Have you ever wondered where the term ‘piggy bank’ came from? Like me, some of you probably saved your spare coins in them when children. I didn’t give it a second thought until I stumbled across an actual living piggy bank in Bali. Midway through a cycling tour, we had stopped in a traditional village, and invited into a family compound. It was the kind where multiple generations all live in small houses next to each other, with a temple at the front, and some animals at the back. That is where I saw pig sty with a half dozen pigs. “The older women here don’t like putting money in a bank, so they buy a pig and feed it as their way to save,” my guide told me. A sensible store of value, I thought, especially with interest rates so low at the time. After the trip, I looked up the origin of the term piggy bank. Some historians guessed the name came from jars being made of a clay that was sometimes called ‘pygg’ in Germany and England, and that was the theory on Wikipedia at the time (it was 2015). But I had seen in the Indonesian national museum a piggy bank that was around 400 years older than when the word pygg was being used in Europe for a type of clay. Maybe I am a bit strange, but the piggy bank origin story had me. I dug deeper to discover that the earliest known pig-shaped money containers date to the 12th century in Indonesia.[i]Continue reading “No wealth but life – pig style”
Breaking Together – digital art for social impact
One practice that is recommended for people engaging in art as a therapeutic aid is to paint everyday on the same canvas. Yes, that’s right, it means painting over your previous day’s creation! Including anything amazing you might have painted. To engage in this art practice properly requires painting each day with a passion for expression and detail, even while knowing you will destroy it the following day!
There’s something special about painting over something beautiful that you painted. It’s a practice of relinquishment and non-attachment. A practice of giving earnest attention to the process with non-attachment to the outcome.
It echoes the sand mandalas created in Buddhist monasteries. They take days or weeks to create, with each contributor knowing it will then be brushed together into a pile.
These are microcosms of a ‘knowing’ that we all have.
Because we all create while knowing that whatever is produced will disappear. We may lower that knowledge from our consciousness, but underneath we all do still know it.
Not just the sandcastles of warm childhood memories. Not just the incredible creations from centuries ago. But also the most cherished creations of ours today will, one day, be forever gone. Painting, poems, books, businesses, laws, victories, landscapes, families, planets. All will be lost. And for that, all is more wonderful.
With that in mind, in the process of making an audiovisual experience with one of my poems on ecological degradation, I asked Balinese painter Kan Kulak to paint prayer hands and then paint over them. In his flow, he decided for those hands to bless Mount Agung before returning into that volcano.
That process is represented on film and in a gif that is now a Non-Fungible Token (NFT). It might be ‘non-fungible’, but it is not indestructible. Like anything, the video will disappear one day. The physical painting will soon be on its way to a gallery, but also, one day, will be destroyed. The high-definition photo of the painting will be experienced around the world more than the painting, yet will also disappear one day. As will the gif that shows the moment of the praying being painted. As will all of us involved in its creation. As will all the children who will be helped through the auction of the digital art. As will the phase of the natural world that gave rise to all of us. This lack of permanence never undermined our desire and drive for creativity and right action. Only the chronically deluded would pretend otherwise.
This artistic process resonates with a core idea in my poem “An Ode To Moana Loa”. The destruction of nature by one part of nature called homosapiens is extremely painful. The video of the painting process is shown backwards so the biodiversity disappears before fracturing upon a recent peak of C02 part per million. Another pain is that the great injustice of this destruction is that the ones who have produced the least harm are the ones suffering the consequences first and most. In solidarity with them, we can try to slow and reduce the damage, no matter what comes or how bad it gets.
Adjusted to the certainty of future losses, we can focus not only on all we can save but also what we can create within the tragedy. The creative activities that produced the video are only the start of the story. The poetry, the painting, the music, the filmmaking, and the digital art are just the opening chapters. Will this story involve new chapters of support to transform lives in the here and now?
Will you write yourself into this story? You can do that by sharing this blog far and wide, especially with people who could support Balinese children by making a bid on the digital art.
The auction of the digital art begins today, September 28th 2021 from this link, and continues for 3 weeks.
