Digital Money: Then and Now

Anders Brownworth
4 min readOct 31, 2023

There are 2 main differences between when money was digitized in the 1970’s and now: cheap, fast, always connected computers and essentially the entire field of cryptography.

When money was first tracked by computers in the 1970’s, the only way to supply digital money was via monolithic centralized databases. In the intervening 50 years though, the technology landscape has fundamentally shifted. If you were to rebuild the financial system given what we have today, it would look very different.

Cheap, fast and always connected computers allow realtime settlement. Previously, financial transactions were done in batches requiring a time delay between the initiation of a payment and its final settlement. Technology has progressed to the point where realtime settlement is not only viable but far less complex. This creates almost unimaginable efficiencies for the financial system.

Add to this the emergence of the field of cryptography which fundamentally alters what is possible. Not only does cryptography offer fundamental building blocks for security and identity but it also opens a vast array of choices particularly for the preservation of privacy and ability to limit bad activity that we are just beginning to understand.

In the 1970’s, the only way to build a digital financial system was to use a small number of centrally controlled databases. Inherent with this is “god mode” where the operators have the ability to see and alter everything. This was the only way to do it. There was no other practical way to build a digital financial system.

This necessarily created a “honeypot”. The design is to enforce a perimeter around the financial system. Everything inside the perimeter is trusted and everything outside is not. If you can get through the perimeter, you can essentially do whatever you want. There is significant demand to breach the perimeter to get to the honeypot.

With cryptography you have brand new options. Rather than enforcing a perimeter, for example, you sign transactions and send them out into the wild on their own. Anyone is free to alter these transactions but alteration would cause signature verification to fail therefore making the transaction invalid.

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Anders Brownworth

Applied CBDC Research — formerly Federal Reserve, USDC @ Circle.com, Bandwidth.com. MIT / Podcaster / Runner / Helicopter Pilot