This performance concluded a year-long process in which Cauty and Drummond debated how to best rid themselves of the money they had earned through music royalties from their earlier work as the electronica band The KLF: they toured the money around the USSR, gave some of it away and finally attempted to nail it to a board for a planned art exhibition called Money: A Major Body of Cash. Although no gallery agreed to stage the project, The K Foundation produced a preview catalogue that articulated its interest in the subject, asking questions like “How beautiful is money?” and speculating about the raw emotions inspired by its sight, sound and smell. At the same time, the Foundation acknowledged that it was dealing with a soon-to-be anachronism. As they later told Reid, “Money goes instantly around the world, we wanted to take it by hand, we were celebrating the end of cash.” It was a prescient farewell. Today, some 25 years on, more than 90 per cent of the world’s money exists only in electronic form.
This shift towards non-materialised money has been momentous and throws up a host of questions, a number of them design-related. The physical form of coins and notes is responsible for many of our common conceptions around money: that it is finite, non-replicable, verifiable, exchangeable and durable. These beliefs have become ingrained over 5,000 years of economic history, making money one of the main organising principles of human society. But as money grows less physical in a world governed by digital technologies, its behaviour no longer accords with our assumptions. The K Foundation’s burning of 20,000 £50 notes may have been shocking, but it was also easily achievable – at least in a physical sense. By contrast, eradicating £1m from a digital account – destroying it completely, with no trace and no recipient – is nearly impossible. Although non-physical money is easier to track than cash, it nonetheless requires a form of mediation or interaction to be accessed and spent, and these interactions are as much a question of design as of finance. As physical and virtual forms of currency continue to coexist, their designs influence one another, giving rise to increasingly hybrid manifestations.
Almost all currencies in circulation today are fiat money: that is, currencies established by national governments. Before the 20th century, however, money took different forms. Commodity money, such as the barley used in Babylonia 4,000 years ago, had its own value as an object or material. Representative money, meanwhile, was a record of ownership for commodities held in store elsewhere, like a tally stick or gold certificate. Fiat money, by contrast, is only as valuable as governments and markets say it is. This value may be consciously manipulated through processes such as quantitative easing or changes in interest rates, while political events or governmental instability can also have unintended impacts on its worth. In either case, the form of money stays the same, even as its equivalent power to buy another product rises or falls. Despite this, coins and banknotes are designed to simulate intrinsic value in visual and material ways. Coins, for instance, imitate the shininess of precious metals, although they tend to be redesigned once their material value oversteps their nominal value. The British penny was minted from copper until 1970 and bronze until 1991, but since then it has been made from copper-plated steel to reduce the use of more valuable metals (at various points in the 2000s, the copper penny was worth more than 1p). Meanwhile, banknotes tend to increase in size to imply a corresponding increase in value: the €10 banknote is 7mm wider and 5mm taller than the €5 banknote, and each subsequent denomination grows by similar increments. Banknotes also have a texture and strength unlike other papers we encounter in our daily lives. They are produced from unique textile fibres or polymers and printed with opalescent holograms, signatures, official symbols and numerical codes. A considerable amount of money is actually counterfeit – at least 3 per cent of all pound coins, for instance – but despite this our trust in the signs of authentic value projected by physical currency is not shaken.
In his 2016 London Review of Books essay ‘When Bitcoin Grows Up’, the journalist and author John Lanchester ably summarised the form that most money now takes. “What it is instead [of cash] is entries on a ledger,” he wrote. “It’s numbers on your bank balance, the electronic records of debits and credits that are created every time we spend money.” Debit cards, credit cards, smart cards and online banking have become vital points of access to the flow of 24-hour digital transactions that govern the global economy, but the new financial reality seems to have affected cash too, with a growing tendency for even the physical appearance of currencies to adopt a more virtual logic. While the detailed texture of banknotes once referred to the heavy paper of official documents and certificates, some currencies – such as the Romanian leu and the new British £5 note – now incorporate transparent windows reminiscent of digital screens. Other currencies allude to the digital more obliquely. The latest Norwegian kroner notes, to be released in 2017, feature traditional national symbols, insignia and signatures on their fronts, but the backs have been designed by the architecture studio Snøhetta and dispense with any figurative imagery in place of colourful, pixellated fields. “We wanted to play with the thought that maybe this would be the last banknote to be designed because of the coming of the digital age,” said Martin Gran, the managing director of Snøhetta’s brand design division in a 2014 interview with Disegno. Physical money, it would seem, is adopting the visual language of the format which is likely to one day replace it.
