How money, cryptocurrency, and digital financial systems affect us | Interview with Dr. Bill Maurer

We met with Dr. Bill Maurer, Dean of the School of Social Sciences at University of California, Irvine to talk about the world of money and so much more. Enjoy!

How money, cryptocurrency, and digital financial systems affect us | Interview with Dr. Bill Maurer
"Is money something that is valuable in itself because of something about its qualities or scarcity, or whatever? Or is money really a social convention of accounting, really a way that people figure credits and debts between each other?"” – Dr. Bill Maurer

Dr. William M. Maurer mines the world of money, exploring the social impact of digital cryptocurrencies, academic experiences with Bitcoin and Etherium, mobile finances, ATMs, offshore money shelters, and what money actually represents to people. Dean of the School of Social Sciences and professor, anthropology; law; and criminology, law & society at the University of California, Irvine, Dr. Maurer talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

See Dr. Bill Maurer’s Academic Influence profile

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Interview with Dr. Bill Maurer

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:19Starting out

Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at academicinfluence.com and Wake Forest University. Today we have a wonderful guest coming from California, UC Irvine, this is Professor Bill Maurer, and he’s gonna tell us a little bit about how he got interested in anthropology. Take it away, Professor Maurer.

Bill Maurer: Sure. It’s hard to retrace one’s steps and figure out how one got to where one is. But when I was growing up in Upstate New York, in a rural area, I always loved going to the local library and there I really, really got into these collections of folktales from around the world.

And there was one that was Africa, one that was Asia, one that was Native North America. And I was probably reading those from around age 6 or 7, and I think that that is the thing, looking back, that laid some of the seeds of my interest in anthropology.

I was also one of those kids who was very much into fantasy and science fiction, and those things are all about other worlds and other ways of being in the world, and I think that’s one of the things. But I didn’t go to college specifically for anthropology. I think a lot of anthropologists don’t. They don’t even discover the field until they’re in their college career, or even after.

I started out, like many students do, going into biology, ’cause I imagined that I would be a doctor, a medical doctor, ’cause everyone imagines they’re gonna be a medical doctor.

And it wasn’t until my second year in college that I had space in my schedule for an elective, ’cause I was doing all the math and chemistry and bio that you needed to do for pre-med, and I just went to the bookstore, back in the day when you would go to the bookstore to find your books for your courses.

And I just started at the very beginning of the alphabet, which was A for Anthropology. And it kind of blew my mind. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, people get to read all these books about other cultures around the world as part of their courses.” That’s super interesting to me, so I enrolled in one.

And that pretty much did it. [laughter] Then we had to have the awkward conversation with my parents about “No, I’m not gonna be a bio major. I’m gonna be an anthropology major.” Yeah.

Jed: Well, it’s worked out for you. You’ve become extremely influential in the field of anthropology.

Once you started taking classes as an undergraduate, where was it that you realized, “I really wanna major in this and move forward even to a PhD.“?

Bill: It took maybe six months to a year. The first class I took was one called Peoples and Cultures of the Soviet Union. This was back when there was a Soviet Union. And it really did just blow my mind because there was the Iron Curtain. There was very little information that was coming out about life behind the Iron Curtain.

"…it was this realization that there was a whole field devoted to the study of other life ways that got me, that hooked me."” – Dr. Bill Maurer

And here we were looking at the cultures of that huge expansive territory that doesn’t just include Russians, but all kinds of other people as well. I can’t think of what I took immediately next after that, but that led me to scale back the bio and scale up in the anthro. I did take a couple courses in archaeology and physical anthropology, and that aligned nicely with the stuff I had already done in biology, but really, it was this realization that there was a whole field devoted to the study of other life ways that got me, that hooked me.

03:54Undergraduate research

Jed: Wow, that must have been great. What was the culture that hooked you the most for the longest when you were young? Was there something you did a project in as an undergraduate, or was it in grad school?

Bill: It’s interesting, the first project I did as an undergraduate was actually at a Russian Orthodox church, and there wasn’t any natural connection between that and the course I had taken, it was just there, and it lent itself to my engaging in a study there.

