Reviewing business books can be difficult because there are only so many ways to parse a case study and one can get quite sick of hearing about all the reasons Starbucks or UPS or Unilever have been able to “resiliently succeed” (ahem, on the broken backs of their workers). There is a whole subset of business books geared toward explaining how money works—literally, how it circulates within an economy to create opportunities and ascribe value.
Even though there’s a self-help vibe to many of these entrepreneurial coaching books, they’re often not of practical use to laypeople and contain skies with so much pie that treating them as aspirational seems like too big a stretch. Despite my general skepticism and boredom with all types of business and money books, I’m strongly compelled to recommend Rachel O’Dwyer’s Tokens: The Future of Money Is the Age of the Platform. There’s much food for thought in there, often of the kinds that impact our daily lives.
It’s a difficult prospect to summarize, which is the first thing I loved about reading it. O’Dwyer is a Dubliner who lectures on visual culture and digital practices. This is not a typical qualification for the author of a money book. But Tokens is not about money—it’s about all those things that are moneyish. If you’ve ever bought something on Amazon with a heap of Amazon Reward Points, you’re already operating in the grey area of what is and isn’t money. And yet, if I told you, let’s imagine that Amazon is a bank, you might think I’ve lost my mind because Amazon sells tangible objects and isn’t a bank.
Did you know that Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workers almost everywhere on Earth are paid exclusively in Amazon Reward Points? People can support themselves entirely by producing and consuming within the system created by Amazon without ever touching their nation’s official currency. Amazon is not regulated like a bank, though it operates just like one: easy to put currency in, hard to get currency out.
Tokens begins by highlighting the possible similarities and differences between money and tokens, then continues to expand the case studies related to tokens. O’Dwyer is an engaging, amusing writer who does not stack her case studies in a way that builds toward an inevitable conclusion. One chapter might be a deep dive into the Bits used for (shhh, it’s not a–) payment on Twitch, while another might offer a dozen examples in the space of two sentences, as in this gem:
In a step up from the ‘vending machine sells cokes’ or the ‘fridge buys milk’ scenario, programmable tokens could be tied to specific values – a car might be rented only when it is shown to be compliant with particular emissions tests; or, like conditional cash transfers today, a relief token might be deposited in a parent’s bank account following a child’s enrol[l]ment in school, or engagement with social or health services, or the uptake of a nutritional supplement. It might be geared towards particular environmental incentives, such as emissions testing or green energy transaction markets; tied to gender, as with the electronic money in Gilead; or tied to your reputation, as with tokens explored on the Cypherpunk mailing list back in the 1990s; or tied to our digital identity, as in countless examples of non-transferrable scrip now issued by employers, welfare departments, and relief agencies worldwide.
Choose your own future dystopia. Did you catch that reference to Gilead? O’Dwyer spends a few pages reminding readers of the horror show of Margaret Atwood’s classic science fiction novel The Handmaid’s Tale, whose fictional world was made possible thanks to the digitization of currency. The government gave the banks a new algorithm—one that froze all the money belonging to women so that they were left unresourced against the onslaught of oppressions that came next.
It’s not only our future at issue but also our past and our present financial transactions besides. O’Dwyer has a good stock of examples dating back to when people used shells and sticks to keep track of their contracts and debts. She is well-versed in various kinds of welfare systems and ancient examples, which she will often place right next to an example about the bet against humanity that is Worldcoin or why Venmo had to end its live-updating public stream of transaction emojis (because haters kept invoicing Ben Affleck for his crappy films).
For better and for worse, we already live in the age of Bitcoin, gift cards, NFTs, customer data, and game tokens. The World Food Program, the Department of Defense, Alibaba, and whatever social media you’re most into are all getting in on this action in various ways. So what do we make of the fact that tokens are tracked and programmable, shady and social, hard coded and beyond borders? The two pages of Tokens that soothed me were the two pages profiling a person who regularly and ritually burns paper money: “With money burning, the initiative stems less from a desire to erase the promise inscribed on a banknote than from a desire to erase the contractual obligations of the money relation altogether, revealing what one burner describes as ‘our blind fixation on money as an object through the act of destruction’.” Note that money burning is illegal in the US and carries a penalty of up to ten years in prison—it’s treated as more serious than flag desecration, which is not a crime.
I also enjoyed the author’s speculation on what Andy Warhol would make of the blockchain, given how its authentication tools are used to establish provenances and exchanges of “priceless” works of art. O’Dwyer usefully interrogates the moments when an artwork may be more commodity than creativity, then delves into notions of “the original”, limited editions, knock-offs or derivatives, and the value of overvaluation (also known as bragging rights). This is the milieu of Token‘s eighth chapter, which as a stand-alone essay, would be an exceptionally good starting point to open a conversation in any upper-level art history or visual rhetoric course. The whole book is very clear, but this is perhaps the keenest and most shiny portion of it, as O’Dwyer has published quite a few articles that target the intersection of art and the blockchain and sounds a little extra at home in these examples.
Where else could Tokens end except in the metaverse, in the data-driven shithole of platform capitalism where everyone is surveilled within an inch of their increasingly commodified life by global monopolies and whatever most fascist nation-states are still clinging to the vestiges of leverage afforded by their obsolete forms of power? O’Dwyer points out that if tokens seem to be doing something relatively good for people, there is a mountain of evidence that the platform creators are not interested in altruism but are motivated only by old-fashioned monetary profit. My language is more judgmental than hers.
In Tokens, O’Dwyer offers a bleak and reportive tone that mostly lets the facts speak for themselves. She doesn’t venture into the territory of what we should do about all this. Not an ounce of temptation toward the prescriptive. There are definitely a dozen or so tech bros in my life that would gobble up all the examples in this book and leverage them to trigger some Very Big Billion-Dollar Idea—I’m just not sure I want to help give them any ideas.