Less immediately graspable than this form of aesthetic homage, however, is the intersection between graphic design and the complex security features embedded in banknotes. With the increasing ubiquity of image-editing software and reproduction machines, sophisticated graphic elements have had to be introduced into banknote design in order to prevent their reproduction by counterfeiters. Such work is overseen by the Central Bank Counterfeit Deterrence Group (CBCDG), an association of 32 central banks and note-printing authorities that supports and deploys secret technologies to prevent the digital reproduction of currency. In 2002, Markus Kuhn, a computer scientist at the University of Cambridge, discovered that the CBCDG was using a counterfeiting-prevention method that he called the “EURion constellation”, a specific arrangement of five coloured circles (now printed on almost all major currencies) that are automatically picked up by photocopiers. Once the constellation has been detected, the photocopier will not function. Two years later, Kuhn’s student Steven Murdoch investigated other detection methods, discovering a digital watermark that had been developed by the technology company Digimarc and embedded in banknotes. This watermark can be identified by image-editing software such as Photoshop, which is programmed not to open any file containing it. Such technologies show that one of the key design territories in physical currencies is actually invisible to the naked eye. Central to the functioning of both Kuhn’s constellation and Murdoch’s watermark is that they are so completely integrated into the design of the banknote as to only be reliably readable by machines. It’s a development that brings to mind the “New Aesthetic”, a phrase coined by designer James Bridle in 2011 to refer to the overlaps between the digital and physical realms. “For so long we’ve stared up at space in wonder,” wrote Bridle, “but with cheap satellite imagery and cameras on kites and RC helicopters, we’re looking at the ground with new eyes, to see structures and infrastructures.” Bridle was not writing about finance, but the general tendency that he observed also applies to the way in which we materialise money. In the spirit of the New Aesthetic, we are beginning to adopt and adapt the design of banknotes and coins to machine vision. This process is giving rise to curious artefacts: throwback skeuomorphs and mystifying icons of a virtual syntax that have no relationship to traditional insignia.
While physical money is mimicking the digital, electronic currencies are conversely developing new physical incarnations. In the last half-century, electronic payment has undergone a dramatic transformation in terms of appearance, technology and associated behaviour. As bank-card design changed from the magnetic stripe to the integrated circuit of the microchip in the 1990s, then to the radio-frequency ID tag and antenna of the contactless smart card, the etiquette surrounding the act of payment also evolved. The eye contact and visual assessment necessitated by the act of signing a receipt gave way – first to the politely averted gaze of the cashier as a customer keyed in a PIN code and then to the minimal acknowledgment of the contactless card touch. As payment, like almost every interaction in contemporary life, moves from surrogate objects like the card to mobile phones – through device-specific interfaces (such as Apple Pay, Android Pay and Samsung Pay) or cross-platform services (like PayPal) – the act of payment seems both more public and less perceptible. This paradox has implications for the gestures and performance of transactions. In his research, the designer and ethnographer Nicolas Nova notes the changes in the banal choreography of daily life associated with a rise in digital interfaces and thresholds. His book Curious Rituals (2012) documents the development of moves like the “hip-bump” and the “bag swipe” based on the affordances of contactless cards, which don’t have to be taken out to register on a scanner: “They simple [sic] swing their wallet or handbag over the scanner, without bothering to take their cards out. Besides, who has the time? Commuters who do the wallet- or-handbag-swipe don’t even break their pace, they just learn to swipe in full stride.”
