Mid-20th century thinkers such as Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong, and Eric A. Havelock, immersed in a world of relatively new communication technologies (radio/TV/film), sought to understand the effects of these technologies by exploring an earlier, more fundamental shift in the technology or technique of communication—that is, the shift from orality to literacy, from a culture that could know only what it could remember and recite to a culture that could make long-lasting records of what it knew and thus free the human mind to apply itself to something more than recollection and repetition.
To think about money (even while getting it and spending it) is to think about ourselves, to come to know ourselves. And it is to realize that every technology comes out of us; every technology is an expression of the vast creative capacity of human beings and is therefore an expression of our hopes and fears, our dreams and, sometimes, our nightmares.
Others continued the work they began so that now, in the 21st century, it has become clear that the term “technology” may be applied more widely than it once was. It still names the world of big machines powered by wind, water, steam, oil, or electricity, but more and more it has come to mean technologies of information, representation, communication. One such technology—more ancient than writing, more ubiquitous than the smart phone—is money.
Money, money, money, money: we want it, we need it, we go to college (and justify the money spent) to learn how to make it. But what is it? The dictionary offers this: “…any objects or tokens regarded as a store of value and used as a medium of exchange.” So, it would appear that money is a kind of media device for storing and exchanging a species of information we call value. This only opens up other questions: for example, what sort of “objects or tokens” serve, or have served, as money-media; what do we mean by “exchange,” and what counts as “value”?
It seemed to me that in trying to come to some understanding of the significance and complexity of the money technology we would find ourselves working in a number of disciplines in addition to history and economics. We might touch on anthropology, sociology, philosophy, literature, psychology, aesthetics, computer science and more. A course along such multi-disciplinary lines would probably be out of place in most traditional academic departments, but because I teach in the School’s Science Technology and Culture (STAC) program, I was able offer a class called “A Natural History of Money,” confident that a multi-disciplinary exploration of this key human technology would help us to discover something of ourselves—and the Socratic injunction to “know thyself” is, after all, humanism’s prime directive.
In the course of a semester we found ourselves thinking along with Marcel Mauss about money as it was manifested in ancient or “primitive” gift-economies, economies in which wealth was accumulated primarily in order to gain prestige and status by giving it away.
We examined a moment in Homer’s Iliad in which the poet seems to misunderstand the gift-economy that motivates his heroes, a moment in which the relation between aristocratic values and rational, calculating exchange seems ambiguous or confused, and is, perhaps, a trace of an important historical transition between primitive and classical money-cultures, even as it may be also a trace of the transition from orality to literacy.
We visited the mercantile colonies of Greek Ionia, where the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus saw in money a model for a kind of early, quasi-scientific conservation law—“Everything is an exchange for fire and fire for everything, as goods for gold and gold for goods.”
We explored something of the history of interest, and of anti-Semitism, and of the relation between merchant and finance capital, by looking at parts of Dante’s Inferno and reading Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
We pondered the relation of use-value and exchange-value by reading Ovid’s account in The Metamorphoses of King Midas’ golden touch, and compared that with Marx’s account in Das Kapital and Adam Smith’s in The Wealth of Nations.
We read Freud on money and then Norman O. Brown’s psychoanalysis of the money-complex in the development of Protestantism.
We touched on the intricate relations of contemporary art and money by studying the work of J.S.G. Boggs, who produces unique handmade paper notes, buys goods and services with them, then sells the change and the receipt as works of art. Then we designed our own bills.
In a future iteration of this course we might one day study Isaac Newton’s career as Master of the Mint, or think about the way monkeys use money in experimental situations, or consider the uses and future of the Bitcoin moneyform.
What is the take-away, the “pay off” of a course such as this? Well, at the very least we realize that, as the lyrics of the big opening number of the Warner Bros. depression-era movie Gold Diggers of 1933 tell us, “We’re in the money.” That is, the money technology, like every other technology, comes out of us and we are, therefore, always in some sense in it. To think about money (even while getting it and spending it) is to think about ourselves, to come to know ourselves. And it is to realize that every technology comes out of us; every technology is an expression of the vast creative capacity of human beings and is therefore an expression of our hopes and fears, our dreams and, sometimes, our nightmares. Technology is not merely something objectively given, something there. It is a kind of self-expression even as it is a tool for shaping and transforming our world and thus it is a matter for our moral and ethical considerations, as much as for our wonder. That, I think, is the point of a humanistic perspective on a technological world.