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Token gestures

I’ve been thinking a lot about two different kinds of tokens lately. One is a fare token, which I’ve been thinking about as it relates to public transit and locational privacy. Another is a currency token, which has come up in the last few weeks as I’m reading Debt by David Graeber. Obviously there’s some overlap there, but thinking about the ways in which they differ has been really interesting, and there’s enough weird history of each to fill a Thomas Pynchon novel.

Fare tokens are intriguing as artifacts of a transit system, which are pretty much always interesting to me. Like system maps, which I’ve also thought about a bit, fare tokens are necessarily unique to one place and provide a physical history of that system’s character and aesthetic. They’re also ephemeral, anonymous, and completely commoditized. There’s some sort of paradox there: something inherently interesting about objects that are so non-descript. (Rick Prelinger put it well in a story in the New York Times this weekend: “As time passes, the works we tried to junk often prove more interesting than the ones we chose to save.”)

As a privacy-preserving technology, fare tokens are great. Entrance into a public transit system should be a question of authorization: are you permitted to do what you’re trying to do? The answer to that should only be contingent on whether or not you’ve paid the fare, which is a piece of data the token can communicate just fine. Too often, though, fare systems first ask who you are. Swiping (or tapping) a fare card gives the system an identifier, which it runs against a database to see whether that identifier is tied to a paid fare. There are tempting reasons to go with the latter scheme — a lost card can be replaced because the value is recorded, and the system can gather and use data about riding patterns in order to target improvements — but there’s a trade-off with rider privacy.

(To my mind, the trade-off is akin to that between database loyalty programs, like Target’s recently documented “Guest ID” system and punch-card loyalty programs. Both provide rewards to return customers, but one is more privacy-friendly and generates less monetizable data.)

Of course, another issue with letting customers carry around the authorization information in their own token is that it depends on the issuer’s ability to reliably generate and verify their own tokens. One interesting anecdote I found out about this weekend was the New York City “Token War” with Connecticut. Tokens for Connecticut Turnpike tolls were the same size and shape as NYC subway fares but cost much less, which led to Connecticut Turnpike tokens ending up in NYCTA collection boxes. Connecticut promised to change the shape of their tokens, but failed to do so for years. I’m not sure how it ended: one NY Times article cited on the issue’s Wikipedia page but unavailable online suggests it happened when Connecticut discontinued their toll charges and paid the NYCTA for all the collected tokens; another article available online says it ended when the NYCTA rewired their turnstiles.

On the other hand, you’ve got currency tokens, which make up the field of “exonumia“. These tokens are like coins, but issued by somebody other than the government. Sometimes these tokens really take off, as in the case of the Strachan and Co Trade Tokens that were South Africa’s first circulating indigenous currency. ((It’s not often that Wikipedia disappoints, but I can’t find any real information there about these coins. Instead, there’s a charmingly Web 1.0 site, which I really like.))

In the US, there were a series of “hard-times tokens” which circulated as currency between about 1833 and 1843, and were only officially outlawed in 1857. One of the most prominent examples was the endearingly named Feuchtwanger cent, which is now pretty collectible by exonumismatists. Lewis Feuchtwanger’s story is interesting for his persistence in minting these coins and his attempts to get them recognized officially. His appeals to Congress give the story a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington vibe — a film whose plot also turns on a coin, albeit a tossed one.

In any case, the parallels between these hard-times tokens and cryptocurrencies like bitcoin seem straightforward, but they’re not ones I’ve seen pointed out elsewhere. Bitcoin’s got some problems, but supporters who’ve read Cryptonomicon are quick to point out the benefits: things like anonymous transactions, the ground-up minting and lack of reliance on a centralized nation-state, and the security of the currency against counterfeiting. These are laudable goals, and maybe last delivered on in the hard times era. Lewis Feuchtwanger would be proud.