Most of us expect some degree of reciprocity in our relationships when it comes to doing favours—I cook for us, you wash up, I clean the house, you walk the dog. These interactions remind us that our time is valuable and we need to offer something in return for someone contributing some time from their day. Time-based currency streamlines these exchanges, so that one hour of your time equals a one-time credit, one that can be exchanged for services instead of money through timebanking. Childcare, painting a house—anything that benefits the community becomes valuable, producing a parallel economy driven by social goods.
Time-based currency isn’t a recent invention. In 1827, Josiah Warren opened the Cincinnati Time Store, which sold goods not for money, but for an agreement to perform labour. Modern time banking as a community development tool was then formulated by Edgar Cahn in 1980. Having been involved in American politics as a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, Cahn noticed Reagan withdrawing funding from American welfare programs, exposing vulnerable people to even greater risks. Cahn’s solution was TimeBanks USA, a platform educating people on timebanking’s pay it forward model and displaying a list of global timebanks to join. Timebanking caters to the universal human need to feel valued, one of the many ways in which the market economy fails people. Under our current economic model, consumers value goods demanded in greater quantities than supplied.
Because human beings are so plentiful (our population by 2050 is projected as 9.8 billion), we are considered disposable by faceless corporations. We’re living in a capitalistic system that disfavours parity, a necessary principle for dignity at work advocating that a worker’s time is of comparable value to the employer’s pay. Without parity, the employer and the employee are not equal, with this power imbalance reflected in the estimated 2.6% of the population employed under zero hour contracts, leaving them having to pay for their own benefits out of minimum wage salaries.
The existence of a legal minimum wage separate from a national living wage is all the more telling that our time isn’t being valued. Considering these facts, it’s not surprising that this time-based currency has recently undergone a modern revival for the digital age through timebanking mobile apps. These are designed to support real-life time banking as an extension of the web-based model that has existed until now, further incorporating timebanks into our lives.
One app, hOurworld, was released from one of the largest national timebanking organisations with over 140 affiliated local timebanks. If registered with one of the timebanks hOurworld supports, you can download the app and connect to other members through its interface.
Not registered within a timebanking community? Check out Ying, which allows you to create new timebanks within your own communities, in your workplace with your colleagues, across friendship groups or other societies. Once your group is accepted onto the platform, each member starts with 24 hours of free time credits to spend on services offered by other individuals. When specifying the services you want to offer, there are a wide variety of choices, from personal training and acting to babysitting and fashion styling. In a tinderesque fashion, the app matches you with other members in your timebank looking to either spend their time credits on your skills, or increase their own time-income by helping you out with services you need.
The benefits of the timebanking model are obvious—time is a limited commodity but something we all possess to a certain degree. Through timebanking, we can invest in our communities while avoiding the trappings of so-called meaningless jobs. Timebanking gives people access to the services they otherwise couldn’t afford and redefines work to include non-market activities like elderly and childcare.
Most importantly, timebanking means no more throwaway people. But it is not without limitations. When using Ying, hOurworld and other traditional timebanks, you might be willing to swap an hour of babysitting for an hour of web-development despite pay differentials because you know that person first-hand, but when the community expands from a local to a global scale most people aren’t as willing to discount their time for strangers—especially if they could earn more in traditional currencies.
For timebanking to work as a viable global currency where all humans are treated as one unified community, it must account for differing values of skills. Chronobank aims to solve this by allowing workers to set their own wages in the form of “Labour Hour tokens”, where the value of one token equals to an hour of labour at average wages in their home countries. Chronobank also goes a step further than other apps by allowing credits to be withdrawn from cash machines.
Although this does solve the issue of unfair wages for skilled workers, it undermines the most attractive feature of timebanking—the development of intra-community social networks. At the moment, timebanking is not globally feasible, that’s why it may be best to keep it as a community development tool for our practical needs instead of using it as a replacement for our traditional currency.
Over the past year, more than five million people have realised that they can be cashing in from the very simple and somewhat inevitable act of walking (or running for those who like to do that too). Why just exercise when you can exercise and earn digital money at the same time? These were likely the thoughts of the makers of Sweatcoin, an app launched in 2015 that converts users’ footsteps into a hard earned digital currency called sweatcoins (SWC), which can then be used to purchase an array of products through the app.
The invention of Sweatcoin and its rise in popularity doesn’t exactly come as a shocking surprise. People love the gamification of sport activities and even more so the ability to not only count calories burnt but also coins earned. In the sleek purple and warm red hues of Sweatcoin, 1,000 real world steps are worth 0.95 SWC. A quick look through the website allows potential users to see some of the perks Sweatcoin offers, including an iPhone 8 for 20,000 SWC, a Vivobarefoot £50 voucher for 75 SWC or a Borneo expedition for 50,000 SWC.
From Initiative Q to countless other cryptocurrencies specialising in certain fields, Sweatcoin’s basis of turning steps into digital money isn’t particularly new. But what is interesting here is that in order to be able to truly access the perks of Sweatcoin (iPhone, holiday, etc), users need to pay for subscriptions that allow them to earn more than a capped level of sweatcoins per day. And to pay for these subscriptions, users pay with sweatcoins—not real world cash. For example, a mere five SWC per month grants users the level of Shaker, allowing them to earn up to 10 sweatcoins per day. The next membership level is Quaker, costing 20 SWC per month and permitting up to 15 SWC a day. Finally, the Breaker membership costs 30 SWC per month and allows for up to 20 SWC per day. Needless to say, earning sweatcoins isn’t as simple as following the Fitbit and iPhone mantra of 10,000 steps a day.
Unlike many other cryptocurrencies, whose premise lays in their ability to eventually convert their digital value into real world economic value, Sweatcoin asks its members to pay with sweatcoin and thus spurring the trade and use of the coin internally instead of trading the coin with money. Earlier this year Co-Founder Oldeg Fomenko said in an interview with TechCrunch that his wider vision for Sweatcoin is to move into and develop an “open-source blockchain DLT technology that will allow Sweatcoin to be traded like any other major crypto—or fiat currency.”
Sweatcoin has dug its foundation into a terrain made up of a growing obsession with cryptocurrencies as well as health and wellness tracking. It has also created its own digital economy where insurers and employers can prompt their customers and employees to exercise while creating a sensation of value. Cash value. As Co-Founder Anton Derlyatka says, Sweatcoin’s “first premise is that physical movement has economic value”. The real worry here is that while cashing out on something we should anyway be doing is appealing, before we know it the app could have a twisted treadwheel where users are forced more than prompted to continue their earning race. As New York Times writer Natasha Singer describes her experience of Sweatcoin, “The first time I swiped the app off, a notice popped up on my phone: ‘You killed me! Do not force quit me if you want to generate sweatcoins.’”
As much as the idea of earning while you walk or run is intriguing (and tempting), Sweatcoin has a sense of impossibility to it. It has been widely reported that the main downfall of the app is that it does not count indoor activity as it combined GPS tracking for fraud protection and thus dismisses treadmills, Zoomba, yoga or whatever else you might be into. Ultimately the coins are cumbersome to accrued and the prizes are expensive, in SWC terms of course. And at a closer look, what seems like an initiative to get people moving a little more now resembles a hectic rat race towards iPhones and package holidays which are just a few steps out of reach.