We don’t know yet what a token can do
This text is a collective work. It has been co-written and edited with Skye Bougsty-Marshall, Laura Lotti, Joel E. Mason, Jonathan Beller, Pekko Koskinen, Tere Vaden and many other fellows from the Economic Space Agency.
1. The re-engineering of money
Money isn’t simply something that serves as an intermediary for exchanges: it informs the very way we come together as large-scale collectivities. The complexity of financial instruments (money-forms) has developed to hedge the risk of interdependence: gold, paper, systems of account, debt, credit, stocks, options, derivatives all indicate an advancing complexity in the functionality of quantitative metrics. Money is, for all practical purposes, the medium for social synthesis in capitalist commodified societies. It is the elementary technology for psycho-collective individuation in the techno-social and economic ensemble known as capitalism. Therefore, we need to conceive of money as a technical object of social design, that is, something that can and needs to be re-engineered to serve our collective aspirations.
The invention of Bitcoin urged us to rethink fundamental assumptions about the functional organization of the contemporary monetary architecture and its impact on the operative logic of finance. Bitcoin and subsequent alt-coins remind us that money is not a natural given, but an artificial medium — precisely, a technology. This doesn’t mean that money is simply “arbitrary”; it is rather a real abstraction that has developed in complexity with the increasing complexity of society. As such, we should start taking control of its constitution, design, and functioning for our own communities of exchange, instead of letting it be designed by and for the wealthy.
Ethereum opened up new dimensionalities to crypto-currencies with the introduction of smart contracts. In the Ethereum ecosystem, smart contracts are embedded in tokens that can represent any fungible tradable goods: currencies, IOUs, ownership certificates, voting rights, entrance tickets, etc. The malleability and openness of smart contracts has been recently harnessed by several blockchain-based projects to power new forms of economic spaces, in which tokens acquire a certain value depending on their uses. Through the use of smart contracts, we can program financial instruments that allow for more sophisticated relations of value creation than the flat transactional logic of money. These financial instruments generate a series of relationships that open multidimensional space and new economic horizons.
The excitement around blockchain is an excitement around a new means of encryption that takes one huge step towards the democratization of finance through techniques of decentralization. Hold a dollar and you have no idea of its history or of the history of its production. Beyond your immediate moment, you don’t know who sweat for that dollar, or for that matter, who died for it. Social and historical relations have been washed away from money. Money has always been a kind of encryption process, but the code and thus the controls have been hidden away — sequestered in the hands of the most powerful: central banks, financiers, backed by their militaries, police and states. With the domination imposed by imperial finance ordinary people were incapable of engineering their own financial spaces or of proposing the rules of their own systems of valuation in the financial register.
Today’s extractive logic of finance is intimately linked to monetization as the mechanism by which social, cultural, economic, ecologic values are rendered commensurable with each other, flattening heterogeneous values-in-formation onto the only unit of account we know of (so far) — fiat money — according to the principle of scarcity embedded in it. In contrast, The Space platform that we are building at Economic Space Agency offers the opportunity to any individual or collective to issue fully programmable tokens. These crypto-tokens allow anyone to design metrics of value that will function as attractors around which to orient the creation of their own economic spaces or economic constellation. Self-issuance signifies that any agent can issue value, proposing it to other agents — its valuation is therefore a general question for the society at large and a practical question for each individual agent, whenever they face an offer for it.
2. Anarchiving finance
In current finance, value masquerades as objective, a “neutral” quantitative measure, actively suppressing the highly protean emergence of value and the variegated forms it takes. But valuation, we argue, is ultimately a matter of collective expression. Instead of imposing a uniform system of value upon us, like fiat currencies enforce, ECSA’s key goal is to create a platform for rendering the rich, heterogeneous multiverse of values socially and financially liquid.
Ultimately, ECSA envisages self-issued tokens not just as currency or equity, but also as speculative prions that begin to propagate new forms of exchange and new decentralized organizational models. Think of the token as a propositional force, a sparkle of potentiality. It is a multi-dimensional docking port that can germinate new forms of relations and value sharing. The token is an occurrence, a virtual (time) crystal expecting its transductive associated milieu. It is an instance of value capture, but only insofar as it acts, simultaneously, as a fugitive relay of anarchic shares collectively modulating and amplifying values. Conceiving of tokens as speculative pragmatic relays is a way of entertaining them as generator of collective effervescence.
