Money and Utopia at the Internet Archive

Guest blog post by Author Finn Brunton

The history of money is history itself. From the accounting and contracts of Sumerian cuneiform tablets (the earliest written language) to buried coin hoards, stamps and letters of credit, Incan khipu knot-counts, or the maps and censuses written in the service of levying taxes, part of the great archive from which history is made are the records of cash, debt, credit, assets, and coinage. 

A lot of that archive is durable: cowry shells, wooden tally-sticks, clay tablets, coins buried under floorboards or in the hulls of sunken ships. (/Rai/ stones, the indigenous currency of the Micronesian island of Yap, will outlast us all.) And a lot of that archive gives people their own incentives to preserve and maintain: saving precious metals, stock certificates, banknotes, deeds, or the proofs of kinship debts and IOUs. But most of the money transacted now is electronic. How could you write the history of digital cash?

That’s where the Internet Archive comes in. About eight years ago I began work in earnest on a book about the prehistory of cryptocurrency: the technologies, visions, subcultures, and fantasies that drove the project of building digital objects that could work like cash — anonymous transactions with money that could prove itself, as a dollar does, rather than needing the identities of the transactors, like a credit card. 

Digging up this history meant a crash course in the history of money itself — and, as strange as this might sound, the /history/ of the history of money, how people thought about what money meant and how to read it at different times, with collections like the Newman Numismatic Portal and documents like the playwright and poet Joseph Addison’s marvelous 1726 “Dialogues Upon the Usefulness of Ancient Medals,” a kind of dreamy, melancholy short story about coins, poetry, and the legacies of the past.

It also meant leaning about various utopian projects which used new forms of money and economic schemes to try to change society — these were often led the sort of ahead-of-their-time, or out-of-this-world, characters whose archives are, to put it gently, difficult to find. Not for the Internet Archive, though: the documents of the strange project of American Technocracy in the 1930s — like an autobiography written from the perspective of the economic price system! — are, through phone, tablet, or mouse, at one’s fingertips.

The book, focused as it is on small circles of monetary and cryptographic utopians in the Bay Area of California from the 1970s through the arrival of Bitcoin, also required study of the subcultures, publications, and movements within which my subjects crossed paths and dreamed big dreams — venues like Mondo 2000 (individual issues are incredibly rich time capsules and the people around Ted Nelson’s amazing Xanadu. But, of course, many of these people were among the first to leave print behind and begin writing and publishing primarily online — especially on the fragile, ephemeral Web. Which is where the Wayback Machine came in! Here crucial developments that would otherwise be lost were preserved, like Hal Finney’s “reusable proof of work” token system — an important step toward what would become Bitcoin and subsequent cryptocurrency and blockchain systems.

The book that I built using all these archives was written over the course of several years in many places, from the back seat of a car in the Colorado Rockies to a family farm in rural Quebec, a laundromat in New Hampshire, and a cabin in Finland, but anywhere that I could get the faintest wireless signal, these archives — and many more — were with me. (As a user of the search engine DuckDuckGo, “!archive” and “!wayback” are my favorite, reflexive search operators.) Some of the earliest discussions of computerized, digital money happened in the context of dreams of what networked computing could be: the world’s libraries and archives, across all media, on your “home information terminal,” available at a gesture. With the Internet Archive, that utopia is at last being realized.

BOOK LAUNCH EVENT
Join us Tuesday, June 25th at the Internet Archive in San Francisco for the book launch of DIGITAL CASH: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency by Finn Brunton.

Date: Tuesday, June 25th 2019
Time: Doors Open: 6:00 PM
In Conversation with Finn Brunton: 6:30 – 7:45 PM
Reception: 7:45 – 9:00 PM
Light refreshments will be served. Finn Brunton’s book will also be available for purchase and signing during the reception, courtesy of The Green Arcade bookstore.
Where: Internet Archive
300 Funston Ave
SF, CA 94118

About the Author: Finn Brunton (finnb.net) is the author of Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet (2013) and Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Technologists, and Utopians Who Created Cryptocurrency (2019), and the co-author of Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest (2015) and Communication (2019). He teaches in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.

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