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Trading in cyberwampum

By Clayton Collins / August 2, 1999



BOSTON

Good old gold. Filched from nature, beaten into bars and coins, it has weight. Moves to devalue it notwithstanding, it retains some inherent "worth."

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We can't make more.

Paper money, when it came along, really just represented that value. Credit cards, then debit cards, gave plastic a whole new meaning. OK. We all bought that. It was still backed by good old, stuff-the-mattress legal tender.

But now a string of 0's and 1's, stored on a computer, can grease many a transaction.

Hard cash on your hard drive? Strange currency, indeed.

It seems that just as we were getting used to new ways of moving money with computers, money edged toward becoming "virtual."

Sure, you say. This is about online commerce. Maybe one more reason old-fashioned money-spitting ATMs are headed toward becoming Web-enabled kiosks, "universal providers" able to sell us airline tickets - or any documentation we might need.

Nope. We're talking tender. "Money" that a private company might produce, distribute, and back for consumer use.

So what's the built-in value of a string of digits? Could such currency - call it cyberwampum - ultimately be approved in enough cross-company arrangements that it could gain redeemable worth?

Could it displace the coin of the realm that the government meticulously mints? Imagine Alan Greenspan out of the loop. That doesn't seem a bright prospect for the Federal Reserve, upon whose tinkering rides our economy.

Today's lead story hits on the benefits and complications of technology's latest incursion.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society