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Photo: Paolo Pellegrin, commissioned by Fiona Banner in collaboration with the Archive of Modern Conflict

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Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, Mixed media pinstripe wall drawing and framed Silver Gelatin photographs. Image Fiona Banner

I entered the PEER gallery a bit by chance and quickly realized that the exhibition involves one artist whose work i admire, an interesting-sounding organization called Archive of Modern Conflict and a photographer who has won numerous awards for his work on AIDS in Uganda, the conflict in Kosovo, the war in Lebanon, anti-terrorism in Algeria, etc.

The artist is Fionna Banner and the photographer is Paolo Pellegrin. Banner asked the photo reporter to explore the City of London and to reflect its activities, behaviours, customs and costume through the lens of conflict photography.

The photos are every bit as good as you would expect from Pellegrin and the way Banner has orchestrated them in the exhibition only adds depth, humour and an extra layer of information. Hundreds of the images are sequenced in a short and gripping film, accompanied by a mixed soundtrack of open cry trading at the London Metal Exchange, melded with a persuasive and hypnotic drumbeat. The other photos are either displayed in museum-type vitrines or inside frames hanging on the walls of a second gallery. Floor to ceiling graphite drawings magnify traditional City pinstripe suits to the point that they become overbearing (or maybe it's just me who's uncomfortable with having a drawing of a banker's crotch at eye level.) The iconic pattern of the financial district even finds itself, absurdly, turned into nail art design. An amusing juxtaposition if you think that the financial sector in London has been relentlessly accused of being sexist.

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Pinstripe nails, 2014. Image Fiona Banner

Speaking of sexy sex, i had to smile in front of the map that shows how strip bars are surrounding the Square Mile. The City of London Corporation has its own electoral system and its own laws. One of them forbids the presence of strip bars in the City. :

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Image Fiona Banner

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Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, Vitrine detail, 2014. Image Fiona Banner

The title of the show is Mistah Kurtz--he not dead. Mistah Kurtz is a character from Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness. Kurz is a shrewd and corrupt ivory trader in Africa who has managed to turn himself into a demigod of all the tribes surrounding his station. Towards the end of the book, the death of Kurts is announced by a 'manager boy' with the words 'Mistah Kurtz - he dead.' The City culture of excess, greed and aloofness from society offers indeed parallels to Conrad's narrative.

After the show, the photos will be filed at the Archive of Modern Conflict under the heading Heart of Darkness, 2014.

It is not the first time that Banner references Heart of Darkness. Two years ago, she organised a performance of Orson Welles' screenplay Heart of Darkness, based on Conrad's story. It would have been Welles' first film but it was rejected. He made Citizen Kane instead.

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Photo: Paolo Pellegrin, commissioned by Fiona Banner in collaboration with the Archive of Modern Conflict

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Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, Pinstripe drawings, vitrines, objects, high definition digital film projection and framed silver gelatin photographs, 2014. Image Fiona Banner

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Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, Pinstripe drawings, vitrines, objects, high definition digital film projection and framed silver gelatin photographs, 2014. Image Fiona Banner

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Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, Vitrine detail, 2014. Image Fiona Banner

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Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, City of London bollard (detail), 2014. Image Fiona Banner

Mistah Kurtz - He Not Dead, 2014, High definition digital film projection and mixed media wall drawing, 6.19 minutes, 2014. Image Fiona Banner

Mistah Kurtz--he not dead is at PEER in London until 26 July 2014:

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Previously: Fiona Banner at Tate Britain.

Sponsored by:





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Image courtesy of Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc

Jennifer Lyn Morone has turned herself into a corporation and collection of marketable goods and services. Everything she is biologically and intellectually, everything she does, learns or creates has the potential to be turned into profits. Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc is a graduation project in Design Interactions but as Jennifer underlines, this is not a speculative project.

JLM Inc is a new business established to determine the value of an individual. The corporation derives value from three sources and legally protects and bestows rights upon the total output of Jennifer Lyn Morone:

1. Past experiences and present capabilities. These are offered as biological, physical and mental services such as genes, labour, creativity, blood, sweat and tears.
2. Selling future potential in the form of shares.
3. Accumulation, categorisation and evaluation of data that is generated as a result of Jennifer Lyn Morone's life.

JLM Inc is not only an audacious long term performance, it is also an thought-provoking exploration into personal data exploitation by corporations and governments. The projects is an extreme form of capitalism which might ironically enable an individual to regain some ownership of and power over their own data. Jennifer Lyn Morone Inc is obviously a very personal venture but the designer is also beta testing on herself an app, the Database of ME or DOME, that will ensure that your identity and data can be collected and stored for you and only you.

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Image courtesy of Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc


Jennifer Lyn Morone, Inc. Video of the project. Film: director- Ilona Gaynor

A few questions (amongst the dozens i wanted to ask) to Jennifer:

Hi Jennifer! I obviously laughed when i read the sentence 'This is not a Speculative Project' in the gallery. So you really managed to become an Incorporated Person? How did you do that? Is this a standard, banal process?

It's nice to know that the sign worked as it was intended. I feel that there's a limit to the impact that speculative work can have as it can't be directly compared to a current reality. This was my way of addressing the audience just to make it clear that the project is real and actively negotiating several problems that we are faced with today and that need to be addressed.

So, yes, I really have become an Incorporated Person. The process has not been standard or banal at all but that's probably because I am not in business school setting up a business to sell something. Rather, I was on a critical design course reappropriating capitalist and corporate strategy to make being a person a business.

In November 2013 I starting looking into the details to incorporate, which seemed deceptively simple: choose the business name; decide what kind legal entity you want your business to be (I became a C-corporation); figure out where to incorporate (I did it in Delaware); find a registered agent; fill out some forms; and then pay. All of this, however, required a significant amount of research for me to even understand what the legal and financial implications of my decisions would be. For example: what being a C-corp versus an S-corp entails, how valuation of companies works, what are the benefits to incorporating in Delaware compared to other States, how shares work and how the price per share is determined (which I find completely illogical).

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#01 Share Certificate of Jennifer Lyn Morone, Inc, a Delaware Corporation. Image courtesy of Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc

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Delaware Apostille Certificate. Image courtesy of Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc

I used the research, combined it with my intention and fused it into a business plan where I had to define what my mission is, what I stand for, and what my vision is and how I plan to achieve these by being the business (person) I will be. Repurposing the corporate mentality even further required me to stop thinking like an individual about what I want and need but what other people want and what can I offer to meet their needs. This helped me to determine my services.

What I found interesting is that it is quite common for people to incorporate before they even know what they want to do. They can do this because, in Delaware where the majority of major corporations are located, all you need to state in the articles is that "The purpose of the corporation is to engage in any lawful activity for which corporations may be organized under the General Corporation Law of Delaware". This is also the common way of describing what the company will do so as not to limit the ways in which it can make money.

