Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Blockchain Narratives, Property and Belonging in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe

by Daivi Rodima-Taylor, Boston University

The kratt. Source:

In Estonian folklore, the kratt or “firetail” was a creature humans assembled out of old household objects and animated by drops of blood to performs tasks for its human master. In the current day, this mythological critter has gained prominence in the cultural and political space of post-socialist Estonia – including attempts at KrattLaw to give legal status to Artificial Intelligence. Why has this folk metaphor from an Eastern European peasant tradition become central in debates about emerging digital technologies that we often think about as so definitively global?

Looking at the cases of Estonia and Georgia, I am interested in how post-socialist Europe’s historically and locally specific adoption of these new digital technologies may offer insights into the social imaginaries of blockchain. There is an increasing understanding that digital technologies such as blockchain are not merely technological tools, but carry important social and political implications. The use of blockchain in the public administration systems of post-socialist Eastern Europe offers interesting perspectives on how attitudes in popular culture cast light on how these technologies are instituted and used.

Blockchain is a software protocol that facilitates electronic transfer of information without the need for third-party intermediation. Changes in its ledger are added to the data structure when multiple distributed parties come to consensus based on pre-agreed rules. The new modes of decentralized value transfer, identity verification, and business and asset management enabled by crypto-codes raise novel questions about the nature of social trust and institutions such as property and citizenship as mediated by the new technology.

With its origins partly in crypto-utopian pursuits of decentralized monetary and governance technologies, blockchain has increasingly appealed to more traditional institutions of finance and governance. Governments are pursuing blockchain technologies to render their populations and property systems legible while enhancing transparency.

Blockchain has been hailed as a key technology to help formalize property rights by facilitating secure and transparent land registries – a technology that would “unlock the value of landholding” and boost the entrepreneurial potential of its owners. It is perhaps no wonder that the assumed potential of blockchain to facilitate order and formality in situations of instability is particularly pronounced in post-socialist and post-conflict states. Specific histories of post-socialist property restructuring and decollectivization efforts to (re)construct private property have been marked by legal and administrative ambiguities and alternative institutional arrangements. New property forms may blur distinctions between private and public, resulting in “recombinant” property forms that can be assessed by multiple standards of measure. The promise of a secure digital public database may therefore particularly appeal to societies characterized by fuzzy normative frameworks and unclear land use practices.

Farmland in Tanzania. Photo: Daivi Rodima-Taylor

Currently existing application cases, however, cast doubt on the potential of blockchain to automatically rectify the vast expanses of informality, signaling logistical and political challenges, as in the examples of Honduras and Ghana. Blockchain land registration is underway in Georgia, offering interesting glimpses into the political and social rationale of such initiatives, as well as the implications for existing infrastructure.

Selling land in post-socialist Georgia used to be a long process, prone to bribery. The development of the Georgian land registry was seen as justified by popular sentiments that “politicians could influence transactions.” Georgia re-gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 after a centuries-long history of foreign invasions, reducing public trust in government. Many property records had disappeared or were non-verifiable after the fall of the Soviet Union. The expansive land denationalization reintroduced the notion of private property, and in doing so created a vast database of recent land titles.

Georgia’s blockchain adoption built on its openness to other digital technologies. The arrival of blockchain-empowered land registries in Georgia was preceded by a decade-long effort to digitize property and business registries of the country, with the help of international development banks and aid agencies. The National Agency of Public Registry (NAPR) partnered with the blockchain company Bitfury in 2016, to elevate the protection of property rights “from national to global levels.” The blockchain layer was thus designed to function as an addition to the already existing IT infrastructure of the database. Over 300,000 titles were transferred to blockchain, drastically reducing transaction speeds and operational costs, and smart sales contracts for property transactions were piloted in 2017.

Bitfury had been operating bitcoin mining centers in the area since 2015, so residents and government institutions were already somewhat familiar with the blockchain technology. Due to popular awareness about cryptocurrencies, many individuals took up small-scale mining activities in their garages. The World Bank estimated in 2018 that up to 5% of households in Georgia were engaged in cryptocurrency mining or investments.

