Interview with Rachel O’Dwyer about Tokens, The Future of Money in the Age of the Platform

It is said that money is being replaced by tokens. Think of phone credit, airtime, gift vouchers or game tokens. Platforms see themselves as the new banks, generating and controlling new flows of value. Irish scholar and co-editor of Neural magazine Rachel O’Dwyer has recently published an insightful study on the matter. In her book Tokens, the Future of Money in the Age of Platforms (Verso, 2023) she describes tokens as in-between artifacts that are simultaneously  more and less than money. Tokens turn data into assets, are used to pay wages and track purchases. O’Dwyer asks what new forms of control and discrimination will come with this. “And how might online subcultures, activism, and internet art be spaces for reimagining what money could be – the original question we had at Institute of Network Cultures when we started the MoneyLab network, back in 2014, in which she participated from day one. The origin of the return of the ‘token’ goes back to the 2008 global financial crisis when ‘money was broken’ and the question how to fix it led to a proliferation of experiments from alternative currency, crowd funding to basic income demands.

Rachel O’Dwyer defines tokens as not just value, “they communicate more than the terms of an exchange. We’ve moved from Marx and Simmel who viewed that money reduced every exchange to a transaction and every object to its price. Tokens emphasize the immaterial aspect of economic life, identity, the social aspect and platforms are in the business of monetizing social interactions. Take the Bored Ape NFTs that, at some point, we not just investment tokens but were primarily used to codify membership of a celebrity club. Already in Roman times tokens were used to grant access to feasts and gatherings. If money flows, tokens filter. “Tokens underscore power dynamics,” she writes. “Tokens bring people together – separate them out. A good deal of work goes into matching intimate relationships with the appropriate token, as in the case of OnlyFans. The tricky part here is the fact that tokens are promises. “Their value hinges on the belief that these promises are kept.”

A token represents a claim and presumes trust, in the case of crypto and blockchain, an almost blind on the side of the believers in the neutrality of self-executing code and programmable contracts. But who’s in control of the scripts? Towards the end of the book, the mood turns grim. Platforms have turned into neo-feudal enclaves. For O’Dwyer the 90s sci-fi novel Snow Crash sounds familiar. “It’s not just the gig workers racing targets on their smart devices and desperately trying to keep pace with the rising cost of living – it’s the air of hopelessness. The sense that the future IRL has been emptied of joy and pleasure, and that is left now is the doom-scroll.”

Geert Lovink: How did you decide to zoom in on the token? The definition of money is up for grabs. In this experimentation phase it’s about the proliferation of concepts and models. One of them is tokens, or rather, the rediscovery of them, as you describe well. Is the definition of tokens also up for grabs? The term seems less contested.

Rachel O’Dwyer: I keep physical notebooks and found a mind map for a book called ‘Tokens’ in one from 2015. So I guess the idea of tokens was on my mind for a while. I’ve always been really fascinated by the slipperiness of exchange media – by things that are almost money but not quite. I’m thinking of book vouchers and phone credit and beer tokens and skins in Fortnite. But I’m also fascinated by things that are ostensibly ‘money’ but which also appear to be doing more than the functions we associate with that technology – accounting for, exchanging and storing value – exchanges where the act of paying or transacting is subordinate to an act that is deeply social, sexual, playful, coercive or political.

GL: Is the distinction between money and tokens a productive one for you?

ROD: I found tokens to be a slightly looser term than money proper because, after people like Mary Douglas and Friedrich Hayek’s work on special monies, the term ‘token’ gives a little more breathing space than strict economic definitions of what money is and does.  We are all familiar with the idea of tokens as being a kind of work around for proper money.  And yet at the same time, I also don’t really believe that there’s actually a hard and fast distinction between money and tokens. Tokens come with strings attached – rules and conditions about where the token can be redeemed. Take, for example, a token in a student union bar, which can only be redeemed for beer, or a book token that can only be redeemed for books. But money also comes with strings attached – just like tokens; Euros can’t be spent in Scotland. And, like tokens, money can be used to do more than pay.