Behind this general dematerialisation of money is the rise of fintechs, or financial technology startups. Companies such as Braintree or Adyen process payments in almost any currency from any location, while others, such as Tramonex or Ripple, expedite transfers between financial institutions in different countries in pursuit of a global network of completely liquid and frictionless electronic assets – financial transactions that operate as seamlessly as data transfers, something that Ripple refers to as an “internet of value”. Speaking at the Bank Innovation 2015 conference, Ripple’s CEO Chris Larsen imagined a situation in which a person wishes to overtake a slow-moving car on a highway: “In the internet of value, you immediately pass him 1/100th of a penny to change lanes.”
Larsen’s comment is telling. As the logic of the information economy begins to shape the financial transactions of the average consumer and personal data is increasingly commodified, immateriality no longer means invisibility – the most salient trend in consumer-orientated fintech startups is the ever-closer intertwining of electronic money with other digital networks and activities. These companies are turning money into another building block in the personal digital profile generated through social media, including posts, likes, friends, follows, gameplay and advertisement views. Venmo, for instance, is a mobile payment service owned by Paypal that offers quick mobile payments between users, but which augments this digital wallet with a social network that reports every transaction to the users’ friends. As such, Venmo demands a new etiquette of usage that wraps the representation and exchange of money into a culture of oversharing, memes and emojis through an experimental form of conspicuous consumption. If a central concern around capitalism since Marx has been commodity fetishism – the tendency to understand social relationships in terms of financial value and the transaction of it – then Venmo seems to offer a hyper-efficient platform for commodifying social exchange.
Statistics, however, suggest that the end-game of Venmo and its ilk may be some way off. In spite of the rapid dematerialisation of money, more than half of the world’s financial exchanges are still made using cash: of the $34tn small- and medium-business transactions made in 2015, $19tn-worth were carried out with cash or cheques. “Cash refuses to die, because it has some advantages that the digital world is not yet able to provide,” says Gadi Amit, the president of the San Francisco studio NewDealDesign. “Whether we like to admit it or not, almost everyone has some area of economic activity that they do not want tracked and analysed. Yet many digital companies don’t recognise that as a need. So there’s an opportunity to bridge the gap between high-speed, super-efficient electronic currencies that are completely registered and documented, and the more physical, more human, looser reality of small and medium business activity.” In September 2016, NewDealDesign revealed Scrip, a “universal cash device” designed to exchange electronic money in a more tactile way by separating it from a mobile phone and giving it a different physical envelope and interface. Scrip takes the form of a flat, pill-shaped copper medallion that is covered with a pattern of raised diamonds. As the user’s thumb swipes over the surface, mimicking the action of counting banknotes, these diamonds are pressed down. The device, which remains at the concept stage, keeps no record of spending and aims to replicate the less traceable quality of notes and coins: “Even though the authorities like to claim that the anonymity of cash is a negative, for just about everyone, it is a useful tool.” Amit positions Scrip as part of the challenge to reduce the centrality of the mobile phone and reverse the dematerialisation triggered by cloud-based technology, arguing that both issues can be attributed to the way Silicon Valley offers “monolithic, all-encompassing, one-time solutions” rather than more flexible hybrids. “In future, we will have multiple personalised pieces of electronics around us that will either interact with, augment or replace the phone entirely,” he says. “These objects will provide us with more visceral and emotional experiences beyond utilitarian benefits or technical efficiency.” Scrip could be considered skeumorphic in its translation of physical banknotes into an electronic artefact, but it also pairs our desire for the ease of frictionless transactions with a deep-seated anxiety over where the dematerialisation of financial transactions might leave us.
