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The Financialization of Life

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A recent article about the BlockChain appeared on the Italian version of Vice’s Motherboard and raised a series of interesting conversations, and was soon followed up by another one.

In that article I was called to express a series of opinions about what was happening with BlockChains and cryptocurrencies, from the point of view of an organization such as the one I lead (HER, Human Ecosystems Relazioni), which deals with data, complex connections between sciences, technology, society, design and art, and the social, political, cultural and psychological implications of these connections and interactions.

In my job, everyday, I deal with multiple points of view which confront with these impacts brought on by data, blockchains and cryptocurrencies, with a wide variety of subjects from hyper-technical ones, to entrepreneurs and investors, to policymakers, up to the ones beyond suspicion, “ordinary” people who have to understand what an artwork which uses the blockchain does, or who deals with culture, museums, the city’s neighborhoods. People who — whether they like it or not — have to do with these technologies and practices. A large variety.

I have the maximum respect for the blockchain. It possibly is the technology which bears the highest potential for radical innovation and transformation today. With all its limits and problems.

My critique is not technical, but psychological.

It moves across the domain of perception and of comprehension of reality.

In this domain — the one of the psychic processes which are engaged and shared by people and their relations as they interpret the world to understand how to orient themselves and how to act in it — technologies like the Blockchain are a disaster.

Why?

On the one hand, they are a very powerful agent towards the transactionalization of life, that is of the fact that all the elements of our lives are progressively turning into transactions.

Which overlaps with the fact that they become “financialized”. Everything, including our relations and emotions, progressively becomes transactionalized/financialized, and the Blockchain represent an apex of this tendency. This is already becoming a problem for informality, for the possibility of transgression, for the normation and normalization of conflicts and, thus, in prospect, for our liberties and fundamental rights, and for our possibility to perceive them (because we are talking about psychological effects).

On the other hand, they move attention onto the algorithm, on the system, on the framework. Instead of supporting and maintaining the necessity and culture of establishing co-responsibility between human beings, these systems include “trust” in procedural ways. In ways which are technical. Thus, the necessity for trust (and, thus, on the responsibility to attribute trust, based on human relations) progressively disappears.

Therefore, together with it, society disappears. Society as actively and consciously built by people who freely decide if and when to trust each other, and who collectively agree to the modalities of this attribution.

What remains is only consumption of services and products. Safe, transparent and all. But mere transactionalized consumption. Society ends, and so does citizenship: we become citizen of nothing, of the network, of the algorithm.

These are not technical issues, but psychological ones, perceptive ones. And, thus, even more serious.

Technology is not neutral.

I can use a hammer to plant a nail or to smash it on your head, that’s true. But what is also true is that as soon as I have a hammer in my hand, everything starts looking like a nail.

This is the same for Blockchains. As soon as I start using them, as soon as I start imagining the world through them, everything starts looking as a transaction, as something which is “tokenizable”. And this is a disaster, in the ancient sense of the word (dis-aster, without stars for orientation).

Technology creates us just as much as we create technology.

We are starting to design systems which are, on the one hand, completely open and transparent. Which is a good thing from one point of view, and a problematic thing to do on the other. (unless the complete transparency of “The Circle” scenarios is something we feel comfortable with).

From another point of view, these systems are progressively being associated to identity systems, meaning that all the advantages and freedoms deriving from the fact that digital identity is anything but univocal and fixed are progressively being lost. Byebye anonymous, temporary, shared, multiple, plural, identities. Goodbye all the freedoms that come with them.

What derives are “citizenship” sytems (not “existence”, not “inhabitantship”) which are literally trustless, “without the need for trust”, in which trust is in the peer-to-peer network, in the automation, in the algorithm.

Institutions and other people disappear, replaced by an algorithm. Who knows where trust is at/in! It is everywhere, diffused, in the peer-to-peer network. Which means that it’s nowhere, and in nobody.

In a weird way it is like in call centers: they are not really useful for the client, and they completely serve the purpose minimizing bother for the companies, letting clients slipping into the “procedure” (which is synonym with algorithm), and avoiding them from obtaining real answers and effects, in their own terms outside of procedures.

These are all processes which separate people from each other, from institutions, organizations, companies, through the Procedure.

Citizens of everywhere. Citizens of nowhere and nothing.