For example, It’s currently Communion season here in Ireland, so people are busy gifting 20 euro notes to children who are receiving that particular Catholic sacrament. This money is part ritual, part gift, part bribe. If there’s a difference between money and tokens it’s maybe in the degree to which the media of exchange has this interpretative flexibility – this ability to come with strings and messages and extra baggage attached.

So the distinction between money and tokens is a little blurry. I think I prefer Hayek’s definition – that there’s a spectrum of exchange media that fades imperceptibly from things that we know for sure are money right down to things that we surely know are not. (But really, what are those things are not money? I don’t know – my seven year old was engaged in a very complicated barter system over used vape cartridges last summer.)

GL: You wrote the most part of the book during Covid in 2020-22. In retrospect, did that colour the content and overall atmosphere, style?

ROD: I think it’s shaped by covid in three ways.

First of all, it’s coloured by anxieties around cash and infection that covid really brought to the fore. I wrote a chapter about the push towards Cashlessness. It opens with a scene from lockdown. Teaching at my university had just recommenced (it would go back online less than two weeks later) and I had to take a taxi from our house in rural Sligo to the nearby train station. It was a strange moment in 2020, before the government brought in laws forcing taxi drivers in Ireland to accept cashless payments. At that time cash was like a dirty word, or a dirty gesture, but taxis didn’t take cashless payments so the taxi driver instead smeared hand sanitiser all over my change before giving it to me.

Secondly, the research was shaped by an extremely online moment in our cultural history, where all culture was digital culture. I was watching platforms like Twitch and TikTok and the parasocial communities emerging from those.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, just as the financial crash created a distrust of the financial system that made way for experiments such as Bitcoin, covid created an affective shift around transactional communities in 2020 and after.  We saw the death of dreams of ‘the good life’, financial security, and sound financial investments. We saw the rise of desperate bets, retail trading, bitcoin and a new wave of crypto speculation take hold.

GL: We’ve been in this field for more than a decade. Would you agree that the token can best be seen as a form of ‘a additional’ value? In the MoneyLab debates over the past decade I came to the conclusion that the multitude of projects that were discussed were not aimed at replacing fiat money, gold, etc. Tokens are not the future of money. At best they could be seen as additional forms of value creation. BTW. many need additional income and have second or third jobs. Today’s salary cannot feed a traditional family anymore. This would be the harsh socio-economic (neo-liberal) background of the libertarian promises.

ROD : Yes, I think further to this idea of the end of the good life and the rise of desperate bets, many of these tokens go hand in hand with the rise of precarity and the withdrawal of public services and security. Tokens are often a way for people to make do and get by alongside or in the absence of a stable income. Some of the examples I was looking at were tokens for online gig work and piece work. Others were examples where tokens were used for work that was disguised as play, messing around, flirting or friendship. The token came disguised as a gift on an Amazon wishlist or a TikTok rose or a Chaturbate token and was used to pay for parasocial work on one of these platforms.

Others were examples where tokens were used to earmark public service benefits payments and program their behaviours.

One thing I was interested in throughout the book was the future issuance of money-like things and whether this was something that would take place at the behest of the state or the platform. These tokens are not quite the same as state-backed money, but they are used for all the things that money is used for: to pay, to store value, to keep account, to speculate and so on.  For platforms, these money-like tokens are: a way to create assets out of stuff that was previously outside of the market (personal influence, immaterial goods like art or computer games, carbon offsets); a way to capture and control new streams of value in identity, consumer data and social trust; a way to program and determine the conditions surrounding financial inclusion, either alongside or in the absence of the state; and an extra- regulatory tactic to sidestep the legal conditions surrounding money issuance and employment. They are a way for a platform to act as an employer and a payments processor without formally being either.

They can be used to survey and profile users and condition their behaviours. Since the history of accounting there have been forms of transactional surveillance. Since the birth of money there have been forms of special tokens with strings attached – scrip for workers, alms for the poor, pin money for married women, grey market tokens for things like drugs and sex work, and special tokens for marginalized groups – for refugees, for slaves, for servants. The digitization of tokens has driven a large shift from anonymous and public cash payments in recent years towards tracked and surveyed online tokens that are used to profile and stratify users. In particular, the recent push to ‘go cashless’ has affected the poor and the elderly.

