- Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency by Finn Brunton
by Finn Brunton
PRINCETON, NJ: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2019. 272 PP. (HARDCOVER). $26.95
In October 2019 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the House Financial Services Committee for a hearing on the company's plan to launch a new digital currency called Libra. The hearing occasioned some of the most direct critiques of Facebook's position as a global technological hegemon, its data-collection and targeted ads–based business model, and its aspirations to replace or disrupt the fundamental mechanisms of governments. That a hearing over the plans to launch a digital currency not yet designed quickly became a much broader debate over the role of digital technology in economic and political life was best summed up by Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, a Republican from North Carolina, who told Zuckerberg, "Fair or not fair, you're here today to answer for the digital age."1
For those who might think this a tall order for a discussion about currency design and monetary policy, Finn Brunton's Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency will prove a useful guide in connecting the dots. Brunton follows his first book, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet (MIT Press, 2013), in which he used information's Other as a mirror image of the internet, by focusing on a narrow set of problems and actors concerned with the making of digital transactions in order to explain the broader context in which we live, where digital data are considered a valuable resource, and where almost all transactions, whether they occur in person or online, involve several layers of electronic authentication.
Digital Cash does not aim to provide a comprehensive history of electronic payment; instead, it focuses on a varied cast of characters and a series of attempts to re-create the features of physical cash in a digital form: trivial to transact with, easy to verify, and impossible to forge. Brunton, therefore, does not begin with the "digital"; instead, he begins with an exploration of "cash" or, rather, paper money. In the first chapter, Brunton provides a close reading of the US one-dollar bill, concluding that, packed with overt and covert security features, serial information, and national symbols, the bill is "a philosophical treatise on the concept of sovereignty" (29). This section is illustrative of the book's greatest strength: the ability to weave together the material sensibilities of media studies with the political-economic concerns of the sociology of money and the cultural study of technology communities, all presented in a lucid and engaging writing style that manages to make highly technical or theoretical debates accessible to a general audience. [End Page 192]
From there the book follows the story of digital cash into a web of academic researchers, cryptography hobbyists, and technology entrepreneurs, beginning as early as the 1970s with developments in public-key cryptography. It is an important book because of its insistence that the cryptocurrency revolution was far less sudden than has been captured in the popular press discourse. These innovations, which place Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies on such a historical trajectory, cannot so easily be dismissed as a solution in search of a problem or as simply the latest tech bubble. They are instead the most recent chapter in the entanglement between political economic dreams and cryptographic technologies and have actively shaped the digital age.
More initiated readers may wonder to what extent this history has been unknown, as the cast of characters still centers on mostly familiar figures, such as Stanford cryptographers Martin Hellman and Whitfield Diffie, key members of the cypherpunks like Tim May, and DigiCash founder David Chaum. Brunton also directs readers to rich journalistic accounts, like Steven Levy's Crypto and the more theoretically dense exploration of digital signatures in Jean-François Blanchette's Burdens of Proof.2 Yet there is no doubt that the past decade's...