Are Hackers the New Bankers?

My talk from the Wired Money conference

Being jet-lagged, I was up until 7 a.m. this morning and decided to scrap my usual presentation in favor of a more embodied reflection on money and a new spirit of capitalism I hope is beginning to take root in some of our financial institutions. The result is the text below: part sermon, part delirious life pondering.

My parents came from two different worlds. My father was a proper Horatio Alger story. He grew up on a small farm in King City, Missouri and lived on less than a dollar a day before getting a scholarship to attend Harvard. My mother grew up on Park Avenue, the wealthy daughter of a Greek shipping merchant. If there is one thing that divides them, it’s money.

We’re spending a lot of time here today talking about money, but what about the emotional life of money? Growing up poor my father felt an enormous sense of shame upon encountering privilege. He lived a “survivor’s” narrative. He couldn’t afford to take risks (he had no safety net). Money is something he used to create the conditions for his transformation — to go from a farm boy to the inventor of an exotic ice cream flavor for Ben & Jerry’s to a global expert on sustainable agriculture. He was never consumed by money, but it propelled him forward. Money created distance between the self he was and the self he came to be.

Meanwhile, my mother has a more “energetic” understanding of money. She believes in money as a force in the universe, something abundant. It doesn’t control her narrative arch. Money is something that gets in the way of her agency. That seems to remind her soul of the temporal workings of the world. My mother has a relationship with money that many have with death. She prefers to live in denial of its reality.

But for so many of us, money scripts our story, determines the groves of our destinies. Penetrates our sense of psychological wellbeing.

Studying economic history the interconnection of money and psychology became apparent to me. The price of oil determines interest rates, which in turn determine the pace of the economy. This pace then becomes the pace at which lives are lived. A depressed economy can lead to a depressed person. A hyper-active economy can lead to a hyper-active person. Our subjective states are inter-dependent with economic forces.

It seems funny that we should seek out counsel in therapists rather than engage in therapy to probe into the nature of our macro-economic systems. Feeling restless? Anxious? Alienated? Welcome to economic life. Your symptoms can’t be cured by Zoloft. Better take up your grievance with the Federal Reserve. This is not your brain on drugs. This is your brain on capitalism.

What if therapy had us checking in on macro-economic issues?

BUT I don’t really believe in capitalism. Anyone who uses that word is about to make a lazy generalization. I believe in economic cultures — in cultures of money. And sub-cultures of money. And the question I’d like to ask us here today is to what extent fringe subcultures — like hackers — have personality traits that we can apply to a financial system in transition.

Our financial sector is in need of a new spirit of capitalism. We are done with the age of boring bankers or casino capitalists or Wall Street gamblers. What I’d like to explore is how this new spirit may come from HACKERS — and the mentality and ethos of hackers, both those within and outside our financial institutions.

A little framework I developed to think about different personas & ethoses that animate finance

Hackers come out at a time when many feel both frustrated with — and dependent on — old school financial infrastructure. Hackers come out because the license to operate — the societal remit and function — of many banks is being called into question. Hackers come out because of a loss of trust in the system. Hackers come out because bureaucratic “carry on” incentives are suffocating new ideas and the potential to re-imagine the landscape of money.

Hackers come out as saboteurs. Hell-bent on destroying the financial system and bureaucratic and centralized institutional cultures. In 2013, Enric Duran began setting up companies and taking loans from Spanish banks. Altogether, he took out $500,000 of loans that he had no intention of paying back. Instead, he gave the money away to activist causes and fled to Brazil.

Duran like so many others on the fringes of finance believed in the mantra: Be the bank you wish to see in the world.

Today, Duran has created a currency called FairCoin. He has joined the race of innovators working to establish alternative crypto-currencies.

Whether you see Duran as a saboteur and delinquent or a Robin Hood, his persona is diluted, but present in the world of our office cubicles as well. A recent American study found that one-third of all corporate employees are actively sabotaging their companies. That doesn’t just mean sitting idly by and squandering time on Facebook or Twitter. But actively, taking actions that go against the objectives of the company. These types of passive aggressive saboteurs are also accompanied by a burgeoning species of whistleblower taking root in financial institutions.

Take the case of Carmen Segarra. Segarra secretly taped her conversations with her bosses at the FED, exposing their collusion and servility in dealing with the banks they were supposed to be regulating. Segarra abides by the hacker instinct that information should be free and accessible, at all costs.

But she also has another more productive hacker instinct. She doesn’t just conform to a job description — she brings a societal remit, a bigger cause into her job. She has a sense of vocation (in the German sense of “calling”).

This sense of calling is something I’ve noticed in other species of hackers as well — call them intrapreneurs or tempered radicals. These are individuals within companies that don’t check themselves at the door, but bring their values, entrepreneurial ideas, and sense of bigger purpose and mission into the large financial institutions of the world. They work to hack the cultures around them, going against the grain of short-term thinking and bringing more long-term and disruptive plays to the table.

Intrapreneurs have a humble hacker identity. They aren’t out to terrorize or burn financial institutions to the ground. They are there to see what can be done with what is. They work with the realities and constraints of large organizations. They learn to navigate corporate politics and bureaucracies.

They forge alliances, make the business case and seek out protection from senior leadership to get their new ideas off the ground. Most importantly, they are not out for ego, but are working to infect the cultures around them. Their ideas get democratized because they give ownership away.

I’ve been working with these sorts of “humble hackers” for the past seven years. I’ve brought them together to find community and share their experiences in meet-ups that feel a bit too much like alcoholics anonymous-like support groups.

For me, these are the individuals who are the bridging species between the old and new worlds of money. They have one foot in each paradigm. They feel the outrage and conviction of the saboteurs and whistleblowers, but they maintain a productive and progressive stance in the world.

Their emotional resilience and well-being is key. And it is imperative that financial institutions learn how to better host them.

These are the hackers that camouflage, that walk amongst us. Many of them know that financial innovation is not synonymous with an App or a start-up, but is rooted in culture change and trust. That money is not a flat antiseptic currency, but something we are in relationship with — that acts to shape and mold human experience and legacy. Let’s support them.

Thank you.

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