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Digital Cash

Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Built Cryptocurrency

Finn Brunton
Princeton University Press
2019
266 pp.
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Things change so fast with digital money that by the time an academic monograph emerges on the subject, some of its ideas may have already lost currency. Rather than try and predict the future, Finn Brunton’s Digital Cash is a “history of the present,” presenting contemporary innovations in electronic money and cryptocurrency through an archaeology of digital cash—in particular, those put forward by the cypherpunk and Extropian communities.

It might seem that Bitcoin emerged fully fledged with Satoshi Nakamoto’s 2008 White Paper. But where do the key innovations—building chains of anonymous trust and the ability to control the reproduction and circulation of digital tokens—come from? Brunton traces the technical roots of the cryptocurrency to innovations such as blind signatures and asymmetric key cryptography, developments in Adam Back’s Hashcash and Hal Finney’s reusable proof of work (RPOW), and innovations described on the cypherpunk listserv, which brought together privacy and security activists beginning in the late 1980s. The latter include David Chaum’s Digi-Cash, Wei Dai’s b-money, and Nick Szabo’s bit gold, parts of which would later converge in Bitcoin.

Brunton also draws connections between digital cash and the Extropian community, a transhumanist movement that emerged in the early 1990s that believed wholeheartedly in both cryogenic freezing and Hayekian economics. He explores the ideological motivations driving these technical innovations, including privacy, libertarian anarchy, and imagined future utopias.

The book also delves deeper into the past, detailing the fascinating history of American money, from 19th-century “wildcat banking”—a system of state-chartered financial institutions backed by questionable security—through to the early-20th-century “scrip”—de facto currencies that took the form of railway bonds, crates of eggs, pounds of honey, cigars, sacks of potatoes, and personal IOUs.

In addition to a history of currency, Digital Cash is a book about time, because money is, as Brunton shows, a way of banking on the future. Often this money is a “time out of joint,” embodied in Technocratic energy certificates or Extropian “idea futures” that never come to pass. The book also explores money as a technology of memory, an object that carries traces of its history and circulation from sediment and bacteria through to effigies of forgotten sovereigns, chains of signatures, and, more recently, transactional data.

Beautifully written and meticulously researched, Digital Cash manages to connect these multiple pasts to key contemporary questions of digital value, ownership, and politics. All of which begs the question: What imaginary utopias, dystopias, and possible futures are we carrying in our wallets at this very moment?

About the author

The reviewer is at CONNECT, Trinity College Dublin, College Green, Dublin 2, Ireland.