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Crypto Histories
October 13, 2023

The True Value of Tokens

Rachel O’Dwyer discusses the ancient art of money with Alex Estorick and Ana María Caballero
Image credit: Verso
Now Reading:  
The True Value of Tokens
Rachel O’Dwyer’s new book, Tokens: The Future of Money in the Age of the Platform, is now available in hardback and as an ebook from Verso.

Alex Estorick: In recent years, NFTs (non-fungible-tokens) have come to prominence alongside voting tokens. Why are tokens so important all of a sudden? Has something fundamental changed or simply the language used?

Rachel O’Dwyer: Tokens have always ghosted the real economy. Before blockchain or Bitcoin or any of the experiments in money post-2008, we had tokens that worked in various guises. By “tokens” I mean exchange media that are both more and less than state-backed money. They are “less” than money because while money is, at least in theory, fungible — one euro is the same as any other — tokens come with strings attached; they can usually only be spent by certain people or redeemed for certain goods or in certain places or if certain conditions have been met. 

Take, for example, the beer tokens used in student union bars that don’t have an alcohol license. There are multiple historical examples of these tokens. There were special tokens for married women who didn’t have access to their own money. These women got by through store accounts or postal orders or invisible dollars. Similarly there were relief vouchers and food stamps and alms for the poor because cash was (and still is) seen as a dangerous form of relief for the underprivileged. 

Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (artists’ proof), 2023. Courtesy of the artists

In the past, there were special tokens that were designed to exploit workers, not just through the wage relation but also at the point of redemption — employers paid workers in tokens called “scrip” that could only be redeemed in a company store at a price set by the employer. If that sounds arcane, today Amazon pays its Mechanical Turk workers outside the US and more recently in India in Amazon gift balances that are tied to the workers’ identity and are non-transferable. 

Tokens are also “more” than money. They name an exchange value but they are also used to brag and flex and troll, control, communicate, survey, and much more. There were multiple example of tokens in Greek and Roman antiquity that were money-like but which also blended the functions of exchange and transaction with judicial, administrative, and public functions: tokens for accounting purposes; tokens as shares and ownership rights; tokens to record debts and credits; tokens to confer access to secret societies; tokens for transparency; tokens for voting rights; tokens for games; tokens as prestige and bragging rights. 

What I found so striking is not how our economy of tokens is so different, but how many similarities there are between ancient or so-called “primitive” money and today’s tokens.
Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (artists’ proof), 2023. Courtesy of the artists

Right now tokens are returning and multiplying. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that 2008 broke a general taboo on money, as Jaromil has argued. People started to question what money is and does and what it could be. They started to imagine other, alternative exchange media. Secondly, as platforms began issuing money-like things and doing bank-like things in the background, tokens came to the fore. A good example of this is M-Pesa, where a mobile phone company (Safaricom) issued phone credit as a de facto currency in inflation-ravaged Zimbabwe. Some of these tokens emerged out of necessity — users on the ground using internet stuff as a de facto payment, currency, or remittance in the absence of payments but existence of fairly robust phone networks. 

Many of these innovations run from the Global “South” to the North. If M-Pesa is one example, another is QQ coin, issued by the gaming company Tencent for buying online tokens, which quickly became a de facto online token until the Chinese government intervened and pushed it underground. 

Both of these are significant: mistrust in the state coupled with an emergence of platforms doing bank-like stuff gave rise to an economy of tokens. Since the pandemic we have also seen the rise of financial nihilism pushing people to adopt and develop tokens at a moment when all culture became online culture.
Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (artists’ proof), 2023. Courtesy of the artists

Ana María Caballero: What histories are told by systems of printed and minted money? What are the social implications of creating new systems of value, and are any of these actually inclusive?

ROD: It is hard to answer this because these histories are so multiple. In the eighteenth century a strange literary genre emerged, which Mary Poovey calls the “literature of social circulation.” Thomas Bridges’s The Adventures of a Bank Note (1759-75) and Charles Johnstone’s Chrysal; or, The Adventures of a Guinea (1760-65) are both narrated by money. The coin or note tells the story of all the people it meets on its journey and the con­versations it overhears as it passes from hand to hand. Chrysal the Guinea describes its journey through the networks of colo­nial trade, from North America to England, to Holland and Germany. Money was represented as having, as Chrysal put it, “a power of entering into the hearts of the immediate possessors and reading all the secrets of their lives.” The token bears witness to everything surrounding it.

There’s an artwork I really like by the artist Cildo Meireles called Insertion into Ideological Circuits: Banknote Project (1970). He printed secret messages onto banknotes — anti-imperialist screeds like “Yankees go Home,” before spending them back into circulation. 

Here cash is like a form of proto-social media — something that everyone uses but no one quite controls.