Or perhaps you could place a bid? It is for a good cause. Which is what this is really about. Because an uncomfortable secret in the art world is that art is actually abundant. We can all become artistic and produce art. The scarcity mentality about art is a reflection of how our culture incentivizes us to commodify and control everything. That process involves the constant telling of stories of value and ownership, until they embed as ‘common sense’. The assumption in the art world is that art’s value requires those stories of scarcity. In the case of this particular digital art project, the fact there is only one certificate of ownership for the digital picture and for the gif is less relevant than the opportunity to participate in something wonderful. Perhaps someone will make a statement against the fictions of art by placing a bid!
I mention this aspect of the art world as stories of value and ownership can become counterproductive. Such as the story of money – what it is, who gets to make and distribute it, and how we relate to it. So much downstream damage has been done in the world because of the way societies have chosen to create and refine their stories of money. Therefore, it feels somewhat poetic to auction this particular digital artwork for cryptocurrency, with all the proceeds going to charity.
The “Breaking Together” video: https://youtu.be/UDjOIepPLb0
How the video was made: https://youtu.be/0_Iv8sOJ1pQ
The auction raises funds for the Bali Children’s Project.
Please consider making a bid at the auction site, or telling your friends and colleagues who might be more crypto-savvy and able to make a bid.
The poem is An Ode To Moana Loa by Jem Bendell
The artist is Balinese painter Kan Kulak. The film maker is Wekku Ari Saaski. The musician is Darinka Montico. Stay in touch with future developments at Bali NFTs.
Jem spoke on currency innovation in a TEDx ten years ago and delivered a keynote speech to the UN on currency innovation in 2018 (“the technology we need is love”).
Covering this in the media? Send questions via this form.
Breaking Together – a video of poem and painting
“Grieve Play Love” short film on climate despair
“Grieve Play Love” is a 9 minute short film by Jem Bendell, set in Bali, released in March 2019.
The text of the voiceover follows below. A message from the filmmaker:
“In early 2018, my life changed. I studied climate science again for the first time in 25 years and discovered how bad it is. My estimation is that our complex consumer industrial societies won’t cope with the new pace of weather disruption to our agriculture. I published a paper on my conclusion, inviting deep adaptation to our climate tragedy, and was swamped with the response. Many people were and are, like me, traumatised by this realisation of a future societal collapse. I made this film for them. If that is where you are at, I hope it helps.
I made it where I was living at the time, in Indonesia, and drew on the beauty of nature and culture that still exists on this wonderful planet. You’ll see it’s a long way from a protest, political meeting or boardroom. But I hope the beauty in the film affirms once again what it is we love and stand for. How we live fully without pushing away difficult emotions triggered by awareness of our climate tragedy is going to have as many answers as there are people coming to this awareness. To help your own journey, I recommend connecting with others on this agenda at www.deepadaptation.info”
“All great and beautiful work has come of first gazing without shrinking into darkness” John Ruskin
After we accept the full tragedy of climate change, what do we have left?
Most people I meet sense that life is meaningful. Belief in a future is one way we look for such meaning. A future for ourselves and our family, our community, country, and the planet.
It is why it is so difficult to accept where we are today. What future can we believe in now? And if that isn’t possible, where can we find meaning?
I left my job as a Professor and came to Bali to sink in to those questions.
And to grieve.
I grieved for my years lost to compromise. I grieved the loss of my identity. I grieved how I may not grow old. I grieved for those closest to me, and the fear and pain they may feel as things break down. I grieve for all humanity, and especially the young.
Within this despair, something else happened. My long-held defences began to melt away. I was opening-up.
Not everyone can leave to heal in a place this. But I want to tell you my story because so many of us now grieve over climate change.
Most Balinese seem so at ease with their life. In the temples in every household, children play at the symbolic graves of their grandparents. That’s not like our modern societies where we seem to hide death away. Could feeling the impermanence of everything be an invitation to experience life more fully?
I was drawn to connect more to myself, others and nature.
Breathwork, dance, fasting, improv theatre, chanting, circling and guided meditations.
