A cognitive gap divides the world as it exists and the new world that’s dawning on us as we speak, lining the horizon in strange, abstract hues. One sign of that came, dear reader, even as we were assembling this cover story for you. Our in-house photo team, in their normal course of duty, wondered how they could “photograph cryptocurrency”. Language can handle abstraction—through special vocabulary or through metaphors that hark back to the material world. Digital coins, blocks, chains…and mining. But how do you visualise something that doesn’t even exist as a tangible thing? That we would arrive on the edge of such a conceptual gorge could have been foretold. Mail had long gone digital. Photography itself had decidedly moved out of the confines of physical film by the 1990s. Heck, by now, even we are getting dissolved into bits, bytes and pixels and getting recomposed as apparitions on a Zoom screen. Money was bound to follow them into the ether. Zipping around on digital pathways for years anyway, it was pre-scripted that the object too would, at some stage, pass through the mirror.
The landscape on the other side is a bit surreal…and inscrutable. People are struggling. Governments too are struggling. Should they hold off the future? Or master it? In May this year, some customers of one of the biggest private sector banks received an email with the following subject: Caution advice for dealing in virtual currency. One customer—let’s call him Gupt Sikka—was left quite perplexed. The mail asked him to visit the nearby branch to clarify the nature of transactions he had been making, failing which the bank would be compelled to restrict his transactions. “I’ve done my KYCs regularly, have been banking with them for over 10 years now, my salary account is also in the same bank, and then they send me this email,” says Sikka, who has been dealing with cryptocurrency for over six months. He contacted his crypto exchange. Within a fortnight, he received another mail, this time informing him that the earlier mail stood withdrawn. Clearly, our financial police haven’t decided what to do with cryptocurrency—whether to ‘encounter’ it, merely shoot at its knees, or let it walk free. An investor trading in cryptocurrency or crypto assets in India must be ready to face any number of notices or queries from the I-T department or the Enforcement Directorate.