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Welcome to the cashless dystopia Your digital identity is the world's most precious currency

You'll be next. (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

You'll be next. (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


October 25, 2023   6 mins

In early August, thousands of Kenyans queued up in Nairobi to have their eyeballs scanned by an ominous silver orb, in a Faustian bargain with Open AI chief, Sam Altman. In exchange for handing over their biometric data — or, as Altman’s company puts it, “verifying your uniqueness” — users received 25 free “Worldcoin” crypto tokens, worth approximately $50, which would be transferred directly via Kenya’s mobile payments app, M-Pesa.

If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. Altman has promised that his Worldcoin project, which he eventually hopes to roll out around the globe, will bring millions of “unbanked people” — that is, people without bank accounts — into the economic and biometric fold. But his Orwellian scheme will likely do more harm than good to the most financially vulnerable people on the planet. Despite the word “coin” in the title, it’s unclear whether Worldcoin is trying to create digital money — or to colonise global identity. Or perhaps it is angling to do both.

This lack of transparency may explain why the Kenyan government pulled the plug on Worldcoin’s operations less than a month after the coin launched. On 2 August, it called a halt to the great data onboarding, questioning the legality of Worldcoin’s biometric and data collection practices. But this was only after 635,000 Kenyans had signed up: surrendering their data to the unknowable intentions of a Silicon Valley tech bro.

While it may have provoked the most media controversy, Worldcoin isn’t the first project of its kind: nearly every major digital platform will now trade your digital identity for “tokens”.  And by tokens, I mean money-like things ranging from airtime credit and loyalty points to game tokens, customer data and gift balances. Tokens have always ghosted the economy of publicly mandated currency, but now they are coming to the fore, threatening to replace money itself. It raises the question: was money only ever a blip?

Tokens are different from “real” money in a number of ways. If money is at least in theory fungible — one dollar is supposedly the same as any other — tokens have limited fungibility: they come with strings attached, rules about who can spend them, where, and when. Many tokens, like Worldcoin, make identity a prerequisite for a transaction. In 2016, when The Orb was just a twinkle in Altman’s verifiably unique iris, the World Food Programme trialled a system that issued relief payments through the use of biometrics. The system allowed refugees to buy items from participating stores using their biometric data as a credential: all they needed to do was scan their iris to pay for an item. The idea was to prevent fraud — and to ensure that those availing themselves of the programme were “worthy” of relief in the first place.

Amazon uses a similar strategy, paying its Mechanical Turk workers outside of the US and India in gift balances. This balance is non-transferable: it is tied to the workers’ identity and can only be redeemed through the Amazon store. The token thus keeps the flow of value in a closed loop.

The token system restricts people’s freedom of choice — the ultimate weapon for the nanny state and Big Tech corporations alike. In the United States, for instance, food stamps (now called SNAP benefits) come pre-loaded onto an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. These tokens can be used for fresh food and produce, but not for alcohol, tobacco, or hygiene products such as tampons, vitamins or medicines. They can be used for cold deli food, but not for hot meals. Why cold pre-cooked meat but not half a rotisserie chicken? It seems there is something too “easy” — too idle, maybe — about buying a hot meal for your family using benefits.

Another way in which tokens are different to money is that they are able to communicate not just the terms of an exchange but additional values and criteria alongside a transaction. Sometimes these other things are a bit of fun — game tokens and NFTs are used to flex and brag, emotes are used to joke and troll, and even Dogecoin was used to tip other users for being funny on the internet before Elon Musk bought some for his children and catapulted the token into speculative stardom. Funny, that. But sometimes it’s not so fun: while money codifies exchange value, tokens are also used to survey, to remember, to calculate and to programme values into our exchange media.

As more and more of our money shifts from the coins, notes and bankcards we carry around in our pockets to tokens that ride the rails of information and communications technologies, our exchange media is becoming programmable. This means that — unlike cash, which is an anonymous bearer instrument — every digital transaction carries a range of transactional data about where it is spent, and by whom. Tokens can also be programmed to specify not only an exchange value, but a whole range of other terms and conditions that must be met before an exchange will take place: relief payments that can only be spent on so-called healthy food, cash transfers that are contingent on vaccine uptake or school enrolment. Whose values are these? We’re not at liberty to know.