I was opening to beauty and spontaneity. To connect without expectation. To create without certainty. And to welcome what’s transcendent into my life. I see that love can be the anchor during waves of anxiety, sadness and grief.
I was reminded of how my friend with terminal cancer experiences more gratitude and wonder. And how our last meeting was more beautiful due to the ending ahead. Awareness of the finite amount of time we all have on this Earth gives more power to the choices we make.
Your own path for grieving an environmental and social breakdown may not be like mine. But there is a path and it leads beyond despair.
So what of our future?
My vision is of a world where more of us are open to curious, kind and joyful connection with all life. My hope is we will discuss ideas without a want to prove ourselves right.
Because there will be tough decisions ahead. We can make universal love our compass as we enter an entirely new physical and psychological terrain.
And so, I was ready to re-engage with my profession, but with a faith to express my truth, however difficult. Opening a conference at the United Nations, there was really only one thing for me to say.
“We now know that many self-reinforcing feedbacks have begun to further warm the planet, threatening to take the future out of our hands. So if we don’t wake up from our delusions of what is pragmatic and appropriate, then shame on us.”
“…our intention for creating things needs, more often, to arise out of our love for humanity and creation…. The technology we seek is love.”
Feeling our pain at the ongoing destruction of life, we may find relief in the idea of a divine force beyond this time and place. But if doing so, let’s not withdraw from our fellow humanity. Climate chaos invites our loving immersion with life as we find it. We can rise into, not above, these times.
“The Earth is not a big rock, infested with living organisms, any more than your skeleton is bones infested with cells. The Earth is geological, yes, but this geological entity grows people. And so the existence of people is symptomatic of the kind of universe we live in.”
We may grieve the loss of life, and feel despair or anger at how this happened. But whenever it comes, human extinction will not be the end of consciousness or the cosmic story.
There is no way to escape despair. But there is a way through despair. It is to love love more than we fear death. So ours is not a time to curl up or turn away. It’s a time to dance like we’ve never danced before.
Before loss there was love.
After loss, love.
Before grief there was love.
After grief, love.
Our essence is never in danger.
When all else falls away,
Our essence can shine.
So, what does love invite of us now?
Grieve, Play, Love was co-directed by Jem and Joey. It was filmed, edited and sound engineered by Joey. It was written, voiced and produced by Jem. Jem and Joey met at http://www.connectionplayground.org
Crypto at the OK Corral
I’ve just finished a lecture tour of Australia on Bitcoin. I’ve been working on currency innovation since 2010, but it’s the rise of Bitcoin that has generated far greater attention, with my recent lectures even making national news. But Bitcoin is only a small part of the story. There are now over 140 adaptations or forks of the Bitcoin open source code to create new “coins.” Every week new ones are released. Some appear to be interesting innovations, some seem more like get-rich-quick schemes, and others may even aim at debunking the whole idea of cryptographic currency. The recent BBC article on a coin idea that would borrow rap star Kanye West’s name does seem like an attempt to lampoon this area of innovation, as there is no news value in that one idea amongst over 140 cryptographic currencies.
Currency innovation is so important to the future of not only money and finance, but the economies and societies currently shaped by our existing unfair monetary system (if you want to know why, read my chapter with Tom Greco). We need crypto to grow and propel reform of our fractional reserve banking system. That’s why the famous monetary critic Bill Still has become so enthusiastic about this field of innovation, and why we should applaud him for that bold move, while most monetary critics think more conferences and letters to politicians will achieve a change.