Now that I have incorporated myself, I have legally created another person with my name in the eyes of the law. In the USA my corporate self now has not only the same but even more rights and benefits than I do as an individual. My corporate self takes on any responsibility and I am not liable for its actions or debt, only my initial investments. This is why we see companies able to go bankrupt, get bailouts or get away with ruthlessness without anyone being charged or responsible for what happens.

As the founder of my corporation I turn over my skills, capital, possessions and intellectual property to it and these become its assets and increase its value. My identity (name, appearance and IP addresses) become the brand and are trademarked; my mental abilities (knowledge) as processes and strategies; my physical abilities as equipment; my biological functions as products, my data is the corporations property and the shares are my potential. These all become assets that I can now capitalise on. My debt is turned into the corporations liability, which actually increases the company's value if it were to be sold.

By issuing shares I can raise capital, based purely on my potential success. In exchange the shareholder has partial ownership of my corporation. I wanted to do this to expose that shares in no way reflect the true value of a company, only its perceived value based on popularity and that stock markets are pure gambling.

As the founder I can set the price of the shares extremely low, the usual amount advised in 10,000,000 shares at $0.001 or $0.0001 per share, I opted for the latter. After that I applied for a tax number (EIN), which takes about an hour to receive. Then you have to set up a bank account after which you can buy your shares, usually at least a third of the shares, and reserve about 10-15% for stock equity to pay for any services needed. Then you look at what the corporation's assets are, what's your inventory, and include the work that has gone in so far and put a number to it. A valuation has to be done to then determine what the new price per share will be and this can be done by someone who is an experienced investor or a venture capitalist, but they basically just take that number that you have got and multiply it by 10 and then divide that by the number of shares.

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Image courtesy of Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc

How do you put value on things such as Education RCA and Live and work in Germany? And why is living and working in Germany proportionally more valuable than living and working in France?

Those prices actually have no reflection of how valuable the experiences have been. What the numbers represent are of what my life has cost so far divided up into periods of time based and how much I either earned or what was paid for me to live and learn. These become my base values, the initial investment, on top of which I can begin adding the intangible (knowledge, personality, skills which are very hard to put a price on) I gained from these experiences and tangible assets (possessions/inventory, both internally - i.e. blood and externally - i.e. computer) that I acquired or continually produce. This gives me a starting point to know what my production costs are so I can determine an honest price for my services.

The cost of my education, how much I received after my father passed and how much I earned in France and Germany (to answer your question: France was significantly less since I worked for an ex-partner and didn't receive a salary but also didn't pay rent) I knew already. What I didn't know and never thought to ask before was how much I cost my parents, purely financially, from conception to the age of 18. I asked my mother and she came back to me with this number with inflation figured in. I've since set aside shares for her.

It is an interesting perspective to now have. Often we think about what we don't have or aren't receiving. By calculating how much money has gone into my existence as input I then took a look at what my output has been, what I've actually done with that, and I wasn't terribly impressed. In capitalism individuals are meant to consume as much input as possible, while corporations can't survive unless their output is both useful and greater than their input, which needs to be relevant and not wasteful of time or money.

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Image courtesy of Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc

Could you explain us the purpose of the DOME app? How does it insure that your own information remains your property?

The philosopher John Locke stated that a person's natural and inalienable rights are "life, liberty, and property": that "everyone is entitled to live once they are created", that "everyone is entitled to do anything they want to so long as it doesn't conflict with the first right" and that "everyone is entitled to own all they create or gain so long as it doesn't conflict with the first two rights". Today, I believe that the data a person creates should be considered their property: it has a monetary value in the economic system that our lives are structured around. So I see data as a resource that people create and that is currently being exploited.

Governments were created to protect people and their rights but as we are living in a time of crony capitalism, where economic success is dependent on close relationships between business people and government officials, I think it will be a long time before any policy or solutions will be established. Instead what we are seeing are efforts made to better track and monitor our actions to get a clearer picture of how to better target our consumptive behaviour. This is what I consider data slavery.

Right now, as a hyper-connected network society, each person creates a trail of data that is being used and profited on mostly for advertising purposes. People are now referred to as consumers and statistics and government and Industry pay substantial sums for our information.

So as a form of protest and in an effort to revolt against this, I am using subversive tactics to reclaim what I feel should be a person's rights by incorporating my identity and creating DOME (Database of Me) as a way to take ownership and control of my property. Now that I am a corporation any data that I create that is linked to my name, IP address and appearance is copyrighted or trademarked and therefore subject to litigation if used without my permission...think of how Getty gets the rights to images and if you use it without their permission or having paid you get a fine. So any photo I take, any email I write, any call, text, web search, cctv footage of me that is stored on someone else's, company's or government's sever does not have the right to be there or to be used, sold, leased or traded.

DOME's function, in its simplest form, is an app that acts as a firewall between you and other servers. You use all of the same services, apps and interfaces you do today but you also have your own server and the app operates quietly in the background of any device you use, making two copies of the data you transmit. One hard copy goes to your database, the other is encrypted and goes to its intended destination but can't be used beyond that. In DOME's complete form it is a customisable app that still does what the simpler form does but with its own applications so that a person can communicate, share photos, socialise, navigate, search for information, and record external sensors such as biosignals. So people would need to have their own server or a data locker on a shared server and download the app on their computers and phones.

For the purpose of this project all of my personal data collected with DOME is being displayed on the tracking page. This is to show and make a clear distinction that there are real lives behind the data, which is something that I think is critically missed in this data discussion. Right now there is only a portion of my information compared to what will eventually be there. It will being streamed in real-time to mimic how the NSA, GCHQ, Google, and others view our information now and it is public because I want to draw attention to how exposed we currently are.

I am also using it to measure my "operations" to monitor and track productivity and efficiency in the same way that corporations normally do. Spy software and keyloggers are becoming very commonplace mostly used by companies on their employees, jealous partners to their loved ones and parents to their children.

Currently, I am the first and only beta tester. I am using myself as the case study to capture as much data about myself as possible, store it all in one place to see how much a person can actually generate, and then correlate it to see which combinations are valuable.

Given the growing market for information if people have ownership and control of their data they should be the ones compensated for it, not other companies. So beyond any success with DOME I have the intention to build a Platform, or try to work with others who are heading in this direction as well, as a cooperative Data Broker. People would use DOME and have an overview of their information as a data portfolio from which they could choose, if they want, to send as packaged data sets to the Platform as an investment for a known purpose. The Platform would then combine different people's information, as this increases the value of the data, and then sell it to the approved markets. Those that contribute their information would then get a return on their investment. This is not necessarily the best solution, it is only a fairer alternative to the system that is in place now.

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Image courtesy of Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc

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Image courtesy of Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc

Do you think that an individual has more to lose or more to gain from this extension of capitalism to their own person? Because on the one hand, they regain some power. On the other hand, the idea seems a bit perverse.

What I am doing is quite outside the realm of ordinary behaviour but we are made to behave in what I consider quite a perverse way because of the economic system in place. Which I am in awe of as it is not really what I would have expected after millennia of evolution.

