continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 1.1 / 2011: 22-25

Money as Media: Gilson Schwartz on the Semiotics of Digital Currency

Renata Lemos-Morais

continent. 1.1 (2011): 22-25.

The Author gratefully acknowledges the financial support of CAPES (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento do Ensino Superior), Brazil.

From the multifarious subdivisions of semiotics, be they naturalistic or culturalistic, the realm of semiotics of value is a ?eld that is getting more and more attention these days. Our entire political and economic systems are based upon structures of symbolic representation that many times seem not only to embody monetary value but also to determine it.

The connection between monetary and linguistic exchanges is self-evident: the former requires the latter and develops in direct relation to it.

Creative experimentation and design of digital systems of value exchange are blossoming on the web. Dr. Gilson Schwartz, an economist turned media theorist and professor at the University of São Paulo, adopted the concept of Iconomics, originally created by Michael Kaplan, an author concerned with the linguistics of economic value. Empowering local communities and unlocking new levels of value creation and representation via digital technologies are the main goals of Dr. Schwartz’s projects, aiming at the re-designing of our relationship to the economic value of imagination and the social control of property. Schwartz is Assistant Professor at the School of Communication and Arts of the University of São Paulo, a former Chief Economist at BankBoston, Brazil and Advisor to the President of the National Social and Economic Development Bank (BNDES).


Kaplan, Michael. “Iconomics: The Rhetoric of Speculation.” Public Culture. 15.3 (2003): 477-493.

Renata Lemos-Morais: You have recently produced and directed a short documentary about Creative Currencies in Latin America. Could you tell us a bit about its process and its findings?

Gilson Schwartz: The “Creative Currencies” project is a work-in-progress platform which unfolds as an action research agenda connected both to the production of audiovisual content and the development of social currency software. The initiative dates back to 2003 when I led an experimental project supported by the Presidency of Brazil. At that time, we issued paper currency in a small, touristic village in the Northeast Region which stimulated local cultural projects. But it was only in 2009 that the Central Bank of Brazil acknowledged “social currencies” as a legitimate economic agenda, calling for more debate at the I Financial Inclusion Forum. This year, the monetary authorities organized a second forum that also opened the room to discussions on mobile payment systems and new perspectives on poverty alleviation via State subsidies. The Ministry of Culture funded the “Creative Currencies” project in 2009-2010 and our next stage in this discovery process is to be supported by the National Social and Economic Development Bank (BNDES). In short, there is genuine interest among public officials in different areas and public funding for social currencies is on the rise in Brazil.

However, after all these years we are still at a very early stage of research and practice. Some of the most successful initiatives (such as Banco Palmas) actually evolved out of local monetary creation to become correspondent banking operations for commercial banks and other financial groups. After eight years of price stability and social inclusion, Brazil stands out as a major opportunity for social experimentation, even the Grameen Bank is now entering the Brazilian market and many NGOs are geared towards different forms of entrepreneurialism in the base of the pyramid, riding solidarity economic models, microfinance and microcredit for local development. It is yet to be seen, however, whether these developments are just one more stage of “bankarization”, that is to say, an extension of regular banking services or actually a new form of social and symbolic self-determination at the local level. So far, the Central Bank of Brazil is open to new forms of credit and local finance as long as they are strictly territorial and very close to barter among the poor.

In other words, whether the process of monetary creation could be made to fit an open source paradigm is yet to be seen. Community banking and social currencies might as well end up as just another channel for access to and use of banking services. The “Creative Currencies” project aims at promoting the discussion of more fundamental issues, such as the limits of central banking, the prospects for local financial development and the possibility of creating and managing financial icons as cultural assets. The purpose of this project is to produce short documentaries that will bear testimony to this evolving regulatory framework while inducing more discussion about the fundamental iconomic issues concealed in the process of money and wealth creation.

RLM: What new potential is there in applying digital technologies to currency creation?