And then my advisor at the time got me very interested in the Caribbean. And I had never been to the Caribbean before, I didn’t really know much about it, but I was just fascinated on the kind of story of the Atlantic slave trade and the emergence of systems of domination structured by race and racism, and I wanted to understand that better. I really wanted to start thinking about where it is that we got the kind of world that we live in today that is so fundamentally structured by racist stuff.

And as a young person, and even today, I was very committed to social justice and to changing the world for the better, and there was something about going to where it all began that was very intriguing to me.

So, my next bit of research as an undergrad, which then I carried through into my graduate career, was in the Caribbean.

Jed: As an undergraduate, you got to take several trips to the Caribbean.

How did it look? Especially as an undergraduate, I’m curious, how did that field work look?

Bill: It was absolutely terrifying.

It was the sort of thing where my advisor connected me with a contact in Dominica, the Commonwealth of Dominica, at a local college, and then also with government official. They welcomed me, but it was very much like... I got on the plane, I flew away, I landed in this place, and there I was, all alone, on my own pretty much in an entirely different environment.

I had a wonderful landlady who took very good care of me, and made a point of making me local food and introducing me to lots and lots of people. But it was bizarre. And there are other things, too, that happened. I experienced a hurricane for the first time, got to watch it come in and watch us basically batten down the house with each other’s to keep everyone safe.

I experienced slaughtering chicken by hand for the first time. I didn’t do it myself, but I helped with my landlady when she was engaged in her own small chicken production operation to earn little extra money on the side.

It was pretty intense for, I guess, I was probably 17 years old or something, and here I was, on my own, in this place surrounded by very, very warm, welcoming people who took very good care of me, but still it was... It’s pretty intense.

06:58Offshore finance

Jed: Wow, that is really cool. Then you said it carried over into your graduate school.

Was that your thesis project stuff that you’d done there?

Bill: Yeah. My dissertation work ended up being about something that had been happening in parts of the Caribbean that really initiated my interest in thinking about money and finance from an anthropological perspective. And this was the offshore financial services business in parts of the Caribbean, in other words, the tax saving business.

So, I ended up doing my dissertation work in the British Virgin Islands. I had been set up there by one of my undergraduate mentors, in fact, and again, it was... Even though I was familiar with the Caribbean and had a lot of experience there at that point, I was not familiar with the whole phenomenon of brass plate incorporation, like these fake companies that would be set up for people to do things with money in. I don’t wanna say that it was all just money laundering, but stuff like that, or rich people hiding their wealth from their spouses and the tax collector as well.

And here, in this tiny, tiny little place, with just 10,000-ish people, you had millions of dollars going through every year, and lots and lots of accountancy firms and trust company firms and registered agents for other corporations using that jurisdiction as a place to really make it a node in global finance.

And I was just fascinated by how that came to be and how we can understand global finance as it gets routed through tiny little places like Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

Jed: Interesting. What were the ramifications that you discovered, and maybe other people had discovered before you did your PhD work.

Was there anything new you found out about that whole money transfer thing?

Bill: Yeah. The things that were super interesting to me were how locals were interpreting it and the role of offshore finance in local politics, the local economy and labor market, and also just people’s sense of themselves as British Virgin Islanders.

And one of the things that was super interesting to me was how important the law was for British Virgin Islanders as a point of pride and almost as a point of national identity, because their work in creating the legal structures that permitted offshore finance is the thing that put them on the map in the global economy.

And so they are very, very, very, very, very proud of BVI law, very proud of the fact that we had written these laws and we had created this thing, even if not many of them were actually involved directly and offer a financial services.

Although, as I said, it did kind of contort the local labor market and a lot of people who are British Virgin Islanders become lawyers and accountants and folks managing trust companies and that sort of a thing.

Jed: But not necessarily a bad thing for those people, is it? How do you feel about that?

Bill: Not necessarily a bad thing, although it exposes this tiny place to an enormous amount of risk. All it takes is one international scandal involving lots and lots of ill-gotten money, and then fewer people are gonna wanna incorporate in the British Virgin Islands.

Jed: I see.

Bill: There are other things that have happened that have also affected the way that folks incorporate there, and that has a lot to do with China and Hong Kong.

