No matter where we direct it or what our intention is, money forms puddles. In those puddles, we find organisations where money gathers not by virtue but by design. The financial services industry, the banking sector, and those who enforce and protect them and the rules they play by from all manner of security to the politicians inextricably connected to them. In between the puddles are the areas from which the money drains into those puddles – public healthcare, education,and social services amongst them. No matter how much money we direct at them, it finds its way into the puddles.
It would be satisfying to say that those splashing around in the puddles are bad people. The trouble is, they’re not (well, the vast majority anyway – we can all think of exceptions that prove the rule). It struck me forcibly when I spent time with people from some of the puddles at play – real play, creative, generative, imaginative, absorbing, engaging play. They were using money but not flaunting it, with not a celebrity in sight. On the contrary, they were a pleasure to be with – funny, thoughtful, and generous of spirit.
So how, I wonder, have we created a system where money puddles rather than flows? Isolated pockets rather than a stream, where money grows rancid rather than nurturing life in the way a river does?
I suspect that the answer is that we have given money an identity we value more than life. As a result, we process life into money rather than money into life. We have institutionalised that ability into our values and embedded it into our legal frameworks for business. We treat inanimate businesses as people, with all the privileges but none of the responsibilities. Over two hundred years, what started as a sensible and creative approach to developing commerce has evolved into a breeding ground for psychopathic corporations. We have created a wetiko, the mythical beast that grows in proportion to what it consumes, such that it remains forever ravenous, consuming all it comes across.
Puddles don’t help anybody, and we need to resurface our society such that money flows where it needs to sustain life in all its forms. There are very few bad people, but there are many destructive behaviours we all indulge in encouraged by the systems we have created, from overconsumption to hoarding to disconnection from each other and the rest of life on the planet.
We don’t have an engineering problem; we have a connection problem, and we will not change the system until we start talking to each other openly about what we see, think, fear, hope and dream for our children’s future. We need to decide what we will each do in our small way to change things because small cumulative changes work far better than trying to put the Wetiko on a diet.
A notion of the power of “de-monetisation” as a philosophy for these times. The arc of monetisation was well underway when I was born in the middle of the last century. Powered by the industrial revolution and amplified by two world wars, America and Europe had been transformed by governments and organisations turning natural resources into money. By the end of the century in which I was born, that trend was global, and the entire planet was being monetised.
In the two decades of this century, enabled by technology, we have monetised society. In a global workplace, the competition for jobs dissolved any idea of local economies. Anything that could be reduced to a process and a specification could be made anywhere where costs benefits existed – from cheap labour to automation to tax environments. The result has been threefold – a “race to the bottom” on costs, a concentration of wealth, and money as the absolute definition of wealth.
The last element – a notion of money as the sole arbiter of wealth has had a profound effect. It has shaped our education systems, put everybody into the workplace and expanded our appetite for debt to buy the badges of apparent prosperity. Debt, like gambling, is pernicious – easy to get into, difficult to get out of. As we have privatised everything from healthcare to funerals via early years education, care for the elderly, security and much else, we have dissolved the glue that holds a functioning society together. It has happened quickly but almost invisibly, a continual stream of small events catalysed by major rounds of deregulation until we find ourselves now with nothing left to privatise. Nowhere to go for growth except perhaps to find another planet……
We now find money is the default answer to any question. Not enough face to face doctor’s appointments? – money. Victims of failures of government? – money. Just about anything – money. Notions of relationships, responsibility, and reciprocity – all reduced to money.
So where, I’m wondering, do we go from here? It is difficult to see answers in mass protest – it harms the already harmed far more than the harmers. Conventional politics has become so enmeshed with business that it has lost its identity, homogenised by the the rotating door between the two. As national boundaries melt as rapidly as the permafrost, how do we rebuild community that means something?