GS: Globalization is a result of the virtualization of money, that is, the overcoming of illusions such as the “gold standard”. Money is an icon created by institutions, not on supposedly natural or material foundations but out of political and financial interests. The “dollar standard” is an outstanding evidence of this phenomenon and Kaplan´s paper, the first to use the expression “iconomics”, insists on the rhetoric and semiotic effects associated to a supposedly scientific model of money creation and management. This is a fundamental change that was perceived and discussed much before the digitalization of the world by unorthodox economists such as John Maynard Keynes since the early 20th century. The digitalization of global financial flows accelerated this immateriality and the creation of the Euro was yet another evidence of the political foundations of currencies.

The banking establishment, however, is keen on the idea that scientific formulae hold the key to sound money creation. Keynesianism has been repeatedly associated to “inflationism” while the supposedly sound monetary policies of the Orthodoxy serve well the political and financial interests of a technocratic elite. Corporate media also serve this fictitious depiction of the monetary process despite the cyclical bust of monetary rules and financial regulations. The internet, however, has created numerous opportunities for the disintermediation in industries such as film, music and commodities. There is no reason to doubt that the financial industry can also be transformed by Peer-to-Peer (P2P) infrastructures. Money is media as well. Credit is but confidence. Once people realize that the distributed computing power of networks can also be the platform to weave new monetary and credit operations, there is room for grassroots emancipation out of the established owners of monetary institutions.

So far, however, there has been a privatization of monetary management and there is not a clear path or model for the emergent (P2P) property democratization that is inherent to the internet. Digital assets, however, clearly have an inherent potential to escape central control and proprietary regulatory frameworks.

RLM: How are social networks transforming the ways in which we exchange value? Do you believe that online influence and reputation might be translated into a new kind of currency?

GS: The foundation for social currencies as envisaged by solidarity economics is the territory. Authorities are willing to concede local monetary creation as long as it is restricted to poor neighborhoods, as a proxy to barter. In this relevant but limited context, reputation, personal knowledge and informal ties form the matrix of local or “proximity” finance which are expected to keep credit and leverage to a sustainable level. Anything beyond that should and would lead to an integration of local finance into the established banking system. However, inasmuch as the internet promotes virtual territories and reputation is now subject to all sorts of digital manipulation and stardom becomes an everyday cultural process among teenagers and elders alike, the territorial “foundation” is substituted for more complex patterns of solidarity, cooperation and exchange that reach beyond the physical territory and even the “human.”

Digital assets embody knowledge, technology, cultural and educational values that are exchanged at a global scale beyond the control of democratic States (Chinese-like intervention is the exception, not the rule). Hacktivism is unstoppable and so is monetary hacktivism. Especially in the Third World, mobile communications fast became conveyors of money transfers and other appropriation strategies. Banking and telecom sectors already battle for the control of these emerging markets and, as a matter of fact, have so far contributed to the containment of these processes. Governments serve these moguls and have usually adopted a wait-and-see attitude. If open source hardware and grassroots social movements combine to challenge these proprietary battles, then social networks may evolve into new forms of social capital and thus form the ground on which to design and implement social currencies.

The global financial crisis, as well as the dollar demise, are an event of such a proportion that social networks may open the path for emancipator subjects to seize the opportunity.

RLM: What are some of the social experiments that you think are revolutionizing the way in which value is exchanged?

GS: There is a broad evolution of economic systems towards the valuation of intangible assets such as knowledge, reputation and sustainability. There are many examples of local as well as global events that call the traditional systems of exchange into question, from carbon credits to educational bonuses, digital barter frameworks and locally based solidarity and fair trade networks. These emerging examples, no matter how different in nature or scale, represent a challenge to the traditional value creation schemes and theories which are based on use and exchange value, supply and demand.

This is not to say that utility and labour or scarcity are to be totally dismissed, but there is now an emerging perception that value is also a function of behavioral codes, symbolic patterns and the energy of institutional frameworks. The plasticity of digital platforms is relevant insofar as intellectual property becomes the central source of value creation. But when you discuss the property rights of public goods such as the environment or basic social rights (of minorities or localities), then a new paradigm seems to emerge.