Around the time of the return of Hong Kong to China, a ton of Hong Kong business people incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, ’cause they were afraid of Chinese state takeover of their properties and businesses. And that endured even up to this day, so there’s a lot of Hong Kong and now Chinese firms that incorporate there.

"And as one person said to me, "When I'm incorporated here, I know that if there's a problem, I can go to court and I don't have to bribe the mayor or the judge."…"” – …

Interestingly in that, the law is very important, too, because one of the reasons why they like it is not just that it’s not China, they also like it because it is under the jurisdiction of UK law, instead of British law, which is they see as regular and not as corruptible. And as one person said to me, “When I’m incorporated here, I know that if there’s a problem, I can go to court and I don’t have to bribe the mayor or the judge.”

Jed: That’s interesting, very interesting. It sounds like you’ve kept in touch with this research that you started as an undergraduate. Is that true? Have you maintained some area of research in this...

Bill: I’ve maintained some of those ties. Just at the beginning of COVID, I had a Zoom call with one of my friends in the BVI just to talk about how that was all happening there.

Jed: Wow.

Bill: And I’ve definitely maintained that interest and that eye on offshore financial services, even as my work has taken me into other domains, having to do more with money itself and less with offshore, per se.

12:00Cryptocurrency

Jed: There were a few things about money that you and I thought might be interesting to discuss, do you want to just move into those now?

Bill: Sure, but you’ll have to remind me what they were.

Jed: Okay. Well, I wanted to hear more about cryptocurrency.

Bill: Okay.

Jed: You thought it might be interesting to take a broader perspective. But either way, it’s fine.

Bill: Sure. Let me back up and tell you another story. As I started thinking about how to broaden the stuff on finance I had done, and looking more at money itself as a kind of anthropological problem, I ended up being invited to write review essay on the anthropology of money for the journal “Annual Reviews in Anthropology,” which is a thing that comes out every year, and they get someone to summarize a whole area of scholarship.

I did one on money. And usually you write these things and you assume probably like 15 grad students are gonna read it and maybe a couple of the people that you cite. It’s a placeholder for, “Here is what we think about money right now.” And this was in 2006.

About a year later, I’m literally sitting in my office doing things, and there’s a knock on the door, and I opened the door and there’s this guy there, and he is holding a copy, a xerox copy, of my article, my review essay, all marked up like a crazy person.

And he’s like, “Are you Bill Maurer?” I’m like, “Yes.” He’s like, “This is your article, right?” I’m like, “Yeah.” And he introduced himself. He said, “Well, my name is Scott Mainwaring. I’m from Intel, and I’d like to talk to you about what you have to say about money.” And I was like, “What on earth is someone from the chip manufacturer are coming to talk to me about this paper for?”

Well, I come to find out, at the time, and Scott’s no longer with Intel, but at the time, he was part of a research team that was starting to think about how my Intel have to adapt as more and more payment and money and finance things migrate on to the computer and on to the mobile phone.

And really, at a technical level, what sort of chips do we need if we’re gonna be doing that? What sort of security and encryption and whatever technical things to protect the fact that people’s money is now zipping around through digital networks and in microprocessors?

But Scott had this hunch that what was gonna matter more to Intel was not the security stuff, but the actual social interactions that would change because people would start being able to use money on a phone.

And for many of the people who are watching this, it’s like, “Duh, money is on your phone, like PayPal, Venmo. What’s the big deal?” But there was a huge deal, if you even begin to think about this, at that time, and it helps to remember that the iPhone didn’t really exist yet. The iPhone was launched, I think, the end of 2007, beginning of 2008.

This is like pre-iPhone and Scott is like, “It’s coming. We need to think about the social interactions and the social dimension of this, if we’re ever gonna understand what we need to build to build systems for people to use money digitally.”

And now it’s obvious. We have Venmo and I can use it to send you money instantly, and we can split a bill or split the rent or whatever. It’s a very social thing. But then it was kind of novel, so Scott and I ended up that day in my office talking for about four or five hours. It was super interesting.

He got me involved in a collaboration at Intel, thinking about digital money, and at first we were looking at really the mobile phone revolution, and I ended up doing a bunch of work on mobile phone-based money transfer systems in Africa, and Kenya in particular.

