Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The value of hypothetical currency

The science of money -- numismatics -- is not typically the bread and butter of futures discourse. But I'm impressed by coin designer Daniel Carr's hypothetical currency for a North American Union -- the "Amero".
Bruce Sterling's Beyond the Beyond blog picked up the story via World Net Daily (WND), which reported that:
Parody coin designer Daniel Carr has launched production of an "amero" coin which he is marketing to coin dealers and collectors.
"Like any artist I have to survive by selling my work," Carr said. "I have been reading about the amero and I started asking myself what I would come up with if I was in charge of minting the amero coin for the North American Union."
He is also known among collectors of privately minted coins for his parody state quarters.
Carr's calling card is a one dollar brass coin celebrating his anticipated election as the 45th president of the United States, designated as serving a term from 2017 to 2021.

Like the Amero, this tongue-in-cheek exercise in self-promotion is also a future artifact:

(From Carr's website: "Obverse self-portrait by Daniel Carr. 45th President, 2017-2021. To comply with US regulations, the reverse is marked 'S1' rather than '$1'.")

The WND article links to an organisation called the Unrecognised States Numismatic Society (USNS), "the first and only group catering to numismatists whose collecting interests largely focus on coins minted by groups purporting, pretending or appearing to be sovereign states, but which are not recognised as such by established governments."

This territory can be controversial. Mr Carr's website, in addition to selling these and various other designs, links to an exhaustive catalogue of micro-national and fantasy coins, maintained by numismatist Eric McCrea (USNS member #002). Writes McCrea of Carr's Amero designs:

Just days after the first pieces had been produced, members of at least one online numismatic forum were already suggesting, with some very hostile words, that Mr. Carr may be part of a conspiracy to replace the dollar under a global dictatorship. Mr. Carr, a member of that forum, replied: "Wow, I really stirred up a hornet's nest here...I guess the nest was just waiting all along and I just happened to be the one to stir it up."
We must bear in mind that Mr. Carr is an artist and he has to earn a living by selling his work. Amidst all the fuss, he reminded everyone that "The goal of any art work is to provoke some sort of thought or emotion."
In order to fully appreciate Mr. Carr’s Ameros, we must place them in the context of the North American Monetary Union (or North American Currency Union), a speculative entity in which the main countries of North America (Canada, the United States, and Mexico) would share a single/common currency. This idea, which has existed for many years, is based on the common European Union currency, the Euro. The hypothetical currency is sometimes referred to as the "amero", but I have also seen it referred to as the NAMU (North American Monetary Unit).

On the front page of Carr's website is a disclaimer, explaining further:

I have received numerous inquiries as to my personal stand on the North American Union (NAU) issue.

My goal with these coins is not to endorse a Union of North America or a common "Amero" currency. I fully support the United States Constitution, and I would not welcome (in any form) a diminishment of its provisions. I expect that these coins will help make more people aware of the issue and the possible ramifications. I leave it up to others to decide if they are in favor of, or against a North American Union. And I encourage citizens to voice their approval or disapproval of government plans that impact them.

It seems that Carr's "Amero" design has, perhaps unwittingly, administered a dose of future-shock therapy to parts of his audience.

So, a couple of quick remarks:

First, the symbolic importance and weight -- literally -- of coins (and objects struck in metal generally) make this a nice example of a simple, yet provocative, future artifact in 3D; standing out against a landscape where so much is done in 2D imagery. (The bronze memorial plaque for FoundFutures:Chinatown's "Bird Cage" scenario, our single most expensive artifact, drew part of its impact from that same sense of physical permanence or tangibility.) USNS again:

As well as fulfilling their basic fiscal function, coins have been used for several thousand years to advertise the legitimacy of the regimes that create them. Because they are seen as an important symbol of sovereign power, and because they are easily distributed, groups who aspire to, or who maintain pretensions to independence outside or in competition with established political structures - or who wish to promote some other agenda, be it commercial, cultural or social, frequently produce coins as useful tools of propaganda.

Currency is at once tangible, symbolic, and socially embedded. It's an icon with practical applications; with genuine social purchase (pun intended), and also carrying associations of identity and deep-seated commitment, similar to those borne by national flag and anthem. Which accounts for the hints of hysteria and ideology that seem to have attached to this phenomenon like a bad smell:
Fantasy coin my ass! Is this a government-sponsored disinformation site? Eat Sh*t
~Featured comment at the Amero Currency discussion website
Second, despite the oddly esoteric air and disreputable conspiracy-theory connotations around this topic (see Wikipedia's North American currency union article, editing of which was restricted at the time of writing this, owing to vandalism of the page); I think this is a particularly interesting example of a future artifact -- precisely because of its political charge.

As an outsider, one can only guess at whether this is a calculated bit of muckraking or a genuinely accidental foray into a "hornet's nest"; the other point is of course that what is "effective" (for getting attention) is at the same time ripe for misinterpretation. For me, the perennial question this raises is as follows: how can one bring to public attention genuinely difficult or sensitive issues (using futures artifacts or not) without being dismissed as wantonly provocative, irresponsible, or ideologically biased? That is, how should we be effectively radical? Says Carr: "The goal of any art work is to provoke some sort of thought or emotion." But how to draw the line between useful provocation and counterproductive pot-stirring?
I don't propose to answer that question here. But fantasy coin expert McCrea may shed a little light on the situation:
I believe that the existence of the Union of North America coinage is a very historic event, numismatically. Once in a blue moon, the line between "fantasy" coins and "real-world" coins becomes blurred. These Ameros truly reflect a realistic modern-day geo-political scenario, and I think they are definitely "crossover" pieces that will have major implications in our community that go far beyond the usual impact made by a typical privately minted coin.

However far the conversation gets this time, I think in principle he's already right.

When hypothetical artifacts assert a tangible presence in the world, there's an epistemologically ambiguous, yet politically important, moment in which we're called upon to grapple with their sudden thereness. We need to negotiate their meaning internally, and may discover with unexpected clarity what we really think about the possibilities they portend. A future artifact, erupting ahead of schedule into our consciousness, commands the type of attention normally reserved for a fait accompli. Therein lies its power.

1 comment:

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