While the effects of this dematerialisation on individual consumers are still unknown, they have already been absorbed into the financial activities of multinational companies and the super rich. The liquidity of electronic money – its ability to be transferred and converted between different currencies instantaneously – allows wealth to be distributed in a particular geography of private and business accounts in order to minimise taxes. It is a situation that was brought to light earlier this year with the leak of the Panama Papers, a series of 11.5m documents detailing the transfer of global wealth around offshore tax havens through the corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca. The scale of such transfers is difficult to pin down – although in May 2015, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that governments lose up to $240bn (10 per cent) in global income tax revenues due to profit shifting by multinational companies – but the reasons behind them are more obvious. John Doe, the anonymous whistleblower who leaked the Panama Papers to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, subsequently issued a manifesto to the publication in which he argued that “democracy’s checks and balances have all failed, that the breakdown is systemic, and that severe instability could be just around the corner”. While Doe cited “massive, pervasive corruption” as the root of the transactions detailed in the papers, another dimension of the problem is arguably the format of money itself. The “financial secrecy” that Doe decried is far easier in an age where the commodity to be hidden is already dematerialised.
The artist Femke Herregraven has devoted much of her career to the examination of global finance and its impact on geopolitics. Geographies of Avoidance (2011) was a book that mapped the multiple companies registered to each address in Amsterdam’s Zuidas financial district, while the video game Taxodus (2013) invites players to devise tax-avoidance strategies in the face of real-world data detailing international capital and tax treaties. Common to both projects is the manner in which the immateriality of electronic money makes it almost invisible from the perspective of national governments. Unlike, however, the “invisible hand” portrayed by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776) as the unintended benefit to national economies by industrialists acting in their own interests (and thus “preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry”), today’s multinational companies have no unconscious loyalties in terms of where they invest their money. Google, Apple, Ikea, Amazon, Walmart, Starbucks and thousands of other corporations move profits between countries to take advantage of specific tax agreements or loopholes, building complex financial structures with names like the Dutch Sandwich, Double Irish or Bermuda Black Hole. While Herregraven’s work critiques the invisibility of money, she does not attempt to address its negative consequences by making a direct physical manifestation of money like a fiat currency. Instead, she argues that the movements of money must be visualised through diagrams and metaphors, rather than concrete quantities. “Finance mainly exists in a realm that humans cannot access,” says Herregraven. “My work is about capturing something extremely volatile into stillness, an extreme slowed-down detail of ephemeral financial events.”
Herregraven has also developed new forms and images for the fluctuations of today’s money that trade precise quantification for more open-ended interpretation. Rogue Waves (2015) is a series of 2m aluminium bars cut with a water jet to graph high-frequency trading algorithms designed for “quote stuffing, spoofing gold prices and stock manipulation”, but whose forms reference the physical currency of tally sticks used in medieval Europe. Meanwhile, Subsecond Flocks (2016) portrays the momentary monetary collapses caused by unexpected interactions “between human panic and automated mathematical rituals”, in a closed system combining acrylic plates, hole-punched aluminium sheets, printed strips and black swan feathers. These materialisations of the logic of contemporary finance – and its production and manipulation of a decidedly alien form of money – have an ethical dimension, but Herregraven warns of the “false sense of control” generated by the strategies of visualisation. “For me, the urgency for creating material and tactile works derives from a contradiction: an immense material world is necessary to create the illusion of an immaterial digital financial world. Although the interface that we interact with as humans is made with models, data and visualisations, eventually it derives from terrains, objects, materials, bodies and matter.”
In the original exchange of cash, the hierarchy and shift of power was limited to the participants in the trade. With card payments, the banks themselves assumed a degree of agency in the transaction: by mediating the transfer, they could accrue authority and power. However, in entirely mobile methods of payment – especially with alternative platforms such as PayPal rather than traditional banks – the distribution of power is more di use. This could be used to the advantage of individuals and corporations aiming to evade regulation by governments, or it could be used by online platforms to gather information about the participants of the transaction as a form of value production. As this information becomes more useful for the algorithmic optimisation of the tools organising daily life, the process of payment may acquire greater nuances, but also more functions and meanings beyond the specific good or service being purchased. Will we begin to look at money not as a finite resource but as a more complex and more open-ended medium of interaction? One day, burning may no longer be the most radical thing to do with £1m.