Does money talk?

As outlined in my previous post, I recently had the opportunity to attend (and give a presentation at) the Money Talks? Conference held in Budapest. Not only is the name of the conference a pun, but it’s posed as a question. Does money talk?

The sessions covered topics such as economy, business, politics and economics, media, and marketing, as well as money as communication. This was the session my presentation, ‘Learning to Talk Money: Finance as a mother tongue of foreign language?’ was part of. (I’ve written several posts based on this presentation, asking what linguistics might teach us about learning the ‘language’ of money).

The other two talks in this session were devoted to answering the question of whether money talks.

Comparing money and language

In her presentation Does Money Really Talk?, Anabelle Mooney quoted Parson’s observation that money ‘is a very specialised language’. She pointed out that in order for us to consider money and language equivalent, the analogy must be reversible. That is, it is not enough for us to be able to explain money through the lens of language. We must also be able to explain language fully through the lens of money – something which proves rather difficult.

Money used to do things with money

When we talk about language, that talk is called ‘metalinguistics’. Mooney likens this to money being used to do things with money. This reminded me of something I read while studying for my Diploma of Financial Planning – the fact that around a third of our economy consists of the financial services industry. In fact, 47% of the Australian sharemarket (the ASX) is made up by the financial sector.

Imagine if we spent a third of our time talking about… talking. How inefficient would our communication be?

Money does not talk.

Going one step further, Eszter Deli (and Gabriella Nemeth) titled their presentation Money Does Not Talk. Examining the multimodal metaphors present in the video clip for Shania Twain’s Ka-ching, Deli and Nemeth reveal layers of metaphors and often irony. Twain sings lyrics with a decidedly anti-greed message, while the video juxtaposes images of the ‘rich‘ and ‘poor’.

Money we cannot touch

‘We’ve created us a credit card mess
We spend the money we don’t possess
Our religion is to go and blow it all
So it’s shoppin’ every sunday at the mall’ (Shania Twain, Ka-Ching!)

Our increasingly virtual economy is one Baudrillard observes we could not predict based on the logic of the classical economy. Deli concludes we spend money we cannot see or touch, and often don’t even own yet (credit cards). And often, on things we cannot see or touch (like shares or apps), which may not be available to us for years (like insurance or term investments).

I would add that in some cases, we cannot even claim full ownership. Many of the ‘things’ we now buy cannot we cannot resell. Companies restrict our rights to use and modify the ‘things’ we have bought. Consider the restrictions placed on the number of devices you can install a piece of software, or music, or an ebook on. I ran into this problem when my laptop broke, and I couldn’t transfer some of the software I had paid for to its replacement. The University of Art and Design in Switzerland brilliantly illustrates how ludicrous these restrictions can be with their ‘DRM (Digital Rights Management) Chair’. The chair employs an extreme form of planned obsolescence which renders the chair useless after you sit on it just 8 times.

Whether we ‘blow it all’ at the mall, or online, as Simon Miklos highlighted in his poster on adventure society and the experience economy, shopping and the consumption compulsion (and production and the selling compulsion) are no substitute for adventures and experiential learning.

Would you rather spend your money on a product or a concept?

Language provides some interesting insights on this issue. Dorothy Rowe, author of The Real Meaning of Money, pointed out back in the 1990s the ‘fashion’ of describing bonds, equities, pensions, and insurance as financial ‘products‘. Why call them products? Because, as a PR manager told Rowe, ‘People buy things. They don’t buy concepts‘.

I remember a time when digital downloads of video games first became a technical possibility. Visiting your local game store, you could buy a box off of a shelf which contained little more than a code, and possibly an instruction manual, alongside a whole lot of air.

Today, as the book Bank 2.0 reveals and my own visits to banks in Australia attest, financial ‘products’ take physical shape in the form of boxes or booklets arranged on store-like shelves in the branch.

‘The ethics of using such a word in this way are questionable’ says Rowe, ‘because it gives a spurious reality to certain arrangements. I have bought several such ‘products’ but all I have to show for the money I’ve spent are some sheets of printed paper which I keep undisturbed in a box’. Financial products are not products in the sense that floor cleaner is a product says Rowe. They exist only in relation to a future we believe in.

Who has the power?

When I was researching how people learn languages through online communication, I came across a lot of statements like ‘social networking promotes vocabulary acquisition’ or ‘online chat results in more frequent miscommunication’. These kinds of claims always sat uneasily with me, because they sound a lot like technological determinism. That is, when we claim something is a necessary outcome of the tool, rather than a possible outcome based on how people use that tool.

My struggle ended when I came across the theory of social realism. Rather than focusing exclusively on structure (like the system of a language, a monetary institution, or a piece of software) it also emphasises the role of individual agency.

I opened my presentation with a quote I’ve used on this blog before:

‘”Money talks” because money is a metaphor, a transfer, and a bridge. Like words and language, money is a storehouse of communally achieved work, skill and experience… money is a language for translating the work of the farmer into the work of the barber, doctor, engineer, or plumber’. (McLuhan, 1964)

However, as Agha points out, really, we talk through money – money doesn’t talk at all. This seemed to be the position of the other two speakers in this session. While we may communicate via money (albeit in a more limited way than via language), money itself does not talk. The power – or ‘agency’ – to choose what we will say when using or talking about money, lies with us. Even though social and economic structures do constrain us, we still have agency, and the potential for more.

Put your money where your mouth is!

The power to choose how we use money & talk about money lies with us.When it comes to the powerful metaphors of money, it is up to us to decide which ones we want to learn and use. And when it comes to how we use our money, to borrow an idiom from my own talk – it is up to us to ‘put our money where our mouth is’ and support what we approve of.

In the next post, I’ll bring you more of what I learned at the Money Talks? conference. It’s of course impossible to do justice to the many interesting arguments raised by the presenters, but I hope you have enjoyed this snippet! Don’t forget to check out the first post in this series too.

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Today’s featured image is a shot from the Money Talks? conference.

Do you think money talks?
If so, what does it say to you?
Let me know in the comments!

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