Book Review: “Tokens: The Future of Money in the Age of the Platform” — Up For Grabs

By Preston Gralla

This book offers a deep dive — a very deep dive — into how contemporary tokens work, and the consequences of their use, both for the good and for the bad.

Tokens: The Future of Money in the Age of the Platform by Rachel O’Dwyer. 320 pp. Verso Books. Hardcover, $29.95

When cryptocurrency billionaire fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried was waiting in jail for his trial to begin, he decided to clean up his shaggy-dog-meets-tech-bro appearance. So he had a fellow prisoner cut and style his hair. The prisoner didn’t accept cryptocurrency as payment, and even if he had, he likely wouldn’t have trusted taking it from Bankman-Fried, who was ultimately convicted on seven counts of fraud and faces a potential 110-year jail sentence.

Instead, the jailhouse barber accepted payment in the most-sought after tender inside federal prisons – pouches of dried mackerel. (Cigarettes used to be the tender of choice, until smoking was banned in the prisons.)

It would be easy laugh at this as an “only-in-the-21st-century moment” or revel in the irony of a cutting-edge digital one-time billionaire being reduced to paying for his haircut with packets of preserved fish. But as Rachel O’Dwyer points out in her book Tokens: The Future of Money in the Age of the Platform, what we think of as odd mediums of exchange have been common for thousands of years. Nearly 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, for example, simple shapes made out of clay representing grain, oil and livestock were first created as a way of bookkeeping, but then became independent of their initial purpose, and turned into mediums of exchange for many different goods and services.

Those kinds of payments may have a long history, but she notes that the 21st century has become the golden age of tokens, which she broadly defines as “things that are almost but not quite money. Things that are money-ish — money with a wink and a nudge.”

What kinds of contemporary tokens is she talking about? Amazon gift cards, which she says are used to pay adjunct college lecturers, online influencers, and employees’ Christmas bonuses, among other uses. Mobile phone credits. Bitcoin and countless other cryptocurrencies. NFT digital art. Virtual currencies in online games that now have real-world value. (O’Dwyer points out that the virtual gold you can win in the popular online game World of Warcraft has a rate of exchange equal roughly to the Russian ruble.) The list goes on and on.

You may shrug this off as a “what-will-they-think-of-next?” moment. But it’s not — it’s far more dangerous than that. This new generation of money-ish tokens will have serious consequences. O’Dwyer warns, “As something that is ‘not-quite-money,’ tokens blur the edges between legitimate and illegitimate work and legitimate and illegitimate transactions.”

Scamsters like Bankman-Fried garner headlines about how the powerful can take advantage of tokens that fall outside the financial and legal rules that govern money and its uses. But O’Dwyer points out there are far more powerful forces than individuals that benefit from them. She notes that Amazon, the fifth most valuable company in the world with a market capitalization of nearly $1.6 trillion, pays many of its low-wage online freelance workers in Amazon gift cards. Why? Because that allows the company to slot them as freelancers instead of full-time workers. Thus the company doesn’t have to provide them with the benefits and legal protections full-time workers are required to have.

She adds, “Many of the companies issuing these tokens have a legacy in social media, gaming, and communications – not money. Most don’t even have a financial license.” That means that they’re able to skirt the financial laws governing money, because the tokens aren’t legally considered money.

That’s not to say that all tokens are bad. They can also be used for good. O’Dwyer argues that “tokens are also lively and subversive. Users online and on the ground remake them to be paid in informal economies, to communicate, to protest, and to reimagine money…In 2021 meme economies on Reddit drove an attack on Wall Street.”

Her book is a deep dive — a very deep dive — into how contemporary tokens work, and the consequences of their use, both for the good and for the bad. It examines who controls token’s uses, and how they benefit from them. It looks at the consequences of online platforms becoming de facto banks by issuing tokens, and delves into how tokens allow big companies to exploit workers in the gig economy. It explains how tokens discriminate against some groups, while helping others become wealthy. And her narrative also points out the ways that tokens can increase activism as well as reimagine what money can be.

That may sound dry and academic, but it’s not. O’Dwyer writes from long experience and includes many examples from her personal research and life. Tokens moves along at a fast clip; your attention rarely wanes. She manages to thread the needle: she provides significant technical and economic background without relying on too much jargon. On occasion, though, the book may offer more technical detail than many people need — for example, describing a group of NFT artworks as including an “ERC-721 token, but also a custom-made hardware wallet.” It’s easy enough to merely scan those parts — you won’t have missed anything significant.

At one point O’Dwyer asks, “Maybe money as we know it was only a blip?” If so, scammers like Bankman-Fried will rejoice. Because she shows throughout her book that the 21st century is not just the golden age of tokens, but of fraudsters as well, whether they be rogue tech bros or trillion-dollar Wall Street sweethearts like Amazon. That’s just one example of the many reasons this book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of money and what the consequences will be for all of us.

Preston Gralla has won a Massachusetts Arts Council Fiction Fellowship and had his short stories published in a number of literary magazines, including Michigan Quarterly Review and Pangyrus. His journalism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, USA Today, and Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, among others, and he’s published nearly 50 books of nonfiction which have been translated into 20 languages.

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