The power of texting

By JEFF INGLIS  |  March 2, 2012

FEATURE_EndOfMoney_StealthOfNationsBOOK3D
KEY TO THIS COMMERCE SUCCEEDING IS THE ISSUE OF TRUST. THERE'S GOT TO BE TRUST IN THE VALUE OF WHATEVER IT IS THAT'S BEING EXCHANGED — A CERTAIN NUMBER OF KILOWATTS OR A CERTAIN NUMBER OF OUNCES OF GOLD. WHAT YOU'RE SAYING IS THAT THE GOVERNMENT IS PROVIDING A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF LEGITIMACY OR BASELINE TRUST. HOW DO WE CREATE SOMETHING THAT IS TRUSTED SO THAT YOU CAN EXCHANGE IT, WHATEVER THE UNITS ARE, FOR AN UMBRELLA IN THE STREETS OF BRAZIL?

DW Number one is to acknowledge the incredible success of national currencies, just because they have achieved that universal acceptability that you're talking about. That universal fungibility — you can apply those funds to almost any use. For all of those operatives in the underworld economy or System D — I love that by the way — it's pretty interesting that, in a way, governments have let them down so much, but not necessarily when it comes to providing them with a means of transaction or a medium of exchange. This is where, Robert, you should chime in and hit this one out of the park. That enormous community is full of innovators. They are going to be the ones who see value in other types of currency and can start to apply them. We've seen this totally organically happen with trading airtime minutes as a currency. That is an alternative currency now that people in the developing world are using to transact and buy things — not just talking time for their phones — because they're so widely accepted, because they're all over the place, because they're easy to work with, and because they're a lot safer than cash. I see that as a single example of what I suspect could be a lot of different alternative currencies sprouting up in the developing world. But, again, Robert, correct me if I'm wrong —

RN Well, first of all, just on the example you bring up, although I used cash to buy it, I transacted a low-level bribe in mobile-phone airtime when I went to the Alaba market in Lagos, Nigeria. The merchant that I spoke with basically said, "Why should I help you? And before I help you, buy me airtime." So, I gave him airtime — it was a tiny increment of airtime in relative terms, but that was what greased the wheels to get me to the leadership of the Alaba International Market. He didn't want the cash. I could have given him the cash, but he wanted the airtime.

DW Oh my God, this is like music to my ears. This is music to my ears, I love it.

RN I do think that there's a lot of potential for airtime. I do think the issue of trust is a difficult one, but I could certainly see the trust that has been generated in certain informal markets being leveraged up to run their own kind of alternative currency. Cru Da Vinci Cinco de Marzo in Brazil, or Alaba International in Lagos, could leverage the trust that people have of their merchants to create their own currency, and basically run their markets either in cash or in their own currency. That would be a way of furthering the market, and jacking up the amount of trade that they could do. It would also mean that if you buy Alaba currency or Alaba units or whatever they would be, you would have to continue shopping in Alaba if you have any left over, so you couldn't go to some other market, which would lock people in, which I think the merchants would really like.

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