Max Bruinsma: "Money of the Future – Values of the Past"

byMax Bruinsma

published on 16/6/2016

Leading up to the Money of the Future event at Hôtel Droog, D+D editor Max Bruinsma summarizes how old concepts acquire new significance.

We tend to forget that money is a relatively recent invention. There have been ages, in which people did not "pay" for things the way we do now. There has, however, been a need for exchange as long as there are people. Pre-history – remnants of human activities and artifacts that tell the story of life before written texts – and tales that are rooted in ancient times show that there were many means of exchange before we paid cash for things. And many that go well beyond the binary 'tit-for-tat' mode of modern currencies: sharing, giving, bartering, lending, leasing.

All of these terms have very ancient roots, but are highly topical again, now that the money-based economy tends to become even more illusory than any value system before it. The fictitious monetary value of the financial market vastly exceeds any calculation of 'actual' value in the world, whether measured in cash, in labor or in objects. The financial system, so its critics say, has severed the ties that tied it to the real world of people and physical resources. New currency systems are trying to restore these bonds.

The ancient concepts of exchange all incorporated physical entities (including humans) and trust. You could say that this connection between the physical and the ideal world is the root of creating value. I have food and I value it because it keeps me alive. My neighbor has less and he values it as much as I do, or even more, so I share it with him or give it to him, out of the goodness of my heart, or because he can help me grow more food, or because he sings better than me... When I do these things, I trust my neighbor will appreciate it, work for me or perform the way I hope he will.

This kind of trust-based exchange of physical and ideal value, which seemed to have all but vanished from our social intercourse, is making a global come-back. Recent alternative currencies incorporate a much broader array of values than the stock monetary ones. They connect trees to happiness, time to assistance, service to counter-service, physical objects and actions to ideal values. They integrate sharing, giving and bartering within new concepts of trading, paying and earning.

One of the tricky aspects remains trust. The new currencies demonstrate vastly different approaches to this moral value, from reinstating trust between people as central value of exchange to taking trust in humans out of the system altogether. They all, however, use the latest digital technology to do so. But also here, an age-old social mechanism is revitalized, that of social transparency. With this, the 'global village' actually acquires an essential feature of traditional small-scale societies: that all villagers know each other and co-establish the value of each other's contribution to the community at large. In the new 'village,' this is done through rating, commenting, suggesting alternatives and generally by knowing that your partner in the exchange – whether it is a person or an algorithm – is known and monitored by the network. Trust, one is reminded, needs to be constantly validated, if it is to remain a reliable value. Transparency of value and the ways in which it is exchanged and distributed, it appears, is an essential currency of trust, and it is globally gaining momentum again. 

With these developments, the new economy of the social city of the future is taking shape. In many respects, it resembles that of the village of old, in which money was merely an instrument among many to exchange commonly accepted values between inhabitants.

Graffiti, Melbourne, Australia. Source:, 2004 


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