“As Rich As Croesus”

Ian Williamson

There is an old phrase in english used to describe a person of wealth. “As rich as Croesus”. Its roots are much older than English, so old in fact that many ancient Greek and Persian tales describe the decadent opulence of King Croesus (Kree-sas), a genuine historical figure who’s wealth attained him a mythic Midas-like status that has survived right up into the contemporary colloquial repertoire. From 560 to 547 BC Croesus ruled the wealthy kingdom of Lydia in the region of modern western Turkey.

Like the wealthy nations of today, Lydia’s wealth was hinged on a technological advantage. Lydians were the first “western” peoples to invent state coinage. Ingots of rare metals had been traded for thousands of years before this but their purity had always been difficult to determine. The technologist and craftsmen of Lydia had discovered how to separate the silver impurities from the naturally occurring raw gold alloy extracted from the ground. By guarding this innovation the Lydian’s were able to mint lion-stamped Lydian coins that were guaranteed to be true gold. This early social, political and economic technology hasn’t really changed all that much as it has evolved into the paper cash and plastic cards tucked into your wallet or purse right now.

Money is far more a tool for ensuring trust than the object of material value we often like perceive it as. For much of history the nation with the most gold was the richest nation and from the mid-1800’s, with an increase in global trade, many countries employed the Gold Standard. This economic principle made every single bank note redeemable for gold from the state. The US employed this right up until 1973 by which time inflation, led by gold scarcity, made the coupling untenable. Todays money is purely notional, a floating relation of “value” that is grounded more in computer algorithms than inert lumps of matter. The phrase “In god we trust” printed on US mint takes on an interesting new meaning here. If the little number that defines your account balance and provides the base for your entire lifestyle is in fact based on an incalculable set of assumptions then perhaps you should seek solace in a higher power.

Trust must be at the core of any financial providers future digital strategy. The last decade’s volatile markets have been a disconcerting eye-opener and people are hungry for alternatives that they can trust. The pseudonymous developer Satoshi Nakamoto’s cryptocurrency Bitcoin was one such response. When difficult to swallow economic sanctions were imposed on Cypriots earlier this year many chose to circumvent the State and an untold wealth of Euros was exported as Bitcoins. When Ugandans couldn’t trust a bus driver to deliver cash from the cities they worked in back to their dependants in rural villages they innovated an ad-hoc mobile payment system, a service that would mature into Kenya’s M-Pesa with a revenue of $146 Million in the first half of the 2014 fiscal year. In locations around the world community currencies like the Brixton Pound allow citizens, faced with turbulent and alienating in-human scaled global economies, to trade at a cosy local scale. A scale where the word “trust” still has meaning.

At a recent Future Humans event titled “Cash Free” a specialist panel (Tom Robinson – Bitprice, Cecilia Wee – writer and RCA lecturer, and Garrick Hileman – entrepreneur and LSE historian) considered the future form of currency. A major question that emerged from this is wether or not enjoying deregulated “free” digital currencies was worth the price tag of sharing the service with the inevitable criminal element that these services have already attracted. Essentially, is seeking security in deregulation a sustainable approach? The value of the Bitcoin surges several percent everyday yet everyone involved is adamant it’s not a bubble.

The ancient Lydian’s developed a manufacturing technology for processing gold. But we can assume that it was an Iron Age equivalent of the designer that saw the opportunity to create a service. The minted coin was an innovation of assurance that allowed the Lydians to carry on with the transactional details of daily life with confidence. We don’t have a Gold Standard to anchor our trust on today. Currency and the transfer of value dissolve more and more into bits and bytes. A new ecosystem of unregulated digital currencies are emerging that seem to offer surprisingly more stability than many Fiat currencies. At the same time Paypal, Barclay’s Pingit, Visa’s V.me, contactless payments and Dwolla offer easy digital payments that are so convenient that we’re willing to ignore our understandable suspicions of putting our payment details into the virtual ether.

There is an undeniable space of digital/financial anxiety developing for designers to enter into and innovate. Real, human-focused and need-orientated, design responses (the best kind of design) can be developed that can realign transactional technologies with people’s traditional senses of value and trade, a corner stone of human civilisation. This universality is true wether we’re speaking of the complex canoe bound choreography of trading sea shells on the South Pacific or derivatives commodity trading on the NASDAQ in New York. It’s important however that we as designers don’t too eagerly throw technology at the problem. Measured responses are required, ones that assess the contingencies and ensure new currency experiences are harmoniously embedded in the ebs and flows of our emotive social environment. Who knows? perhaps we can develop a service that still holds a pivotal role in society more than 2500 years after it’s inception.

Ian Williamson

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