Light and Dark

Life imitates art, even in payments

A few years ago, I took part in an entertaining event at the British Computer Society (BCS) during which my alter ego, Mr. Don Rogers from the Isle of Man Economic College, set out a new payment system.

During this talk “Mr. Rogers” proposed the Crime Pays System or CPS. Under this system, digital payments would be either “light” or “dark”. The default transaction type would be light and free to the end users. All transaction histories would be uploaded to a public space (we were, of course, thinking about the Bitcoin blockchain here) which would allow anybody anywhere to view the transaction details. This type of transaction is designed to promote an environment of social accountability. The alternative transaction type would be dark. With this option advanced cryptographic techniques would make the payment completely invisible, leaving no trace of the exchange, thus anonymising all transactions. A small levy in the region of 10% to 20% would be paid per transaction. The ‘Dark Exchange’ would therefore offer privacy for your finances at a reasonable price.

The revenue generated from the use of this system would be taken by the government to substitute for the loss of taxes in the dark economy. Pretty whacky, way-out, left-field thinking, yes? Well, only five years later, it’s apparently about to come true.

Well, I must in all honesty admit that it was not my idea. Like all such ideas that are way ahead of their time, it has its origins in art, not technology. The idea came from my good friend and wonderful artist, Austin Houldsworth. As you may know, for many years Consult Hyperion ran the Future of Money Design Award as part of the annual Tomorrow’s Transactions Forum. Austin organised this award and he also designed the cover for my book Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin. In fact, here he is showing me the machine that he built for the cover photo of the book.

Welcome to the Machine

Well, it’s taken a few years, but Austin’s idea is a few steps closer to reality, since as Carsten pointed out, Coin Telegraph is reporting that just such a payment system is being proposed for Russia. And our guess of a 10–20 percent holding tax was remarkably accurate, since what is being proposed in Russia is apparently a 13% tax.

That’s pretty amazing if you ask me, but it does illustrate a general point about futurology, which is that sometimes the technologist’s roadmap can be a less accurate guidebook than artists’ imaginations. I think this is especially true when it comes to trying think more than five or so years ahead and it suggests to me that we need to get artists more involved in “ideation” as part of longer term strategy in superificially cold and techno-deterministic spaces.

No, it shouldn’t. This is a matter of great importance and with significant implications for society. The strategy should be set by society (including artists), not by technologists. And we need to make some big decisions about it fairly soon, otherwise we will allow technology (that is, technology companies) to create an environment that we may not be comfortable with.

What might that environment be? Well, it won’t be like 1984 (for one thing, we didn’t need the government to come around an install screens to watch us all the time, we bought them ourselves from Apple and Samsung and Google). I don’t think it will be like Star Trek either, partly because of the physics and partly because of the money-free utopianism. I think it will be more like the future set out a few decades ago by the “cypherpunk” writers who predate the internet and social media but saw which way the wind was blowing. I’m not the only one.

There’s a nostalgia around the world cypherpunk for me, because it’s a while back that I saw these visions and was captivated by them. A quarter of a century ago, I co-wrote an article for that august journal of record, the “Computer Law and Security Report” (Volume 8, Issue 2, March–April 1992, Pages 74–76), saying…

This article (called “What is Cyberspace” [Ref] [PDF]) tried to explain the idea of cyberspace to a lay audience (this was before Netscape, the year zero of the modern age, so most lawyers had never been online) turned out to be rather popular. I like to think that one of the reasons was the conviction that we were exploring the actual future, not a hypothetical future. I can’t remember where the idea of the paper came from, but I do remember that we chose extracts from Gibson’s brilliant writing to illustrate the concepts rather than trying to paraphrase, and I still get a thrill from reading them now.

I loved the idea of the “black ice” then and I love it now. In the Gibson world, Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics (ICE) refers to security programs that protect data form unauthorised access, and black ice is ICE so deadly that it can kill a hacker. Wonderful. It came back to me a couple of years ago when I turned on BBC radio at random while driving home, only to discover that someone was reading one of my all-time favourite books, Gibson’s “Burning Chrome”, and the mention of the black ice gave a chill all over again.

I can still remember the shock of reading Gibson’s “Neuromancer” for the first time. (Gibson calls this an optimistic view of the near future, since it involves only limited nuclear exchanges between countries — let’s ope he’s right.) Why a shock? Well, since leaving university I’d found myself specialising in secure data communications. I worked on one of the first secure LANs for the UK government, on secure satellite communications for banking, on secure military networks for NATO, that sort of thing. I was immersed in networking, but I didn’t grok it. I didn’t feel what it meant, where it was taking us. Reading Gibson was like lifting a veil from parts of my own brain. I took an artist to give me vision and vocabulary.

And what a vocabulary it was. My very favourite William Gibson quote, right after “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed” is about money. It comes from his novel “Count Zero” and it’s about the cashless society:

As I’ve written before, we are heading toward a cashless society, cashless in this Count Zero sense where, cash will still be around and it will still be legal tender (although I don’t think people understand what a limited concept that is), but it will disappear from polite society and from the daily lives of most people. This vision of a cashless society, not a society where there is no cash but a society where it is irrelevant, may have seemed outlandish twenty five years ago, but it’s a pretty accurate description of Sweden now (where only a tiny fraction of retail payments are cash), China soon and perhaps, with the innovation of light and dark exchanges realised, Russia next.

My opinions are my own (I think).