Bitcoin mining in Georgia. Source: NPR

Elsewhere in post-socialist Eastern Europe, Estonia’s innovative e-governance demonstrated a similar embeddedness between distributed digital technologies and existing digital infrastructures, initiatives, and political rationales. The e-Estonia system is considered the most ambitious nation-wide digital initiative globally. With a small population of 1.3 million, Estonia has a unique socio-political background, including a desire to re-connect with the outside after the Soviet-era isolation. Security was a significant factor - the organized cyber-attacks against the Estonian Internet infrastructures by Russia’s hackers in 2007 mobilized a unified digital response. Since 2000, Estonia has employed a distributed data exchange layer for secure online transfers between information systems – X-Road. In 2007, a team of Estonian software and security specialists designed the digital signature system that would lead to Keyless Signature Infrastructure (KSI) Blockchain Technology Stack that is used in a variety of state registries.

The well-established national digital services framework served as a basis for the innovative e-Residency initiative. Offering a transnational digital identity to citizens of any part of the globe, it allows anyone outside Estonian borders to engage in commercial activities with public and private sectors. About 35,000 e-residents have applied from 160 countries, with thousands of new companies established. As the first program in the world to provide a government-authenticated digital identity to foreigners, it could be seen a step towards a novel idea of a borderless state. The e-Residency platform also serves as a site of expansion for other blockchain initiatives in the country such as decentralized public notary services with blockchain startup Bitnation, and Nasdaq’s blockchain applications with Tallinn Stock Exchange. While the distributed technologies allow the users of Estonian e-governance initiatives better control over their data, the country’s digital embeddedness is viewed as serving an important security protection for the small state with turbulent history. E-Estonia likens blockchain to “digital defence dust” that covers data and smart devices for protection from corruption and misuse, noting that blockchain could be compared to the deterring effects of NATO allies in Estonia.

The growing use of blockchain in public administration systems also gives rise to new risks and vulnerabilities. By enabling an “unbundling” of property rights, blockchain registry facilitates a market for small real estate investments, and as other digital registries, may foster an illusion of immutable land rights, while backgrounding other relevant relationships around the landholding. The entry of private startups working with governments in the blockchain space may entail implicit privatization of land registries, creating private markets in public data. The increasing financialization of land may thus be part of the tendency to “re-risk” that often accompanies blockchain applications.

While it is too early to evaluate the actual impact of these technologies in Eastern Europe, it is evident that rather than cutting out the middleman, blockchain registries build on existing social and political frameworks and infrastructures. In order to understand the ongoing reintroduction of intermediaries and the types of “recombinant” collectivities and property forms blockchain registries facilitate, one should study the social imaginaries and metaphors that surround the technology. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that figures like the kratt from folklore suggest themselves to help narrate the new relationship between technologies with globalizing potentials, and post-socialist projects of the re-emerging nation state.

The kratt could be seen as a broader cultural metaphor of how Estonians think of their digital infrastructures - as a pragmatic combination of different elements and layers of technology, animated by human agency and desire – but also a creature with a separate subjectivity. Estonian digital progress could be seen as an expression of an important continuity embodied in the character of the kratt – as representing indigenous inventiveness and resilience that has sustained Estonians throughout their difficult history. This cultural metaphor for a particular kind of symbiosis between humanity and technology also entails an acknowledgement of an inherent unpredictability of the digital technology that, similarly to the kratt, could turn against its creators and has to be managed by smart policies and “KrattLaws.” The folkloric creature - the kratt - has thus become an important popular metaphor for efforts to grapple with the emerging ethical issues around digital technologies, while calling attention to the fruitful connections fostered through these, as well as their inherent precariousness.

November (2018) Exclusive Clip "Kratt Needs Work" HD

While the implementation of digital technology often accompanies a global sense of oneness, the example of Estonian ‘recombinant’ nationhood that defines allegiances in terms of virtual and not territorial or ethnic affinities, and the blockchain land registry in Georgia that legitimizes private property after long decades of socialist rule, suggest these national distributed digital projects need to be studied in their own terms. Only then is it possible to evaluate the promise of decentralizing digital technologies for enhancing democratic and participatory governance.

