I know that money has no real value. You know money has no real value.
And still, I’m using tools and services at this very moment that are paid for using money and tomorrow, I’ll work to get more. And you probably do the same.
I remember reading Saved from Ben Hewitt and being excited to read so clearly about ideas that were intuitive but that I had never spent time to stop, think and articulate myself. It was the first time I read about the idea that money does not require that people believe in it in order to work. Money has value as long as people believe other people believe it.
And while you, dear reader, and myself don’t believe that dollar bills or numbers in our bank accounts have any value, we know that there are others out there who recognize it and we’re therefore ready to use it to exchange it for things that we do value. The reality is that tomorrow, we could do a survey and find out that all surveyed people think money has no value. Would anyone’s life change as a result of that questionment? I’d like to think so but that’s unlikely. And that realization is heavy because it carries the implication that to dissolve the economic system and its meaninglessness, we’d have to convince most (or all) that money carries no value.
While none of this is new, I think it still deserves some consideration. What does it all mean?
One way to view this monetary system is as an elegant abstraction of the value we put on different “real” valuables. And, as we do with technology, we build abstractions in order to make building something more complex more easily. Just imagine the alternative where we’d be exchanging one cow for the harvest of a full field of potatoes (disclaimer: one of those two is probably getting screwed in that deal). It would not be practical. Same if I wanted to exchange the cow for the field but I wasn’t ready to receive the payment. Money serves as an intermediate storage of value to purchase what we need when we need it. There you go: money enabled commerce. Yay!
But everything is a tradeoff. By creating this abstraction, we promoted the accumulation of wealth[ˆ1]. By creating this abstraction, we lost a direct connection to our most important and immediate needs (because as long as you have money, you’ll be able to get by). By creating this abstraction, we lost sight of the real value of what we were trading and giving up: our time, our health, the pleasure to struggle and be uncomfortable and, in other words, our selves.
I’ve said this in previous posts but I believe it’s time to reconsider those abstractions. In software engineering, it’s a common pattern for complexity to creep in via abstractions built on top of abstractions. Well designed ones enable the cycles to go on with some success. Until it doesn’t. It’s a common story for teams to feel the pain of maintaining such complexity and go on quests for simplication. Because of the smaller scope of software, it’s usually easier to imagine and realize. It can also be justified by rational goals. Let’s build something simpler that we can easily debug and troubleshoot what should now match our current requirements better.
Could we consider a do-over or a gradual simplification? Could we get back to a time without the money abstraction? What’s interesting about those questions is that the end goal is realively easy to imagine. After all, we roughly know what it would be like to live without money. For some examples, you could refer to stories of natural catastrophes such as the ones from A Paradise Built in Hell. Essentially, we’d focus on collaborating with our immediate neighbors to meet our most essential needs without the need for money exchange. What is more difficult to imagine is the process of it happening organically of our own free will.
To be fair, the gift economy is an approximation of this to some degree. But without more radical change where property and/or taxes cease to exist, money remains.
I grab my phone lying next to the bed on the floor. It’s 7h30. I never set the alarm because I’ve long given up on pretending there’s any urgency in getting back on the hamster wheel. I get dressed and head outside to get a coffee. I usually just make it at home and go sit at my desk but today feels different. What does it matter anyway if I start 30 minutes late? What would normally be considered a great amenity is now a source of annoyance. After a short 3 minutes walk 🤦♂️, I’m already at the coffee shop ready to order coffee.
At least, that would usually be the case. Today, there’s no one inside. It’s surprising but nothing too frustrating as there are 2 other coffee shops 1 short block away. It’s Portland, after all. Except the next one is also closed. Stranger still, there’s no sign on the door noting of the special closure. Looking around, it looks like all businesses are closed. Not that this would be totally unexpected early in the day since restaurants open for lunch but there’s something unusual in the air.
I decide to walk the rest of the block and head over to the park since I’m already almost there. Finally, I see someone. She looks up at me and I try to cheer up and not think about the day of work ahead.
“Hey! Good morning! How are you?”
“I’m doing well, thanks. How are you doing on this beautiful day?”
“Doing alright. Do you happen to know where all the coffee has gone. Gotta have my morning coffee, right?”
“I’ve got some right here if you want.”
“Oh, that would be awesome. Thanks.” “I’m Alex, by the way. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, Alex. I’m Mysty.” “When you’re done, would you mind helping our friends over there gathering acorns that we need for processing later? Just talk to Ivy over there if you need help figuring how to make sure you leave enough good ones for the squirrels and the jays.”
What in the world is happening? I was going to pay for coffee assuming they were selling it for a fundraising event but that’s not what’s going on here.
As I sip my coffee pondering this, I realize that I haven’t seen a car today. Even on for a slow morning, that is more than unusual. It would be stupid to jump to conclusions but somehow, and unexplainably so, I think that I might have woken up in a post-economy world. How the fuck did this happen? How long did I sleep?
I don’t have an inspirational closing statement. I’ll admit that it’s especially hard to imagine a way to get out of the economic system without making huge sacrifices (which more or less becoming an outlaw). But even if that’s hard to imagine, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done or that it won’t happen. And maybe the dreams of a different world will keep us awake until then.