Is Money a Rogue Technology?
An exploration of the limits of financial ethics and morality
By MARTIN REZNY
The question of “good and evil” intentions in regard to the use of money is actually a very rich and deep topic, and I’d like to use this response to explore further the real basis for my thinking here. Even though I used personal tone and even though it technically was an irate rant, my view is rooted in a scientific point of view, the theory of technodeterminism.
Money, as some of the more rational proponents of it keep repeating, is a tool, a technology. The implicit common wisdom behind that statement being that tools are neutral, which still deeper behind it holds an assumption that the main driving force guiding our agency is our free will, deliberate conscious choices. While I don’t buy the that we’re just philosophical zombies, let’s be cautious.
A simple example would be a knife. Does the existence of knives cause stabbings, or do humans cause stabbings? Common sense tells us that it is of course the humans and their choices. After all, most of you have probably never stabbed anyone and you ascribe that fact to your self-control. But it is inarguable that stabbing someone is much less likely to occur without knives.
Knife is a tool that has practical uses that are completely non-violent and arguably improve our lives. Knives can even save a life when used in surgery, so an argument can be made that their utility outweighs the fact that they make it easier to kill or maim human beings. But that only sidesteps the real question:
Would the same people have harmed other people if knives didn’t exist?
This concept is known in social sciences as technodeterminism, introduced in regard to emerging communication technologies by Marshall McLuhan. To my knowledge, it hasn’t really been applied a lot outside of media studies, but I’m going to try to do that now. As for the concept of a rogue technology, that’s what I choose to call a disruptive technology with largely negative effects.
I may not really have any answers, and to my knowledge no one does, but I think I have a couple of very good questions that most people, economists included, do not ask. Fundamentally, the question I’d like to pose is as follows:
How much choice do we really have regarding how ethical or moral the money-based economy can be in actual practice?
If you look at it from the point of view of determinism, a technology may necessitate certain uses of itself simply by the existence of its “neutral” objective features. One example that McLuhan uses outside of media with impact on economy is the light bulb. Its defining feature is simple — with it there can be light at night. Doesn’t it cause there to be more activity at night?
Sure, we can always decide on the individual level to not do anything at night even if we have the option, but in practice, on the whole it has resulted in a number of negative things, such as light pollution, disconnecting from natural time cycles, longer work hours, whatever effects the unnatural wavelengths of light are having on our sleeping patterns and overall health, etc. Such tangible harms definitely invoke ethics.
Is any of this truly avoidable after the invention was introduced and made practical? Hasn’t it also necessitated many other technologies to be subsequently invented to address the certain to happen problems or opportunities presented by the existence of the light bulb? In this point of view, there must be at least a degree to which it’s not us who invent the technology, but the technology reinventing us to further its own progress.
It’s quite mind-bending if you try to really think about it, so I’d like to make it easier to untangle by focusing it onto a couple of specific elements that may play some role in our decision making:
- HUMAN NATURE — What people would want to do individually regardless of technological means available to them or the environmental influence exerted upon them.
- SOCIAL PRESSURE — Ideas that people learn from their social environment and whatever is required of them through the pressure to conform.
- TECHNOLOGICAL INERTIA — The inevitable, obvious, natural, easiest, preferred, or most logical uses of a given technology once it’s available.
- UNIQUE POSSIBILITY — Things that only can be accomplished thanks to the existence of a given technology, and wouldn’t be possible without it.
Money and Human Nature
If you look at money in terms of human psychology, there’s one particular character trait that money inherently seems to speak to by far the most: greed. Some see it as a deadly sin, others would tell you that greed is good. But whether you see it as a wealth producing virtue or a selfish vice, it’s hard to imagine a world where money doesn’t empower the greedy above all others.
Much like melee weapons largely benefit the strong and the agile, and like writing mainly benefits the intellectuals, I would argue that psychologically speaking, technologies aren’t neutral as long as humans are using them. Each technology is likely to shape culture and society through giving more power to those with a personality that’s best suited to exploit it to the fullest extent.
It can be argued therefore that ever since the invention of money and related economic tools and doctrines, our world was poised to become shaped to the greatest extent by greedy personalities, which naturally disenfranchised those who have character traits incompatible with greed. Since greed requires exploitation, it may explain the losers to be cultures respectful to nature.
Money and Social Pressure
For money to work, it requires being accepted by a large number of people. That much is simply an objective fact, a feature of the technology. Much like its original function was to enable large mercenary armies (thus making it perhaps a necessary outgrowth of warmaking). These two facts combined show that use of mass coercion by force is a natural aspect of money.
As a thing that needs to be universally collectively accepted in order for it to work at maximum efficiency, there’s every incentive for anyone profiting from the use of a currency to very aggressively try to normalize it and to motivate people to use it as much as possible. That practically requires creating the cult of being rich and shaming people who don’t have money.
Once profit can be enumerated and conveniently calculated thanks to money (which is the whole point of the technology), I’d find it logically impossible for the idea of maximization of profit not to emerge, or not to win over once it does. If you’re a greedy person by nature and therefore better at getting money, why wouldn’t you want more? All combined, worship of money seems to be an inevitable phenomenon.
Money and its Inertia
At this point, you may wonder how the people who are not naturally infatuated with money and can resist social pressures fit in. First of all, I’d wager that these will never be in a majority, no matter which basic human trait you combine with society resisting levels of willpower, but I can grant you that even a few individuals can manage to at least briefly wake up the majority.
But in that regard, it is much easier to challenge people who represent a conscious majority consensus than it is to challenge inertia of a technology that nobody is aware of. For instance, in the communist Czechoslovakia, being a liberal humanist dissident was difficult, but people understood what you are standing against because you had enemies, people pushing ideology.
Money is not ideological, it is matter-of-fact, it doesn’t require ideologues to become more influential, it does so by its objective mechanics, its inertia. As it increases wealth, it strengthens a desire for that wealth, and thus reinforces its perceived value, as increasingly the only means by which to acquire that wealth. As new wants are manufactured, people are more enthralled by them.
Money and What It Enables
Finally, that leads us to the unique features of a world where money exists, and especially of a world where it already dominates. Another key function of money is valuation, and that’s where it not only conquers the world on a material level (controlling access to resources), but also reshapes the mental landscape of human thinking and key pillars of human values and culture.
Imagine you literally couldn’t put a price tag on anything, and then try to figure out a way of determining the value of things. You’d have to use entirely different measures, and for the most part of human history, humans had to do exactly that. Build things not to make a profit, but to last. Create art not to make a profit, but to express oneself. Look inside of people and of oneself.
Given the inherent nature of money as a technology, I’d argue it is an instrument of social stratification (some having more makes people who have less), forceful coercion (money has to be used by all to work), exploitation and disequilibrium (as a game, that’s how you win it), and the destruction of meaning (it forces reduction of qualities to numbers). That sounds pretty rogue to me.
The question stands, what can we really choose to do about it?