Rachel O’Dwyer: Storing Value

By Katía Truijen

Rachel O’Dwyer writes about the political economy of communications, the digital commons and new media cultures. Her research areas include mobile communications and radio spectrum, open networks and alternative currencies. In her presentation at MoneyLab, she raised the question what kind of sociality we are engineering into our alternative monetary systems.

Money can be understood as a technology that allows forms of exchange beyond social relations. Rachel O’Dwyer refers to the book Debt: the first 5000 years by anthropologist David Graeber, in which he explains the origins of the gift economy and the ways in which we have been storing value. In fact, value has always been ‘stored’ in many ways; in money or metal, or in good will and social relationships. By adding a surplus in the present, one can profit from it later. In fact, money is a complex system of social relations. This system is then supported by an infrastructure.

O’Dwyer recalls the presentation of Bill Maurer during the first edition of MoneyLab about money as both the token and the rail. The rail, or the infrastructure, supports the flow of information, and is by definition a social infrastructure build on trust. This infrastructure can be scaled into social or national institutions and authorities, like banks or platforms.

Alongside the financial crisis, alternative infrastructures have been developed, based on algorithms for matching needs, for indexing trust and social capital or for establishing consensus in the absence of social institutions. However, O’Dwyer states that there is a lack of politics in the development of these alternative economies or algorithmic currencies. “Although there is a lot of discussion about monetary reform, problems are always solved by using technology; if there is a problem, there must be an app for it.”

Rachel O’Dwyer recognizes the innovation of the blockchain, but she would be interested to see how we can use the technology to create real alternatives. “The blockchain creates the possibility of trustless trust, while it doesn’t need a centralized intermediary. The blockchain is persistent and verifyable; it is very difficult for a hacker to hack it. We delegate trust in the community to algorithms. The problem is that when we design alternatives, we are often reproducing the values of economic systems. This brings up neoliberal questions. Should we reproduce an economic logic it is claiming to work against?”

O’Dwyer continues: “Although we are trying to find alternatives for managing our resources, we still operate from the perspective of the (self interest of the) homo economicus. In that sense, one could ask whether these alternatives should actually be considered as alternatives at all. They are designed not to replace, but to embody liberal economy.”

Instead, O’Dwyer claims, the challenge is to reproduce the model of the commons. “We can use the database for other kinds of transactions. The blockchain could provide the infrastructure to reproduce the commons, which allows apps to scale beyond small-scale idealistic products.”

According to O’Dwyer, peer-to-peer is an important guiding principle, but also game theory offered a glimpse of what is possible.

She concludes that the problems that we face in developing alternatives may be inherent to money as a technology, or at least to particular approaches, such as the trustless economy. Maybe we should recognize the imperfection of money, but try to work with this imperfection and include and acknowledge the social side. In that respect, MoneyLab already offers some interesting examples, O’Dwyer states.