But here we are and it is obvious that Capitalism works best for Capitalists. So, I am experimenting, with myself as the subject, to push the limits to the extreme to provoke change. The way in which I am doing it is merely reflecting how things are and where they seem to be heading. Systems and governments have been adjusted and overthrown before, the problem with this one is that it works too well for the ones running it but not well enough for the rest...and the disparity is growing wider.

Theoretically, I think a person would have more to gain as a corporation as long as capitalism is in place. In practice you might have to ask me that in a year, five or even 10 years time. People change, adapt, and continue to learn throughout their lives which is much more sustainable and scalable than the way companies operate. Together we are very diverse and alone unique because of the experiences we go through which create our most valuable asset, our individual perspectives. We all have assets and potential, but for many only a small percentage is even used and rarely for one's own benefit. If my friends and family became corporations I know exactly who I would use and for what and I know who I would invest in, not only because of what they can do but because of who they are.

If people were to write a business plan like I did they would most likely benefit in some way and definitely gain a greater perspective. But unless they take on the legal and financial implications like I have they won't truly change the way they live and how they engage with others. Technically speaking, all becoming a corporation really comes down to is looking at what you do and what you want to do and applying the same terminology, strategy and framework that corporations use to make money. I think that there will always be perversion as long we need to gain or earn money, or some form of currency, to meet our basic needs.

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Image courtesy of Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc

Could you describe to us the kind of services you are offering for free or those you are offering in exchange of money?

It really depends on who is asking and what they are asking for and is also affected by supply and demand. My services are categorised under mental, physical or biological, under which are combinations of features such as problem solving, compassion, strength, coordination, heat, and bodily functions. So when I offer something for free it's because I produce it anyway and have no use for it myself and there is no demand, so it's waste. If there starts to be a demand then it's no longer waste but a byproduct which I can sell. If there's something that is going to require depleting a resource, which would be measured by time, money and energy spent, in order to do it; such as consoling a friend and trying to help him through his problems for a few hours, then it will either be an exchange or invoiced. For example if this friend who often asks to meet to talk about his relationship problems is also there for me when I need consoling or help then it's an exchange. But if he is never there for me when I need it, then I would send him an invoice.

Another example compared to how we are used to working now would be if a firm or company wants me for some mental services, say creativity and knowledge, then it would be similar to acquiring a consultant, but I would calculate my price based on what the knowledge cost to produce (education and experience) and calculate in my overhead costs, what I lost in time and energy against what I may have gained in value such as enjoyment or if I learned something new. If I there was value I gained I would deduct that from the price.
 
This may seem ridiculous but in an extreme form of capitalism each person would need to have a complete way to measure the value of their life and the quality of their knowledge, skills, health and relationships to increase efficiency.

Oh! i just saw you're offering free urine! Is it ironic or would the urine be of any use to the buyer?

It's both! There's irony in the whole project, I've just dealt with it very pragmatically. We are bound to our bodies, some ways it's an extension of our mind, in other ways it operates without us even having to think about it, in either case you are in it for as long as you live, or as long as it keeps up. It is 100% yours but there are external factors such as laws and taboos that condition you to use your bodies and the valuable things they do in very specific and deemed acceptable ways. Companies on the other hand don't work this way. As I described above in how a waste might turn into a profitable byproduct, it depends on supply and demand.

So if you look at the body as equipment with quite mechanical operations, it produces things like urine systematically. As I am just starting I don't have any customers. So I am copying how businesses give free promotions to attract potential buyers. In my research I came across people that were looking to buy urine for drug tests. There is also the potential to sell to labs of companies that are developing bio-fuel cells to power phones. Who knows who else might want it.

As there's a pretty steady supply, which can be increased to an extent, if there started to be a demand that was more than I could supply then I could increase the price. If the demand is equal to the supply then I would price it based on what I saw people would pay and keep it competitive to bottled synthetic urine, yes there is such a thing. I could also increase my profit margin by only drinking tap water.

So, there's irony on several levels: to illustrate the exploitative aspect of capitalism on resources and what this looks like at the extreme level of and by the individual; the ways in which we are conditioned to use our bodies and what we are 'allowed' to do with them; and the fact that you can potentially sell anything as long as there's a willing buyer.

There is also another level of sincerity, in that the more manual your work is the less you are paid. When times are really tough, women in particular have had to resort to selling their bodies for money, with sex, pulling teeth, hair. I saw many people online looking to sell their kidney to help a friend in financial need. I also went to start a clinical drug trial and found that there are many healthy and educated young people who are now doing this for additional income. In face of an increasingly specialised workforce and automation of manual jobs people have to be resourceful and will have to look at what they have and what they can offer to live from.

Do you have a marketing plan that will ensure that people are eager to get those services and that you will make a profit rapidly?

I do have a marketing strategy as it was part of the business plan. My initial customers or users of my services will be everyone I engage with and know now. For example, if you wanted to interview me after the launch you would have to go through my website, check my calendar and block my time with the type service you want. You can then check my progress with the tracking page to make sure I'm doing what you asked of me. It would probably be an exchange as you are promoting me and helping me reach a wider audience, which would increase the value of me as a company and therefore effect my share price, creating profit for the shareholders.

My shares will be vested over 3 years, which means that I can't sell them and I will not pay dividends until all production and overhead costs are covered. Until then all the money that comes in will be reinvested into the company until it is stable and making a profit.

My website will be monetised on the use and tracking page with banner ads to click on displaying things I own and want to sell, services I'm promoting and other people's services. That will be similar to the way Google AdSense works with affiliate marketing but instead of products and companies it will be with people I know are looking for work or have just done something that's available to the public, such as an exhibition or a book.

I plan to create some revenue also from endorsements to promote events I might attend, clothes I might wear, restaurants I might eat at and products I might use. This is to reflect how celebrities and athletes are used to influence the public and how product placement only happens when it has been paid to be seen. However, as normal people, we actually buy things and become walking billboards if logos or the brand's identity are obvious.

Finally, there is the profitable but time consuming endeavor of pursuing intellectual property infringements. The profit of this will depend on whether my lawyer will charge me fees or if he will take a percentage from cases won.

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Stills from the video. Image courtesy of Jennifer Lyn Morone

In the video you present yourself dressed as a businessman. Why not highlight the fact that you're a woman?

This project takes its stance in criticism to the capitalist system of which I can not think of a more iconic image than the man's business suit. When you see a man in a business suit you know his job is to make money. I wanted to highlight that I am reappropriating the Capitalist's role and strategy by embodying this uniform. There is a very schizophrenic nature to this project and through it I must play many different roles and not all of them will fit. The clips in the back are used to represent this and indicate that I am making this role fit me and not the other way around.

