Thursday, April 12, 2012

Money then Maths

This morning I saw a quote attributed to Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England. I'll share it with you.

"There is no reason products and services could not be swapped directly by consumers and producers through a system of direct exchange – essentially a massive barter economy. All it requires is some commonly used unit of account and adequate computing power to make sure all transactions could be settled immediately. People would pay each other electronically, without the payment being routed through anything that we would currently recognize as a bank. Central banks in their present form would no longer exist – nor would money."

The quote has encouraged those folks who are interested in finding new ways to exchange goods and services, and creating alternative currencies. 

I'm all for the exploration of Money. But I'm not happy to see Money as 'just a technological problem to be solved'. I remember back in the early naughties there was a project set up with some government funding - I think it was called timebank, but I might be wrong - which sought to create a website where services could be swapped. So I could swap two hours babysitting, for say 30 minutes of acupuncture, or whatever. Service suppliers would be reviewed by users and given a reputation score, like on Ebay. I applied for a job with them. Didn't get it. I don't think the project ever really got going.

Anyway, the point I want to make is that when you see money 'as a technological problem to be solved' you are assuming something that might not be true.

The story of most people believe is that we were little more than monkeys until 50 000 years ago, then we evolved language and learned to count. Sometime later, most likely between 10 000 & 5000 years ago, after we started farming, we invented money. Money is a tool - a technology - like methods of farming, or flint axes, or ipads that help us to do stuff better.

But we don't know that's true.

I think that Money came before Maths and Language. I appreciate that seems like an odd thing to say. But (thankfully) I'm not the only one to suggest that Money has had a crucial role (perhaps a causal role) in the development of abstract thought. 

Although you might think its crazy to suggest Money could have such an existence, the point Mervyn King should remember that its not safe to assume it is merely a technology. Its has some deep relationship with our psyches. That much should be obvious from the words Sir Mervyn uses about money - confidence, fear, worry etc. If Money did come before Maths (in other words if it was giving & receiving, owning & owing, that allowed our mind to conceive of number) then it is unlikely that Money can be accurately replicated by a computer program. 

Hopefully, when my essay on Owning & Owing is finished I can give you something approaching a coherent explanation of my thinking on the origins of Money. But in the meantime, do me a favour. If you ever find yourself writing "Money is just.....", check yourself. If our minds were less shackled by science we'd describe the workings of Money as magic. It does things that we cannot. In ways we do not - as yet - understand. Stay humble, folks. 

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