From a philosophical and psychological point of view it corresponds to a powerful addition to a process which is already taking place on a large scale: the transactionalisation of life.

Everything is turning into a transaction: our relationships, emotions and expressions; our ways of producing, acquiring and transferring knowledge; communication; everything.

As soon as each of these things become the subject of a service, they become transactions: they become an atomic part of a procedure.

Because this is what a transaction is: an atom in a procedure, in an algorithm. This includes the fact that transactions are designed, according to a certain business, operational, strategic, marketing model.

This means that when our relationships, emotions, expressions, knowledge, communication and everything become transactions, they also become atoms of those business models whose forms, allowances, degrees of freedoms and liberty are established by those models.

With the Internet of Things these processes also arrive to the objects which fill our daily lives, to the elements of the environment and to the environment itself.

This means that we will be surrounded by transactions, within ourselves and in everything around us. It will become truly difficult to think of something that does not correspond to a transaction.

As said above: this will bring on issues for informality, the possibility for transgression and for our freedoms and rights.

Many of these these will simply disappear, as we lose capacity to conceive them outside of the “procedure”, of the transaction that embodies them. Whether it is purchase or an emotional expression, it will not make any difference.

Furthermore, speaking of transactionalization and its equivalent, financialization, the issue of access will also arise from the fact that there will be a limited amount of subjects who will have the resources to sustain the cost of the transactions which are needed to have rights and freedoms, or to pull themselves out of the procedures themselves. And of course there will be people who don’t have these resources.

These reflections have long been outside of the discussions which are going on about these new technologies. Hackers, activists, researchers, philosophers, antropologists are talking about the blockchain, as well as governments, organizations, companies and banks themselves. Yet none of these doubts are yet on agendas. There is a mono, singular narrative, which is interpreted for activism, business, governance, exploitation.

Investments, from above (with governments, financial institutions, investors) and below (with crowd based operations, evangelism, activism and also with the desire to exploit and to access funds and resources, to abandon the state of crisis) are happening.

And yet we must consider.

The Blockchain is the first tentative answer in years to the extremely centralized models which are de facto ruling us today, whether we talk about energy, environment, finance, welfare, governance.

The Blockchain is all about distribution of power.

And yet, this same distribution is its weak spot, if our objective is to collectively create a society with more freedoms, solidarity and opportunities for relation, emotion, communication and knowledge.

Because this distribution of power does not require conscience and desire, and the responsibility of these conscience and desire. Because these are in the algorithm, not in ourselves and in our relations.

It is not the algorithm serving us, and what we want. It is the algorithm turing us into itself, making us become like it.

What can we do?

The most important thing we can do is, probably, that we need to realize that these are not technological or technical issues.

Design only arrives up to a certain point. The design and production of services, products and instruments does not address a class of issues which are aesthetic, psychological and which deal with sensibility and imagination.

For example, in our practice we often talk about the Third Infoscape, which is originated from the concept of the Third Landscape.

As in the Third Landscape: where “technicians” see “weeds”, the Third Landscape sees opportunity, biodiversity, an open source media which is a reservoir for the future of the planet, which does not require energy to maintain, but produces energy, food, knowledge, relations.

As Marco Casagrande describes, the entire territory becomes a form of knowledge, with all its conflicts, dissonances and polyphonies. This is not a transactional (or transactionalizing) vision. It is a thing in which data and information are not laid out geometrically, formally, as in gardens, but more like the woods and wild nature, in which multiple forms of dimensions, boundaries, layers and interpretations co-exist by complex desire, relation and interaction, not by design.

It is a different kind of technology, a different kind of science, with a different imagination to support it.

The Third Infoscape, just as the Third Landscape, is not a matter of technology or technique. It is a question of sensibility, of imagination and of aesthetics.

The problem? It is current science and data. Which we are now using as something absolute and immutable. As a society, we are now using Science and Data like once we used Religion and Magic.

The Blockchain is one direct effect of this.

It is the procedure that “liberates” us from trust, from having to trust, from having to trust others. It compels you to trust, because it is the algorithm itself which embodies trust. And, by doing that, by forcing you to become like it, transforms all into a transaction.

To make trust exist, it transforms all into itself.

We need a change in sensibility and imagination, not disruptive services.