I think that it is still obvious in the video that I am a woman. If I had accentuated this fact by dressing up in a female business outfit or a sexy dress then I still would still be playing a role. Actually, over the course of this project so far the fact that I am a woman has already come in the way a few times and with people I considered friends. One wanted to help with contextualising the philosophical nature of the project. Our communications became muddy because he developed feelings, which was uncomfortable to say the least. Then he became greedy after speaking with people about the project and aggressively stated that he deserved a large proportion of shares. And finally, he was dishonest about how he used money I gave him to set up the my server. The second set-back, which was directly because I am a woman, was with a friend that I pitched to as a potential investor, since he's squandering lots of money to build a spaceship so he can go to the moon in a few years. At first he was very interested, up until the point that he realised I was not going to sleep with him.

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JML Neon. Image courtesy of Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc

It looks to me like the project has just begun and you are going to learn and experience a lot in the coming months. Or will JML Inc disappear beyond the graduation show? 
Do you have any plan to push the project further?

Yes, this project has just begun and there is so much work still to be done before launching. Over the summer I will be at Innovation RCA's launchpad where I will have a business mentor and work more on the marketing plan. I will also be holding a crowdfunding campaign for DOME and will soon do a friends and family round of shareholders for JLM Inc.

I am looking forward to many aspects of the project such as exposing the loopholes that big corporations use to their benefit and challenging norms that we are conditioned to. I have already learned many things and gained a greater understanding of our economic system, which brings a clarity to why our society and culture are as they are.

This project has the potential to go on indefinitely as I am using my life as the subject. And just as life goes, it's hard to say what the outcome will be.

Thanks Jennifer!

Check out Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc at the RCA Show 2014 (Kensington) until 29 June.
Also part of the show: We have the means to make you happy.

Film: director- Ilona Gaynor
Editing: Ilona Gaynor
Grip: Naama Schendar, Rodrigo Lebrun, Rachel Knoll.
Subtitles: Rodrigo Lebrun
DOME app: Zac Tolley, Lloyd Elliot, Yosuke Ushigome
Website: Mark Osborne, Neil Thomson
Backend: Zwitterion's Domain pty.
Electronics: Mike Vanis

The Secret World of Oil, by Ken Silverstein.

Available on amazon USA and UK.

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Publisher Verso writes: Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization, and the industry that supplies it has been the subject of intense interest and scrutiny, as well as countless books. And yet, almost no attention has been paid to little-known characters vital to the industry--secretive fixers and oil traders, lobbyists and PR agents, gangsters and dictators--allied with competing governments and multinational corporations. Virtually every stage in oil's production process, from discovery to consumption, is greased by secret connections, corruption, and violence, even if little of that is visible to the public. The energy industry, to cite just one measure, violates the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act more often than any other economic sector, even weapons. This book sets out to tell the story of this largely hidden world.

Based on trips to New York, Houston, New Orleans, Paris, Geneva, and Phnom Penh, among other far-flung locales, The Secret World of Oil includes up-close portraits of Louisiana oilmen and their political handlers; an urbane, captivating London fixer; and an oil dictator's playboy son who had to choose among more than three dozen luxury vehicles before heading out to party in Los Angeles. Supported by funding from the prestigious Open Society Foundations, this is both an entertaining global travelogue and a major work of investigative reporting.

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Didier Ruef, Lokbatan, Baku Region, Azerbaijan, 2007. A man, working and wearing a BP pullover, poses with a dead buffalo's head

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Didier Ruef, Baku, Azerbaijan. A shepherd and his flock of sheep

The Secret World of Oil. Now that's a catchy title.

Silverstein investigates the murky oil scene through a series of characters that have so far received very little attention. These middle men stand between corrupt governments and the industry. The scope of their dirty operations is global, their influence is often colossal but they manage to remain in the shadow, quietly amassing fortunes and political ties along the way.

Each chapter in the book investigates a particular figure that personifies one of the many reasons why the energy business is even more squalid than it is profitable.

The first chapter looks at oil fixers. Ely Calil is one of them. He opens the list of secret is an oil fixer. He uses his powerful network to open doors for corporate clients in countries ruled by dictators, he makes sure the right palms are greased, and knows how to set up front companies to move money around. (the whole chapter about Calil is online.) Silverstein obtained exclusive information from Calil because over the years they've established a personal relationship (i wonder if it survived the publication of this book. Probably not.)

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Transparency International reports on corruption policies of oil companies. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burning in the Gulf of Mexico. Photograph: AP (via)

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Abandoned oil rig (image)

However, it doesn't seem like Silverstein has ever managed to chat with kleptocrat
Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue. He had to rely on discussions with former employees and other people who had a professional relationship with 'Teodorin.' Teodoro Obiang is the son of the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny country with massive oil resources and one of the worst human rights records in the world.

The book demonstrates that the higher the U.S.'s economic interests in a country energy resource, the more tolerant it grows towards any gross human rights violation. In fact, it seems that dictators who keep a thigh grip on their country are regarded as bearer of 'stability.' And obviously, as far as multinational energy are concerned, it is easier to strike a deal with a dictator than negotiate with local communities: "As long as we want cheap gas, democracy can't exist," said Ed Chow, a longtime Chevron executive.

Anyway, while the wealth that oil brings to the country directly ends up in the Obiang family's deep pockets, the daily existence of people living in the country has seen little improvement. In fact, many social welfare indicators have gotten worse, not better, since oil money started flowing in (infant mortality rate climbed up, net drop in enrollment for primary education, etc.)

Theodorin, who dedicates his days to extravagant shopping sprees in Miami and dreams of being a hip-hop mogul, is favourite to his father's throne. It is very unlikely that the country's ecological and financial situation will thrive once he gains even more power.
Again, you can find the content of the chapter online.

The chapter about traders zooms in on Glencore, the biggest company you've never heard of. The chapter relies on WikiLeaked cables and interviews with traders who speak 'off the record'. And you can see why they are not keen on revealing their names. Traders go where multinationals fear to thread in order to negotiate and purchase output from energy-producing nations, and they often operate at the margins of what is legal. They are responsible for anything that goes from manipulating the price of oil to dumping toxic waste in Ivory Coast.

They operate through a maze of offshore accounts, subsidiaries and shell corporations and it's virtually impossible to keep track of their activities.

The next player is Bretton Sciaroni. He is a 'gatekeeper', he provides advice and counsel to foreign investors seeking to do business in Cambodia. Sciaroni seems to be content of his friendly relationship with a government described by Human Rights Watch's Southeast Asian Director, David Roberts, as a "vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy." On the one hand, he has brokered deals that are highly detrimental to the public but that benefit government officials and well-connected domestic and foreign insiders. On the other hand, his role also involves orchestrating PR campaign that depict Cambodia as the ideal country to do business in.

You can find the chapter on Sciaroni online as well.

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The Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea produces 26,000 barrels a day, but could yield up to 1.5 million barrels a day. Photo: Anatoly Ustinenko/Reuters

The chapter about Tony Blair (the 'flack' in SIlverstein's book) was particularly staggering. As we know, Blair spends much of his time traveling around the world as a highly paid speaker and senior adviser for governments and corporations. He not only imparts his 'wisdom' onto the privileged audience but he also helps glam up the image of countries with poor human right track records, brushing corruption, political repression, and glaring social inequalities under the carpet.