Daivi Rodima-Taylor is reachable at

Monday, May 13, 2019

No change to spare? That’s no longer a problem for buskers.

IMTFI Director Bill Maurer, Anthropology, via MarketPlace Morning Report, May 8, 2019  (Audio)


Bill Maurer is an anthropology professor at UC Irvine who studies financial technology. “There’s really no good solution for folks in the informal economy.” Good old-fashioned cash on the other hand? “I don’t need to have a bank account to make it work, I just need the cash in my hand and as soon as I give it to you, it’s yours.” He says none of the payment services we have at the moment can really do that. (Segment starts at 4:04, Bill Maurer starts at 6:08)

For the full story, please visit


Monday, April 15, 2019

Duo Book Review in American Ethnologist: PAID and Money at the Margins and 4/18 Livestream Book Launch at Ohio University!

by Daivi Rodima-Taylor, Boston University

Paid: Tales of Dongles, Checks, and Other Money Stuff. Bill Maurer and Lana Swartz, eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. 320 pp. Hardcover $27.95/£22.00. Paperback $17.95/£13.99.

Money at the Margins: Global Perspectives on Technology, Financial Inclusion, and Design. Bill Maurer, Smoki Musaraj, and Ivan Small, eds. New York: Berghahn, 2018. 334 pp. Hardcover $140.00 | £100.00. Paperback $29.50/£21.00.

Paid and Money at the Margins are seminal books—the first organized efforts toward an ethnographically informed study of payment systems. Recent rapid advances in financial technology have diversified payment infrastructures with important implications for how money is valued and transformed or even replaced as a medium of exchange. Emerging payment structures also shape who has access to such forms of exchange across and within national borders, and so we can think of them in terms of inclusion, exclusion, and power. Disruptive digital innovations potentially enable vast unbanked populations to gain access to global financial systems, but the consequences of such inclusion are as yet unclear.

Meanwhile, new sharing economy platforms empower alternative spaces for value creation. Who profits and who loses in such emerging exchange networks are still open questions. These two edited collections explore these issues by focusing on everyday practices, socialities, and materialities around money movement pathways. A sequential examination of the volumes would enable the reader to gain familiarity with historical and comparative perspectives on payment systems and technologies and allow for an informed application of that knowledge to the topics of inclusion and technology design in the financial systems of the Global South.

Read and download the full review on AnthroSource:

Link to Introduction: Money and Finance at the Margins, which outlines the contributions of the book to the anthropology of money and finance as well as to studies of development and financial inclusion.

In celebration of the affordable paperback publication--Berghahn is offering a 25% discount on the through it's website, code: MAU485. Valid through May 31st:


Join us for a Livestream Book Launch this Thursday! 

Money at the Margins, April 18  

The Center for Law, Justice & Culture presents book launch panel for Money at the Margins: Global Perspectives on Technology, Financial Inclusion, and Design on Thursday, April 18, from 5 to 6:30p.m. in Bentley Hall 124.

The panelists will discuss changes in the socio-cultural meanings of money in various sites across the Global South, and the impact of new forms of money and financial services—such as mobile money and digital government grants—on development and financial inclusion. The book, published by Berghahn Books, is part of The Human Economy series.

The panel features two of the co-editors, Dr. Smoki Musaraj, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and CLJC Faculty Affiliate at Ohio University; and Dr. Ivan Small, Assistant Professor at Central Connecticut State University. Dr. Bill Maurer, Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Professor of Anthropology; Law; and Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California at Irvine, will join the conversation via Skype.

Money at the Margins considers the impact of new monetary technologies, including mobile money, e-commerce, cash cards, retail credit cards, and more. As these technologies have become increasingly available, the Global South has cautiously embraced these mediums as a potential solution to the issue of financial inclusion. How, if at all, do new forms of dematerialized money impact people’s everyday financial lives? In what way do technologies interact with financial repertoires and other socio-cultural institutions? How do these technologies of financial inclusion shape the global politics and geographies of difference and inequality?