My view on this field of currency innovation is that new innovations need to effectively address some of the limitations of the bitcoin system. There are many benefits from bitcoin as an innovation in payment technology. The ability for people to maintain a global ledger of who has what and who pays whom without the need for banks to intermediate is a very powerful innovation. The ability for it to enable global fast transactions with very small fees (or even no fees) means the average person paying international remittances to poorer relatives back home will soon be able to save a lot of money. No wonder Bitpesa launched as a remittance service for Kenya just recently. At the “Summer Davos” World Economic Forum in China last September I heard the head of Western Union say they aren’t getting involved in bitcoin. Upon hearing that, I’d rather hold shares in Bitpesa. However, there are many limitations to the bitcoin system that people are working on addressing. Sadly in the rush to get rich quick by launching a new crypto, combined with the Public Relations backlash against crypto currency from threatened incumbent firms and confused governments, it is difficult to have clear analysis about what innovations will be useful to society. It is like a Wild West, replete with robust exchanges on facebook and twitter, as people make various claims and accusations around crypto. Therefore I type this blog post…
Below I will list some substantive drawbacks of bitcoin that have been mentioned by commentators, so that its clear where I think innovations are needed. Then I’ll examine one new crypto that made news by gaining the backing of a famous monetary system critic, Bill Still. I’ll conclude with some suggestions as to where I think the best innovations are, including many projects that have been building slowly and away from the limelight brought by wild speculation.
First, here are 15 problems that people have mentioned about bitcoin as a payment technology and currency system, that I think have some merit rather than being confused:
- Issuance – the issuing of the currency is iniquitous and mining is not possible without specialist resources so it privileges those with wealth, while it is not connected to work of value beyond database processing
- Fees – miners now set transaction fees so in time this could increase and serve to extract rent from everyone using it as their means of exchange
- Speed – the blockchain is growing to a size where it is slower to confirm transactions, so not suitable for all transactions
- Asset-like & deflationary – the currency is treated as more important than real wealth, yet we need currencies that are in sufficient supply to enable us to transact as we choose
- Illicit trade and tax evasion – Unless wallets are registered to an ID
- Enabling surveillance due to public blockchain – Becomes an issue if more wallets registered to ID (a converse issue to the one previously, it depends on your views on anonymity)
- Volatile – Not suitable for the risk averse or as a unit of account
- Manipulation and Gaming – Market manipulators can sell to themselves to affect volumes, & algorithms could calculate highs/lows from movements between wallets on latest blocks
- Misinformed buyers – Some may buy in as a “gold rush” beyond their ability to take a loss
- Many unregulated Exchanges – People could lose money by hacking or uninsured collapses
- Unbacked – If confidence falls, there is no backing of bitcoin units by demands for it as tax, or contracts with institutions, or legal tender laws, or deposit insurance
- Carbon footprint – Massive computer processing power required
- Computing power rules – The majority of miners choose upgrades to the software, whether or not all agree: perhaps best but not always? Also 51% control would allow double spend.
- Internet dependency – A problem when phone lines are down.
- Disruptions Ahead – The monetary system needs reform and replacement but the way this is done will have wider effects on Government finances and personal savings, so a lack of good response by Government to prepare society and economy for the changes would be a problem.
With these limitations in mind I’ve been observing the innovations in crypto throughout 2013. One that made the news is Quark, by being backed by the leading monetary critic Bill Still who then talked about it on Max Keiser’s popular TV show. I rate these people, so bought some Quark very early on, despite there being no detailed technical specification. However, as I looked closer, I realised that Quark isn’t effectively addressing the limitations of bitcoin. As such it is a good case study for how this field now needs much better analysis and impartial advice. Let’s look closer at their claims.
Quark and Bill Still have claimed it is better than bitcoin due to more encryption than bitcoin. First, I had come across no one saying the level of encryption of transactions in bitcoin is insufficient, partly because the decryption process is about making “mining” more difficult rather than securing transactions. Second, for the reasons given in a detailed Bitcoin Magazine article, more encryption does not appear to make quark more secure, and from my internet searches I haven’t seen quark’s tech respond to that specialist critique (I’m not a cryptographers so can’t conclude but an absence of response is not promising). Third, the encryption works for processing blocks on the block chain, rather, not making transactions secret, as everything is published on the blockchain, so more encryption has nothing to do with avoiding surveillance.
