its own implicit financial system, attendant community, culture, and governance system, the age of the altcoin could look much like Stephenson’s vision of the future--but even more fractilian. Through communities of coin, whole societies might form with no cohesive geographical or even explicitly cultural analog. People may participate in multiple currencies simultaneously, shifting and combining allegiances frequently.
PotCoin, one such cryptocurrency, aims to be the standard form of payment for the legalized cannabis industry. DogeCoin, which, serving fans of the doge internet meme, began as a joke, blossomed to a very real market with capitalization of almost $400 million USD (at the time of this writing). One doesn’t have to stretch the imagination very far to envision a future where one’s identity may be deeply tied with how much one is invested in which of the various cryptocurrencies.
Bitcoin might well come to form the basis of an phyle, predicated as it is on unimpeded commerce and transfer of value, bestowing political power in direct proportion to their wealth and infrastructure power within that system. In the bitcoin ecosystem everything and anything might be bought and sold, deposits and escrows enabling complex instruments of trade, lending, or even collective financing.
A society built around the myriad possibilities opened by cryptocurrency systems such as Ethereum could be made up of a dizzying number of decentralized applications (“Dapps”), that run on the network, each one with exciting new solutions that allow innovative new forms of collaboration, new solutions to tenacious technical problems, and radical visions of how our digital systems can be built and self-governed. We can imagine the excitement and energy that would thrive in this space of open standards, innovation, and fast-moving capital.
Open-governance-focused systems like Decred and BOScoin might become the infrastructures for distributed communities, radical/participatory democracy types, cooperatives, non-profit or initiatives, etc. Value networks may benefit greatly from these inherently secure, trustless systems of exchange. Even moneyless Anarchist societies may find tools for use in time vouchers or need coupons as was experimented with in Anarchist Spain during the Revolution of 1936.
Investing in cryptocurrencies is fun, but let’s not forget what we are doing here: we are building the economic systems of the future. Don’t just invest to make money, invest to build the future you want. Check out Ethereum, Decred, Boscoin, and other alt-coins focused on integrating consensus governance into the foundations of this new economic paradigm and empowering distributed, uncensorable networks of information and communication.
Indeed perhaps soon, when we say we are “invested” in our local community or “invested” in homeless outreach, or “invested” in environmentalism, we will mean it in both senses of the word. See HullCoin, Sean’s Outpost, EverGreenCoin for possible visions of a future where “putting your money where your mouth is” becomes literal and commonplace.