Re-Valuing

Nicole d'Avis
6 min readJun 9, 2020

A few weeks ago I had the honor of speaking with students from College of the Atlantic, my alma mater, as they prepared for the first steps of their careers. In this dialogue with fellow alumni, I returned to the durable, intersectional preparation we’d received in our time at COA, an education that had catapulted us into being, and loving to be, lifelong learners and holistic problem solvers.

While at College of the Atlantic, I spent multiple semesters studying and living in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula through a cultural immersion program that has now become the PICY Institute. My career has since taken turns that I couldn’t have predicted, and yet my learnings from that time continue to inform my work today, in particular, now working with artists to understand the value of their time, work and creativity.

Don Santiago Itzá

In 2002, I spent four months living as a guest in the home of a Maya shaman, Don Santiago Itzá. As a descendent of the Mayan leadership of the Yucatan peninsula, Don Santiago had traveled and presented at the 1993 UN Cry of the Earth Conference in New York, alongside native peoples from across the Americas, and Vice President Al Gore. Though he had been invited to teach and travel abroad, as he’d told me, “Where would I have grown corn and how could I have eaten tortillas there?”, so he returned home to San Francisco Aké. I lived with him and his family in this village of about 400 people located just a few hours from Cancun.

Aerial view of San Francisco Aké

In that village, they used the loudspeaker in the plaza to announce important news. One January evening at dusk, there was an announcement, and I asked my hosts for a translation from Maya to Spanish. They told me that there was beef for sale. In this town, most people kept chickens, turkeys and pigs. I knew there were only two cows in the village. Beef was not usually available, and Doña Teresa, the shaman’s wife, explained to me what had happened. That night I wrote, “a man cut off nearly part of his leg with a machete, and had to kill their cow and sell his wife’s necklaces, and so we eat beef. It’s the town’s way of helping out. This world is so tough.” All the families bought beef that night, and the man’s family had money for the hospital.

Ultimately what stayed with me from my time with Don Santiago, other than sustained admiration for this incredibly hard working, kind, witty and sparkly-eyed grandfather, was the idea of value. The value of time and people, and how that value is created, measured, shared and exchanged in a community.

What’s resurfaced all of this for me in the past few years has been my attempts to wrap my head around Bitcoin and blockchain. Bitcoin is an alternate to the economic systems we’ve built: currencies limited by borders and banks. Ultimately, living intermittently in Mexico gave me the understanding that currency really stands for the value of a people’s time, mind and bodies. We’ve decided that the value of someone digging a hole for an hour is different depending on in which nation that hole, and the person digging it, may be. And thus, the symbols (or tokens or currency) that we use to measure the worth of one hour of hole-digging vary in value as we start exchanging them from country to country.

Don Santiago fastening roof beams

So if Bitcoin is nationless, borderless, and as Satoshi continues to prove, anonymous, then it removes that geographic determination of value. Storing value on a blockchain, as Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies do, has, to my mind, reframed how we measure and exchange value. It has enabled the creation of that villager-to-villager (peer-to-peer) economy on a global, digital scale. If we then extrapolate beyond currency and consider what can be stored and exchanged via blockchain, and thus what blockchain unlocks, this is when it gets really meaningful to me.

When Don Santiago’s neighbor cut his leg, the entire community crowd sourced funds to support his care. This village of 400 people had three churches, which divided along family lines, and socializing and sharing largely stayed along those lines. But in this case, it did not.

Yes, each donor received beef in exchange for their donation, but ultimately they ended up giving cash (an extremely valuable commodity in what was largely a cashless community) to a community member on a day and for a commodity that they hadn’t planned.

Don Santiago shelling annatto seeds with his granddaughter

They could SEE value. They knew what an ear of corn, a wooden post, a cut of beef, a turn at the mill, what this all truly cost and they had decided it together as a community. Yes, this is a bit generous because ultimately the price of their corn was set by NAFTA, and the price of bizcochos, Nescafé, Coca Cola and Sabritas were set by Nestle (to the point that a liter of coke was colloquially called a “doce” as it cost twelve pesos). Still, the assets and services they controlled were theirs to price and value.

What might it be like if we could reclaim how we value our time, our ideas, our art, our privacy, our data, our identities and our bodies?

The original internet dreamers imagined a new self-sovereign world. What we got was Facebook, Amazon and Google. Someone else has priced how much my eyes on an ad are worth, has taken my data, my identity and even my emotions, and sold that too. What if the peer to peer network of blockchain really was about self sovereignty for all members of the system.

How might we rewrite the rules from the bottom up, empowering the marginalized, trading directly across arbitrary borders and setting our own value?

I’m fortunate to work with young creators at the intersection of tech, art and entrepreneurship and I’m encouraged by the next wave of disruptors that I see on the horizon. But I’m worried, too, that with the sparkle of cryptocurrency, we are forgetting the radical opportunity inherent to these decentralized networks and that most involved with blockchain are failing to deploy them, ethically, to their deepest potential. We have SO much to lose, and the stakes are incredibly high, truly higher than ever before in my lifetime, as everything from our emotions, our art, our attention and our bodies are being commodified and priced by big tech in a market, and too often by government structures, that we can’t access and certainly can’t control. I haven’t been in the blockchain world for long, but even just in these few years, I’ve been here long enough to see so much of these radical beginnings give way to enterprise solutions and big tech.

I certainly am not relying on the incumbents to break their own systems and rebuild equitable ones, but, really, who needs them? When I interviewed artist entrepreneur and activist Kiran Gandhi, I was struck when she flipped a gender equity question on its head, responding that they “would be so lucky to work with us”. It was so obvious, and so well put. Of course they would. Today’s change makers are reimagining creativity and funding and networks and government, and the brilliant, imaginative young people with whom I work, and millions like them, are taking to the streets to break down old systems and build new ones.

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Nicole d'Avis

Founder and Principal, Enid Co. / Innovative Leader in the Creative Industries