People inscribed messages onto this media, which were sometimes funny, like when Canadians changed images of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier to look like Leonard Nemoy (Dr. Spock) following the latter’s death in 2015. Sometimes they are political, as with the Harriet Tubman stamp in 2019, when US citizens overlaid the image of President Jackson on $20 bills with images of the woman who led the Underground Railroad. 

Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (artists’ proof), 2023. Courtesy of the artists

In Ireland, where I am from, I’ve seen images of Euro banknotes inscribed with the message “no borders: end direct provision” — an inhumane accommodation system in which asylum seekers are kept for indefinite periods in prison-like conditions while they await the outcome of their application. There’s something more significant about inscribing these messages on money than on a wall, don’t you think? On something that speaks to us as a nation and that also speaks back to power. Users of the Tubman stamp described it as an act of civil disobedience.

In the early 1900s when women were looking for universal suffrage, some penny coins were defaced with the inscription “Votes For Women.” I like to think of Suffragette pennies as a kind of NFT. Where other Victorian pennies are identical, the suffragette coins are unique — inscribed with a different set of values and demands.

In Tokens, I also consider multiple examples where communities have attempted to create tokens with “other values” attached to them: tokens that accounted for the commons; tokens that shored up care; or tokens that were intended to put a price on negative externalities such as environmental devastation. I was excited to speak to Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò recently at Transmediale, whose new book Reconsidering Reparations (2022) has just been published. I think he very gently pointed out in our interview that sometimes economists and money theorists get a little obsessed with money as a solution, when maybe the solutions have to happen off the ledger! Maybe the answer isn’t to try and solve these issues with a market or the right token, and we shouldn’t always try.

Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (artists’ proof), 2023. Courtesy of the artists
The dark side of less-fungible and/or programmable exchange media is when a platform or state scripts values into a token. 

We see this at work in SNAP benefits in the US — a relief token that can only be used to buy what the state deems appropriate for the poor, including particular kinds of food but no alcohol or cooked, deli food, nor hygiene products. This is money not only with value, but values. Facing down a future of CBDCs (Central Bank Digital Currencies) and platform-issued money, tokens that come with values and strings attached are obviously concerning, but could there be space to ask what kinds of values we do want encoded into exchange media? Or are we better off leaving well enough alone? 

Tokens also looks at the history of attempts to create new forms of money that inscribe alternative values into our media. I explore the history of alternative monetary systems such as Time banking and demurrage and their use in early anarchist communities in Europe and the US. Most were spectacular (and sometimes hilarious) failures. To create new economies or societies involves more than simply coining a different token. Often when an economist approaches this they see it as an economic problem — a problem of price. When an engineer or computer scientist approaches it they see it as a problem of architecture or engineering. Too often, the problem of monetary reform is run through with a technologically deterministic lens — that if you simply build the right blockchain or protocol, the right society will magically follow. But it takes more than a killer app to remake society.

Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (artists’ proof), 2023. Courtesy of the artists

AE: What does money mean in the age of NFTs, which seem to collapse the distinction between art and monetary currency? Is the function of art in society implicitly changing?

ROD: There is a nice breakdown in Mckenzie Wark’s paper, “My Collectible Ass,” that is quite useful on this question. It was following the rise of mercantile capitalism and the dawn of the art market that the artwork became a commodity. The artist also became more of an individual personality whose works were valuable because of their unique status. 

Today, artworks are more like derivatives; the value is less in the material or aesthetic value of the work and more in the network effects, hype, or information circulating around it. 

Thinking about value as a bet on information or network effects allows us to move beyond art as an asset class — because art has been an asset class for a long time — to thinking about the increasingly abstract financial instruments that emerge in relation to this particular class of assets. Today what is sold when art is transferred is less a material thing than a system of rights and deeds. Recently, art has become less about physical objects and more about information circulating around a good. In the economy of conceptual art and NFTs, what matters is not the material substance of the work itself, but the system of rights circulating around it.

In Tokens, I tell a story of a Dan Flavin certificate that was damaged in a fire. Flavin was a conceptual artist known for his sculptures made from arrangements of readymade fluorescent light bulbs. The collector still owned the material assemblage, but the deed was destroyed. Though they still owned the material work, they no longer owned a Flavin — all the value was in the deed. That sums up the moment we are in now. and it tells us a lot about why NFTs are/were valuable. And it’s really fucking depressing.

Image credit: Verso

AMC: In your book, you poke fun at male-dominated crypto conferences, where new token economies are presumably being erected. If a fresh token economy is being built mostly by men, then, to paraphrase Langdon Winner, what are the politics of these newfangled artifacts?

