The crunch point came when I stood outside a cafe in the bucolic Devonshire town of Totnes, pondering the questionable ethics of taking food away from a homeless person in the name of journalistic enterprise. I’d ducked into a covered alley to escape a sudden springtime downpour and the icy ankle-deep stream it sent coursing through the narrow streets, and there I chanced across the Happy Apple cafe. A sign in the window tallied the number of “suspended purchases” on offer: six coffees, two snacks and one meal had been paid for by the cafe’s previous visitors, and set aside for those who couldn’t afford them. I could have done with a hot meal to warm my cold bones. And I wasn’t about to let myself buy one.
For the previous week, I’d been trying to live without money. Or rather, to see if it was possible to live in a regular town in the UK without traditional forms of currency. I’d been inspired after visiting the Tomorrow’s Transactions Forum in March, an annual conference in London that discusses the future of money and how we use it. I was surprised to learn that we are not moving toward a unified currency, a kind of global credit that could be spent the world over. Instead, the experts are predicting a rise in so-called community currencies, semi-official forms of money that are exchanged within ad hoc groups.
There are hundreds of alternative currencies in the world, from the Microsoft Points traded by Xbox gamers, to the Co-op supermarket’s savings stamps. Virtual items in online games can have real value, and thefts of in-game items are occasionally settled in real-life courts. With the recent pinioning of Cypriot savings accounts and a spike in the value of electronic BitCoins, I wondered whether a citizen of a European country that has not entirely escaped the continent’s economic woes might do better to eschew official currencies. Could I live in a parallel world of credits, coupons and cryptocurrencies?
It’s an idea not without precedent. In 1932, the Austrian town of Worgl printed its own currency known as Freigeld, which was designed to continually decrease in value by 1% every month and thus discourage hoarding. The experiment was a tremendous success, and the town’s economic boon in the midst of the Great Depression became known as the “miracle of Worgl”.
In times of economic uncertainty, official currency loses its allure. “There have been occasions that the public fled national banks in favour of financial service providers,” says technology consultant Dave Birch, who runs the Tomorrow’s Transactions blog at Consult Hyperion. “Kenya has the most successful mobile payment system in the world, M-Pesa. In the unrest following the 2007 elections, many Kenyans took money out of banks and put it into the M-Pesa mobile [payment] system.” Birch explains that these people knew that M-Pesa’s parent company, Vodafone, is a multinational company, and therefore judged it a safer place to keep their savings than a Kenyan high-street bank.
There are a few good reasons to try and live outside of official currencies, but plenty of bad ones. Criminals, endlessly devising creative ways to exchange and store their ill-gotten gains make great contributions to parallel economies. Jewellery and art works are useful proxies for real money because they hold value and are easily transported – and better yet, can be passed off as fakes to inquisitive authorities. It would be a rare customs official who could discern a genuine Old Master from a half-decent copy.