The coin Anoncoin claims to enable more anonymity but upon inspection I find that it doesn’t offer anonymity on the blockchain, so at present the only way to do this would be to download TOR and mask your IP address when browsing the web to download a wallet onto your computer. However, becoming active in transactions would reveal your ID. Using cloud provided wallets, such as www.blockchain.info, which can be safer for large holdings of crypto than just having it on your own computer, is also not anonymous. Selling your cryptos for national currencies through an exchange is also not anonymous. More work needs to be done on anonymity if this is a goal.
Quark and Bill Still have claimed it is better than bitcoin due to speed. The slowing down of bitcoin transaction confirmation time is a significant issue. Nearly all forks of bitcoin should be faster than bitcoin as the blockchain is smaller, there are less transactions to compute, and there are less hard computer problems to crack for a “mining” computer to be able to complete a block of transactions (if a close fork, which means that the difficulty of decryption grows over time). This will change once a currency becomes widely used, unless dealing with this future size is built into the design. Quark suggests it has, by seeking 30 second transaction times. Yet if reaching the same amount of transactions as bitcoin, e.g. 80,000 a day, it’s unclear to me how quark would be faster, as quark requires more decryption to take place. In addition, the analysis in Bitcoin Magazine suggests this speed of transaction increases the likelihood of mistakes being made in the blockchain.
Litecoin is currently functioning with swifter processing times than bitcoin and without creating new weaknesses, but this speed-at-scale issue appears to need additional design innovations to overcome. Peercoin claims to attempt a solution by employing a proof of stake model for mining rather than only a proof of work model. This also promises the benefit of less computing power to be used to run massive amounts of meaningless decryption. I am not a cryptographer so I don’t know the veracity of these claims and await a technical challenge to them. I also question whether a proof of stake model could benefit those with large holdings. Therefore more work needs to be done on speed issues, and some of that work is being done on bitcoin itself, or with platforms that base themselves on bitcoin but offer additional payment mechanisms, such as pikapay, where you can send bitcoin via twitter. Others are starting from scratch with new code to attempt a solution, e.g. Nextcoin. Im not able to say whether nextcoin is better yet, as it is still being designed, but it appears a serious attempt to address these limitations, rather than a quick-to-market fork of bitcoin.
Quark and Bill Still have claimed it is better due to being more distributed. I’m not sure what they mean by this. As the Bitcoin magazine explains, most Quark had already been issued within 3 weeks. This means extremely high concentration in the hands of a few – the inventors, friends, early adopters and spokespeople. Bitcoin is highly unequally distributed, and quark’s form of issuance makes this problem worse, not better. Quark does not incentivise mining, as so few quark are mineable now, so the fact that quark mining is not dominated by specialists like bitcoin is an irrelevant and misleading argument. If the early adopters of quark cash out and sell their quark then this may increase distribution, but the key is whether a currency is designed well for distribution. The problem of issuance is one that Freicoin have sought to address right from the start, by seeking social organisations to receive donations of freicoin. It is early days for the project, but it appears a genuine attempt to deal with two of the design problems with bitcoin that I list above. They address the issue of bitcoin being asset-like and deflationary by adding demurrage into the design, based on the ideas of Silvio Gesell (1918) and the experiment in the Austrian town of Worgl in the late 1920s. They are also sought to address the problem of unfair issuance. The developers contacted me in 2012 to discuss design issues around demurrage, and I had the sense it has been a well worked project.
Bill Still claimed on the Keiser Report on RT.com that quark will be less volatile in price due to being more distributed. The volatility of bitcoin is a problem. It’s the speculation, lack of day to day users, and lack of backing in the form of acceptance as tax, that enables such volatility. Interestingly the speculation around bitcoin is what brought it to global attention and has driven adoption, so could eventually help reduce the volatility. Quark is much less used as a means of payment than bitcoin and is much more concentrated/unequal in its ownership, therefore it is likely to be more volatile not less. The bitcoin millionaires would do well to begin systematic philanthropy to give bitcoin to social projects that commit to spend the bitcoin as bitcoin, rather than cash out, and therefore spread the usage of bitcoin to more users and reduce the volatility that arises to large transactions by a few (the average value of a bitcoin transaction is about 3000 dollars at present).