RLM: Are gaming and online storytelling digital practices that might have an impact on the way new currencies are created and developed?

GS: “Play money” has been one of the early and most intriguing phenomena associated to the diffusion of virtual worlds. These virtual currencies have also been prone to “boom and bust” dynamics, speculation and pure theft (Second Life scams were common and led to “intervention” by the owners of the game). Storytelling is a major source of value, that is, the value of attention and the markets for audience. There are plenty of private monies created and managed by corporate entertainment groups, telecom operators (via mobile virtual network operators) and marketing frameworks.

The casino economy, as already depicted by Keynes and other unorthodox economists, is always storytelling about future states of the world, confidence building and leverage of animal spirits. The novelty of current events is not the fictitious nature of any form of capital, but the potential for digital democratization of controls over the imaginary nature of value creation. But this is just a potential, a possibility, a figment that more often than not is appropriated by centralized and opaque private powers. The game industry is a testbed for new connections between storytelling and money creation.

RLM: Monetary value was originally connected to the scarcity of precious metals, such as gold. Our entire monetary system seems therefore to function according to a logic of scarcity. Do you believe it is possible to reverse this logic into a logic of abundance?

GS: The gold standard was a fiction itself, the “scarcity” is always produced by institutions that regulate confidence and access to credit. The key issue is not to fabricate abundance, but to question the institutions which produce scarcity out of any standard, gold or whatever. Central banks are at the service of private banks in the creation and management of scarcity.

RLM: The promise that nanotechnology holds for our future is one of radical abundance (or so say transhumanists). The possibility of creating any kind of material substance through nanoengineering seems each day more feasible. What would this possibility entail in terms of systems of value exchange?

GS: Nanotechnology, environmental concerns and grassroots appropriation of distributed knowledge are the frontiers of a new horizon of energy creation and management. Social groups in charge of managing scarcity for the sake of wealth and power concentration must be held accountable for the destruction of our future. Once this key political conundrum is accounted for, new systems of value exchange and even a non-mercantile society will come into existence. Revolutionary theorists such as Marx envisaged transformation via the extreme clash of contradictions between capital and labour. This approach has never led to a change in the systemic logic of scarcity for the sake of social control.

We are once again facing the threshold of large scale societal change, but the outcome of the current crisis should come from our imagination, not from yet another paradox of abundance and scarcity. As long as we remain attached to the materiality of value, the illusion of freedom will but reinforce the massive manipulation of necessity.

RLM: What do you think is the role of crowdfunding in this context?

GS: Crowdsourcing as well as crowdfunding are examples of the peer to peer opportunities that come along with distributed computer power. However, the power structure behind wealth and scarcity creation may or may not be changed by crowd management. But it should not be taken at face value, so to speak. The stock market of course is an early form of crowdfunding without calling into question the proprietary framework of the companies offering their investment projects to the market.

Any market is a form of crowdsourcing, that is to say, of distributed forms of supply and demand matchmaking. The wealth of networks, however, depends on the contractual ecosystem, the institutional framework, the channeling of social imagination, not on the purely quantitative distribution of bids and offers. I see economics as supply, demand and code. Once you have access to the code, once openness becomes part of the game, then there is a chance of crowd behavior becoming collective intelligence and sustainable imagination.

RLM: Is the development of digital currencies headed towards a pluralistic ecology in which many micro currency systems co-exist, or is it penetrating the mainstream monetary system? If it is affecting the mainstream financial system, what would be its effect in the long-term?

GS: The same issue is at stake both at local and global levels. The global system is, as a matter of fact, an unstable ecosystem of “micro currencies” whereas the dollar has so far exerted an overwhelming influence. Local currencies and private monies coexist with national currencies only to the extent that the Central Bank admits, for instance, that grassroots monetary emissions remain territorial and strictly connected to poverty. However, the question of how new developments in digital technologies and nanotechnologies might alter not only our current monetary systems but also our understanding of value in itself, is still an open question.