Blair has been very active, it seems, endorsing internationally the regime and promoting the images of the rulers of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and other Caspian states. Not even the accusation that the head of a country is 'boiling alive political opponents' will stop him.

Silverstein wrote about Blair in New Republic.

The sixth part of the book explores the activities of lobbyists in Louisiana. This chapter is particularly grim. The author goes as far as to compare the U.S.'s third energy-producing state with "classic Third World states" because of rampant corruption, glaring social inequalities and little spending on social programs. The situation is so bad that the energy industry has often managed to get its own appointed to top positions at the state's two main environmental agencies (the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environment Quality.)

Amusingly, Silverstein obtained much of his information because one of the most active lobbyist he interviewed confused him with a journalist of the same who writes also about energy issue, only that the other Ken Silverstein writes for industry-friendly trade publications.

Neil Bush is the icon of the final chapter that looks at con artists and hangers-on attracted by money. They have little talent but it never prevents them from trying. Bush is the son and brother of US presidents. He relentlessly travels in search of deals to strike in the oil industry but most of his efforts often end in failure. Which doesn't really matter as his name shields him from any unpleasant responsibility or complete financial collapse.

I opened the book already aware that the oil business is one without honour nor conscience but, because the book puts a name on some of the most squalid players involved in the energy racket, i closed it with more despair than ever. Suddenly i encountered the stories of individuals who have families and histories. Not just faceless corporations and far away country.

The content of The Secret World of Oil relies on the author's investigative journalism which means that you can't cross check every single fact in the book but have to rely on Silverstein's professionalism. I'm more used to heavily referenced essays but i've no doubt he is a scrupulous and honest journalist.

This is not a book about the oil industry per se, it merely brings the spotlight on a few players who operate in the dark. For a broader (and really engrossing) picture of the field, i'd recommend another Verso book: The Oil Road: Journeys From The Caspian Sea To The City Of London by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello (on amazon USA and UK.)

Gawker has an interview with the reporter.

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Pau Waelder has recently published at Merkske $8,793 Worth of [Art], a collection of 159 real and false certificates of authenticity, culled from S[edition], an online platform that sells limited edition artworks in digital format. All Waelder had to do was a small 'hack'. He copied the preview certificates of all artworks being sold in the "curated" section of Sedition. At the time the preview of the certificates displayed his name as owner and a fake edition number, just as if I had bought them. He then added to these certificates real certificates from artworks he bought on the platform. That was it.

The title refers to the amount that would have been paid if all of the works had been bought as the certificates apparently attest.

Waelder is not an artist, he is an independent art critic, curator and a researcher in new media art. And judging from what i read in his essays, he is someone who certainly has a few interesting comments to make on notions of ownership and authenticity in the digital era, networked pieces sold and exhibited in gallery environment and "traditional" art sold and exhibited online, new ways of selling art online, "Damien Hirst for six quid", etc. Someone to follow on twitter and elsewhere. And someone to interview...

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Hi Pau! You're an art critic and curator so i'm tempted to think that $8,793 Worth of [Art] functions also as a piece of art criticism. What motivated the publication of $8,793 Worth of [Art]?

To be honest, I didn't know if it was worth publishing. I am working on my doctoral research on art, new media and the art market and Sedition is one of my case studies. I've followed this platform with great interest since it was launched on November 2011 because I consider that its business model could be a viable way for selling new media art. I've also bought some artworks (or editions) in order to experience what it meant to collect these pieces and be able to experience them on my computer, smartphone or tablet. So far, I've learned that I really don't look at the artworks very often, so probably I should have a screen connected to the Internet and hung on a wall at home to really enjoy these works as I do with other artworks I own. Another thing that struck me from the beginning was that the only document asserting my ownership of these "digital editions" was an equally digital certificate of authenticity, which is in fact a JPEG that pops up in my profile page.

One day, as I was browsing Sedition's website to have an idea of the average price of the artworks, I noticed that on the page of each artwork there was a preview of the certificate of authenticity that I would get if I bought the piece. This preview looked exactly the same as the certificates of the artworks I owned, including the artist's signature and an edition number. So I started taking screenshots of the preview certificates of all the artworks and kept them in a folder. My intention was (and is) to use this information in my thesis. It was later on that I thought it would be interesting to put together the real and false certificates in the form of a book, which would be an artist's book if I were an artist. Since I'm not, I didn't know what to do with it until I contacted Merkske and they decided to publish it. We present it as a limited edition for a low price that is incremented as more copies are sold in order to (playfully) follow the rules of the art market.

In an article you wrote for artnodes, you mention Olia Lialina's exhibition Miniatures from the Heroic Period, in which she offered for sale 5 works of net art, by Alexei Shulgin, Heath Bunting, JODI, Vuk Ćosić and herself. That happened in 1998. How much has changed since 1998? And why do you think now is a better time to sell art on the internet?

I'd say that one of the changes has taken place in Olia Lialina herself: if you read, for instance, her texts from 1998 (cheap.art), 2007 (Flat against the wall) and 2013 (Opening speech at Offline Art: new2 at XPO gallery), you will see an evolution on her point of view about the delicate question "does it make sense and is it possible to show net art in an art gallery?" As she admits, her answer has changed "from a definite No to Maybe, to Yes, but and finally, to Yes." I don't criticize her change of mind, in fact I welcome it as the result of observing this situation for more than a decade. I agree with her in the fact that the web is now a mass medium. The naïeveté that impregnated our perception of this medium is long gone, and therefore it may be argued that a gallery environment is valid for a networked piece since it is placed in a space that invites a more focused observation and finally does not extract the piece from its original context, since the Internet is everywhere now.

Lialina's remarks are part of a wider context in which many artists have developed innovative ways of selling art online, or making a net art piece salable in the context of a gallery. For instance, Carlo Zanni has been researching on this subject for more than a decade and has created artworks such as Altarboy (a net art piece sold as a server-sculpture in 2003) or My Country is a Living Room (an online generative poem made in 2011 which can be seen on pay-per-view). Mark Napier created The Waiting Room in 2002, an online piece that was sold at bitforms gallery and requires collectors to share the same online space. Rafaël Rozendaal is known for selling his websites under his own Art Website Sales Contract, which he also shares with other artists. And lately Aram Bartholl is developing interesting ways of taking online art to the gallery as in the group show OFFLINE ART: new2, which he curated in 2013 at the XPO gallery in Paris. These are just some examples, but they illustrate the fact that many people have been thinking about selling net art since the late 1990s.

