Oct 232008

In the previous post, I pointed out that money is of great importance  only when the world is dominated by standardized goods and services. One essential of standardization is  that goods or services of a certain type are interchangeable. This ton of wheat equals that one, this 100 watt lightbulb equals that one, this kwh of electricity equals that one, and so on. In some cases (actually even in these cases) one has to specify more to get an acceptably  equivalent product or service, sometimes much more. For instance, 50 cycle per second, 220 volt  electricity is not equivalent to the 60-cps, 110-volt kind. Still, in both these cases, only a few numbers define the electrical service, and there are still huge numbers of completely interchangeable kilowatt hours of each kind of electricity available depending on where you get service.

As the electricity example indicates, much standardization is based on the growth of science and scientific measurements. But of course such measurements extend beyond science. Consider, let us say. men’s size 16-and-1/2, 34 white no-iron Oxford cotton, button-down, long-sleeved dress shirts (this is in American measures; to find equivalent European measures, e.g., a conversion table must be used). Any large men’s store will carry such shirts, and quite often a variety of styles and brands within the category. The different styles will not generally be exactly the same fit, and the prices will not be exactly the same either, though all the shirts of one size, style and brand will be identically priced. Also,the most expensive shirt of this general description will probably be priced at no more than about five or ten times the cheapest. The more expensive ones probably carry designer labels. You pay more because this designer adds a certain “class” to the clothing — a classiness that should be reflected in how you will appear to others. Men occasionally and women quite regularly seek out designer brands of clothing of all sorts, and some of it departs quite a bit from being highly standardized. Here, a large part of the markup in price is a kind of payment to the designer as a result of the attention she or he has gotten. (Wearing such clothes, you can hope to get a little of the attention that “rubs off” as much of it heads for the designer.)

Money’s Two Components

Thus, we can think of both goods and services as having two components in their prices: the standard component — in which the designer is indistinguishable from the herd, as if the item were not specially designed at all — and the attention part.

This is in accord of course with what Kevin Kelly reminded us I had indicated earlier about the fact that if you gain attention, you will also be able to have money flow to you. As with goods, in a sense we have to conceptualize the money we keep track of as having two components, the standardized component and the attention -connected component. A certain proportion of money transactions are completely standardized: wages of industrial workers used to buy standardized goods, and the profits that go to those who own and run such businesses. Other money transactions, such as buying designer jeans or contributing to the campaign of a political star are more mixed or virtually all attention related.

How Much Money Goes With How Much Attention?

Now let’s observe a couple of peculiarities of the attention-paying component. If people pay you attention, you generally can, if you want, receive money, and generally speaking the more attention you get, the more money you can pull towards you. This is as true of Damien Hirst, the artist, as of Osama bin Laden, the terrorist, or Giorgio Armani the clothing designer. For all three, in addition to the money, there are the fans —and the enemies too. (If bin Laden had no enemies, he would have far fewer fans, and probably the same goes for Hirst, even though in his case the enemies are not out to kill. To some degree, you receive attention by standing out, which has to mean in some way opposing the norm, the standards, and thereby, you also create some enmity.) However, a key point is there so no way to assign a definite monetary value to having a certain amount of attention.

Another thing one might hope to do with attention is buy it. Advertisers try it all the time. Some educators try to bribe their students to pay attention with offers of cash. One generally tries to buy the attention of any sort of professional — doctor, lawyer, editor, psychotherapist, tutor, architect — whom  one hires. But, in all these cases, there is no necessary correlation between the amount of money one pays and the amount of attention one gets. This is also true for the services of chefs, restaurant servers, flight attendants, etc. Are they really acknowledging who you are and what you really want when you ask, or are they to a greater or lesser extent treating you as just another random customer, with perhaps the same uniform politeness and smiles they would show anyone else? That depends you: Can you win or have you won their true attention?

A Side Remark About Luxuries

A corollary to all this: Luxuries (of the kind one buys) are basically non-standard goods or  services. They generally have large components of star connections —works of art, designer clothes, restaurants with renowned chefs, and so on. Thus the money flows to stars, to a good extent, even though they may mostly recycle it. In addition, many luxuries imply that the recipient gets a great deal of personal attention, which like any attention, cannot be relied on equally by all purchasers. Still the purchase of luxury goods, because of their usually less assembly-line production do employ more people than the standardized goods and services that the average person can mostly hope for.

Back to Money and Attention

Meanwhile, advertisers pay for the size of audiences for the surrounding attention-getting material, but that by no means guarantees how many in the audience will pay the slightest attention to the ad. Still less does the money paid indicate how many in the possible audience will be moved enough by the ad to buy what is advertised. (A very attention-getting ad often draws more attention to its creator than to the product advertised. We may not know the name of this person, but we will think to ourselves “what a clever ad,” meaning “I like the mind behind this.” )

Two Conclusions to Remember

Neither through attracting nor being sold does attention go with a definite amount of money. So as attention-paying and seeking and even receiving all grow in importance   we can expect two results:

1. A larger and larger fraction of all the money in circulation will go to net attention-getters, i.e., stars;


2. This growing non-standardized relationship to money will render definite amounts of money more and more meaningless in most cases.

Money Gets Stranger

We now have a situation in which in the rough way this happens, less and less money, comparatively, goes to the invisible, non-stars —such as factory workers, who churn out the standardized goods, along with many kinds of service worker — while a relatively larger fraction flows to attention-getters, even fairly modest attention getters such as typical doctors or lawyers or yoga instructors.

Note that this is not the same as inflation, or deflation for that matter. The “money supply” may rise —possibly by orders of magnitude — while the prices of standardized goods —quickly churned out to meet whatever the level of demand — stay more or less flat. Every unit of money is of course exactly the same, and in fact quantities of money can certainly bedazzle, but all this is symptomatic of the passing of the era in which money was a bedrock part of reality. To see what is going on with it, I will next time focus on financial institutions, such as banks, where money alone is the standardized good.

Next time: banks, etc.

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