The shift to digital payments has also accelerated the issuance of programmed tokens – money with strings attached. In the past, tokens like food stamps were used to funnel relief into special tokens,  but users often found ways of repurposing tokens for their own ends. (In Ireland, for example, we had a relief token called a butter voucher, but many shops accepted them for cigarettes and alcohol). Today, most of these special tokens are hard coded and you might find you have no choice but to obey their terms and conditions. So what kinds of values are being written into these new tokens? Who gets to code them? The state or the platform?

GL: You describe how tokens are often used in informal economies such as sex work. You leave in the middle if that’s a good or a bad thing. Traditional credit card companies ban sex payments. Money for real work, tokens for sex work?

ROD: Traditional credit card companies are often adverse to paying sex workers, not out of any sense of morality but because processing payments for sex work is historically high risk because of customer charge backs. This makes it difficult for workers in these industries to be paid.  In this sense, tokens can be a useful way for workers to get paid as informal currencies like Chaturbate tokens or Twitch Bits or wishlist items or gift cards provide a workaround. In some ways this might be seen to be a good thing. But I think there’s still too little agency on the part of the sex workers in these exchanges and too much power with the platforms and payments processors.

The power still remains largely with the platform who issue and control and cash in and out the tokens rather than with the sex workers. For these platforms, tokens are a kind of regulatory sleight of hand – they are a way to employ and pay workers without being seen to officially employ and they are a way to issue and process payments without officially applying for a financial license of being a bank. Amazon, for example pays its Mechanical Turk workers in most parts of the world in a gift card balance that can only be redeemed through the Amazon store. And one source of revenue for streamers on its gaming and Esports site, Twitch is Bits, which can be cashed out into real money. But Amazon are very quick to state that Bits have no commercial or monetary value because to do so might bring other regulatory obligations.

So yes, while tokens provide these grey areas for sex workers and for extremists on Twitch and for undocumented workers to be paid, most of the scope for extra-regulatory flexibility remains with the platform. I don’t think we should overstate the subversive potential of these tokens therefore even though the lengths that people go to in order to cash out a virtual rose on TikTok or a gift from OnlyFans into currency can surely teach us a thing or two about how to beat the system today!

GL: Do you agree that the failure of Meta’s Libra late 2019 was a turning point, at least in the West? How do you think the monetization of social media platforms would have played out? Now we only have the influencer model. Is earning money with content creation still a distant dream?

ROD: I remember we did a Panel for Moneylab that November 2019 where we had to keep changing our approach and our presentations because the form of what we were speaking about kept changing so drastically.

When Facebook announced that it was going to issue its own token in 2019, I think a lot of people thought the battle had been fought and won.  Instead, stronger regulation and the development of proposals for state-backed digital currencies (CBDCs) has worked to suppress the expectation that platforms will issue and guarantee money in the future. But where the balance falls is still unclear. In China, for example, Alipay and WeChatpay, two incredibly powerful and popular payments apps, have experienced strong regulation by the Chinese Government, particularly because they are seen to compete with the governments’ launch of a digital Yen. And yet, most people continue and prefer to use the former applications than the state pilot. What’s more, even though we have seen strong regulation of payments and crypto in recent months, particularly in the US, platforms continue to shape money in more unexpected ways. For example, in recent years we have seen a number of market events driven by social media sentiment. The famous example is the GameStop Short Squeeze in 2021, driven by online meme economies, but more recently the collapse of FXT and Silicon Valley Bank were both driven in part by viral activity on Twitter – the kind of light speed expressions of sentiment and algorithmic contagion that regulators could not begin to incorporate into their risk models back in 2008.

GL: In retrospect, how do look back at all the utopian energies and debates?  You were part of it, describe them very well in your book… and only at the very end you take some distance from them. Was it still too early to write the history of the crypto token saga?

ROD: I felt very energised at the beginning. I came to money through an interest in open source technology such as open source WiFi and open source cellular networks and open source hardware projects like Arduino. I started to think of money as a technology and one that could be open sourced and designed differently. But, as the book traces, I became quite disillusioned with the politics of those spaces. Crypto was shaped by that determinism – by the sense that if you simply designed the right technology the right society would follow.

