Take a look at a coin or a note. Most of us recognise these as symbols, often of a nation state. National animals, famous faces, important places. These pictures tell us about the country that has issued the currency, but they tell us very little about what money actually means.
In addition to coins and notes, people have traded a wealth of ‘unusual’ items across the globe and throughout history. In The New Psychology of Money, Adrian Furnham describes how beads in Africa, cigarettes in war time, fish hooks in the Gilbert Islands, grain in India, iron bars in France, and whale teeth in Fiji have all been used as a form of currency at some time or another. At Ripley’s Believe it or Not in Malaysia last year, I saw rings from the West Coast of Africa, feather coils Santa Cruz Island, and Indonesian bronze drum money.
Money is more than a thing
But money is much more than a ‘thing’, a physical object. It’s not simply the notes in our wallets, or the coin I planted hoping to grow a money tree. Marc Shell, author of Money, Language and Thought, describes the transformation from ‘electum’ (material substance) to ‘electronic’ currency. Initially, people valued coins based on their weight and the amount of precious metal they contained. Sometimes, however, coins were stamped with an inscription at odds with their actual weight or purity. This lead to a discrepancy between their face value and their material value.
Paper notes took this symbolism a step further. No longer did the material represent the value of the currency in any way. After all, a $1 bill costs as much as a $100 bill to produce. The paper itself was a material close to worthless, supposed to make no difference in exchange.
More recently, electronic transfers, Shell says, have broken the link between inscription and substance. Money has become completely abstract from physical thing. I can look at my phone and tell you that I have $121.25 in my transaction account, without imagining it as a number of notes and coins in a vault.
Coins or ‘points’?
For me, the concept of money now feels more like the accumulation of ‘points’ in a video game than the physical coins I used to feed into the arcade machine as a kid. We now encounter money less frequently as an external, physical object for contemplation. But perhaps technology has allowed us to have an even closer relationship with our finances than ever before. Now, we have instantaneous access to our financial status.
Finally, in Fiji, I found the levels of symbolism and abstraction have come ‘full circle’! As you can see below, the Fijian 20c coin now features an image of a whale tooth:
In the next post, What does it mean to be rich?, we’ll explore the importance of money.
This post is the fourth of a 10 part series over 10 days introducing Enrichmentality
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What does money mean to you, and how has this changed?