Programming is what digital platforms do so well. In China, the so-called “super-apps” are WeChat Pay and Alipay, where users can do everything from online shopping and ordering taxis to dating and applying for a loan. Alipay is owned by the Chinese e-commerce group Alibaba (second only to Amazon), which, after launching its integrated payments app in 2004, realised that its data about online purchasing could be used not only for logistics and advertising on the website, but also to underwrite China’s social credit system. In fact, that system actually began with Alipay’s Zhima or Sesame Credit system, in which what video games a user bought on the Alibaba platform influenced loan inquiries, access to dating sites, and even Schengen visa applications.

Of course, China is not alone in amassing personal data. In 2019, Facebook announced that it was launching a digital token, Libra, and wallet, Calibra, which many thought would turn into a Western super-app similar to Alipay. While Facebook publicly claimed to be providing financial inclusion for millions of unbanked Facebook users, buried in the Libra whitepaper was a statement that, alongside a coin, Facebook would also provide a portable global digital identity. “I call it KYZ or ‘Known by Zuck’”, David Birch, a financial identity expert, told me at the time. “And really, why wouldn’t your Facebook identity be more reliable? I can buy a fake passport on the dark web, but building a fake profile with a real social graph and real history takes a lot of grunt work.”

Tokens such as these are not a new or internet-native phenomenon. We have always had tokens or “special monies” that circulated alongside public money — alms, charitable tokens, food stamps and relief vouchers for the poor, allowances and pin money for women, scrip for workers. These tokens were privately issued; they came with strings attached. Not just value but values written in their metal. What is different today, however, is that tokens are bound to a specific digital platform. Where once a merchant could engage in a bit of creative accounting to turn a food stamp for butter into cigarettes, or accept a token intended for Alice as payment from Bob, today these sleights of hand are often impossible. Our tokens are hard-coded by the platform — and increasingly, by the state.

Terrified of Big Tech platforms monopolising the token economy, governments have been playing catch up. Following Facebook’s Libra proposal, many governments pushed back with regulation and fast-tracked the development of what are now known as Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) — in essence a digital version of publicly mandated currencies. Tokens, issued by the state. In China, where the digital Yuan is already in pilot form, these tokens are programmed at issuance. In Europe, members of parliament are experimenting with tokens that will monitor tax evasion and be programmed with a degree of identity. In the UK, the digital pound also contains proposals for sterling “with memory” — that is, for tokens that keep account of citizen spending to monitor suspicious transactional activity. Whether tokens are controlled by nation states or Big Tech companies still remains to be seen, but both outcomes look equally grim.

Digital tokens are often framed as a panacea for the financially vulnerable, providing ready access to safe, affordable remittances and credit. And yet, many of these programmable tokens have already inversely harmed the most vulnerable in our society, producing one kind of money for the affluent, the middle classes, and the banked West — and another for the poor, the underbanked, and the undocumented. A token with values, a token with strings attached.

Sam Altman predicts that, in the future, AI will displace so many waged jobs that citizens will require a Universal Basic Income to survive. This payment will be issued — how else? — through the Worldcoin app. Altman imagines a post-AGI future without work, without money — and maybe even without humans. The economy, at least as humans understand it, will be a thing of the past, a blip in the broader history of the world.

But the token dystopia is already here. In 2014, former Maine Republican governor Paul LePage lambasted families receiving a small relief cash benefit called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), accusing them of defrauding taxpayers by misspending their benefits. The allegation drew on 36,000 recorded cash withdrawals from a number of EBT cards to show 3,650 transactions in which recipients had made a withdrawal in off-licences or smoke shops. Despite the fact that the data did not show how or where the money was spent, it spurred a bill requiring TANF families to submit 12 months of receipts for auditing. The poor are the test subjects for future surveillance: “You should pay attention to what happens to us,” a mother on welfare payments warned. “You’re next.”


