The long history of digital currencies

Finn Brunton in Cabinet:

The history of digital cash consists of scientific discoveries from the 1970s, hardware from the 1980s, and networks from the 1990s, shaped by theories from the previous three centuries and beliefs about the next ten thousand years. It speaks ancient ideas with a modern twang, as we might when we say “quid pro quo” or “shibboleth”: the sovereign right to issue money, the debasement of coinage, the symbolic stamp that transfers the rights to value from me to thee. Digital cash has the hovering, unsettled realness (not reality) of all money, a matter of life and death that is also symbolic tokens, rules of a game, scraps of cotton blend and polymer, entries in a database, promises made and broken, gestures of affection and trust. The long history we are discussing here is at its heart the history of a debate about knowledge, an epistemological argument conducted through technologies.

It is a debate broadly familiar to anyone who has taken an interest in the nature of money, or even looked idly at a banknote for a bit: how do I know that money is real? I want to phrase the question in this somewhat awkward way to capture how it can be reasonably answered. We can ask it at the level of a particular token of money—how do I know this money is real?—with the feel and texture of a note, the security threads, watermarks, and ultraviolet inks. We can ask it at the level of some type or variety of money, perhaps expressed as a preference for one currency as more “solid” than another, for instance, or for cash over credit, or gold over both: how do I know this kind of money is real? Finally, we can ask it at the level of money as such—what is money that it has value for us, and how do we know that value? How do I know that money is real?

More here.