There was a thriving peer to peer economy right at the end of the Middle Ages that nobody likes to talk about. The soldiers had come back from the Crusades. They had all sorts of new inventions and technologies and mechanisms; there were new trade routes that they had opened up. And they had came back to their towns and they took something that they found in the Middle East called the bazaar and they revived it as something they called the marketplace. So now people who had just been peasants working on the land of the Lords started coming together and trading this stuff that they made. And they had all of these really interesting instruments from market money and local currency and grain-based currency and all of these evolved really to promote the exchange of value and the velocity of transactions between people.
And it started to really do well, which was the problem. As the peasants became wealthy the aristocracy got scared, who are these people? They’re not going to be dependent on us any more. So they came up with two main financial innovations to prevent the rise of this peer to peer economy. The first one was the chartered monopoly, really the parent to the modern corporation. All the chartered monopoly was was a way to say all of you small businesses are now illegal. If you want to be in the shoe business you have to work for his majesty’s royal shoe company. You want to be in the grain business you have to work for his majesty’s royal grain company. So people who were small business people now became employees. Instead of selling the value they created, now they sold their time as servants, as wage laborers.
The second invention they came up with was central currency. Not such a terrible thing in itself. It’s great to have a long distance currency that lots of people can use and value, but the problem was they made all of the local currencies illegal. So the only way people could trade with each other, the candlestick maker could trade with the chicken farmer was by borrowing central currency from the treasury. So now you had to borrow money at interest just in order to transact. And that set in motion really a growth cascade. If you have a currency that has to be paid back with interest, in order to just make end meet you need an economy that’s growing. You need more money next year than there was this year.
So that worked well for colonial powers, as long as we could extend into Africa and South America and North America, find slaves, find new resources, we could grow. But what happens when you reach the end of the planet’s growth as we did really at the end of World War II? Then we started to look for really virtual surface area, some new way to grow. And that was the technology. We believed that digital technology and the World Wide Web and computers would really create a new place, a new virtual territory for us to colonize. And it just turns out what we’ve been colonizing for the last 20 years is human attention and human time. And now it looks like we’re even running out of that.