Quark is an interesting case study because it highlights how the world of crypto is all about impressions. Celebrity endorsement and buzz is extra powerful in the absence of any agreed standards, codes, professional institutes and qualifications, or related regulations. This is especially so in an area that is so new to most people and where understanding it requires some knowledge of currency design and computing, so most people just accept other “expert” sources. I consider myself a currency sociologist, so I will never be able or interested in delving deep into the code of a crypto. However, one can assess the logic of any arguments made and when grand claims are made then look for dissenting opinions. Yet as this field grows it is clear we will need to professionalise.
It’s currently a Wild West of currency innovation, where jokecoins and quackcoins all attract attention and funds and their proponents to fire off at each other will not lead to a positive social and economic outcome unless there are more forums for understanding. I fear that in the future we will hear of scams that fleece pensioners of thousands of their savings on crypto currencies. We must do what we can to reduce the risks. We can help shape a responsible and professional field of currency innovation. That is why it is important to see how groups like the Bitcoin Foundation evolve as well as the new self-regulatory initiative called the Digital Asset Transfer Authority.
I come at this issue from a background in sustainable development and local currency innovation, such as the mutual credit system in Kenya that helps poor entrepreneurs trade without money. As such, I’m not that excited about crypto currencies as they do not enable us to issue credit to each other, and maintain the delusion that money is a thing of value, rather than a means of exchanging things of real value, like our time, skills, produce, and land. That’s why, in the crypto space, I’m most interested in Ripple. I’m not interested in their XRP currency, but in the payment infrastructure it creates whereby each of us can create credit for people we trust and therefore credit can flow through a network. If you don’t trust me for 20 dollars but you trust Paul for 20 dollars, and Paul trusts me for 20 dollars, you can post me that 20 dollar book and Paul goes negative to you by 20 dollars but up 20 dollars to me, and I go down 20 dollars to Paul. No dollars may need to change hands because in a network of thousands, these positive and negative balances can be cancelled out. Or in other words, you can use your 20 dollars credit from Paul to buy something else. Therefore the availability of currency does not limit what we do for each other, unlike the current national currency models or the asset-like crypto currency models. People who criticise Ripple as a debt model don’t understand currency theory or monetary history, and that debt is the origin of money, whereas asset currencies, like gold, were used originally by armies not communities. Compound interest is the problem not debt, the control of debt creation by the few (i.e. private banks) is the problem, not debt. Instead, we need to reclaim the credit commons, the ability to issue credit to each other, as I explained in my keynote to the Berlin conference on the commons last year, and as we discussed after with Michel Bauwens.
There are some concerns around how Ripple is now controlled by one company, and how the XRP system will relate to the credit clearing system, so more work needs to be done on this space. For the socially minded, who want to make currencies serve humanity, not the other way round, then the most exciting currency innovation right now is the partnership between Jnana and Community Exchange Systems. They have received funding from a state Government in Australia to upgrade and open source the software that hundreds of local level community currencies use worldwide. These are mutual credit systems, that use currencies like hours. No one gets rich on such systems, they simply enable communities to trade more and help each other more. Once such systems use the latest technology and can interoperate with each other, then we will see a new monetary system that is attuned to the needs of communities, resembling those that existing before armies and empires imposed precious metals as our means of exchange. This, friends, is our coming freedom in the 21st century.
Meanwhile I hope more people who work in this complementary currency space, hitherto working at local level, become more sophisticated in their understanding of cryptographic currencies and begin to influence its evolution in ways that could then better serve society. At the moment many who work on local pounds or timebanks or Local Exchange Trading Systems simply dismiss cryptographic currencies as involving people with no community intention. Yet the combination of crypto approaches and community approaches could be truly powerful. The need to improve understanding in this broad field is why at our Institute we have launched a Masters-level “Certificate of Achievement in Sustainable Exchange” which will explore currency innovation in the context of monetary theory, the sharing economy and sustainable development. We are even offering scholarships.
I wrote this post after my talk on current innovation at www.hubud.org in Bali, while sipping on my tumeric juice.
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