GL: There’s an ancient critique of financial speculation. In your book you don’t mention the speculative side of tokens.  Are you bored with the endless talk about ups and downs of Bitcoin, Ethereum, alt.coins, shit coins… Already for a decade the discussion shifted from value to valuation. Once friends around me started hoarding Bitcoins I lost interest. I wasn’t interested in ‘digital gold’. There has been enough gold, shares, bonds.

ROD: Yes I’m bored rigid by discussions of how much Bitcoin or Ether or Ripple are currently worth or whether they will make a comeback but I am interested in the individual and collective subjects of that speculation, what Aris Komporos-Athanasiou calls ‘speculative communities’ or Homo Speculans, the sense that we’ve succeeded the neoliberal rational economic subject with someone who is precarious, fragmented dislocated, maybe a little bit of a hustler. I’m interested in why people are speculating on crypto and YOLOing their rent money and why they are doing so now. I’m interested in why so-called safe or sensible pathways to financial security might no longer feel like viable routes to retirement or home ownership.

GL: How do look back at discussion circles such as MoneyLab? Much like the disillusion that you carefully express at the very end of your book, the decline of MoneyLab as alternative network for the right-wing libertarian crypto mainstream, the energy faded away somewhere 2021, the second Covid year that coincided with the a sharp rise and fall of crypto assets. Since then values have gone up again lately, but the spirit has faded.

ROD: I think an initial MoneyLab advertisement on the network cultures list looking for a researcher was what pushed me into this space. I knew I was interested in value and online culture. I saw the advertisement and it helped to crystallise for me what I was interested in studying and exploring next. I applied for the job but then pulled out in the shortlisting process because I had a postdoc in Ireland but I knew I was absolutely interested in the same sorts of questions.

Visiting Moneylab in 2014 was the most intellectually energising visit of my entire research career. It was the first time I heard anthropologists of money like Bill Maurer and Lana Swartz speak alongside activist researchers like Max Haiven and Brett Scott  I wrote a report about it for Neural. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it had the biggest impact of any conference on my future research. Subsequent Moneylab conferences were always a space to test out ideas and get feedback.

GL: There are still pockets where interesting work is done, like in Berlin, but the reactionary hegemony, for instance of Network States, is even more remarkably uncontested. At the end you indicate the people moved on the metaverse. We could add AI there. Crypto doesn’t offer anything in regard to the ‘polycrisis’ of climate, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, let alone the sharp rise of social inequality. You call it ‘a shithole’. Time to move on? Time for a radically different critique? The precarity in design, media and the arts is still dramatic.

ROD: It’s really hard to be redemptive about the crypto space. And yet the work of spaces like Furtherfield in London always gives me pause – there are people doing amazing and thoughtful work in this space. I am reproducing here a short extract from the book (on p. 238), which is a conversation over email between Ruth Catlow from Furtherfield and myself about this very thing.

“Ruth Catlow writes in Radical Friends of ‘a trend’ among artists and theorists ‘to opt for a polemics that discourage those who build more progressive cultures in this [blockchain + art] space’.  I recognise myself in that criticism. But I can no longer make an argument simply for ‘holding the space’. In a moment of exhaustion and honesty, I email Ruth:

I feel like I am still pretending to myself that art and the block­chain might be a good idea, but when I try to explain why, I can’t. The answers I come up with – that blockchain is a way to ask ourselves what kind of co-operation we do want, or that is blockchain is the future of organization then somebody needs to be in there doing it better… all seem a little vague, tokenistic even. At the end of the day I can’t help but wonder why we need to build anything in this space at all…

At my most cynical, I feel as though experiments in a ‘good’ kind of blockchain are in danger of art-washing the problem: a little culture to legitimize what would otherwise be ‘spin all the way down’. Ruth responds almost immediately. While the space is ‘a battleground, not to be ceded’, she adds: ‘I have a growing uneasy feeling that ALL networked tech is already poisoned.’ Blockchain, in other words, is no better or worse than the rest of the internet.”

I think this still sums up how I feel.

Rachel O’Dwyer, Tokens, The Future of Money in the Age of the Platform, Verso, London, 2023. More info on the book here.