Two sides of the invisible coin

How might we adapt digital currencies to include the religious, moral & social associations of its physical form?

Cash, for more than 3000 years has been the defining element of our pecuniary societies. It has been the means to conduct activities holding emotional value apart from being the universally accepted symbol of power. With its anonymous nature, it has the percolated deep into every societal node, mediating relationships and providing with a sense of ownership and control.

Money, an abstract concept is essentially a promise, a promise to pay, a relationship signified in various forms over the years from shells, to metals, to coins, paper bills and now as an intangible number on a computer. On one side, this digital currency heralds the utopian ideas of transparency, justice and progress, on the other side, lies the fear of Orwellian surveillance, rationalisation of human society, and death of all things undefined, unexplained and unaccounted for.

A digital currency system is hardwired to include only those with access to a bank account, a valid ID, a normalised profile. What about the deferents, a rural migrant, a rogue traveller, informal economy worker, contentious trader? Cash transactions in such cases holds significant value and meaning. Vivian A Zelizar, an economic sociologist who focuses on the attribution of cultural and moral meaning to money, argues in her study that money carries meanings beyond its function as an exchange medium. Meaning of money changes depending on the social relationship it mediates and consequently signals a wide array of different connotations.

To quote an example from her study , a 17-year-old prostitute from Copacabana, Brasil, reports about some of the money she got “I want to throw it into a garbage can, or I want to send it out to be washed and dried and folded and returned to me in a plastic bag that says ‘clean.

Often, she continued, “I take [this dirty money] to the nuns. I tell them to give it to the kids who are the worst … living in the streets and sleeping in alleys .. ..”

That same girl had a daytime job as a hairdresser and made similar distinctions among her customer’s tips: tips from nasty customers, “I put in a separate place in my wallet. I don’t let the money touch some of the other money I make”. Thus, in the sexual economy, we find that payments can work to create and maintain distinctions that matter morally, sentimentally, and personally (Viviana A. Zelizer, 1996).

CASHLESS ECONOMIES FOR THE MARGINALISED

We see similar differentiations in the form of religious money, sacred money, gift money, charitable money, ritual money, corrupt money, hard earned money, dirty money, etc in its physical form.

As major governments across the globe push their economies to adopt cashless methods of exchange, stripping value from physical notes and coins, we should look at money, its meaning and exchange in the marginal societies and ask, as currency becomes intangible, how will it build itself into this diverse cultural, social and political ecosystem of the society? With this loss in materiality, how might we design our digital currency systems to be flexible enough to accommodate for these differentiated, unpredictable and undefined moments of monetary exchange?


We’re gathering ethnographic accounts of how moving away from physical cash has impacted our daily lives. To contribute reach out to us — hello@treemouse.com