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

By Finn Brunton, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019, 272 pages, $26.95 hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-691-179490)

Digital Cash cover

In October 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the House Financial Services Committee for a hearing on the company’s plan to launch a new digital currency called Libra. The hearing occasioned some of the most direct critiques of Facebook’s position as a global technological hegemon, its data-collection and targeted ads-based business model, and its aspirations to replace or disrupt the fundamental mechanisms of governments. That a hearing over the plans to launch a digital currency not yet designed quickly became a much broader debate over the role of digital technology in economic and political life was best summed by Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, a Republican from North Carolina, who told Zuckerberg, “Fair or not fair, you’re here today to answer for the digital age.”1 

For those who might think this a tall order for a discussion about currency design and monetary policy, Finn Brunton’s Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency will prove a useful guide in connecting the dots. Brunton follows his first book, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet (MIT Press, 2013), in which he used information’s Other as a mirror image of the internet, by focusing on a narrow set of problems and actors concerned with the making of digital transactions in order to explain the broader context in which we live, where digital data itself is considered a valuable resource and where almost all transactions, whether they occur in person or online, involve several layers of electronic authentication.

Digital Cash does not aim to provide a comprehensive history of electronic payment, but rather focuses on a varied cast of characters and a series of attempts to recreate the features of physical cash in a digital form: trivial to transact with, easy to verify, and impossible to forge. Brunton, therefore, does not begin with the “digital” but rather with an exploration of “cash,” or rather, paper money. In the first chapter, Brunton provides a close reading of the US one-dollar bill, concluding that, packed with overt and covert security features, serial information, and national symbols, the bill is “a philosophical treatise on the concept of sovereignty” (29). This section is illustrative of the book’s greatest strength—the ability to weave together the material sensibilities of media studies with the political economic concerns of the sociology of money and the cultural study of technology communities, all presented in a lucid and engaging writing style that manages to make highly technical or theoretical debates accessible to a general audience.

From there the book follows the story of digital cash into a web of academic researchers, cryptography hobbyists, and technology entrepreneurs, beginning as early as the 1970s with developments in public-key cryptography. It is an important book because of its insistence that the cryptocurrency revolution was far less sudden than has been captured in the popular press discourse. Placing Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies on such a historical trajectory, these innovations cannot so easily be dismissed as a solution in search of a problem or simply the latest tech bubble, but rather the most recent chapter in the entanglement between political economic dreams and cryptographic technologies, which actively shaped the digital age.

More initiated readers may wonder to what extent this history has been unknown, as the cast of characters still centers on mostly familiar figures such as Stanford cryptographers Martin Hellman and Whitfield Diffie, key members of the cypherpunks like Tim May, or DigiCash founder David Chaum. Brunton also directs readers to rich journalistic accounts like Steven Levy’s Crypto or the more theoretically dense exploration of digital signatures in Jean-François Blanchette’s Burdens of Proof.2  Yet, there is no doubt that the past decade’s proliferation of blockchain technologies does require recasting these stories in a new light, focusing on how the presumed features of physical cash and libertarian and anarchists visions of the electronic frontier animates crypto futures. Digital Cash achieves that with compelling storytelling, drawing new pieces into the story such as the surprising connection between the time-horizons of monetary design and cryonics—the freezing of human bodies to preserve them for an unspecified future of immortality—the subject of chapter 9.

The book brings fresh attention to the story of crypto anarchy and cyberutopia by focusing on digital cash but stops short of more critically engaging with the futures hoped for by its protagonists. After all, the design of money does not only concern solving certain knowledge problems or gaining users’ trust, but, as Brunton repeatedly notes, making money is an inherently political project, it concerns rearranging power. While the “book holds many visions,” we rarely get glimpses into whom might be excluded from such futures (200). If there is a story of failure in Digital Cash, it is often failure to either materialize the dream or live up to it, but it is rarely, in the book’s narrative, a failure of the imagination itself. The book thus starts us on a new and exciting set of questions: what insight can be gained from approaching the history of technological utopianism from the problem of designing the equivalent of cash? How will looking at money as a social, material, and epistemic object allow us to “answer for the digital age” and its discontents? One way might be to engage with the recent literature in capitalism studies that focuses on money as constitutive of political relations and interrogates notions of access and distributive justice.3  Another might be to interrogate how these visions of future monetary liberation also seek to redefine our expectations of what would constitute appropriate authentication, privacy, and trust in the crypto society to come.

 

Gili Vidan, Harvard University

1. Tony Romm, “Facebook’s Zuckerberg Takes Broad Lashing on Libra, 2020 Election and Civil Rights at Congressional Hearing,” Washington Post, accessed October 23, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/10/23/facebook-mark-zucke....
2. Steven Levy, Crypto: How the Code Rebels Beat the Government, Saving Privacy in the Digital Age (New York: Viking, 2001); Jean-François Blanchette, Burdens of Proof: Cryptographic Culture and Evidence Law in the Age of Electronic Documents (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2012).
3. Lisa J. Servon, The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017); Mehrsa Baradaran, The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017); Lana Swartz, New Money: Currency, Community, and the Future of Payment. (S.l.: Yale University Press, 2020); Christine Desan, Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism, First Edition (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2014).