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Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
7 months ago

Excellent summary. It will be very hard to resist your government removing cash, restricting or banning crypto, and implementing a CBDC. The one thing that you currently have any control over is giving up your biometric data, and your government is after that.
I fear you can only delay the process. As I posted the other day, I cannot log into the NHS any more without submitting a video (!) of my face. I have not a shadow of a doubt that this data will be fed into the police live facial recognition platform, in use already at protests.
How long can you hold out, though, as more and more services will be made inaccessible without your compliance? In any case, all you have to do is be arrested for a bogus offence, and the police will grab all your biometrics, including DNA.
Are we going to give up our freedom without a fight? It’s not about ‘nothing to hide, etc’; it’s about a fundamental change in the relationship between the citizen and government. It’s totalitarian control. Look at China if you want to see your future.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
7 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

That’ll be why there are so many videos online of people living off-grid; a mobile home, van ‘life’, a temporary degradable self-made shelter in the forest. But of course, they’re all providing live-stream content for the Internet.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
7 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

That’s all good and well, but I was most interested in learning that the former Governor of Maine was one of those evil Republicans.

Rob C
Rob C
7 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

Why fight? Resistance is futile!

Saul D
Saul D
7 months ago

Individual anonymity is essential. Good and services should be provided equally without picking and choosing based on who you are.
However, reversing the telescope, isn’t this exactly what government expenditure to its suppliers and contractors needs to look like, so we can audit all the money flowing to defence contractors, or covid PPE providers, or hospital tenders? Aren’t the big sums the ones that need tracked more carefully first?

Paul Johnston
Paul Johnston
7 months ago

Just goes to prove there’s nothing new under the sun. Reading the article I was struck by the similarity between the Worldcoin and like schemes to the common practice of 18th and 19th century factory employers. Wages were often paid in tokens redeemable only at the store run by the factory on goods whose quality and prices were determined by the firm. This practice was made illegal in the UK under the Truck Acts of the 1840s. So I wonder if the Amazon scheme described would be legal in the UK.

Last edited 7 months ago by Paul Johnston
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago
Reply to  Paul Johnston

It’s also why the Co-operative Movement started, in a Lancashire mill town (Rochdale, 1844) before spreading throughout the rest of the world. Its initial principles have since been somewhat corrupted, and now the Co-op is just another commercial venture trading on the advances made in procuring good food and other goods at a reasonable price for those working in the mills.
Something similar might emerge in the wake of digitial currencies, but perhaps less likely.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
7 months ago
Reply to  Paul Johnston

This crossed my mind as well. We would do well to remember the reason such things are illegal today is because people protested, lobbied, and campaigned against these practices. The powerful industrialists didn’t simply give up these methods of exploitation voluntarily. They were forced to do so by people acting collectively through unions and eventually through government actions and labor laws when the politics caught up with industrialist tactics. The remedies for present attempts by government and powerful corporations to use new tools to revive old methods of exploitation are the same as ever, free speech, protests, voting, and demanding new laws to account for new technologies. Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.
Whether corporate technocracy or governmental technocracy is preferable is debatable. At a certain point, if people adopt the technology in a free market, it is incumbent upon government to keep civil order in these new arenas through sensible laws that protect individuals from exploitation and criminal activity. While we all rightly fear the specter of Chinese style totalitarianism, we should remember that they do not have free elections, free speech, free press, or any right to protest the actions of government. China is not the UK, or the US, or Europe. It is important to consider the cultural and historical differences between these different cultures. To my mind, globalized corporations accountable to nobody are by far the greater threat. Amazon, one of the worst offenders, continues to resist unionization for the same reasons that textile mills and steel foundries did a century and a half ago. Government at least tends to be slow and marginally competent at the best of times, which limits the damage they can do. Further, governments still have to respond to overwhelming public demands, however reluctantly. See Biden’s recent reversal on the border wall for an example.

