localised systems – currency

June 5, 2007

I first heard of people just starting up their own currencies when I read about the Ithaca Hour in a newspaper a few years back. (official page link, Wikipedia link) Now it seems that Totnes in Devon is following similar lines, according to this article on BBC News.

A south Devon town has taken a step towards having its own currency after a month-long experiment.

Three hundred Totnes pounds were printed in March for circulation only in local outlets.

Eighteen shops joined Transition Town Totnes (TTT), a new group campaigning for a more self-sufficient community.

Marjana Kos, of TTT, said: “It’s keeping wealth here. It’s keeping local trade alive and supporting local businesses.”

Louise King, manager of the Riverford farm shop in Totnes, said: “We like our own products, so it just seems right to have our own currency.”

What I consistently find myself being surprised by is that people don’t just create bottom up systems of production and distribution for their own little crafty creations – food, art and so on – they are quite happy to take on such massively important systems as currencies and education.

20th century thinking would suggest that a tiny currency only accepted in a few stores in a single town is a bad, or at least fairly useless, idea. Evidently this is not the case, though, as many towns around the world are creating their own versions of these systems. Once again, the ease with which information about such systems can be shared between people keen on implementing them is paramount – step forward the internet. Take a bow, sir – good work.

What’s also interesting to me is that so many of these activities are not done in direct competition with the existing status quo. The Pound Sterling is still legal in Totnes, and they are doing nothing illegal in creating their own currency. The two systems work perfectly happily side by side, and any complications in configuring exchange rates are sorted out not by top-down decree from Westminster, but at the point of sale by those involved in the upkeep of the system – The administrators, directors, and end users are all the same person. And people don’t chose to use the Ithaca Hour because the US Dollar has failed; they chose to do so because the Hour has its own value quite independent of the Dollar – the warm, fuzzy, and personal value of supporting your local economy and of membership in a community. These things aren’t worth much in 20th century terms of monetary value, but it’s been shown time and time again that money really can’t buy you happiness.

It’s barely a step from bartering and exchanges of services, really, and these transactions are also very popular in the online world. I myself have designed and printed Tshirts for people in exchange for them writing me a css file or renting me an online domain. We could have worked out specific monetary values of these goods, but because the element of personal friendship already existed, it was easier to make the transition without resorting to currency – a middle man defined by a top-down institution from without.

And you know what? That kind of transaction, one which relies so much on human aspects of inter-personal relation, not only feels good, but it can actually be more efficient. And a look the music distribution industry will tell you what happens when a more efficient system comes along…

All this bartering and local systems with no hope of understaning or control from without: It’s frankly medieval, but it might well be positively medieval.

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Firewalls

February 28, 2007

photo of West Bank wall by FREEPAL

In a wonderful example of crossover between meatspace and cyberspace linguistics, the always excellent Global Guerillas blog by John Robb has a post entitled Nation-state firewalls. Robb lists some of the larger fences, walls and barriers around the world designed to limit and control the transitions of people between the two sides of the barriers in question.

Of course, the ‘firewall’ is a term originally for something in physical space, but in most people’s minds these days I think we consider it a ‘cyberspace’ term. The two have similar functions, of course – namely to limit the transition of stuff like data or people – but it’s interesting to see them being used interchangably here.

Question: just what is the difference people and data, anyway? I think I know people I’ve ‘met’ online but I’ve really only seen the data they produce. There’s certainly more to a person than just their intellectual output (just look at David Beckham) but how much more must vary an awful lot.


Bottom-up organisation & bottom-up control

February 9, 2007

An interesting (and admittedly paraphrased) quote from a post John Robb’s always-interesting blog:

Complexity and Globalization

…In response to globalization, many states have over centralized due to a loss of local control. These centralized efforts haven’t resulted in a single hierarchy, but rather a plethora of overlapping and often conflicting efforts that routinely trump local authority (an example of how complexification in response to environmental stimulus is now providing negative returns on investment). The remoteness, obscurity and opacity of these parallel “authorities” add to the equation…

Organic Security

Once the legal monopoly of armed force, long claimed by the state, is wrested out of its hands, existing distinctions between war and crime will break down much as is already the case today in . . . Lebanon, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Peru, or Colombia.” Martin van Creveld.

States may not have an option. The catch is that if the national government doesn’t/can’t step in to rectify a decline in local control, forms of organic security… will replace them.

Is he talking about how local societies and built-up groups can inherently have more affect on their neighbourhood than over-beurocratic imposed orders from a national government? Nope – he’s talking about insurgencies and guerrilla warfare. Read his blog (and book when it comes out!) – it’s fascinating stuff.
In all these explorations of how I want neighbourhoods to restore control to themselves and foster bottom-up organisational methods, it’s important to remember that things might not necessarily go smoothly. In fact I’d say they almost certainly won’t. I’m hoping that the starting point (middle class British suburbia) already contains enough respect for order and peace that things wouldn’t shift too badly towards anarchy, but power vacuums are always risky – no matter how small.