Wednesday, February 25, 2015

My Review of Identity is the New Money by Dave Birch

My review is here on Amazon so if it successfully validates your attributes on the public key infrastructure then please remit by hitting the like button. Ta muchly.

Engaging but unconvincing due to its technological perspective

This is a short engaging read that explores Dave Birch's ideas about the future of money and identity; the book's central claim is that they are linked. It's non-technical and helped along with anecdotes and case studies. Dave draws upon his experience in the payments industry and also references some academic texts on money, as well as his wider reading from science fiction to Shakespeare.

Dave makes no bones about being a technologist. For him money is a means, not an end. It is, what it does. Dave's reality tunnel is hard-walled by function and utility (as are most techno-reality tunnels). The identity he writes about is similarly bounded. There are, he tells us, three kinds of identity; personal, social, and legal. Social identity is his focus. It's the new paradigm that will disrupt business, commerce and government. Somewhat enigmatically Dave also says that social identity will lead to a 'fundamental shift in our mental models'. And it's precisely this sort of claim that bothers me. Changes to our 'mental models' of identity, to our sense of who we are, provoke profound questions. Yet Dave's adherence to tidy technological definitions of identity (and money) allow only for the most fragile of conceptualizations. It's thin ice covering deep water.

In short, his book lacks ontological depth.

Now, this may seem like a overly harsh criticism of a book that's just over 100 pages. But even though it works well within its own terms (hence, the 4 stars) I feel my criticism is justified because the book is essentially an argument against anonymous cash and for digital currency. It is a book with intent. Dave wonders 'Who would want to live in a society where transactions are anonymous? (his answer is criminals) and ends with an explicit call to action for the UK payments authorities to adopt tactics to reduce cash usage. Some may regard such suggestions as illiberal. Dave rebuffs them by emphasizing the privacy and security solutions that digital money technologies can offer. But the underlying issues remain. Where is the locus of freedom, in the individual or the state?

It seems crass - but it is necessary - to point out that Dave's livelihood depends upon those firms who have most to gain from the death (or murder?) of cash. Dave's book contributes to a positive imaginary of a cashless future; I'm sure it's a vision, of which Visa and Mastercard, would very much approve. It is however difficult to sustain a critique that there's something fundamentally illiberal in Dave's nature that is causal of his disdain for anonymity and cash. He effectively turbocharges the Hayekian ideal of denationalized money by mooting local, or even personal currencies. Rather, my feeling is that Dave's position is not based on illiberalism, but is his genuine moral and intellectual judgement; he believes that digital money will reduce crime, that privacy can be protected by technology, and he thinks that both these things are for the greater good. The problem is that his judgement is flawed due to the narrowness of his 'techo-reality tunnel' perspective.

Dave dedicates the book to the late Glyn Davies who wrote 'A History of Money' and whose work, Dave says, forms the bedrock of his own understanding. Writing about the origins of money Glyn Davies reminds us that money was, in the first instance, 'associated with loving and fighting'. Both of these activities are primal. They are about what it is to be human at a fundamental level. They do not depend on technologies. And their expression was, in the first instance, not subjugated to rational thought. Indeed, there is an alternative historical narrative - one that I find convincing - that places money much more deeply within this primal mindscape.

The other money historian Dave quotes is Jack Weatherford who wrote the much underrated and considerably shorter, 'The History of Money'. It begins with a very vivid account of the relationship between money and human sacrifice among the Aztecs. Here, there is a 'sacred logic' around money inaccessible to technological inquiry; understanding requires an effort of empathy and imagination supported by intellectual commitments to a theory of mind and knowledge of the Aztecs cosmological conceptions. In the same way, identity cannot be understood in isolation from our sense of sovereign being and its psycho-sexual foundations.

Ultimately Dave's conclusions, and his bold statement that 'Identity is the New Money', are at best only a partial reflection of the nature of money and identity, and their relationship. His calls to action maybe a reflection of genuinely held beliefs and moral concern, but they are misguided. Dave's description of money and identity - in line with most similar technological and economic descriptions - is a wholly inadequate basis on which to call for fundamental changes which could irrevocably link money to identity; many will fear that such a link is dangerously prejudicial to our liberty whatever safeguards are put in place.

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