In the United States, the combined forces of capitalism, consumerism, and materialism have succeeded in providing more goods and services for more people than any system in history. Today capitalism stands as the unquestioned world-wide model for creating wealth. At this same moment in history, a dramatic shift has occurred in the way in which money functions.
A look at the history of money, from cowrie shells to cyberdollars, reveals a stunning evolution from the concrete to the abstract. We began by assigning value to money based on the tangible items it represented. These were often living things like horses, cattle, pieces of land, and the physical, intellectual and creative labor of human beings. However, over time, money itself became the object to which we assigned value, based less on the items it represented than on its function as the place-holder of value. Today the highest worth is assigned to the "value" itself.
We originally fashioned money as a tool for our use. Has it now escaped us and become the master to which we are subject? Like the sorcerer's apprentice, have we loosed a volatile element into the world, an element we no longer control?
This isn't simply a theoretical question. As has become especially clear over the last several years, global finance, like the weather, affects us all in the most concrete and practical ways. Each one of us lives, works, and makes decisions determined by the presence or absence of money in our life. All too often, it shows itself as the measure of our worth.
Money is a powerful thing, a great convenience, a brilliant device. Evolving out of our need to exchange, communicate, and establish relationship, the history of money reveals the development of our capacity to structure value and build societies, to bring order to our lives. But there is evidence we've gone too far and the consequences are dire.
We need to reconsider where money ends and we begin. We might still reclaim control of this magical metaphor of engagement if we can see it for what it is - our desire made visible.
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