An intensive issuance of the kind we are envisioning here needs to interact with other self-issuances in order to express, sustain and appreciate its value difference in time. As anything truly social and valuable, the propositional force of each token is both joyful and precarious — in a word: adventuresque. Self-issuance is about exposure to an outside, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a full-fledged exposure to the “great outside” of the market. Self-issuance can be modulated at will, following the affordances of a given ecosystem and in response to the inter-species web of entanglements in which it is embedded. This means organisational fluidity: organisations, economic spaces, of different scale can interact without (the conditions of) the smallest having to scale up to (the conditions of) the biggest. Finance as an expressive medium commands a logic of implication. Collectives generate a singular value of shared contingent and emergent state, the ripple of which is being expressively felt and (an)archived in a token-form.
Social value is always intimated at some level, but it is muted by the store-value capacity of fiat money which establishes and re-establishes the individual with every transaction: the sandwich eater and the sandwich maker come together, exchange, and then re-individualize.
The technical value that machines the coming-together of the exchange is also erased, or hidden from our perception and thus our ability to harness it, by the manner in which fiat money suggests clear, cogent, and consistent ownership of objects by subjects. Sandwich and dollar together take on the feel of a closed natural equivalency between themselves as distinct, owned (known) things, and not, as we suggest, intensive points in an inter-connected environment of value. In the archive of the moment, dollar, sandwich, and single viewer exist, the narrative of their simple exchange recreating a solipsistic landscape of value devoid of relation. The anarchiving power of the self-designed crypto-token, by contrast, could look for that which overspills as the necessary condition for what has occurred and may yet occur. Fields of relation are in operation, not just exchanges between individuals. The anarchive is the awareness of the inter-touch concurring with/in an environment spreading ecologically.
3. To value or not to value? That is not the question
Trotsky, somehow anticipating Hayek, believed that the transition to communism still required a metrics of value. One could not dispense with the notion of “abstract universal labor time” or the money-form prematurely. The emergence of an ever more supple form of computation/communication seems to indicate that it may be possible to abstract and self-capture our (immaterial) production without submitting to exploitation. Abstraction without extraction: we need to imagine new economic spaces that would preserve the qualitative dimension of our modes of relationality, but could also produce quantified and interoperable value-units, that is, potentially exchangeable with other emergent commons and micro-economies.
Our hope is that if we allow for the construction of economic spaces of open, at will participation that simultaneously produce horizontal wealth, these cooperative commons will interact not only among themselves but with one another, as to ultimately attract all who are exploited into a more nurturing economy — one where the price of entry is not selling your proverbial soul.
 William Mougayar articulates the relation between the technological and the financial fabric of the token in similar terms: “In the technical realm of the blockchain, the concept of a cryptocurrency token is well understood. It represents a programmable currency unit that is bolted to a blockchain, and is part of smart contract logic in the context of a specific software application. But in the non-technical arena, what is a token, really?
A token is just another term for a type of privately issued currency. Traditionally, sovereign governments issued currency and set its terms and governance; in essence directing how our economy works with money as the exchange medium for value. With the blockchain, we now have new types organizations (and soon, more of the existing type) who are issuing their own currency in the form of digital money as cryptocurrency, and they are setting their own terms and rules around its operations, in essence creating new self-sustainable mini-economies. What was the purview of governments is now in the hands of the many.” Tokenomics — a Business Guide to Token Usage, Utility and Value, June 10th 2017, http://startupmanagement.org/2017/06/10/tokenomics-a-business-guide-to-token-usage-utility-and-value/
For further considerations about the anarchiving power of self-issuance, see Anarchiving finance: A Free Indirect Deck About the Ee-engineering of Money, a document realized onsite during the SenseLab event “Distributing the Insensible: Performing the Anarchive”, Montreal, December 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeClrxHrg98