This overview of cryptocurrencies and decentralization offers additional components of influence into the debate about language and economic policy. In Language Policy & Political Economy (2015) Thomas Ricento argues that “language policy scholars’ lack of sophistication in political economy impacts their ability to critically address the effects of neoliberal economic policies on the status and utility of both global languages, such as English, and non-global languages that could play an important role in local economic and social development in low-income countries. The author addresses three “competing views on the role of English in non-English countries in the world as (1) a form of linguistic imperialism, (2) a vehicle for social and economic mobility, or (3) a global lingua franca necessary for a global demos necessary to achieve global justice” (Ricento 28). He then argues “that the economic dimension of neoliberalism in the world system today and its role and relationships with flows of opportunities that might advance or retard the interests of differently positioned individuals in various contexts, globally, informs all of the[se] positions” (Ricento 33).
I argue that a proper understanding of Ricento’s concerns must include the impact of the distribution of capital across national borders via cryptocurrencies. The reason this is important is that (1) blockchain technologies disintermediate the need for governments “to secure and distribute fairly the liberties and economic resources individuals need to lead freely chosen lives”--communitarianism (“communitarianism”), (2) cryptocurrencies give people with low net worth ability to become share owners of corporations with voting rights at reduced costs, and without intermediaries, and (3) cryptocurrencies allow for the creation of blockchain based economic zones that operate under common law and thereby lessen the need for acquiring a lingua franca or national language. The decentralizing nature of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies makes it possible for local communities to secure and distribute fairly without a trusted third party such as a government or central bank. Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund seemed to indicate as much “while addressing a conference in London on Friday, [Sept. 29, 2017.] Lagarde said virtual currencies, which are created and exchanged without the involvement of banks or government, could in time be embraced by countries with unstable currencies or weak domestic institutions. ‘In many ways, virtual currencies might just give existing currencies and monetary policy a run for their money’” (Pylas).
To conceptualize the transformations now underway I offer a synopsis of the history and philosophy behind open source software and cryptocurrencies, and the growth rate of cryptocurrencies. Additionally, I include the rhetoric of open source developers promoting the decentralization of the centrally controlled--government sanctioned--monopolies as well as quotes from present banking representatives to show that the war of words is not much different now than during the buildout of the Internet: between open source software developers and Microsoft. And finally, I describe a symbiotic cryptocurrency / blockchain technology counterpart to Ricento’s communitarianism alternative to orthodox neoliberalism and the role of language(s) on social justice (33), namely Startup Societies.
The open source software known as Bitcoin carries with it an often forgotten philosophy defined by Richard Stallman, a visionary and founder of open source software programs. According to the GNU.org website on September 27, 1983 Stallman wrote, “Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu's Not Unix), and give it away free to everyone who can use it.” In a copyrighted article in 1996 Stallman defined Free Software:
“Free software” means software that respects users' freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price . . . as in freedom . . . We campaign for these freedoms because everyone deserves them. With these freedoms, the users (both individually and collectively) control the program and what it does for them. When users don't control the program, we call it a “nonfree” or “proprietary” program. The nonfree program controls the users, and the developer controls the program; this makes the program an instrument of unjust power. (Stallman)
Stallman’s operating system combined with the Linux kernel developed by Linus Torvald’s open source project became known as Linux. Stallman’s philosophy gave birth to the thousands of open source software projects that quickly developed the Internet into a freely distributing information system. The fact that open source software such as Linux and the Apache Web Server software power Google and Facebook, and the fact that Apple’s operating system comes from an open source version of Unix called FreeBSD verifies the transformative social power of open source software. Again, to quote LaGarde, "’Not so long ago, some experts argued that personal computers would never be adopted, and that tablets would only be used as expensive coffee trays, so I think it may not be wise to dismiss virtual currencies’" (Pylas).
The combination of proprietary corporate interests with open source software historically parallels today’s cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies. Bitcoin moves Stallman’s philosophy from the free flow of information to the world of finance and implies the free flow of capital. In 2008 a paper published under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” Nakamoto wrote: “What is needed is an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party” (Nakamoto 1). By the beginning of 2009, the open source Bitcoin network arrived via a posting to a cryptography mailing list by Nakamoto:
Bitcoin v0.1 released
Satoshi Nakamoto Fri, 09 Jan 2009 17:05:49 -0800
Announcing the first release of Bitcoin, a new electronic cash
system that uses a peer-to-peer network to prevent double-spending. It's completely decentralized with no server or central authority. (Nakamoto)
The phrase “completely decentralized with no server or central authority” is the focus of debate between governmental banking systems and the fintech community, and it exists by virtue of Stallman’s philosophy and open source software.
Although various coin or token based payment systems for online gaming predated Bitcoin, by combining open source software with cryptography Bitcoin spread to become the first global digital currency. The blockchain ledger, a type of hacker-proof cryptographic distributed database of transaction record keeping is trustless: it requires no third party such as a bank to verify that currency transactions take place. Although cryptocurrencies do carry a small transaction fee, like open source software they are easily distributed and available. Another parallel to Stallman’s philosophy is that many open source cryptocurrency projects are controlled by democratic voting rights based on the number of coins held. As in the free market, the Neocoin Project refers to their Coins as shares. Therefore, open source cryptocurrencies cannot be used as instruments of “unjust power.” Cryptocurrencies’ rapid acceptance as an investment vehicle and thus their increase in capitalization, results from their trustless quality, low transaction fees and their availability of open source code to other developers.
The growth in cryptocurrencies parallels the growth of the dot.com bubble of the late 1990s and until very recently has only entered the regulated and sanctioned domain of the world’s stock markets. According to a paper from the Cambridge University Judge Business School, Centre for Alternative Finance, titled “Global Cryptocurrency Benchmarking Study” by Dr Garrick Hileman & Michel Rauchs (2017), “[t]he total cryptocurrency market capitalisation has increased more than 3x since early 2016, reaching nearly $25 billion in March 2017” (Hileman and Rauchs 16). As of this writing, according to coinmarketcap.com, seven months later in October 2017 the total market capitalization of approximately 1000 different cryptocurrencies stands at $174 billion. Bitcoin grew at a rate of 800% over the last year to a price per coin of $5,787. According to cnbc.com, “in April, [Japan] passed a law recognizing bitcoin as legal tender (Graham). In, Stockholm, Coinshares, a professional cryptocurrency investment company comprises two exchange traded bitcoin notes (COINXBT & COINXBE) and according to zerohedge.com:
No longer limited to OTC and/or other potentially "shady" exchanges, investors who want direct exposure to [E]ther[eum] [a token carrying contract cryptocurrency] can now trade via a broker platform; Notably, the 2 listed trackers are the only route for European investors to add ether to their portfolio via an established exchange. Today's launch means that the NASDAQ [Stockholm] now has 2 crypto-assets listed, Bitcoin and Ether, making it the only established exchange with multiple crypto-investment vehicles. (Durden)
Although the growth rate appears to mirror the growth of the Internet during the tech boom it is important to distinguish the difference between the growth of technology for the distribution of information and the growth rate of the distribution of capital. Whereas the control over information distribution relates to the ability of corporations and governments to persuade citizens through media and politics to particular and questionable neoliberal narratives of benefit, the distribution of capital is inseparable from the socio-political power structures and treads upon the very foundation of neoliberal policy. What does it mean to imply that neoliberal policies help to provide economic justice in third world nations when the capital from first world nations begins to flow transparently across borders directly into the pockets of third world citizens and for that matter lower and middle class first world citizens? A recent ICO--Initial Coin Offering--of a project called Airswaps announced 85% [of its coins] sold out [to ‘9,447 people from 135 countries’] in the first minute, and the rest [of the ICO] was sold over the course of 15 minutes” (Airswaps). The attention of central bankers who traditionally control the flow of capital now take note of the rapid expansion of cryptocurrency throughout the world.
The dynamic interplay between the forces of governmental corporatism and the forces of the open source community as expressed in each side’s rhetoric enhances innovation of both the Internet and cryptocurrencies by preventing either side from getting the upper hand, and at the same time, allows each side to innovate according to the others’ developments. To quote Ben Bernanke, former Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in 2015:
[Bitcoin]'s interesting from a technological point of view. We’re in a world where the payments system is evolving quickly and new approaches to managing payments are proliferating, and some of the ideas around bitcoin will no doubt be useful in doing that. But I think bitcoin itself has some serious problems. The first is that it hasn’t shown to be a stable source of value. Its price has been highly volatile and it hasn’t yet established itself as a widely accepted transactions medium. But the real serious problem that it has is it’s anonymity, which is a feature, and is also a bug, in that it has become in some cases a vehicle for illicit transactions, drug selling or terrorist financing or whatever. And you know, governments are not happy to let that activity happen, so I suspect that there will be oversight of transactions done in bitcoin or similar currencies and that will reduce the appeal. (Phillips)
And according to Zerohedge, “Bernanke told an audience at Ripple's Swell event in Toronto today [Oct. 16, 2017] that: ‘. . . new technology like blockchain or electronic currencies can be used to improve’ global payments, and added that Ripple's technology is ‘promising" as they work with regulators’” (Durden). Ripple, a banking backed cryptocurrency, openly trades on cryptocurrency exchanges along with Bitcoin and others. Bernanke’s rhetoric persuades negatively toward open source cryptocurrency and emphasizes regulation. His rhetoric is similar to when “Microsoft operating system chief Jim Allchin said [in August 2001], ‘Open source is an intellectual-property destroyer. I'm an American, I believe in the American Way. I worry if the government encourages open source, and I don't think we've done enough education of policymakers to understand the threat.’" His statement came at a time when Linux represented Microsoft’s biggest competitor. Of note here is that Microsoft incorporated open source software code into its operating system and Openoffice is an open source version of Microsoft Office.
Within this changing space, cryptocurrencies have the opportunity to influence global language(s). As the debate between those that want to regulate and those that believe in trustless (self-regulating) cryptocurrencies continues Startup Societies implement common law, blockchain technologies, and cryptocurrencies within economic zones. According to Michael Strong, Startup Societies are at the bleeding edge of technology but he envisions a time when “we will see thousands and thousands of governments [within economic zones], and communities, and cultures, and societies, that allow everybody on earth, seven billion, eight billion, nine billion to have an exponentially better quality of life.” Strong goes on to explain that “zones result in greater economic liberalization in China, Ireland, to some extent India, Mauritius, and arguably in a number of other countries.” He talks about how Dubai and Abu Dhabi have installed common law systems in economic zones that operate outside of the traditional Sharia legal system, how Honduras allows for common law to operate within economic zones, and how other nations are working to set up common law systems in economic zones. His argument is that bad governments and legal structures are directly responsible for poverty and “keep people unnaturally poor.” He thinks that “we can develop software in terms of [educational] governance and law that can outperform Hong Kong and Singapore.” Strong advocates for blockchain developers and more common law attorneys. Additionally, in support of promoting the power of cryptocurrencies and decentralization, the Startup Societies Foundation highlights decentralizing value, regulation, and energy and commodities via blockchain.
Whether or not Startup Societies or blockchain driven economic zones become an influence on income equality over the next decades, the fact that capital is flowing into cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies at an ever-increasing rate, both from the top and the bottom of the global social spectrum of people that invest into cryptocurrencies, implies to some extent the decentralization of the role of government, and the lessening of the forces behind learning a lingua franca or national language for upward mobility. Through the process of decentralization--localizing economic prosperity--the need for communitarianism to preserve economically beneficial local language(s) diminishes.
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