Read full details of the event here:

Watch live or later on A&S TV:

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Fintech apps: Shaping the future of financial literacy?

UC Irvine researchers conduct study with five popular fintech apps to determine how Americans interact with financial advising apps

UCI students share their experiences with fintech apps in focus group.
Photo credit: Jenny Fan
We all know we should be saving for the future. But what does that mean? Should we be contributing to a retirement plan? And if so, what type of retirement plan?  Or should we just be putting money into a savings account? And how much should we be saving each month? What if there is nothing to save?

As Kristin Wong, personal finance journalist, wrote in the New York Times, “Many of us grow up learning that money is one of a few topics — like politics, sex and religion — that you should avoid in polite company. You don’t brag about your net worth. You don’t share your salary with colleagues. You try not to ask your friends about their rent, even if it helps put your budget in perspective.”

April is Financial Literacy Month, and it so happens researchers in the School of Social Sciences have been asking whether new smartphone apps are actually teaching people about better financial habits.


Without a trusted resource to learn about financial literacy people often feel overwhelmed by budgeting, debt management, and trying to meet savings goals. The Federal Reserve Board's 2018 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households found that 40 percent of Americans say they cannot cover a $400 emergency expense, or would do so by borrowing or selling something.

Those who are interested in managing their personal finances often turn to apps and robo-advisors from financial technology companies, commonly called fintechs. Popular apps, such as Mint, claim to help users learn about budgeting and establishing personal financial goals. Since 2008 the number of new fintech companies in the US, and around the world, has soared.


Building on a rich portfolio of research on how people interact with money and financial technology, the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) and the Filene Center of Excellence in Emerging Technology at UC Irvine conducted a study to dig deeper into fintech apps, the experiences they offer, and how users respond to them.

“With the unbundling of banks, there are a lot of fintech companies popping up and taking on roles traditionally held by banks. Many are providing personal financial advice through these new technologies, but we know very little about actual user interactions with them,” says Melissa K. Wrapp, a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at UC Irvine. “An app on a phone to budget or invest can be tremendously helpful, but you also have to be wary of what other information or sales motives could be imbedded within apps.”

Wrapp works as a researcher for Bill Maurer, anthropology and law professor and dean of the School of Social Sciences at UC Irvine. He’s also a Filene Fellow who performs research for the Center for Emerging Technology to look far into the future to connect credit unions with the most impactful technology and drive forward-thinking business decisions.

“It’s important to understand how people use these apps because we just don’t know if they encourage better financial behavior or lead people down the wrong path,” says Maurer. “My hypothesis going in was that these apps are almost like training wheels—and that people would graduate from them after a time and seek financial advice from more traditional sources like a bank or credit union.”


In a pilot study, twenty-seven participants used one of five fintech apps for 30 days and reported their experiences. Some apps were personal budgeting apps and others were for investment management. The group included UC Irvine undergraduates, graduate students, and staff. Several participants were completely new to financial management apps, while others had some previous experience with fintech apps.

"We started the project with preliminary interviews, then held a focus group half way through the study to see how the experience of using the app was going," Wrapp says. "During the exit interviews, many participants mentioned that the focus group conversations were as valuable to them as using the app itself because, for many, it was the first conversation they've ever had with people about how to manage their personal finances."

While many participants indicated that they are now actively seeking out more personal financial education, Maurer and Wrapp will be presenting the complete research results at the Center for Emerging Technology and Filene's Spring i3 "The Future of Trust: How Technology Will Make it or Break it for your Credit Union" meeting in Seattle, WA on May 29-30. Their discussion will examine behavior and patterns of younger consumers’ use of financial apps to manage their money, and how credit unions can identify best practices to shape their own mobile apps.

