Digital Cash!


Join us for a two-day conference on the past and future of electronic payment at UCLA, September 27-28, 2014 in Decafe, Perloff Hall.

Please go here for conference logistics.

Today’s discussions about electronic currency often focus on the obsolescence of traditional institutions such as the federal reserves and credit companies. It’s said that the old world of brick and mortar banks, paper cash, and plastic cards is disappearing – and the future is bitcoins, P2P infrastructures, and e-cash served through dotcom companies and mobile phone carriers.

But we have heard these stories before. Like jet-packs, flying cars and trips to mars, digital cash is a relic of the past and a constantly renewed promise from the future. That’s why this conference gathers together humanities scholars, engineers, and science fiction authors, all focused on the past and future of payment. Together guests will explore the historical legacy of payment systems – from conventional cash and credit, to prototype experiments with digital currency – alongside the speculative representations and explorations of science fiction in novels, film and games.


Saturday 9/27 – Decafe, Perloff Hall
8:00 – 9:00 – Coffee and tea
9:00-9:15 – Introduction
9:15 – 11:00 – Legacies of Digital Payment
11:15 – 1:00 – Futures and Speculative Currencies
1:00 – 2:00 – Lunch
2:00- 3:30 – Politics and Power in Payment Systems
3:45 – 5:45 – Dangers, Alternatives, and Experiments in Online Currency

Sunday 9/28 – Decafe, Perloff Hall
9:30 – 10:00 – Coffee and tea
10:00 – 11:30 – Glowpearls, Ingots, and Mana – Currency in Other Worlds
11:30 – 12:45 – Brunch with Books
12:45 – 2:00 – Digital Cash and the State

1. Legacies of Digital Payment
9:15 – 11:00

This panel explores the histories, motivations, and contexts behind early electronic payment technologies.  It asks how we came to understand the possibility of a cashless society, and explores the institutions and technologies, such as early credit card systems and cryptographic techniques, that were marshaled in search of this ideal.

Ronald Rivest – Professor at MIT, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Allan Schiffman – Executive Director at CommerceNet
David Stearns – Senior Lecturer at University of Washington, Information School

Moderator: Radhika Desai – Professor at University of Manitoba, Department of Political Studies

2. Futures and Speculative Currencies

In science fiction, electronic payment systems are often tied to broader social orders. In Star Trek, for example, alien payment systems exist alongside a (human) post-capitalist utopia. In this regard, science fiction utilizes descriptions of currency systems either as symptoms of capitalist decay or illustrations of alternative economic regimes. This panel features science fiction authors, futurist commentators, and literary scholars to explore future currencies, debt, and post-capitalist exchange in speculative, imaginative forms.

Karl Schroeder – Fantasy and Science Fiction Author
Sherryl Vint – Professor at UC Riverside, Department of English
Matt Novak – Author of Paleofuture blog

Moderator: Rachel Lee – Associate Professor, UCLA Department of English

3. Politics and Power in Payment Systems
2:00 – 3:30

Owning the act of payment is a huge industry, as private companies have turned interchange fees of credit cards and mobile money into a business greater in value than the biotech industry, Hollywood, or venture capital. This panel examines how privatizing currency transfer has been a historical process of enclosure, one that makes certain demographics more vulnerable than others. Given that the future of payment as a public infrastructure is still up for grabs, panelists will consider how we came to the present moment, and how might we change it.

Bill Maurer – Professor at UC Irvine, Department of Anthropology
Virginia Eubanks – Associate Professor at University of Albany; Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Lana Swartz – PhD Candidate at University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

Moderator: Sandra Harding – Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA, Department of Education

4. Dangers, Alternatives, and Experiments in Online Currency
3:45 – 5:45

Economic exchange in online networks did not emerge in the commercial forms we are accustomed to today. Instead, network infrastructures that were not designed to be places for economic exchange and payment slowly developed these capabilities, which in many cases came to define them. This panel will examine early networks and experimental means to economic practices, such as spam, piracy, and payment on mobile phones, as users began mining the loopholes of legal electronic transaction infrastructures as far back as the days of Usenet.

Emin Gun Sirer – Associate Professor at Cornell University, Computer Science Department
Finn Brunton – Assistant Professor at NYU; Media, Culture, and Communications Department
Amelia Acker – Assistant Professor at University of Pittsburgh, School of Information Sciences

Moderator: Christopher Kelty – Associate Professor at UCLA’s Center for Society and Genetics, Department of Anthropology, and Department of Information Studies.

SUNDAY, September 28, Decafe, Perloff Hall

5. Glowpearls, Ingots and Mana – Currency in Other Worlds

Fictional currency in fantasy worlds has a remarkable exchange value. From gold farming to Linden dollars, fictional representations of money have very real market value today. Fictional online currency, however, has been around since the early online game experiences found in MOOs and MUDs. This panel discusses the blurred lines between fictional and actual payment, bringing to light how this exchange also must contend with issues of race, labor, trust and participation.

Julian Dibbell – American author and technology journalist
Alex Golub – Associate Professor at University of Hawaii at Manoa, Department of Anthropology
Kevin Driscoll – Postdoctoral Researcher at Microsoft Research New England

Moderator: Tom Boellstorff – Professor at UC Irvine, Department of Anthropology

Brunch with Books – Readings about Payment in Science Fiction 
11:30 – 12:45

6. Roundtable – Digital Cash and the State

This panel will address the legal and political issues surrounding digital currency, including how current banking and financial regulations deal with something digital cash, how different countries around the world are regulating digital currency, and the political economy of payment systems.

Radhika Desai – Professor at University of Manitoba, Department of Political Studies
Anupam Chander – Professor at UC Davis, School of Law
Anita Ramasastry – Professor at University of Washington, School of Law

Moderator: Jennifer Mnookin – Professor, UCLA School of Law

Organized by Morgan Currie, Bradley Fidler, and Christopher Kelty, with a special thanks to Lana Swartz. Sponsored by the University of California Humanities Research Institute and the UCLA Computer Science Department’s Kleinrock Center for Internet Studies, along with the NSF-Funded Participation Lab at the Institute of Society and Genetics, the Department of Information Studies, and the UCLA Law School’s Program on Understanding Law, Science and Evidence.

To register, write to