I developed a research institute that focused on how it is that people understand and use mobile and digital forms of money. And I know you wanted to talk about cryptocurrency...

Jed: No, but this is interesting...

Bill: No, no, no, here we go. And one day, I’m literally in a cafe just a few blocks from where I am right now, in Long Beach, California, with a couple of folks who were then graduate students. They’ve now gone on to become professors and research directors of non-profits.

And I get an email from one of my contacts, who at the time was at USAID, the United States AID organization, who I had been in contact with around some of this mobile phone-based money stuff in Africa. And she forwarded me a link to the Satoshi white paper, the document that is anonymously authored by somebody supposedly named Satoshi Nakamoto, outlining a program to build bitcoin, a cryptocurrency.

And she says, “Do you have any idea what this is?” And I said, “No.” But what I did was I emailed that to another friend, who at the time was that the Fed, the Federal Reserve, in Atlanta and the Fed at Atlanta houses something called the retail payments risk center, I think, is what it’s called, and it’s a little research unit that focuses on payment technology.

Jed: Okay.

Bill: So, I sent it to her and said, “Hey, what’s this?” And she sent it on to an undergraduate intern, who spent 24 hours researching it, who then wrote back explaining, “Well, here’s how this thing works.” There’s a distributed database and they explained the blockchain, did a really great job. And then I’ll never forget, she wrote... The intern wrote, at the end of the email, something like, “This is never gonna reach the threshold where the Fed is gonna have to worry about it.”

Jed: Oh, boy.

Bill: Which is great because... In a way, that remains true, it is still a tiny little nothing on the world of money. But, of course, in terms of mind share or the amount of air time it’s occupied, it got huge not just bitcoin but other cryptocurrencies.

And so from about a week after that time at the cafe, my grad students and I decided, “You know what? Let’s just start watching all of the forums, all the online bitcoin forums, and start scraping all of that and saving all of that and to see.” And we ended up writing an article about those conversations that were happening online around bitcoin, and then I started doing some other work around it as well. In particular, I got very interested in the way that bitcoin really was re-opening a conversation about money and the nature of money.

And, in particular, this conflict that’s always been there in the way that people have thought about money between, is money something that is valuable in itself because of something about its qualities or its scarcity or whatever, or is money really a social convention of accounting, really a way that people figure credits and debts between each other, just an elaborate system of IOUs and a record-keeping system?

And what’s neat about bitcoin is it’s both of those things at once. It embodies that tension, because the initial people who created it didn’t really know. I think they thought money is valuable because it’s scarce, and so they created something that’s inherently scarce.

But then to make it work, they ended up realizing the true nature of money, which is that all that it really is is a bookkeeping operation. And that’s what the watching is, it’s a distributed ledger, it’s an account.

Jed: Yes. And for people who don’t know, the thing that was rare were these large prime numbers that people would have to mine for looking... Because you can’t just predict what they’re going to be, and so computers would have to mine them, and as soon as they found one, that became this rare thing that you’re talking about now.

Since I’m not really in the field of cryptocurrency, do all cryptocurrencies rely on something like that that’s rare, some large prime number? Or do some of them just say, “Well, it’s just a blockchain, it’s just keeping track of who owes who?”

Bill: Yeah, yeah. The initial one on that bitcoin model, the initial copycats all relied on the business of the game to hunt for the number, a kind of proof of work, it’s called.

Later ones threw that out, ’cause it’s very computationally intensive, it takes a lot of computing power. You can’t just do it on your laptop. You need giant server farms. And others instead were like, “No, look, the real important thing is this ledger. And if we have a bunch of collaborators in a ledger, we can just create something where we each all agree to do the upkeep of it in a distributed fashion, instead of having it be in charge of having one central accounts keeper,” which then gives you network resiliency but also prevents any one entity from taking over the system.

There’s other advantages, too. And those are usually called proof of stake operations, where everyone buys in a particular stake and is giving up a predetermined amount of computing power in exchange for this distributed system for reckoning credits and debts with one another.

Jed: And when you say giving up a predetermined amount of computing power, is it because that computing power needs to be running this ledger or is it...

Bill: Right.

Jed: Okay, okay. That’s interesting.