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About the Author

This article was written by Salvatore Iaconesi, founder at Art is Open Source, Human Ecosystems and Nefula. Remixing the world through ubiquitous technologies.

Entrepreneurship

Will Financial Liberalisation Trigger a Crisis in China?

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The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been liberalizing its financial system for nearly 4 decades. While it now has a comprehensive financial system with a large number of financial institutions and large financial assets, its financial policies are still highly repressive. These repressive financial policies are now a major hindrance to the PRC’s economic growth.

The PRC is at the beginning of a new wave of financial liberalization that is necessary for supporting the country’s strong economic growth. The country’s leaders have already unveiled a comprehensive program of financial reform, which includes 11 specific reform measures in three broad areas: creating a level-playing field (such as allowing private banks and developing inclusive finance), freeing the market mechanism (such as reforming interest rate and exchange rate regimes and achieving capital account convertibility), and improving regulation.

But could financial liberalization lead to a major financial crisis in the PRC? What would be the consequences for financial stability as the PRC moves to further liberalize its financial system? If the PRC repeats the painful experiences of Mexico, Indonesia, and Thailand, then it might not be able to achieve its original goal of overcoming the middle-income trap.

International experiences of financial liberalization, especially those of middle-income economies, should offer important lessons for the PRC. In our new research, based on cross-country data analysis, we find that financial liberalization, in general, reduces, not increases, financial instability. This powerful conclusion is valid whether financial instability is measured by crisis occurrence or by fragility indicators, such as impaired loans and net charge-offs. The only exception is that financial liberalization does not appear to significantly lower the probability of systemic banking crises, although it does lower the risk indicators for banks. These results have higher statistical significance and are greater in magnitude for the middle-income group than for the entire sample.

The insignificant impact on banking crises, however, should be interpreted with caution. One of the possible explanations is that under the repressed financial regime, the government supports banks with an implicit or explicit blanket guarantee. This reduces the probability of an explicit banking crisis, although the banking risks may be even greater because of the moral hazard problem. In fact, government protection of banks could also increase the probability of a sovereign debt crisis or even a currency crisis before financial liberalization.

If financial liberalization significantly reduces the likelihood of financial crises, especially in middle-income economies, then why did some middle-income economies experience financial crises following liberalization? We further investigate whether the pace of liberalization, the supervisory structure, and the institutional environment matter for outcomes of financial liberalization.

We obtain three main findings. First, an excessively rapid pace of financial liberalization may increase financial risks. The net impact on financial instability depends on the relative importance of the “liberalization effect” and the “pace effect.” In essence, what the “pace effect” captures could simply be the prerequisite conditions and reform sequencing that are well discussed in the literature. Second, the quality of institutions, such as investor protection and law and order, also matter. International experiences indicate that investor protection can significantly reduce the probability of financial crises. Third, the central bank’s participation in financial regulation is helpful for reducing financial risks during financial liberalization. This is probably because central banks always play central roles in financial liberalization, especially in the liberalization of interest rates, exchange rates, and the capital account. If a central bank is responsible for financial regulation, its liberalization policies might be more cautious and prudent.

Our research findings offer important policy implications for the PRC. (1) Further financial liberalization is necessary not only for sustaining strong economic growth but also for containing or reducing financial risks. (2) Gradual reform may still work better than the “big bang” approach, and sequencing is very important for avoiding the painful financial volatilities that many other middle-income countries have seen. (3) The government should also focus more on improving the quality of other institutions, especially market discipline, to contain financial risks. (4) It is better for the central bank to participate in financial regulation. The new regulatory system should focus exclusively on financial stability and shift from regulating institutions toward regulating functions. It should also become relatively independent to increase accountability.

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About the Author 

This submitted article was written by  and  of Asia Pathways, the blog of The Asian Development Bank Institute was established in 1997 in Tokyo, Japan, to help build capacity, skills, and knowledge related to poverty reduction and other areas that support long-term growth and competitiveness in developing economies in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Entrepreneurship

Why Angel Investors are Shaking Up the Global Startup Scene

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Candace Johnson is someone who has made a global impact on our modern international telecom and broadcast business. She co-initiated the foundation of SES-Astra and SES Global, which today owns a fleet of 54 satellites and broadcasts 6500 TV channels. And she founded the world’s first Internet-based online service, Europe Online, making it into one of the first broadband Internet services.