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Carlo Zanni, altarboy, 2003

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Aram Bartholl, OFFLINE ART: new2, 2013

In a parallel direction, many other people have been working on selling "traditional" art (paintings, sculptures, drawings and so on) online. Probably the most notable example is Saatchi Online (now Saatchi Art), an online platform where artists can set up a profile and sell their work. It was launched in 2006 and quickly attracted around 70,000 artists who sold their work without paying commissions to Saatchi. It was estimated that the sales amounted to around $130,000,000 in 2007. In 2010, the website was redesigned and now took a 30% commission on each sale. Around a year later, several new platforms where created, such as VIP Art Fair (now Artspace), Artsy, Paddle 8 or Sedition. Maybe the news around Saatchi's website making so much profit spurred these other initiatives, or maybe as Olia Lialina says we've reached a moment in which most people in the art world understand the medium. In any case, it must be pointed out that most of these platforms are not particularly interested in selling new media art, they sell the same artworks that you may find in an art gallery or an art fair, but now they do it online.

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Rafael Rozendaal, Hybrid Moment

At the time of its launch, enthusiastic journalists repeatedly wrote that sedition was 'revolutionizing the art market'. But i've been wondering whether sedition truly offers something new to the art market - in general and on the internet- or whether it isn't just replicating 'traditional' models of selling artworks, except that everything takes place online. What is you opinion on this?

Sometimes, when I read news on the mainstream media about art and technology I have the impression that the journalist has been hibernating for the last ten years. Obviously, there are many journalists who are quite aware of what is going on, but at the same time it seems that everything was invented yesterday, everything has to be new and revolutionary, as if it were a newly released product from the computer industry. So it is not surprising that Sedition was described in that way. Certainly their model is interesting, but not that new, since other people had been working in this direction. I remember, for instance, Carlo Zanni telling me some years ago that it didn't make sense to sell a video in a very limited edition at a high price when you could sell it at a more popular price in an edition of several hundred (or thousand). But Sedition has turned these ideas into a working platform and it has done so with good funding and connections in the art world. Certainly, if Sedition hadn't launched selling "Damien Hirst for six quid" it wouldn't have attracted the attention of the media, and the model would not seem so revolutionary, since it is in fact quite unprecedented to "own a Damien Hirst" (with a signed certificate of authenticity) for that price. From the point of view of someone who is familiar with net art and new media art in general, it makes no sense to pay any amount for a JPEG of a painting by Damien Hirst. I guess this is true for many people who like Hirst, too. In my opinion, Sedition is interesting when it sells a work by Ryoji Ikeda, Rafaël Rozendaal or Casey Reas, which must be experienced on a screen or a projection anyway. Of course, it is not the original work, which usually results from a continuous calculation process or is interactive. What you get is a video, but for the price you pay it is obvious that you can't ask for more, so in a way it is similar to buying a lithograph.

Sedition replicates traditional models and it has to do so, because the art market is based on those models. It needs scarcity (limited editions), control over the artworks (a closed system for accessing the files) and certificates of authenticity. Otherwise, it wouldn't be taken seriously. The problem is therefore not so much with Sedition itself but with the contradiction between how the art market works and what it means to sell, buy and own digital files.

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When asked about piracy, the founders of sedition answered: "The videos cannot be streamed to someone who doesn't own them. As for the still works, they are digitally watermarked and have their owner's name on them." So what is the meaning of the certificate of authenticity and more generally of the notion of ownership in a digital context?

I have the impression that Sedition is learning by doing, which is the natural thing to do when you explore a new business model. Initially, the videos on the website didn't have watermarks, but they were added when they realized they could be copied. The previews of the certificates of authenticity have been changed after I did most of the screenshots, now they don't display the real signature of the artist nor the edition number. In any case, it is always possible to copy a digital file, and therefore the only way to prove one's ownership is the certificate of authenticity. Most artists and dealers selling art in a digital format will mention the certificate of authenticity when asked what happens if the collector or anyone else makes a copy of the files. When you access an art website by Rafaël Rozendaal, your browser is loading a copy of the file stored in the server, but the artwork belongs to the person mentioned in the source code. I'd say that ownership of a digital file is mainly about having unrestricted access to it (just as it happens when we buy an ebook or an music album in mp3 format) and some document or database record indicating that you've paid for it and therefore have the right to access the file, download it, copy it, and so on.

When I interviewed Rory Blain, director of Sedition, at the UNPAINTED art fair in Munich in January, I told him that ownership in Sedition seemed like a fiction to me. He admitted that owning a digital artifact is a "slightly bizarre idea", but more interestingly he pointed out that what gives collectors a greater reassurance was the possibility to sell their editions in the Trade section, which is Sedition's secondary market. In the Trade section you actually make money, because the edition you bought has necessarily risen its value: for instance, an artwork by Ryoji Ikeda that was sold for £5 now costs around £70. So it seems that ownership means being able to sell the digital artwork and make a profit.

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Mat Collishaw, Burning Flower Digital limited edition © Mat Collishaw

Obviously i'm happy that sedition offers new ways for young artists to earn a living. however, in every interview i've read about the platform, the founders and journalists insist on the fact that sedition offers a democratization of the art world and that people who would normally not be able to afford a Tracy Emin can finally do so. This reminded me of an interview in which Takashi Murakami explained that he was selling dolls and little objects of his most famous characters Kaikai and Kiki so that everyone can have pieces of the Murakami art experience. But ultimately, i've been wondering how different is a limited edition of a digital work on sedition different from the limited edition of a t-shirt or mug with a Hirst skull or other objects sold in museum shops. is this something you'd like to comment on?

The first article I wrote about Sedition was titled "art for the Long Tail", since what Sedition is doing is addressing the "Long Tail" (as Chris Anderson would put it) of art lovers who are eager to buy a Tracey Emin but can't afford it. Following Anderson, it seems that there is a lot of money to be made in selling products for smaller amounts to a large number of customers, particularly if no storage or shipping costs are involved. So it could be a profitable market niche, but then the art market is not like other markets. Digital works on Sedition are not so different from a limited edition of a T-shirt, and in fact the prices are quite similar. This can be a problem if you apply the traditional notion of the artwork as something unique and very limited, which cannot possibly be sold in a museum shop. Murakami states that he sells his merchandise because, to him, there is no difference between "high" and "low" art, that this separation does not exist in Japanese culture. If you apply this idea, then it is not a problem that a digital edition is something like a t-shirt or a mug, because it doesn't replace the original artwork, it just refers to it or derives from it. Then maybe what you must consider is how much of the "Murakami experience" you get, if it is worth your money or not.

Has sedition reacted in any way to your work?

The only reaction I know of is the following tweet: "Yes, we saw this. Clever appropriation art. Like to see how much will sell" (April 30th). It's interesting that they are concerned (or interested) about the sales of the book, while obviously this project is not about profit (100 copies at £2-3.5 each is not really money). Anyway, I don't expect them to "react": this project is not against Sedition but rather intends to sparkle a conversation about how will the art market adapt to the digital environment: will there really be a "revolution" or a "democratization"? Or will everything just stay the same, the same galleries selling the same art on a website?

Thanks Pau!