ROD: I came to money from an activist bent. But I quickly became burned out and disillusioned. I feel guilty invoking “burnout,” which sounds like I did a ton of work to get to that point and I didn’t! I found the politics and atmosphere of the crypto and money activist spaces exhausting. Throughout my late twenties I lived in a shared house in Dublin with the man who’s now my husband, his sister, and a bunch of other lovely people. It was very inclusive. There were lots of people coming through all the time. Most of us were involved in various social movements outside of our day jobs, whether that was local groups focused on areas like anti-gentrification and anti-privatization or else more global projects. 

Alongside some local stuff, my shtick was mostly the digital commons and I was engaged with different alternative economic projects outside of Ireland. Throughout this one busy period in 2015, I was hosting lots of people, including Robinhood, members of the P2P Foundation, and various money activists. [...] I started to notice a latent sexism in tech activism and find it annoying. 

Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (artists’ proof), 2023. Courtesy of the artists

There’s an incident with a money-turned-men’s rights activist in Tokens that’s played for laughs but which was actually quite an upsetting experience. I was asked to organize a workshop on money and the commons for a university. The job was not paid and I was the only invited woman — the “token” female, I guess. Björn, whose real name I won’t use because he strikes me as the litigious sort, was very aggressive and attacked me for saying that perhaps money activism wasn’t the most friendly or inclusive place for people who weren’t white, European men. He said that perhaps white European men wouldn’t feel the need to resort to claims of discrimination to justify their inferiority. The conference organizers were in the room but nobody did anything to challenge or diffuse the situation.

There was a lot of lip service paid to the idea of reciprocity but when it came down to it, the same old hierarchies or subjectivities were encoded into the projects. 

And I know I’m guilty of the same. I’ve been raised with a very neoliberal mindset and I bring that along with me. I’m a terrible person to tell anyone else how to remake the economy, which is partly why Tokens doesn’t really have any prescriptive advice about what we should do about the future of money. I know I’m the wrong person to give this advice. But maybe someone else can build on it and give the right sorts of advice? 

Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (artists’ proof), 2023. Courtesy of the artists

AE: In Web3, co-creation and open-source code are highly valued, yet there is often an expectation of reciprocity. As a result, it often feels like a hybrid of a sharing and gift economy. What do you infer from such community behaviors?

ROD: I think there’s a risk that when we use tokens of any kind to measure reciprocity that we end up measuring contributions a little too closely. When interviewed about their experiences, for example, a LETS (Local Exchange Trading System) community in West Cork observed that, in contrast to more informal exchanges — “this is my round” in a pub, for example — the ledgers used in the trading system measured individual contributions a little too closely (“What exactly have you done for me lately?”). 

As soon as we introduce an accounting system or a token — even one that is predicated on the gift or on supposedly non-market ideologies of sharing and mutual goods — there’s a question of whether we risk introducing market-think into non-market or social exchanges. Do we risk attending too closely to give and take? 

There is no hard and fast divide between market and non-market exchanges or between gift economies, monetary economies, or sharing economies. All economic relations contain social relations and all sociality contains a degree of calculation. 
Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (artists’ proof), 2023. Courtesy of the artists

AMC: How do NFTs differ from other types of token throughout history? What can we learn from pre-capitalist and non-western token economies?

ROD: Tokens are not just value; they communicate more than the terms of an exchange. They also joke and bond and troll. In a twist that evokes the strange “bragging rights” of NFTs, royal tokens in medieval France called jetons royaux had a value that was tied to their iconography more than to their named exchange value or weight in gold. They carried an insider lan­guage — different layers of meaning wrapped in symbols — that most people who encountered them couldn’t decipher. If you could, it meant you were somehow in on the joke.

In the 1990s, the anthropologist Viviana Zelizer explored how general-purpose money was “earmarked” and transformed into special-purpose tokens throughout the nineteenth and twen­tieth centuries. Before then, much of the sociology of money, from Marx to Simmel, took the view that money reduced every exchange to a transaction and every “thing” to its price. Zelizer showed that while money calculates, it is nonetheless a deeply social technology. 

By changing the function or the appearance of general-purpose money, a simple payment could be changed into a lover’s keepsake, a treat, a gift, or a bribe.
Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (artists’ proof), 2023. Courtesy of the artists

As an image search of “Bitcoin” proves, tokens are clearly coded to mean “money.” But they were also capable of communicating more than their exchange value. This is particularly true when these tokens circulate via group chat and social media. People use payments apps like Venmo and WeChat Pay not only to send money but to joke with their friends, troll celebrities, and even harass ex-partners who have blocked them. 

In online games, tokens like skins and emotes (a kind of animated reaction) are de facto currency, but they can also be used to flex, insult, or celebrate. Bored Ape and Friends With Benefits NFTs are investment tokens, but they also codify membership to an elite group. Unlike commodity money, which is worth its weight in gold or silver, one definition of tokens is that they are a medium of exchange that is worth more than whatever they’re made of.