But it was in her role as president of EBAN, the European trade association of several hundred business angels, which brought her to Eindhoven’s High Tech Campus recently. She explains why angel investors are making a difference to the global start-up scene and explodes several myths that surrounds the way they do business. She spoke with StartupDelta’s Jonathan Marks.

Building the match between angel investors and hardware startups

“People often think that angel investors are people who do investments around the corner, locally, or in services like e-commerce. To be frank, when the HTCE management told me that they were focussing on the hardware side of things, I was thrilled.”

“What I’m trying to do as President of EBAN, and having incubated MBAN (MENA Business Angels Network) and ABAN (African Business Angels Network) under my presidency, is to extend the scope of angel investments. The vast majority of angels are already tech savvy. But we need to educate our successful angel investors to invest more in hardware and infrastructure. We also need to help start-ups develop a pitch that speaks to the interests of angels, so they can get funding for their initiative.”

“We run the EBAN Training Institute with the goal of raising standards. We’re seeing more and more that the best angel investors are serial entrepreneurs. They bring their trusted network, expertise and experience to the table.”

“Money is important too, but it is not at the top of the list. Business angel investors are high net worth individuals who usually provide smaller amounts of finance (€25,000 to €500,000) at an earlier stage than many venture capital funds are able to invest. They are increasingly investing alongside seed venture capital funds.”

Angels are more important than most people know

“We follow the guidelines and standards developed by the European Venture Capital Association. For over seven years, during the depths of the financial crisis in 2008 until the recent recovery started, it was the angel investors who took over the role of early stage financing. More than €7.5 billion are being invested annually in Europe, with a sustained growth in recent years. Of that €5.5 billion comes from angels. In fact we have had to professionalize our profession to meet the demand of the growth in this early stage ecosystem.”

We always have an exit strategy

“Angel investors can only continue to invest if they have exits. I hear many people talk about investing. Only a few discuss exits. I want to change that. I also stress that proven entrepreneurial success is essential in order to become a member of our association. We need to ensure that useful “lessons learned” are shared with the start-ups. They are always based on hands-on real-world experience. We have no time for people who are using new blood to try and correct mistakes they made in their own failed companies.”

“EBAN was started in 1999 together with the European commission. For the first ten years, I think people were too focussed on the investing part. Now we need to focus on exits and returns on investment. Without returns, business angels are out of business. And remember there is only a short window of opportunity during which start-ups can scale-up to becoming global success stories”.

“Our feeling is that you should not make an investment in a company unless you can see the path for the exit. The exit may be a trade sale, an IPO, etc. The exit also does not have to be 100 %. It does, however, have to bring you a return on your investment so that you can continue to invest. This approach helps you focus on building great companies. There’s always competition in healthy markets, so no-one can afford to waste time. We’re not a charity; we’re doing this because we love building and financing global success stories. We’re therefore looking for companies with a real marketable product, not a prototype or a collection of well-presented ideas.”

Is there specific advice you can share with high-tech startups?

“In the last few years we’ve seen the rise of the accelerators alongside incubators. They have helped raise standards because a good idea needs to be validated by the market before it is the basis for a high-growth company.”

“As investors, we always need to see a start-up demonstrate that they have first clients and initial revenues. We’re not saying that they have had to scale or show market traction. But if we are going to put in our personal money, then we expect the founder to be resourceful enough to work out the first product, to have found the first clients and show us evidence of the first revenues.”

“The incubators who help get an idea into reality and the accelerators have been good at making startups better prepared for angel investment, offering the right coaching to turn an idea into a validated business. That means angel investors are better able to select the growth companies and focus on making a good return on their investment.”

Hanneke Stegweg

“We recognise that young companies need to present their business proposition to the angels attending our annual conference. So we’ve created ways that teams get immediate, honest feedback on the quality of their business presentation. We have one full day of preparation and coaching followed by a Global Investment Forum. The best go on to pitch to the entire network. This year, the “company to watch” category was won by Hanneke Stegweg, who is the Dutch CEO of the iLost company. Together with Neelie Kroes, I am keen to see more women founders lead entrepreneurial teams.”

What needs to change for things to move faster?

“We held this year’s EBAN congress in Eindhoven at the recommendation of several members. They all work in the innovation and financing of innovation field. But this region also came up in our discussions with StartupDelta. We have worked closely with Neelie Kroes when she was with the European Commission.”