Perhaps we can learn from chaos theory, or more precisely, those complexity scientists who have made it digestible for the rest of us. Dave Snowden created my favourite framework over twenty years ago, the Cynefin Framework, There is a great video here – about thirty minutes well spent – and the metaphor of the children’s party captures the current situation wonderfully. I’ve mentioned it before and make no apologies for doing so again.
When those we traditionally rely on to look after our interests prioritise their own, we have to rebuild our society from its smallest units, and at a time when traditional families, particularly in the West, have been dissolved and fragmented by monetisation, we need to create new building blocks.
That, in my view, means those around you right now – physically and increasingly virtually. Engaging in conversations that have nothing to do with money and everything to do with how we live, how we want to live, and how we will help each other do it when we know money is not the answer. Conversations involving questions, ideas, love, joy, sadness and letting go. Valuing people for who they are and their intent, not the car they drive or the holidays they take. Focusing on re-learning what our grandparents knew and paving the way for our grandchildren not to have to pick up the tab we, however unwittingly untiil recently, are leaving them.
I used this quotation a couple of weeks ago, and it still feels important.
Order arises out of chaos when particles form around strange attractors to create new structures. In my view, the particles are conversations, and even though we don’t know what the strange attractors are yet, we can be confident they are there and will emerge. All we have to do is be ready when they do. We can do that by weaving an ecology of conversations about things that matter way beyond money.
It’s a big ask, but if not us, who and if not now, when?
Things that are shaping my thinking right now.
Back to the office. Radiohead style. Thanks to Hiut Denim for spotting it.
We don’t know why, twenty thousand years ago, our predecessors painted cave walls. It was a global phenomenon, and there are many theories but no real consensus.
What was painted was clearly important to our ancestors, but why? The paintings are not of what we believe they ate, nor are there any detailed paintings of people, so what was in their minds as they painted them?
Roll forward twenty thousand years from today, and whoever is around then might wonder the same about our relationship with money and data. They have a similarly detached relationship with people, who, like the ancient ones on paintings, exist only in outline at the edge of the picture.
We know, but like to forget, that the money we use to represent stored value is a mutually agreed fiction with no substance other than the stories we tell ourselves about it. Yet, there it is, centre stage in today’s expensively built shiny caves. Whenever we have a problem, in the NHS, or Education or something else involving people, the stock answer is that “we’re spending umpty million pounds addressing it”. There is usually no reference as to what this money will do, where it will come from, or whether it’s remotely enough. A temporary spotlight usually accompanies the announcement on the sacrifice of those involved until the crisis disappears from the headlines. At this time, the normal relationship between money and people is restored.
Data has a similar, ephemeral quality. By 2025, we are forecast to have 180 zettabytes of it (that will need an enormous cave), compared to just two zettabytes in 2010. We each generate 1.7Mb of it every second. I find myself wondering just what, like money, this data is for. It’s up there on the cave wall, probably now in brighter colours than money, and I can imagine those artificially intelligent anthropologists in twenty thousand years sitting down in their meeting room (I suspect meetings will be eternal) going whatever the equivalent is then, of WTF?
I am reminded of a story Christian Mihal related in April on his blog.
One day, the French philosopher Denis Diderot came into possession of a beautiful scarlet dressing gown. He spent a long and silent time admiring its splendour.
And the more he analyzed the fabric, the more he understood that all his other possessions paled in comparison to this new dressing gown. This feeling became so uncomfortable that Diderot soon replaced all his furniture with more expensive options. He bought a new golden clock, a bronze sculpture, a console table, and more art pieces.
Crippled by debt, Diderot understood that he had forfeited his soul to an object of worship he couldn’t properly understand, “I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of the new one.”
As we slowly recover from this pandemic and fumble our way into the next self-inflicted challenge, perhaps it’s time to stand back and look at our latter-day digital cave paintings and ask ourselves. “where are the people”?
We have incredible technology and a vast stock of very creative, unique human beings.
Surely we can find something better to paint on the walls?