The token is not supposed to be valuable for what it is in itself but because of what it represents

This link between representation and so-called “real value’” is not only the biggest question surrounding the nature of money; argu­ably, it’s the biggest question surrounding meaning since the early twentieth century. The link between representations and things is what key questions of language, art, and value boil down to. This question reared its head when Western countries abandoned the gold standard, and when artists decided to desig­nate mass-produced objects as “art,” and when post-structuralist philosophers challenged the relationship between words and things. But it is also clearly in play when we try to understand what makes a token of an Elon Musk tweet “valuable,” or a token of a Shiba Inu internet meme popular.

Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (artists’ proof), 2023. Courtesy of the artists

AE: Can tokens help to challenge the financialization of culture or do they simply enable it? 

ROD: Tokens are polysemic so they can just as easily challenge financialization as they enable it, even though the vast majority of the time they are used to enable it. There are multiple projects that use tokens to challenge or question the financialization of culture.

Yves Klein’s Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility is a favorite, which involved the sale of seven invisible “zones” of the river Seine in Paris for a pre-specified weight in gold. To purchase the work, the buyer had to meet the artist, and, in the presence of an expert witness of some sort (a museum director, curator, or gallerist) and two other witnesses, transfer the gold. Klein would then throw half of the gold into the Seine, where it would be irretrievable. The buyer would then be presented with a certificate of ownership for the immaterial zone. The catch was in the following clause: in order to truly possess the work in question, Klein specified, the buyer now had to burn the deed. Only then would he truly be its owner. From this point on, the work was no longer transferable. 

To accept the token was to relinquish ownership. To own it was to relinquish all possibility of future exchange. What remains of value when exchange is lost? What remains of art when exchange is all there is?

Just as tokens can be a space for onboarding and hoarding and speculating on immaterial and material value, they can also be spaces for questioning the kinds of values that we want or asking what value remains when all the exchange or hype is over.

Ana María Caballero and Alex Estorick, artifacts (artists’ proof), 2023. Courtesy of the artists

AMC: What does it mean to you that humans have had to outsource trust — placing it in external objects, such as tokens and contracts? In Web3, the token becomes the contract, leading some to hail the advent of “trustlessness.” What are the dangers in believing that a tokenized contract is “trustless”?

The Bitcoin White Paper famously put forward this idea of “trustless” contracts — trustless because we would no longer have to trust in one another because we could instead put our trust in code. It’s a popular idea in the cypherpunk and extropian communities — two 1990s mailing lists that were formative in the development of both Bitcoin and smart contracts. These communities believed that you could dispense with the messiness of human bureaucracy, politics, and trusting in other people by trusting in a neat protocol. They wanted to replace government with code, but that’s a very reductive view of what politics and government actually is. 

We still need humans in the loop, which is evident every time something goes wrong or a dispute arises in the so-called “trustless” communities of Web3. Resolution doesn’t take the form of a smart contract or code; it takes the form of dissent and argument off-chain.

Trustlessness is an aspiration or ideology more than something that has ever existed or been practiced at any moment in history or in the present. But we have to ask: “why is this idea so seductive?” Why do these communities want to replace other people with neat protocols? What is it about politics — as incremental change, or other people, or messy wrangling — that is so unattractive to the aficionados of Web3? Why was it unappealing to the cypherpunks and the extropians and to Peter Thiel when he wrote about escaping politics in all its forms in “The Education of a Libertarian.” 

The only projects I really like in Web3 are those that involve people [and] are strongly off-chain. Circles, for example, is in theory a blockchain project, but all the focus goes into fostering the social ties that exist on the ground within a community while the technology is just part of the backbone that supports it. The technology could be buttons or blockchain in this instance but what matters are the people and the networks of trust.

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Rachel O’Dwyer is a lecturer at the School of Visual Culture at the National College of Art & Design, Dublin. She was a Fulbright Scholar at UC Irvine and the Microsoft Research labs, Cambridge, and is currently a fellow at Connect, the center for Networks and Telecommunications at Trinity College, Dublin. She is the co-editor of Neural Magazine and has written for outlets such as Convergence, MIT Press, and the London Review of Books. She has curated a number of events, workshops, and exhibitions that explore the intersection of digital art, technology, and value.

Ana María Caballero is a first-generation Columbian-American poet whose work explores how biology delimits societal and cultural rites, ripping the veil off romanticized motherhood and questioning notions that package sacrifice as a virtue. She is the recipient of the Beverly International Prize, Colombia’s José Manuel Arango National Poetry Prize and the Steel Toe Books Poetry Prize, among others. Her work has been widely published and exhibited internationally. She is a co-founder of digital poetry gallery theVERSEverse. 

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.

Rachel O’Dwyer’s new book, Tokens: The Future of Money in the Age of the Platform, is now available in hardback and as an ebook from Verso.