Facebook banks on a globe-uniting currency

The launch of the ‘Libra’ cryptocurrency next year will help reimagine the purpose of money in a distrustful world.

A 3-D printed Facebook logo is seen on representations of virtual currencies in this illustration.

On Tuesday, Facebook announced a project to launch a digital currency next year that founder Mark Zuckerberg hopes will help build a “common global community.” More than 2 billion users on Facebook’s many platforms will be able to make payments, send money, and conduct other financial transactions through a new cryptocurrency called Libra.

Unlike Bitcoin and other virtual currencies which rely a closed digital system called blockchain, the new “stablecoin” will be a “public good” and reliable, according to Facebook. Its value will be pegged to a basket of national currencies or other investments. It will be managed by a Switzerland-based nonprofit funded by a wide consortium of groups from Mastercard to Uber to the charity Mercy Corps.

The project could be the boldest attempt yet in the digital age to reimagine the purpose of money. Is money simply a way to create and track wealth? Or, as Mr. Zuckerberg has reimagined Facebook itself, can money in the digital universe give people the power “to build community and bring the world closer together.”

Even as Zuckerberg has been forced to reform his social media giant – especially by improving privacy and preventing abuse by hate groups – he has also decided Facebook must create “meaningful communities.” People should not merely connect online but participate in groups that uplift people along shared values.

“This is the struggle of our time,” he stated two years ago. “The forces of freedom, openness, and global community against the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism, and nationalism.”

National currencies have long provided the glue of both commerce and giving. They help bind a community. Trust in money is trust in people who accept it.

In western Massachusetts, people went even further in 2006 and created their own currency called Berkshares, named after the Berkshire hills. About $130,000 worth of the specially minted bills are in circulation. The project has helped producers and consumers find a strong sense of community. Organizers say keeping the money within the Berkshires is a “celebration of place.”

Money is only one way to help people define the idea of home or ensure a spirit of cooperation and obligation in a society. “No society can survive,” writes British philosopher Roger Scruton, “if it cannot generate the ‘we’ of affirmation: the assertion of itself as entitled to its land and institutions.”

The Libra will have a long way to go to replace other currencies. Yet its debut in 2020 could bring new ways of building trust, either globally or locally. Private interactions in the exchange of a public currency help widen the many circles of friendship and community.  Like previous experiments in money, the Libra might be a social lubricant, only one for the whole world.

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