BY JAKE THOMAS
In the beginning, money as a medium of exchange revolved around grain, cattle and other necessities. Next came beads, cowry shells and shiny pieces of metal. Today government-issued paper and coins are the rule of thumb. Increasingly, the entire financial system is devolving into sequences of zeros and ones.
For centuries people have relied on an unspoken social contract that assigns a commonly understood value to a recognized set of objects. But if currency has always had a physical existence, its value is defined by the community and the marketplace and is therefore ephemeral. At some level, money has always been an abstraction.
In 2014 physical currency is less tangible than ever, with money’s bling increasingly likely to be found on computer screens. As cash turns into trash, technological innovations are streamlining banking practices and commerce for businesses and consumers.
But the changes under way go beyond transactional efficiencies. As the nation’s financial system comes under increasing scrutiny, currency innovations are being touted as a solution to social and economic problems, democratizing access to capital, helping nurture local businesses and giving a boost to those near the bottom of the economic totem pole.
Oregon Business explored some of the innovations taking place in various financial institutions, from banks cautiously exploring mobile payments to cutting edge digital-currency startups still searching for a market. One thing is clear; although the future of money may be fast, easy and literally immaterial, the goals of the evolving ecosystem remain decidedly old-fashioned: to facilitate exchange, to allow people to move goods and services and, ideally, to boost work, productivity and income.