-Megan Boettcher for UCI School of Social Sciences

See original post at:

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Teaching about money’s origins—and its possible cryptographic futures—with Proto-cuneiform

Guest post on the CREWS Project by Professor and IMTFI Director Bill Maurer 
February 11, 2019

Richard Mattessich (1998) opened his paper in the Accounting Historians’ Journal on 3rd millennium BCE protocuneiform with a quotation from Leonard Bernstein: “The best way to know a thing, is in the context of another discipline” (Bernstein 1976: 3). For two weeks in January, 2019, a class of 114 undergraduate students at the University of California, Irvine, drew made-up protocuneiform tables based on Nissen et al. (1993) after reading Mattessich’s accountant’s perspective on them. They did so as part of a class on “The Future of Money.” The class is still going on, and is being conducted entirely online, except for an end-of-term in person meeting with a panel of payments industry experts and final exam.

Protocuneiform tablets were chosen as the earliest surviving examples of economic transactions utilizing a type of proto-writing that would later develop into the more abstract wedge-shapes of classic cuneiform.  The earliest examples date from the late 4th millennium BC (around 3200-3000), from the area of Uruk, and commonly include ‘pictographic’ signs denoting the goods being counted alongside numerals. (You can read more about ‘Proto-Cuneiform’ on the CDLI here and here.)

Proto-cuneiform tablet, probably from Uruk, c.3100-2900 BC. Image from HERE.

Split nearly 60%-40% between computer science majors and social science majors, the class read for two weeks on the origins of money—with video lectures in which yours truly tried to disabuse them of the received wisdom of money’s origin in barter, instead to foreground the importance of states’ administrative record keeping. The readings included some essays on tokens by Denise Schmandt-Besserat (including this interview) and parts of James Scott’s book, Against The Grain.

They started out simple….
\Then the students engaged in a collaborative exercise. Mattessich in hand, they were tasked with drawing their own protocuneiform tablet representing a grain transaction, sending it to another student who would decode it for the next student, who would make a new tablet by adding to the original tablet and sending it to another student, and so on. The online format allowed for this kind of “do something and pass it on” structure: we used an online discussion forum on the Canvas platform that displayed threaded replies so that all the students could see what the others were doing and learn along the way. To make it more manageable, the students were divided into groups of 20-25, so each initial “tablet” went through at least 10 iterations. The whole thing took two weeks, with students responding as each new tablet or new decoding was posted.

And got more and more complicated!

Errors crept in along the way. Questions arose as to the placement of symbols on the “tablets” and the difficulty of dealing with a system in which zeros were indicated by empty spaces. Some of the students got a little frustrated. For the computer science students, this was not a typical “lab.” For the social science majors, this was also outside the norm for a homework assignment. Draw an ancient protocuneiform tablet, take a picture of it and post it online for someone else to decode? Pretty weird. But after the first couple of iterations, they really got into it.

For takeaways and lessons learned, read full blogpost:

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

N.J. could soon ban stores from making you pay with a credit card or your phone by not accepting cash

By Brent Johnson, NJ Advance Media for
(Posted Feb 1)

It may soon be illegal for New Jersey stores to keep you from paying with cash and force you to pay with a credit card or your phone instead.

Both houses of the state Legislature on Thursday passed a bill that would make New Jersey only the second state in the U.S. — and the first in 40 years — to bar no-cash policies at businesses.

It’s now up to Gov. Phil Murphy to sign or veto the measure.

Experts say it’s becoming more common for businesses to require electronic payments — especially in cities — thanks to credit cards, debit cards, self-service kiosks, and mobile devices like Apple Pay being more readily available. It’s quicker and more convenient for stores.

But experts and lawmakers say cashless businesses disenfranchise people who don’t have the means to set up a bank account or can’t afford credit card debt.

Experts say it's becoming more common for businesses to accept only credit cards and
electronic payments and banning cash. (File)
 - (Dec 2 post)

Bill Maurer, a professor at the University of California-Irvine who directs the school’s Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, said about 25 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t have access to credit cards or similar technology.

State Sen. Nellie Pou, D-Passaic, a main sponsor of this measure, cited a federal survey from 2015 that shows 7 percent of American households had no checking or savings accounts — and the number was twice as high for black and Latino households.