You can get the book at Merkske, a publisher of original artworks in book form as limited editions of 100, each numbered and signed by the artist. They have a very small but perfectly curated catalogue.

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Image Austin Houldsworth

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Image Austin Houldsworth

In 1948, behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner published Walden Two, a utopian novel set in an experimental community of about one thousand people who all live, eat and raise their family in common.

The functioning of the Walden Two community is guided by behaviorist principles, and its members are conditioned to be productive, creative and happy. If there is evidence that a new social practice (not saying "thank you", for example) will make people happier, it is implemented and its consequences are monitored.

There is no real governing body but members subscribe to the Walden Code of self-control techniques. Community counselors supervise behaviour and provide assistance to members who experience problems in following the Walden Code.

In Walden Two, people work for maximum four hours, they don't receive any salary but then nothing at Walden Two costs money*.

Austin Houldsworth imagined a monetary system within the cultural context of Walden Two. The payment system would challenge the established monetary function of 'a store of value', creating a new method of exchange that encourages people to actively destroy their money during a transaction. The process positively reinforces the behavior through the creation of music produced from the burning of money inside a transaction machine that doubles as a pipe organ.

Walden coins are made from potassium nitrate and sugar to produce smoke.


A Walden Note transaction

Austin was showing the Walden Note money project at the Work In Progress show of the design school of the Royal College of Art a couple of weeks ago. I knew about Skinner but had no idea he had written a utopian novel and was intrigued by the designer's intervention in the novel (destroy your money during the transaction?!?) So i had a little Q&A with him:

Hi Austin! Walden Note money is a monetary system designed within the cultural context of Walden Two, an utopian novel written by behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner. How did you apply the utopian novel to a monetary system?

Whilst reading the novel, I asked myself the question; how would money function within this society? What would it look like? My initial ideas were depressingly similar to monetary systems in use today, echoing the established system that I've used throughout my life. To overcome my natural tendency to design within the world I know, I decided to accept Skinners proposed utopia as a real place and accept that his behaviour modification techniques could create selfless individuals - and increase co-operation rather than competition.

Imagining a society made-up from selfless individuals means the traditional functions of money might start to change. For example; why would a long-term store of value be need if no one desires more than what is required? Who would create this money? Would security features be necessary if people were trustworthy, or could money be used as a way to measure the stability of the society?

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Image Austin Houldsworth

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Image Austin Houldsworth

What is a transaction like and why would people accept to destroy money?

During every transaction the seller is obliged to aid the buyer in the destruction of their money equal to the cost of the service or object he/she is purchasing. Through the destruction of money, musical notes are created which are linked to the coins denomination. For example a C is 1 Walden-note, a D is 2, an E is 3 and so on; these notes have two main functions. Firstly the pleasant sounds created help to positively reinforce this behaviour and secondly the burning money communicates the economic state of the society to the 'managers and planners'.

Regarding the creation of the money; every individual within Walden has the right to create money. The planners within the society give guidelines of an average workers pay, but the responsibility of how much was earnt lay with the worker.

The work is about the future, yet the prototype doesn't have the typical futuristic sleek aesthetics. In fact (and please don't get offended) it looks a bit rustic. Why this choice? Does it hint that people will be able to DIY their own?

I suppose the work has been created within a paleofuture, as Skinner wrote the novel in 1948. So I see this monetary system as simply one of a million alternatives rather than a single vision. Regarding the aesthetics; the people within Walden Two were encouraged to live a relatively simple rural life but also a life full of experimentation, encouraged to create new objects which may lead to a better society. So that's where the DIY look comes in; each person creates their own individual music creating money incinerator.


Now how does this wooden structure work exactly?

It works in a similar way to a pipe organ; but rather than air, smoke is used to produce the notes within the wooden pipes. Walden money is made from potassium nitrate and sugar coins; the money to be burned is sealed in the machine by the seller and then ignited via a fuse wire. As the mixture burns the smoke can only escape from the pipes and the Walden 'notes' are created.

This project is part of a 3-year research investigation into counter-fictional design. What is counter-fictional design?
Why do you think it is a good vehicle to investigate alternative monetary payment systems?

Counter-fictional design is a term I use to communicate the method that I'm developing within my research project. It borrows aspects from 'Counterfactual' history; which was originally used as a form of historiography in an attempt to determine the significance of historical events by proposing 'what if' scenarios. This method has recently been employed by designers to imagine how ideologies of different timelines, might alter the cultural constraints surrounding design.

Although counterfactual history offers the creative mind freedom, (which would otherwise be difficult to achieve), its' scope is still limited to historical events. Therefore I started to develop a method that moves beyond designing 'alternative histories', to designing within 'alternative worlds.' By using a design methodology I call Counter-fictional design; which uses past social science fiction novels as a framework to design radically different socially dependent technologies. This Counter-fictional methodology aims to both highlight the importance of the impact of fiction upon the real world, and also offer a new playground for designers to imagine radically different systems.

What is next in your exploration of alternative monetary payment systems?

Fortunately there are no shortage of social science fictions that are absent of monetary systems. The next alternative payment systems will be designed within the context of Aldous Huxleys' 'Brave New World.' During this research my aim is to create at least ten monetary payment systems within a broad array of utopian / dystopian novels.

Thanks Austin!

Previously: Crime Pays, Austin Houldsworth's exploration of an entirely cashless society.
*I stole bits of the summary from Sparknotes.

Last week i went to the London School of Economics for the LSE Sociology Forum: Bitcoin, alternative currencies reloaded, a panel dedicated to the decentralized, peer-to-peer currency Bitcoin. Historian Garrick Hileman, sociologist Nigel Dodd and financial activist Brett Scott were sitting around a table to reflect on the question:

Is Bitcoin the new gold? Shaking up online and offline worlds, the online currency Bitcoin has increased its 'value' at immense speed in the last year. Being immune from government interference and private manipulations, it has been celebrated as a new alternative currency by some and condemned as source of unpredictable risk by others.

If, like me, you're not sure you perfectly understand the functioning and meaning of Bitcoin, then head to Brett Scott's blog post How to explain Bitcoin to your grandmother .

Going to that conference was probably the best move i made that week. It was engaging, smart and eye-opening. And thanks to the presentations, i think i might even sound slightly less clueless next time The Boyfriend tells me about his Bitcoin adventures.

Interestingly, the room was packed and when one of the speakers asked who among us owned bitcoins, no one raised their hand. I wondered how (if?) different the discussion would have been like if users of Bitcoin had been in the audience.

Garrick Hileman was the first to take the stage. Hileman is an economic historian at the London School of Economics and he talked succinctly and articulately about the history of alternative currencies and why all of them have failed so far.

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First slide of Garrick Hileman's presentation (Note to self: I should really get a new camera)

Why are we so interested in Bitcoin? An obvious reason is that the Bitcoin price index has gone up 56 times in 2013. Another reason is the mystery of Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym of the person or persons who published the paper Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System in 2008.