Bill: It basically needs to run the ledger to verify transactions, so that, if you post a transaction, then we all get to work verifying it.

Jed: Interesting. Now, when you and your graduate students were looking at these forums, did you participate in the forums? Or as a true fly-on-the-wall anthropologist, were you just reading them and not participating?

Bill: In the online forums, we weren’t participating, ’cause at that point we really weren’t sure what we were gonna do, we were just watching. But as time went on, we all got involved in conversations with cryptocurrency proponents, developers, designers, people also who are legal advisors, regulators who were looking at these things in various federal agencies and state agencies, and it really became much more of a participant observation thing.

We did not do much in the way of transacting in bitcoin. I have taught a class... I teach a class regularly where I teach about bitcoin in the blockchain as part of a bigger thing around the history of money.

And I do send all the students little tiny bits of bitcoin, and they have an assignment where they have to send it on to somebody else, and send it on to somebody else. Then they have to go into the blockchain and find the transaction, ’cause they know their own secret address, they can see themselves, and then they can track others.

And then, generally speaking, all of it comes back to me, but it’s usually... It’s maybe $10 worth, total. And we do... In my research institute, we did for a while play around with Ethereum, which was a new cryptocurrency that was really trying to create a system for distributed applications, distributed computer programs, almost like little robots that would do things digitally when certain conditions were met.

And one summer... Gosh, it was several summers ago, we created on Ethereum something that we call the guac-chain, which was a system for securely and secretly storing guacamole recipes. [chuckle] And it worked for a while. And then it stopped working, and we couldn’t figure out why, and we just forgot about it.

And one day, about two years ago, one of my grad students turned on that computer and was like, “Bill, you have $7000 of Ethereum right now.” It’s the price of... At the time, we had like, 50 cents, but the price went up so crazily.

I just remember telling her, just turn the computer off, make sure that all those pass codes are locked up in the drawer. And we haven’t really touched it since, and technically it’s all property of the regions of the University of California. I suppose some day we’ll have to deal with it, but now it’s just there in my Ethereum wallet.

24:10The main area of expertise

Jed: Would you say that money is mainly the central thing that you’ve researched as an anthropologist throughout your career?

Bill: Yeah. Pretty much it’s money, and also that kind of interface between money and law, because as accounting technology, money is very much bound up with how people distribute and allocate power among themselves, which is the stuff of law and law-like institutions. That’s really the thing.

Jed: Does that study put you more in touch with current events and political science than it would if you were studying something else perhaps?

Bill: It definitely puts me more in dialogue with economics and law, and law professors, a little bit more than poli sci, I would say. Yeah.

And especially, because I’ve become known to people in the payments arena outside of academia, I often get called on to comment on things that are going on either in the media, or I get calls from folks in the industry wanting me to explain something to them.

There are a lot of people who would think of me first as a payments expert or a payments professional, and then they’re like, “Oh, wait, he’s an anthropologist, that’s interesting.”

Jed: Did it come as a result of looking into bitcoin and some of these cryptocurrencies that you really got inserted into the community of money and payments? Was that the impetus, or was there other things you were also doing?

Bill: No. It was the other stuff. It was really a lot of the work that I had done on mobile phone money transfers, it was the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, which I direct, which ended up supporting hundreds of researchers around the world who were looking at everything from when people started using M-Pesa, which is a text-based money transfer service on your phone in Kenya.

"But where the rubber hits the road is how people actually adopt it and then use it, because even if they adopt it, which is great for you, maybe they're not using it in the way that you intended."” – Dr. Bill Maurer

Everything from that to what happens when the ATM lands for the first time in your village. And I think so many folks in industry are hungry for an academic perspective because it’s generally more neutral, it’s more objective, it’s based on what people are actually doing and that will be hoped that they’re doing.

And for folks in industry, in particular, everybody has got a cool idea for a product or a cool idea for an app. But where the rubber hits the road is how people actually adopt it and then use it, because even if they adopt it, which is great for you, maybe they’re not using it in the way that you intended. Maybe they’re not using it in the way that you designed.

And it’s people like me, anthropologists, user experience people in computer science, who really provide that on the ground fine-grained insight of what people actually do.

Jed: I bet that’s super useful.

