This article was shared with the audience at FinTechStage Amsterdam 2016. My kind thanks go to @matteorizzi for making it happen. This is also inspired by Dave Birch – to take my stand and broaden the thinking experiment on the role of money and the functions it carries out throughout time.
The opportunity to speak at FinTechStage Amsterdam was a personal challenge: the reputation, the notion on how well the conference platform’s content is curated, but also due to the fact that most speakers are talking about the world of today or evangelising the potential world of tomorrow. Repetition is the mother of mastery, but vocalising the motive has never been a favourite thing to do.
Since Digital Space Ventures is based on the basic cornerstone of finding meaningful solutions to meet the existing needs of customers, or to extend the solution found useful today to future scenarios, the fuel for thought for our team is always in looking for narrative and context. By doing this, we always seek every opportunity to discount the hype factor; not subscribing to the view that today is the unique opportunity in time to invest in game-changing mechanics. There was always time for similar innovations to manifest themselves in the course of history, be that the blockchain of Yap island, or tally sticks, the innovation networks of English monasteries, the flat-sharing experiment of Amsterdam burgers at the time of tulip sales, the taxi movement of London cabbies, The Telegraph espousing users to the same vagaries and deviance we get used to in the times of the internet … we can go on forever.
The innovation has never been the tech. It has been about adoption, as Everett Rogers went about the process in his study (documented in The Diffusion of Innovation). It is always about the qualities that are communicated to the audience, or, to put it another way, how they contextualise the unexpressed needs of the audience that lives through these times of change.
Today’s pace of consumer adoption of various services or tech-enabled contraptions is truly remarkable. To a point, it should always be compared with the pace considered revolutionary at a time where long distances were the norm, and any deviation from it was deemed heretical/revolutionary. It is always the context and comparative study that allows us to grasp the meaning of any advancement pondered by a company or an individual.
Talking about money functions is a personal favourite. Digging the tokens of value exchange up from the dirt of an archeological dig was a rite of passage for this youthful historian, who made a different career choice: learning the money functions and different forms money took (or rather, the forms that took the role of money was a fascinating research in its own right, because the thing that mattered was that these forms or different money functions responded to the underlying societal rites and rituals: the enforcement of particular fiefdom, the taxation regime, the trust norms of the society that brought the token in circulation).
In talking about the potential future form of money, we need to learn about its course of innovation through the ages. There’s also no better way to reflect on the many fintech moments this historical process reveals. Irrespective of how people these days fall for the illusion of the ‘here and now’ moment, our predecessors may have thought of the very same ‘fintech revolution’ feeling as the cum pagnia evolved in commenda, societas maris and socius stans, enabled by what is now known as letter of credit. or how it allowed the first insurance bills to circulate and distribute the risk of trade journeys. How trade routes evolved enabled the development of supply chain finance (invoice discounting and factoring services). There were numerous cycles that formed new monies, dissolved old tokens, or added new functions or norms of treating them.
A lot has been said lately of the money future, and how its usage is viewed from many angles, but the historical perspective has always been my favourite. The landscape has never brimmed so strongly, with different views on the role of money and finance, with literally dozens of books published in the past few years. Economists, historians, philosophers, technologists and general practitioners provide their perspective on the background, history and potential futures for money and finance, taking in funding mechanisms and their relationships with those using them.
If we follow Hegel, history brings us to the same evolutionary spirals of the world, grasping with the new norms of consumption. The key point being: the function of money as a ‘software of commerce’ beamed through time, contextualising the norms of consumption and supplanting the many innovations that allow new manufacturing models to thrive, new markets to be opened, and mass production via specialisation to appear.
Money could be used for oppression – used by the central authority, starting with donations for the deity, or a way to solicit God’s blessing, or sexual services from God’s servants – or to pay taxes by God’s chosen: emperors and kings were interested in all elements of society to pay tribute, and implemented cash coinage, where debasing it led to bloody riots such as the Copper Riot in Ancient Rus of 1662.
Effectively, money acted on and reacted to social events, yet these were controlled by the sovereign rules of mighty empires who waged war on diplomacy. One example is the Joachimsthaler from the Kingdom of Bohemia (predecessor of the modern Czech Republic) that spawned the mass issuance of silver cash coin, proliferated to the Flamands, before the name was exported to the US, where it gave the name to ‘dollar’. Money changed form and content following the rise and falls of empires, the ensuing dangers of war or discoveries (the silver coin suffered and led to suffering after Spain opened rich silver mines in the New World, and led to the great price inflation in the Old World).
Money followed and contributed to the alchemy of commerce and trade, supplanting the power of great maritime republics controlling the import of spices. The permutations of money and the secondary issuance of it – the M2, the credit – was spawned by trade, and this is reflected in many innovations that allowed these complex structures to stand firmly.
The innovation of money went hand in hand with innovation in manufacturing and trade. Venetians were only able to support their role as a capital in the second crusade by specialisation, building ships in the ghettos, and contributing (along with Florence) to many innovations in maritime trade of the Mediterranean. Finance imbued in itself the concepts and belief systems of the time. It extended the value people get from agriculture, and enabled long-distance commerce trips, pioneered and led by Florence and Venice, and would not have been possible without innovations in the accounting ledger first recorded by Fra Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli, who wrote down the actual practice of maritime cognoscenti.
Money may have started as a centralised unit of authority and trust, but it paved the way to independent collaborative consumption mechanisms as people found more power within their reach and away from the pillars of the sovereign and the church. The anxieties of belief systems allowed broader social cohesion, be it the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England in 1536, or the broader Reformation movement, it surely allowed commerce and financial services to operate on an entirely new level. The formation of gentry and the genuine revival of cities recorded by a brilliant social history scientist RH Tawney fuelled demand for higher wages, with savings contributing to the early innovations of the Industrial Revolution.
Today, thanks to mass production and mass consumption, the computing industry making money pervasive and transcending us to a stage where, from a standard software package that’s tightly controlled by the belief systems and central authority, we are fast approaching a third party development stage, where we can actually start building apps contextualising money and our financial relationships.
Why this is important:
- The social network of human connections is becoming denser.
- Our attention span is different from what it was, with people more focused on context and value, and less on the function of the technical medium (money disappears because we let it).
- Counting money is becoming the least thing we want to do amid a deluge of other data, and overall stress from information overload as the ‘information society’ manifests itself in your hand or in your lap via a mobile device.
- Provide meaning, look for context, open up, learn history.
Ultimately, the role of money changes:
- A recording device of the time and a time machine of all times.
- A ‘software of commerce’ and how it is facilitated.
- More and more, a social element of a relationship (P2P and contextualisation through APIs).
– This article is reproduced with kind permission. Some minor changes have been made to reflect BankNXT style considerations. Read more here. Main photo: LuFeeTheBear, Shutterstock.com