With previous digital currencies, there is a risk of double spend, unless you get the help of the bank. Bitcoin makes it more difficult to replicate your currency and double spend it (all transactions are displayed in a public list. The validity of each new transaction is checked by confirming from the list that the digital currency was not used before.) It is a solution without a third party as it bypasses the banks.

Alternative currencies have a long history. They appear at some point (usually during periods when there is a high level of debt), survive for a short period and then they go away. Hileman identified three ways these currencies die: they die by regulation, by technology or by lack of adoption.

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Freigeld: One Schilling note with demurrage stamps from Wörgl

An example of death by regulation is Freigeld. Freigeld was started by an Austrian town called Wörgl during the Great Depression to kickstart the economy. You basically paid for owning or holding currency which stimulated spending. The experiment was successful but the Austrian National Bank decided to terminate it for some unknown reason on the 1st of September 1933.

The example of death by technology are the merchant tokens used in London and other British towns because of the failure of parliament to provide sufficient small denomination coinage. Merchants were desperate to get more small change for transactions so they started issuing their own. Merchant tokens were long lived: they were widely used in 17th through 19th century
They finally disappeared with the advent of fiat money.

The third type of death is caused by the lack of adoption (or demand). The example is the UK-based barter system LETS. Started in late 1980s-early 90s following UK leaving European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), the LETS still exist but are in steady decline: 350 in 1995, 303 in 2001, 186 in 2005.
Now fully virtual but previously physical currency.

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People queuing to use the world's first real Bitcoin ATM in Vancouver, Canada on October 29, 2013

Now Bitcoin faces many challenges:

Regulatory uncertainty leading to:
- avoidance by traditional financial institutions
- slow adoption of Bitcoin by consumers/merchants. Also Bitcoin has bad PR (stories of buying drugs on Silk Road, etc.)
Switching costs, real and perceived
Convenience trumps anonymity for most consumers.
Bitcoin technical infrastructure (i.e. cost, latency, it takes 10 minutes to update every transaction.)
Hoarding: desirability of Bitcoin as store of value works against use as a medium of exchange. The increasingly high value of bitcoin makes it less likely that you will spend it to buy pizzas.

But it also has many strengths:

Merchants and consumers both benefit from a change to the status quo. Makes for powerful allies.
The financial system is expensive and inefficient. The fees are high and money transfers are slow and cumbersome.
It may prove difficult for regulators to ban Bitcoin.
Bitcoin innovations go beyond currency's role as a medium of exchange/store of value
Silicon Valley investment and track record in changing behavior and driving technology adoption on a large scale (think of Twitter.)

Check out this video of another of Hileman's presentations
Bitcoin 2013 conference - Garrick Hileman - History and Prospects for Alternative Currencies where he explain all the above with more details and draws interesting parallels between Bitcoin and the Brixton pounds.

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The next speaker was financial activist Brett Scott. He is the author of The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance. Hacking the Future of Money (available on amazon USA and UK) and he's been exploring alternative financial communities, a section of which is alternative currency for a number of years now. You can buy his book with a number of alternative currencies. He's sold 30 copies with bitcoins so far.

Scott reiterated that the figure of Satoshi Nakamoto is indeed important as its mythical character creates an emotional bond with the currency. Which is probably the reason behind the existence of the dogecoin.

The problem of Bitcoin is that the public doesn't understand it. Experts explain it in reference to itself, instead of in relation and contrast to 'ordinary' currencies.

Another important point Scott brought about is that Bitcoin is not as apolitical, neutral and liberal as it is claimed to be. Society is neither apolitical nor neutral so how could Bitcoin be that paragon of liberality? He illustrated the comment with his experience of the Bitcoin Expo where there was a massive gender imbalance. The conference was 90 to 95% male. His talk at the conference was therefore about Bitcoin and gender.

The topic of gender-imbalance reappeared later in the Q&A. Is there something inherently male about Bitcoin that attracts males? Or is there something about Bitcoin that repels women? You can read more about the topic in Scott's blog post Crypto-patriarchy: the problem of Bitcoin's male domination.

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Bitcoins are accepted in stadscafé De Waag in Delft as of 2013. Photo by Targaryen

The last speaker was Nigel Dodd, an Associate Professor in Sociology at LSE. His new book, The Social Life of Money, will be published by Princeton University Press this year. The main purpose of the book is to reformulate the sociological theory of money in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, focusing on the question of how money can be wrested from the domination of banks and the mismanagement of states and restored to its fundamental position as the 'claim upon society' that Simmel once described in The Philosophy of Money.

Dodd started by stating that he is favour of monetary liberalism and that consequently he is in principle pro-Bitcoin. Except that he thinks that something is weird behind the philosophy of Bitcoin. Bitcoin is sexy but it is also misleading. He added (in reference to one of Garrick Hileman's last points) that if Silicon Valley is involved, it gets even sniffier.

From here my notes are getting a bit messier as this guy thinks and talk brilliantly but also very fast.

We need to see Bitcoin in the context of other monetary systems. There are 72 to 73 other digital currencies so there is a lot going on besides Bitcoin.

The monetary theory is another problem. For all its radical aura, Bitcoin rests on a backward monetary theory. It actually has a lot in common with the politics of austerity that regard money as a 'thing', a commodity. That's something that Bitcoin celebrates too, whether or not it realizes it. There is a limit in the number of Bitcoin that can be generated. Just like there is a limit with gold. Also it's mathematically possible for Bitcoin to be controlled by one computer and because of that it is similar to money.

So what makes Bitcoin different? Usually institutions protect money as if it were a commodity. Bitcoin does the same except that it does away with the intermediary. What makes Bitcoin attractive is that it's managed by a bunch of machines. However, that there are always humans behind the machines.

Money as a claim upon society/social life. All currencies interpret this claim in their own way, whether we're talking about time, gift giving, trust, etc. The claim of Bitcoin is technology of mistrust, you don't need trust with Bitcoin: machine do all the job. But again, there isn't a machine that operate without humans.

According to Dodd, every currency fulfills a different social need but which one Bitcoin fulfills is still unclear.

For Dodd, money is a process, not a 'thing' and Bitcoin is the only currency that doesn't acknowledges money as a process. It's the least sociological form of money we have.

An interesting question that emerged during the Q&A was the possibility to make Bitcoin taxable. Dodd explained that for most regulators, the number one financial obligation is tax. If Bitcoin starts to threaten that, it won't simply evade tax but it might also stop the whole machinery of tax.

The Financial Times crowd has long been skeptical of Bitcoin, mostly because the currency is not regulated. Bloomberg even published an article titled Virtual Bitcoin Mining Is a Real-World Environmental Disaster (a theory which is obviously questionable.)

With tax, Bitcoin would receive a certain legitimacy. Business would find that very seducing. Each regulation could actually help Bitcoin. For Hileman, Bitcoin is actually the best challenge we have to the current financial system.

Photo on the homepage by Rick Bowmer.

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