Part of the geek appeal for Bitcoin users is that it is a real-life example of a concept often featured in science fiction or sci-fi-oriented computer games: an advanced, universally accepted form of currency.
Universally accepted forms of payments become essential in a society in which space travel enables humans – and other sentient beings – to hop from planet to planet inhabited by civilizations of all kinds. In some science fiction scenarios, though, the money system is universal not just for expediency, but because it’s backed by a centralized power seeking complete control. That aspect of digital currency does not jibe at all with the freedom from government authority that distinguishes Bitcoin.
“If you ever read sci-fi, it’s like creds,” Bitcoin developer Jeff Garzik recently observed. (“Credits” are used by inhabitants of Star Trek within the Federation, though species outside of it, like the Ferengi, take “Gold Pressed Latinum” for payment.)
Gesturing to the USB cards designed to hold bitcoins, Garzik said, “It’s like giving someone your cred stick.”
But are credits truly central to Star Trek? The question of money for the Federation is a subject of both speculation and debate, as the television series and films have not been altogether consistent about if and how money is used in the universe envisioned three centuries into the future.
An article on the Star Trek site – “A Look at Money in Star Trek - Italian Style – examines the subject in detail, from the original series all the way up to the most recent reboot by JJ Abrams. Writer Gabriella Cordone begins by asserting that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry decreed that no currency was used at all in the Federation. Rodenberry didn’t want “the concept of accumulating wealth” in “his universe,” recalled Ronald D. Moore, co-executive producer of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series, in a web interview … nor did he want money to be the prime motivation for doing a job.
That’s consistent with Captain Picard’s famous statement in Star Trek: First Contact: “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, in the episode “The Neutral Zone,” Captain Picard tells a businessman revived after three centuries in a cryosatellite that no one in the present time tracks wealth anymore.
“A lot has changed in three hundred years,” Picard tells the man, who had asked about the current value of his holdings. “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of ‘things’. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions.”
That particular change in attitude was supposed to have occurred late in the 22nd century.
In Star Trek: Voyager, Lieutenant Tom Paris refers to Fort Knox as, “the biggest gold deposit Earth had ever had in his history. Over fifty tons for a value of nine trillion dollars.” Under the New World Economy – when “money went the way of the dinosaurs” – Fort Knox was made into a museum.
However, there are instances in the original series where money is mentioned and used … which don’t correspond at all to the attitude expressed later.
In one episode, “The Apple,” Kirk asks Spock,“Do you know how much Starfleet has invested in you?” The officer begins to respond, “Twenty-two thousand, two hun ...,” but is cut off by the captain.
Likely, he would have finished that sentence with “credits,” which seems to be the favored term for interplanetary currency.
The Star Wars series also uses the “credit” (full name: Galactic Credit Standard) for commerce. It’s identified as the primary currency (though there are others) throughout the Galactic Republic. While credits serve the same practical purpose in Star Wars as they do in Star Trek, they also represent the galactic reach and control of the Empire. The planetary systems all accept the same currency because there is one ruler over them all who mandates it.
When a governing agency controls currency, it can use that power to consolidate control and to render certain people powerless. That’s what happens in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel envisions a near-future America transformed into the dystopic Republic of Gilead. In Gilead, women have been completely disenfranchised. The patriarchical government dictates every aspect of their lives, and decides who gets to keep their children. And it all starts with the control of money.
The narrator, a woman named Offred, recalls that paper had already “gone the way of the dinosaur” during her childhood, for she remembers her mother showing her dollar bills in an album. Money by then had evolved into a “compunumber” that referred to the amount in an account. Offred’s compunumber ceases to work the day the government decrees that women are to have no control over money. Purchases can only be authorized by men, and women soon become no more than property themselves.
Since it was published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale has sold millions of copies, and was adapted as both a film and an opera. It has also achieved the distinction of appearing on both required reading lists and banned book lists of schools.
Libertarians who embrace the concept of Bitcoin point to the dangers of government manipulation of digital currencies as a prime argument for having a monetary system that is independent of national control.
Money enables both control and freedom. And money in a universally accepted form does seem to be the wave of the future. Even if we don’t run into civilizations from other planets anytime soon, there are clear benefits in our current global economy to having a system of currency that is accepted all over the world without the need for exchanges and wire transfer fees.
Bitcoin might not be the ultimate answer. But it certainly invites plenty of speculation into the question of how money will evolve in the near future.