Bitcoins: Gentrifying Money

Another creative socio-economic displacement tool?

Looking forward to hot trends on the futurescape is a healthy exercise. Our childhood science fiction fantasies unfolding before our eyes is also a fascinating thing to watch. At some point, we should expect or imagine digital currency being the rule rather than the exception. But, something about the recent “bitcoin” craze is making many of us a bit uneasy. Maybe it’s the way it’s being discussed or maybe it’s the way it’s being introduced; the sources of unease are more anecdotal at the moment than empirical — after all, bitcoin is so brand new.

But bitcoin brings along with it that funny feeling of adventurous, mostly White young urban professionals and complicit city governments who casually gentrify countless urban hoods and displace mostly working class or poor residents of color while at it. It might be an exciting tool of monetary convenience, but we’ve watched this episode before. Here we go again: another amazing marketplace innovation that increases the number of folks left out. Like credit reports and FICO scores, for example, that are leaving many individuals cut out of employment — the recession kicked a number of people in the ass in more ways that one; now, because of accumulated bad credit, we’re faced with a long-term unemployment crisis because a majority of employers are using credit reports to determine your eligibility for jobs that don’t require fiduciary or security responsibilities.

With bitcoins and their legions of geeky, oblivious fanboys growing fast, someone needs to drop in on the scene like Blade crashing a basement vampire rave. Healthy and robust discourse on the subject, from talk shows to Forbes columnists living on it for a week, appear to rummage through every element of the phenomenon except for the most uncomfortable aspect about it. Yet to be heard or seen is any exchange on whether the shadowy and volatile bitcoin will end up becoming a fancy currency tool of a Gatsbian elite that will use it to access amenities the rest won’t be able to afford unless they have the keys to the bitcoin.

It doesn’t take a nerd or a cable news couch quarterback to figure out that bitcoins will be the future of money. This is going to play out like a script from Continuum, that hit Canadian sci-fi spit bought over to America’s SyFy channel. The citizens of 2077 navigate the daily routine with “credits” in a world ruled by corporate governance. You don’t really see credits being exchanged in the first season, but you hear about people having them and annoying yet highly organized terrorist cells fighting against social preoccupation with them. What a low-budget made-for-TV sci-fi show won’t show (although Continuum’s producers are displaying a refreshing knack for wrestling with some pretty provocative political, social and economic themes) is how you acquire credits — do you need “good credit” to do it? Do you need not be unemployed to get hired to get a decent job to reach credit status?

So far, zealous bitcoin enthusiasts seem more concerned with finding a fresh new screw-the-Man hack than really thinking through the ramifications of this invisible digital currency. As income inequality rises and worries over a permanency of high unemployment linger, the first questions on the bitcoin craze should include some thoughtful discussion on whether or not society will create another digital divide. Keep creating these divides and we just might push civilization to the limits of its collective patience, much like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg appeared too self-absorbed to seriously think through the consequences of having personal privacy virtually vanish. Interesting how Facebook knows everything about us, but we know little about the daily routine of Facebook’s founder.

Proponents want bitcoins to be the new monetary normal, yet there are 119 million Americans without broadband access, according to the Federal Communication Commission’s annual progress report on the subject. That’s broken down into 19 million people who don’t have the option available and 100 million who live where the option is available but don’t subscribe to it. Translated: a good chunk of the American population that can’t afford it.

How can the underserved or completely unserved populations in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world afford bitcoins if they can barely afford the increasingly expensive pathway to accessing them? This is, seriously, segregated currency just waiting to happen. And much like the gentrified socioeconomic landscape of urban centers filling fast with a modern elite while suburbs overrun by poverty expand, bitcoins might be the next best thing those cut out of it are going to hate.

CHARLES D. ELLISON is Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and Politics Contributor for UPTOWN Magazine. He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison.