Four For Friday (34)

As the year draws to a close, reviews of the year appear as do predictions for the future. The latter are inevitably rooted in the former. Without the past and the present, there is no future. This week’s varied links are all about history.

As the year that made Bitcoin mainstream and saw the launch of ApplePay draws to a close, some are predicting the end of cash, never mind that 2 billion people in this world remain without access to banking and other more sophisticated financial services. This fascinating history of money, from shells and coins to apps and Bitcoin, explores the evolutionary aspect of money and the divergent narratives of what money signifies, and makes the case for how it is all about human relationships.

Money is a special good, however. It can’t work without the technological and regulatory infrastructures enabling it. The evolutionary story leaves out the regulatory and consumer protection architectures that are necessary to make any new money and payment systems function. The state will enforce the payment of a debt in its money – but you are largely on your own if you want help enforcing a debt in your own private token or, at least, having it treated as a real debt. The state will also usually accept only its own money for the payment of public debts: taxes, fees, tolls and fines. Here we see clearly money in its means-of-payment aspect, indicating the state’s power to create money, trumping its means-of-exchange aspect, and the market’s power to set prices.

The evolutionary story also leaves out the fact that people do all sorts of things with money besides earn it, pay with it and save it, let alone that people are already doing all sorts of things with the ‘latest’ stage in the evolution of money – the mobile phone. Money – and mobiles – are very special items in that they both express relationships and, in a very real way, are relationships. This is what we miss in the evolutionary story, and this is where the action really is in innovations for how we pay. Imagining new moneys, and new payments, is thus simultaneously a reimagination of our relationships with each other. So: how would we like to pay?

Money is of course most valued for its fungibility. Which brings us to things money can buy.

Fashion, for instance. This week I came across a photo essay documenting Chinese women’s fashion over a century. Fashion’s deep links with culture and politics of a time are in evidence.

As the years went by Western influences gradually became more prevalent in Chinese society. Take note of how the short collar has become more prominent, how the clothes hug the body more closely than before. The first women to bring back this new style were individuals who had the opportunity to study abroad. It was readily adopted both by the wealthy and by prostitutes of the era.

Image copyright NPR interview with author Aja Raden is worth listening to.  Her book Stoned takes a walk through world history using jewellery as the lens.

Aja Raden’s new book, Stoned, is about jewelry, but on the first page she lays out a bold statement: “The history of the world is the history of desire.”

“There’s no more powerful statement than ‘I want,’ ” Raden tells NPR’s Audie Cornish. ” ‘I want that. I wantthem.’ … Even if it’s an issue of survival, you still are driven by what you want and what you are compelled to take or have or maintain.”

As Raden tells it, jewelry is the quintessential object of desire — and it’s the perfect lens through which to view human history. She makes her case through the stories of eight noteworthy jewels, starting with the glass beads a Dutchman used to buy Manhattan from the Lenape Indians in 1626.

The recent weeks have seen one of the GOP Presidential hopefuls sound more and more fundamentalist, some say “unAmerican”, in his speeches that are drawing large crowds in the world’s oldest democracy. This long essay wonders about the history of the religious fundamentalism he is citing and the role of the west in shaping it.

The force at stake here does not stem, in what constitutes it essentially, from the resources of what is called “fundamentalism” or “fanaticism”. Certainly, active, vindictive and aggressive fundamentalism — be it Islamic (Sunni or Shiite), Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Hindu (even exceptionally Buddhist) — characterizes for a significant part the last 25 years. But how can one ignore the fact that this fundamentalism is a response to what can be called the economical fundamentalism inaugurated at the end of the bipolar separation and the extension of a “globalization” that had already been identified and named almost two generations ago (McLuhan’s “global village” dates back to 1967)? How not to notice also the haste in which the experience of totalitarianisms was erased? As if representative democracy, along with technical and social progress, could adequately respond to the concerns raised a long time ago by modern nihilism, as well as by the civilizational “discontent” mentioned by Freud in 1930?

It would be remiss to not remind ourselves of George Santayana, as we stand at the brink of many political and social changes: “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

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