“We were tipped off to the High Tech Campus specifically by our Russian members: the Russian Business Angels and the Skolkovo Foundation who are building the Skolkovo science park just outside Moscow.”

“And last, but not least, I know Eindhoven from my work in telecommunications and broadcasting hardware field. We often came here to work with Philips on the establishment of the DVD and MPEG-4 standards.”

“During our visit to the Brainport area it was clear that there is more than enough money in the region and a healthy appetite to invest in innovation. But there are some caveats that we feel need to be addressed.”

“Frankly, I think we are rather tired of the “nice-to-have” e-commerce companies. We would prefer to reinvest in world-class companies who are building something tangible, solving a real-world challenge. They need to demonstrate they can scale and become global.”

“We can see that the efforts by many have helped to raise the bar in the Netherlands and that’s good news for everyone. But remember there is a difference between entrepreneurs and SME’s. Entrepreneurs are the only ones to change our world. They create large companies, worthwhile employment, and that grows into large revenues.”

Failure is not an option

“We should get rid of this talk of failure being an option. If you’re taking angel money, it is NOT OK to fail.”

“If you take third party money, you have a responsibility as an entrepreneur to do everything you can to make a return on the investment of your business angel. The media keeps talking about friends, family and fools. But that’s nonsense! Founders, families and friends build great companies!”

“I have always been a free marketer at heart. Europe and The Netherlands need to create nations of investors. I believe in the power of private sector-led investment. Government needs to follow the leads set by business angels, not the other way round. We are investing our own money and using our years of experience to scale up these companies. An entrepreneur who is not willing to work and dedicate her or his lives 24/7 to achieve the goal should look elsewhere for money!”

“We’re fortunate that the EBAN network acts as a magnet for excellence. We were honoured to have the President of the European Research Council and the Head of Technology Transfer of the European Space Agency address our Congress to show us where the technology trends are going and where we should invest.”

“From a venture and entrepreneurial financing perspective, we were most grateful to our colleagues from the United States who joined with our European, MENA, and African colleagues to set the bar high in creating, building and financing global success stories. Amongst those joining us in Eindhoven from the United States were the president of the Global Accelerator Network from the USA, the president emeritus of the Angel Capital Association of the USA, the President of Start-Up Angels and Board Member of Up Global from the USA. We also welcomed the President Emeritus of the Crowd funding association of the US as well as the chairman of New York Angels. And we were delighted with the presence of David S. Rose, the president of GUST.com. These are some of the world’s best experts in angel investing.”

“They all said they were pleasantly surprised by the high standard of the startups that came to Eindhoven from all over the world. It was well above what they had expected. Start-ups from Africa, Middle East and Europe traditionally explain what they do, rather than explaining to investors why their idea is important. But that’s changing rapidly for the better. Entrepreneurs are also getting better at defining what they need in order to scale-up.”

NEXT STEPS : It’s all about active networking

“I should explain that in expanding our reach in Europe, with have formed alliances with the European Space Agency and the European Research Council. They also have their own accelerators and incubators. I think the onus is on the angel investor community to help bring this scientific community to a higher level of entrepreneurship. They need to think about the market for their inventions from the beginning. I believe we can help these organisations filter out the very best ideas and give those the attention they need to scale ideas into real businesses. There needs to be a validated market need for the technology they are developing.”

“We have two main events. There is the annual EBAN congress, this year in Eindhoven and next year in Porto, Portugal. And we run the EBAN Winter University, this year running from November 17–19th in Copenhagen. We’re doing this with leading organisations active in Europe’s creative industries. And all this is in addition to individual events and competitions organised by EBAN members at a local, regional and national level.

Increasingly we’re assembling cross-border syndicates, both between European countries and increasingly inter-continental networks linking Europe with innovation hubs in Africa, Middle East and North America. As companies scale and go global, it is important they have access to an international shareholder network. It’s a softer landing when they cross continents.

We also believe there is a way in which we can build partnerships with techno-business parks around the globe, led by the flywheel initiatives shown by High Tech Campus Eindhoven over these very fruitful days in the Netherlands.

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About the Author

This article was written by Jonathan Marks, Executive Director at Photon Delta. See more.

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