Bernard Kelly
Bernard Kelly
7 months ago

There will be no stopping this. The experiment in population control during Covid was a resounding success as most of the population, around 90% in Australia, surrendered their autonomy to Government misinformation, disinformation and outright propaganda. The ‘real’ government knows what works and what it can get away with. As most of the people are asleep, addicted to their ‘smart’ phones, Netflix, online porn, online gambling, celebrity worship, 24/7 sport in super HD, alcohol, drugs etc the proverbial frog is slowly but surely being boiled. “Yes, but I didn’t vote for this, what happened?” “Fool! You think you live in a democracy.” While you were sleeping you lost your precious democracy to the few psychopaths who weren’t sleeping. Now just suck it up. “The cost of freedom is eternal vigilance.” I can’t remember who said it but he was 100% correct.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
7 months ago
Reply to  Bernard Kelly

I believe it was Thomas Jefferson, and never a truer word was said.
Thanks for this excellent summing up. I don’t know what it will take for the boiling frogs to jump, but we’re getting very close to the point of no return.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
7 months ago

Your identity is your cash, but your cash will increasingly be your identity. You’ll be judged, labeled, by the tokens in your digital wallet. “Ew, you accept Trumpbucks?!”

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago

Just as well that digital currency for the rich and famous has already been patented – Starbucks.

Nick Wade
Nick Wade
7 months ago

I think the thing most people forget is, won’t the much despised elites and politicians also have to use the same system, and balk at their shady dealings potentially being exposed? How will they pay for their mistresses, and secret hotel assignations?

CBDCs could be too much of a good thing for everyone. In the meantime I’ll carry on using cash as much as possible..

Last edited 7 months ago by Nick Wade
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
7 months ago
Reply to  Nick Wade

It won’t be used in such a broad way. It will be used to attack political dissidents, much like the truckers in Canda whose accounts were frozen, or politicians who go rogue and go against the official narrative.

Last edited 7 months ago by Julian Farrows
Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
7 months ago
Reply to  Nick Wade

It’ll begin as Julian suggests; the initial rollout will not even be programmable. Trust must be gained. You will be incentivised to transfer your fiat money into your digital wallet. The bad stuff comes later, and it will eat the elites and the politicians, too, most of whom are too witless to realise what is happening.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
7 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

Is there anyway to resist? My debit card, if stolen, can be used as credit card or just tap away. Just like that my money is gone. Would the new system prevent this? I’m just too old, too suspicious and a Luddite. This new system is too invasive. I’m rambling now, but I just want to use cash, which more and more businesses don’t accept.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
7 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

The grand vision is that you will pay either with a chip under your skin or simply with your biometric ID (face, iris, palmprint or fingerprint). The intermediary stage will be a smartphone. Plastic is probably going to be phased out.
It may well be more secure when it is tied to your biometrics, but a certain Franklin quote comes to mind here.

William Cameron
William Cameron
7 months ago

Banks want cashless. Because they get a cut of every card transaction- but not of cash transactions.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
7 months ago

The only good thing about CBDCs is that banks would become redundant. But much as I would rejoice at their disappearance, the handing over of control of our financial lives to the state is far too high a price to pay.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
7 months ago

Interesting that even in China, where virtually everything can be bought via Alipay/WeChat, it is still not that hard to use cash, as i found in my recent ramblings there. The main hassle can be getting the right change but even that doesn’t take too long, most times.

Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson
5 months ago

I was just in Britain for a while, and the number of places that told me “card only” when I pulled out my pounds made me think that by the time Charles III gets his face on any circulating money, circulating money won’t be used any more.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
7 months ago

I don’t like crypto or ‘tokens’, but I love the idea of everyday national currencies in digital form. I just spent the month touring South America. I visited big cities and small towns, did a modest amount of gift shopping, and never had to undergo that infernal travelers’ headache, changing currency. It was Visa Card all the way, and I have no objection to Chase Bank knowing where I went and what I bought. Haven’t merchants needed to know what their customers want since the beginning of commerce?
I love living in the future.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
7 months ago
Reply to  Alan Gore

Oh dear, Al. You really haven’t got it, have you. This is not about convenience, it’s about control.
And the “You’ve nothing to fear if you’ve nothing to hide” brigade will be swept up in it like the rest of us.