Bill: People who design these systems so often forget that they’re gonna be put in the hands of people.

Jed: Real people with anthropological things going on in their society, in their own lives.

Bill: Yeah.

27:21New kinds of payment

Jed: That’s really cool.

Maybe as we get towards the end of this interview, I was wondering, are there instances where you see the new kinds of payment really changing in helping developing world countries?

I read an article about how Haiti had such a difficult system for dealing with the banks, and then when mobile phone payments came along, people could start their own businesses and work around some of the difficulties they were having in the national banks.

Have you seen things like that?

Bill: Yeah, definitely. But it really depends on the context. In some places, where you don’t have a built-out payments or banking infrastructure, something like the mobile network and the mobile phone coming in can really help address people’s lack of access.

But in places like the United States, we have lots and lots of overlapping redundant payment infrastructures and architectures, and still we have so many people who are frozen out from them because they don’t have access to a bank account because they’re too poor.

Not because there isn’t a brick-and-mortar bank down the street, but because they just don’t make enough money to maintain a bank account. And there, you really do you see that low tech is so much more important than high tech. You need to have ways for people to be able to get cash, just good old-fashioned green bucks to make ends meet.

During COVID, it’s been really interesting to see how so many poor people, who are receiving relief payments in the form of debit cards or electronic checks, have a really hard time actually using that money. In the case of if they get a prepaid debit card in the mail, what we see is people lining up at ATMs seeking out the ATM with the lowest fees and the highest maximum withdrawal amount so they can get their cash ’cause they don’t have a bank account, and they need to pay their rent in cash. Or with the eCheck thing, we see people going to the library and printing out the eCheck, and then taking it to a check cashing outlet where they’re assessed, again, really high fees.

"The work has really made me appreciate that there's no silver bullet and there's no one-size-fits-all in terms of geography but also in terms of socio-economic status, so we need an array of monies, we need an array of payment infrastructures."” – Dr. Bill Maurer

Bill: The work has really made me appreciate that there’s no silver bullet and there’s no one-size-fits-all in terms of geography but also in terms of socio-economic status, so we need an array of monies, we need an array of payment infrastructures.

And ideally, we need more public options in payment to really provide access. Right now, the only public option we’ve got is cash. Some people have been arguing recently that we need something like a public Venmo or something like a way for everyone to have an account at the Federal Reserve that they could access via some app that would be available to everybody without fees or without charge.

Or again, there are proposals to use the post office, again, as that kind of service. In the past, in this country and around the world, post offices have long served as sites for very, very basic, rudimentary banking services for primarily under-served people. In this country that was done away with in I don’t remember when, but it’d be great if it could come back.

30:30Becoming Dean

Jed: Interesting. Wow, that’s fascinating. Well, my final question to you is, you have moved into somewhat of an administrative role at UC Irvine, how did that happen and how does that affect your research?

Bill: How did that happen? That’s a really great question. I had been serving as the Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies in my school when the then dean announced that she would be stepping down.

And she and others really encouraged me to put my name in the hat, primarily to try to educate those at the university, who would be selecting the next dean, about the needs of the school. And we really...

I think everybody thought that the university would go with an outside candidate, ’cause that’s often what happens. I went into it not necessarily wanting it and not thinking that I would get it anyway.

And I just took it as a chance to say, “Hey, look, here’s our needs, here’s what we’ve got going on. Here are the holes, here are the gaps. Here’s where we can really advance if we only had X, Y and Z resources.” And I thought I did a very effective job at that, but then they picked me.

[laughter]

Jed: Too effective.

Bill: And then I had to think, “Do I really want this?” I thought it would be an interesting challenge, and so I took it. They, the administration, were very cunning.

They knew that my research career was extremely important to me, so they provided additional resources for me to support that. They provided funding for me to support a post-doc and later an administrative staff person to help me keep all of my research things going while I served in this role.

So, I’ve been able to keep it going, not at the same rate that I would like. There’s another book or two that I gotta write at some point, but some day it’ll happen.

32:29Sign off

Jed: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much, Professor Maurer, for taking some time with us. It’s just been truly a pleasure.

Bill: Well, thank you. It’s been fun to talk about this stuff.