An E-CNY payment sign on a desk in a store in the Luohu district in Shenzhen, in southern China's Guangdong province. Photo: AFP / Zou Bixiong / Imaginechina

There is an unmistakable buzz around central bank digital currency, or CBDC. The Bahamas became the first country to issue a CBDC last year. And on October 1, the central bank of Nigeria unveiled its e-naira.

Last year, China began trial of its digital yuan in four cities. The US and Britain are busy working on pilot programs, and issuing research papers outlining how their own CBDC might work.

Still, many people distrust the idea and mistake it for a form of cryptocurrency. They shouldn’t, and it isn’t.

Which raises the obvious question: What is a CBDC?

The simple answer is that CBDCs are just like money in your wallet. Except it isn’t printed – that is, issued on paper. It is instead issued electronically.

Like a paper currency, every CBDC has a serial number and is identifiable. In contrast, Bitcoin is like a pot of gold and thus is not uniquely identifiable. Owning a couple of Bitcoins is like hoarding a few ounces of gold. Like gold, you can shave off bits to pay someone or accumulate bits of Bitcoin into a crypto “lump.” It is infinitely “smeltable,” so to speak.

Now, you might protest that this doesn’t sound terribly different from digital payments with your credit card. Or electronic bank transfers. Well, it is different.

Digital payments are a form of checks: instructions to pay money from your account. That money eventually is represented by physical cash printed by a central bank – it may be digitally represented in your account, but there is a store of that physical money somewhere to back it up.

Each time you use electronic payment for your coffee, there are intermediaries matching your payment to your bank account and then transferring it to Starbucks’s. You need Mastercard or Visa to be the middleman, a role for which they take a fee.

For simplicity’s sake, handing over digital yuan in Shenzhen (one of China’s trial sites) for some dumplings is like forking over cash from your wallet. It goes directly from you to the vendor. There are no intermediaries – just like with cryptocurrencies.

But unlike cryptocurrencies, the unique identity of every CBDC means it is possible to trace the route each CBDC travels. There is an electronic record of every transaction, unlike traditional fiat money. This makes it harder to launder money or to finance illegal activities undetected. 

But for all that, many people are concerned that their “real money” is being shoveled into a Ponzi scheme that they believe cryptocurrencies to be. Most people still don’t understand what a blockchain is, and cannot comprehend how the technology enables CBDCs and cryptocurrencies. Indeed, the fact that CBDCs depend on blockchain just like cryptocurrencies immediately make them suspicious. 

Cryptocurrencies and CBDCs are interchangeable terms in many people’s mind. And a problem with one tars the other.

Consider El Salvador’s adoption of Bitcoin – not a CBDC, mind you – as a national currency in September. It didn’t go smoothly. There was confusion among some residents, and international observers warned that the country would be isolating itself from the global economy (such is the fear-mongering about cryptocurrencies) and publicly wondered about the true intentions of those running the country.

In fact, the real problem was that days after El Salvador took the plunge into Bitcoin, the red-hot new blockchain and cryptocurrency Solana experienced a 17-hour outage. Solana is a more efficient alternative to popular blockchains like Ethereum and is seen by many who understand these things as the future of cryptocurrency. But then it went down for more than a day, leading some to question the strength of its technology and for concerns to spill over to other cryptocurrencies and CBDCs.

Lost in the sea of hot takes about these two events is a fact that most take for granted: We are in the very early stages of blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies and CBDCs. This isn’t a value judgment on the use and efficiency of blockchains or cryptocurrencies. Instead, it’s a humble reminder that we are in the early days of a profoundly innovative technology. 

Back at the dawn of the Internet, a virus called the Morris worm in 1988 infected up to 10% of computers connected to the Net. Despite this crippling event, which naysayers at the time cited as a potential downside of the Internet as a whole, the Web has fared remarkably well. Instead of seeing the Solana outage as evidence of the inferiority of cryptocurrencies, it’s more instructive to see these developments as a natural part of an emerging technology.

Which brings us back to CBDCs. Why bother if most people and banks are happy enough with digital transactions of the current variety?

The answer is that the infrastructure for money is changing. We’ve had paper money since China’s Tang dynasty in the 7th century, although it didn’t really take off until the Song dynasty in the 11th century. Technology has accelerated in the last 100 years alone to the point where we must reevaluate how we structure society, including money.

There is a clear need to remain abreast of technological improvements. Digital currencies work, cut down on corruption, are easy to use and are much easier to control.

Don’t take my word for it. That’s what the International Monetary Fund has repeatedly argued. In an article it published in July on its website, it said that the “advantages of [digital currencies’] underlying technologies, including the potential for cheaper and more inclusive financial services, should not be overlooked.

“Governments, however, need to step up to provide these services and leverage new digital forms of money while preserving stability, efficiency, equality and environmental sustainability.”

The drive by major central banks to establish digital currencies is about relevance in a changing technological landscape. Yet this shift to digital money won’t happen overnight, and there will be hiccups along the way.

Just as the Internet underwent major growing pains (and still is), digital currencies have a long road of maturity ahead. It’s still early days. Still, instead of carrying cash in your wallet, you should expect in some near future to pay with an iris scan, thumbprint or the shape of your face. 

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Joseph Dana

Joseph Dana is the senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact.