“Thoughts on the Question of Value”


Thoughts on the Question of Value

Emanuel Pastreich

October 16, 2013

I am sure that you have noticed the disturbing trend in our world to evaluate just about everything in a materialist manner and to take pleasure only from material objects. Oddly, we find highly educated people, people who have read literature and philosophy, wasting their time talking about how expensive food they have eaten was or how big the car that they drive is. This trend is getting worse, especially as the previous generation that knew something of frugality is dying off. Some of our friends want to calculate the value of the entire world in monetary terms. How much the dinner cost? How much did you pay for the house?

The consequences of such thinking based entirely on a monetary equation, this object has this much value, are profound. Not only is food, housing and daily experience evaluated in monetary terms (which is to say numerical terms), but in that process people also are assigned monetary values. There is a powerful trend to determine how important people are to us in terms of how much money they possess, or how much money or power they control through organizations. We favor the uncle who can pay for an expensive meal or drive a Lexus over the uncle who is a kind and thoughtful man. I have frequently had the experience that someone initially is very warm to me when they learn I am from Yale, but then cool off when they learn that I am a poor professor and not of the proper class that they assumed.

We are bothered by this constant need to evaluate everything in terms of its monetary value. Although we make the calculations of “value” naturally, somehow that behavior just seems wrong to us in some fuzzy ethical manner. But the habits are so deeply engrained in our society. For example, art is given a value, a price, and that price then determines how the art is appreciated. A beautiful hand-woven dress made by an old woman in the mountains has limited monetary value, but a designer dress sold at a boutique in downtown Shanghai will be extremely expensive—and most people will readily accept that norm. If you compared the two dresses carefully, it would not be clear that the designer dress was in any means superior to the hand-woven dress. But the price comes first, before any aesthetic appreciation. Most people would show great appreciation for the designer dress regardless of its actual quality—not to do so would seem abnormal.

Even those of us who denounce such thinking and who advocate a greater concern for the environment often find ourselves falling into exactly such a mode of thinking in daily life. It seems to be an inescapable part of our culture that impacts everything we do, if we are not reducing reality to dollar value, we are measuring it in meters or kilograms. Even if we do not want to assess the world based on monetary value, everyone else around us is doing so and we feel as if we have no choice. Once we hear that a dress cost $2,000, the dress simply looks different for us.

But it is more than just social pressure that drives us into this sort of monetary thinking. There is something else out there that drives us to fall back on monetary assessments, a force that draws us to these primitive price categories for assessing the value of our possessions and of our experiences.

Part of the problem can again be traced back to the end of the Cold War and the unexpected impact it has had on every aspect of our lives. Previously, there were large parts of our economy, of our society, that were government owned and did not belong to anyone. That was true in the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and in Eastern Europe, but it was also true in places like the United States in which there was a strong demand from the public to maintain public institutions and lands.

There was a strong sense of the nation and the common interest in the United States, for example, that derived in part from a need to counter the constant attacks from the Soviet Union that suggested that workers were terribly exploited in capitalist nations. Although the United States constantly criticized the Soviet Union for lacking freedom, the United States still had to show itself to be committed to supporting some level of social justice and to maintaining the public good so as to resist the criticisms from the Communist bloc. The United States could not afford to let itself be perceived as merely serving the interests of the rich. Although the United States spoke of itself as being “anti-Communist,” in fact it had adopted large parts of the socialist economic model in the late 1930s.

With the end of the Soviet Union, that cultural and political pressure on the United States to maintain an appearance of social justice disappeared and the United States started to pursue radical privatization on many fronts, starting with the telephone system but extending to just about all aspects of society. Many public assets were turned over to private industry and private industry made a fortune with the assets that had been developed with public funds: the taxes of ordinary people. In the most extremely cases, that move led to the privatization of the military with the result that a large group of investors emerged in the United States for whom profit from military conflicts globally was very important for their profits. That form of privatization is destabilizing, and created a very dangerous environment. The direct linkage of military spending to private profit that had fueled the drive of industry to promote conflict, in exactly the same way it did at the start of the First World War. Again, radical privatization undermines the public good. This time in the United States there no longer exists a large group of organized government employees to serve as a counterweight to such abuse.

Obviously privatization is attractive to investors who can make money; in the short term it can appear that organizations are better run by corporations who put more emphasis on service, image and speed than do government organizations. But over time, those corporate services, although the people working for them may dress better than government employees, and be friendly to customers, degenerate because there is no sense of a common cause or goal in the organization.

Such privatization has become very prevalent in China over the last decade, with very significant negative implications for average people as government assets suddenly have become the assets of individuals or private corporations. Although the private companies that take over previously state-run institutions may be very efficient, they work for groups of stockholders who want to maximize profits. Those stockholders may be very sweet people if you meet them in person, but the system is all about squeezing monetary value out of assets. That is all the stockholders expect from their investments. In such a system, there is no room for other ways of looking at things, or at people. Everything is reduced to a value for the company.

That model of profit infects and poisons the entire society. With the end of the Cold War and the end of the constant back and forth between two ideologies, the pressure to maintain a living wage for all working people, or to assure a commons for all, disappeared. There are literally no newspapers that make such an argument for guaranteeing income for all citizens or protecting all workers today. But in the 1960s and 1970s there were many—and not only in the Communist block

The trend towards privatization is powerful globally, but it is a trend that will not last. It is drawing extremely strong opposition today and that opposition will eventually gel into policy demands and shift the basic assumptions about the role of government among the general population. We can be sure that a move in the opposite direction is not far off in the future.

What I have described may seem perhaps unfamiliar, but the trend to a monetary thinking about all aspects of human experience is pretty much in line with what is described in traditional critiques of capitalist systems. But a new factor has emerged that impacts our concept of “value:” technology. Technology is transforming our society and our culture in ways that we cannot fully understand, through the internet, computers, smart phones and a variety of systems for conveying and processing information. Such changes subtly alter the manner in which we perceive the world. Those well-dressed people who study “international economics,” “global finance,” and “international relations” have really no understanding of culture and ideology and how the two might be impacted by technological change. They may be making up policy for nations at investment banks, but they have no idea of how the perception of value is impacted by technological change. We are, in effect, flying blind.

The rapid development of technology has changed the nature of everything in our world. We previously wrote down the value of objects on pieces of paper and then moved those objects as products to places around the world. There were humans who counted objects, recorded them and carried them back and forth at every stage of manufacturing, distribution and sales. But today much of the economy, the process of logistics, storage and distribution is essentially automated. Even the humans within the system play only a secondary role in the process. Most objects circulated around for sale, whether 10 kilos of rice, 100 tons of steel, or 1000 chairs, exist in most cases as numerical values in computers. That information is then stored and referenced by other computers around the world. That information for just about all parts of the economy becomes more real than the object itself.

So the concrete nature of the product, say a five kilo bag of rice, is only a bag of rice for the person buying it and eating it. But for the corporation, for the government and for most everyone working for those institutions, that bag is a statistic, a number, an electrical charge in a computer. Not only that, things like rice or steel are bought and sold on the futures market. That means that these objects have become objects for speculation and a price for rice or steel exist at two or three removes from the actual rice or steel. This change in technology creates an even more radical alienation between object and its monetary representation than was ever true before.

Thus the numerical value assigned to the object that you buy, or that you observe, is in another world, in the world of digital exchange that takes place a global scale. That world out there of supercomputers controlling logistics and sales is far away from our daily experience, but it is an essential part of the economy. Moreover that flow of data indirectly influences perception of the world in many subtle ways. To start with, the creation of this cyber, digital universe that tracks the objects in the real world has profoundly altered our experience of life. The representations of reality have become more important than reality itself. And in the economic realm, futures, derivatives and a variety of other constructed tools of finance have taken on a new “reality” out there that informs how those involved in business understand the world, and the sort of reporting they demand from the media. If supercomputers are assigning value to objects on a massive scale, we are going to be impacted.

Currency and economic exchange has been completely transformed by supercomputers over the last ten years, and the increasing speed and complexity of supercomputers, including high-frequency trading, for example, profoundly effects how markets and currency work. But oddly, we find almost no discussion of the impact of technology on how economies work in the mainstream media, or even in specialized media. It seems as if these transformations are literally invisible.

The professor Dan Schiller of University of Illinois refers to this new world as “digital capitalism.” He suggests that the digital expression of information, and the means of controlling information in cyberspace, alters the nature of exchange and of value. The Internet itself started out as a project at DARPA 国防高级研究规划局 that was run together by the military, certain military contractors and educational institutions. Over the last twenty years, cyberspace has increasingly shifted to a space for use by corporate clients as part of their financial considerations. The internet, and financial transactions, the total economy, follows its own set of rules that are increasingly detached even from such basic issues as human desire. We are in uncharted waters.

In both a political and an economic sense, cyberspace, that invisible parallel world around us, increasingly follows market pressures, but those “market pressures” are unlike anything that existed previously. Cyberspace is a digital parallel universe and it is driven by a need to produce more and more information. The underlying force is the need to create profit, rather than information.

Cyberspace itself, through its subtle symbolism and constant bombardment of viewers with images and the rapid exchange of information, has done much to encourage a dangerous level of consumerism throughout the world. We are compelled to go through everything quickly, feeling always this pressure to move forward—a pressure created by those supercomputers that drive our economy. As a consequence, not only do multinational corporations calculate the value of everything in numbers, in digital format, that trend has seeped into all aspects of our daily experience—especially for those of us who frequently watch TV or surf the internet. We all use that approach in our evaluation of things around us.

So the problem is not simply one of greed or selfishness. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the materialism we see today is generated by larger structural issues: the structure behind how we represent the material world. The tendency towards a numerical representation of everything distorts our sense of reality. Almost aspect of daily life can be reduced to a financial transaction. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that if Amnesty International approaches you at the airport, they want you do give money—that is the only thing they want from you. They are not interested in your being a volunteer or activist.

That world of supercomputers, by the way, does not recognize any difference between the United States and China. The products and money are tracked for both as a unit. Differences between countries, however, can create enormous wealth, we must remember and there is an incentive to keep up barriers between societies.

Although it is easy to criticize our society as being too materialistic, that perspective is not sufficient. If we investigate more closely, we find that the desire for possessions, for objects that are expensive is driven in part by a profound psychological need to find value. This apparent materialism is driven by a spiritual thirst, not simply increasing greed.

As humans, we desire food, drink and simple physical pleasures. But at the same time we are constantly looking for meaning in our lives. We are deeply afraid that this world of rapid mechanical reproduction threatens to make our lives meaningless. That is to say, another reason that we want to assign monetary value to everything is because we fear that we have no place in this new economy and that everything we consume has no meaning, no value. The endless repetition of images and texts to which we have access for free on the Internet has made the value of any one image or text all the more worthless. We are buried in piles of information but our lives have lost all meaning. Under such circumstances, it seems better to be materialistic and monetary in one’s assessment of the world than to feel that everything is completely lacking in significance. As the very wealthy are the closest to the supercomputers that drive us forward ever faster, it is no surprise that they feel greater need to consume.

Perfect images, far more perfect than anything we could draw ourselves, surround us in commercial advertisements. Those perfect images are given to us for free. The result is a profound form of alienation that is invisible to us. Production in this new economy has nothing to do with us. We cannot produce anything with our hands that can compete with the aesthetics of computer designed art. We see a McDonalds and next to it we see a restaurant run by a husband and wife making simple local food. We will gravitate towards the McDonalds. The perfect lettering and the enticing images that McDonalds presents to us make us feel there is some sort of perfection, some sort of comfort, to be found there. The restaurant next door may have food that is healthier for us, and the people who serve it may be kinder, but the menu is not perfectly designed and the food is not represented in such perfect images for us. That is the tragedy of our age.

When we go out for dinner, we tend to chose the McDonalds over the local restaurant run by a family because of its seductive tastes and the perfect images that it offers. But the perfect images of people eating food that we see are not anything that exists in real life, the texts describing hamburgers are written in perfect letters. If you conduct a search on Google Images for “cat” you will get several million photographs of cats. Those photographs can be divided clearly between those taken by professional photographers, commercial and stock images, and those photographs taken by amateurs. The latter are far less interesting at first glance to us and they seem less real to us, even though they are in fact much more real. The reason we drift towards the commercial art is that we have become accustomed over the years to such images.

All those free images, videos and text that we find on the internet and in newspapers and fliers we receive for free are a blessing. But all those perfect images for free are a curse. As Einstein said, “We pay the most for the things we get for free.” The more of those perfect images we get for free, the more meaningless they all seem to us. The value of a photograph is diminished by repetition. In this age you can get hundreds, thousands, of great poems or books on line. But why focus on any one book or poem when there are millions? The result of all this? Everything we experience becomes more superficial, more banal & more vapid. People who go on line to read great novels are quickly overwhelmed by the range of material available, and often end up reading nothing at all—or jumping back and forth between various texts.

If you can access all of Shakespeare’s plays for free, then they do not seem all that valuable. You read them on line already imaging in your mind that you have finished them and are moving on to the next task. Perhaps the way to appreciate a literary masterpiece is to read a printed copy in a cabin in the woods. As soon as you do so on-line, everything changes. That is the rub!

The means in which we are presented with information completely transforms its nature. Or as the media guru Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message.” If the medium becomes so banal as to be meaningless, the content will be similarly affected. We continue to be drawn to those enticing images we see around us, but they only become more meaningless for us. All that is left is that initial attraction—nothing else.

So we end up feeling compelled to assign a monetary value to the objects that we see around us, and a monetary value to what we do because we are caught up in a materialistic culture. That is true, but that is not the whole story. Assigning monetary value also serves as a means for us to give some sort of meaning to a world that is quickly losing all meaning for us. The images and texts that fly around us are rapidly losing all significance and import. We find ourselves caught in a trap. On the one hand, we want to get away from this obsession with monetary value. On the other hand, we want to avoid a vapid empty world of images, texts and objects without significance. Assigning everything a price is a destructive act, but receiving everything for free is also equally destructive.

I do not have a ready solution to this problem, except to suggest that if there is a solution, it must have something to do with finding other ways of assigning value. To put a price tag on something allows us to compare it with other items, to make it commensurate. That act both lowers its absolute value (giving a price to things that may be priceless) but that act also assures it a minimum value—as opposed to meaningless. Ultimately the solution to this problem must come instituting some other way of assigning value to our lives and to our experiences.

Probably that alternative would moving away from a mathematical calculation of value. What other ways are there be of assigning value to things, to people, to objects? Traditional society offered many religious practices, shamanistic practices that assigned objects a spiritual meaning. That spiritual meaning could not be measured in units and was therefore incommensurable. Such thinking may strike us as being rather primitive and backwards, but such understanding of the value of things can save us from extremes of alienation, alienation that only gets worse as technology progresses.

There is some risk in talking vaguely about some spiritual meaning that lurks in objects. Such an approach can lead to irrational religious behavior and reactionary arguments against common practices. And yet the concept of the spiritual is quite important. William Blake summed up the potential for finding a spiritual meaning in the everyday in his poem “Auguries of Innocence” (无辜性的解释)


“To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.“


This ability to find the infinite in a single object, or a single moment, is what we most sadly lack in modern society. Whether it is the internet or the television, there is always something pulling us away from a quiet appreciation of things as they are. That is the true issue behind what we call mindless materialism. To merely say that people are greedy, or that rich people are greedy, is too simplistic. We must understand the underlying mechanisms that drive people to behave in that manner—often from a certain desperation about their condition.

One interesting trend we see among the superrich today is a decline in traditional connoisseurship. In a previous age, there were also extremely wealthy people, but many were attracted to an intellectual engagement with the arts and music. It was not enough simply to possess money and land, one had to have some understanding of Mozart and Rembrandt. The great art historian Bernard Berenson had strong support from extremely wealthy people who valued his sensibility.

The same was true in China. There were many rich people who collected great paintings of the past and studied them carefully, hiring experts to help them learn the details of art history and connoisseurship. Such cultivated rich people wanted to learn how they could distinguish between a fake and original and how to date ancient sculpture. I do not mean to suggest that making the rich into connoisseurs guarantees that they are more responsible or more humane. There are many exceptions, even examples of the highly cultivated who were also cruel and selfish. But I would suggest that the loss of intellectual challenge in the pursuit of material possessions that we see today among the rich is infinitely more dangerous than what was true before and suggests how the rich are detaching themselves from society. We see billionaires collecting Chanel or Gucci goods as if they cannot get enough. But if you look carefully at what passes for Louis Vuitton in stores in airports or hotels today, you will notice a remarkable drop in quality and innovation. These luxury goods poorly manufactured and blandly designed. The only real appeal comes from the brand value itself. Such is the decay of awareness on the part of most people and the power of the new culture of consumption.

Perhaps what we need is a return to ritual,礼 in daily life as a means of bringing self-control back to people in their interactions with objects. We interact with computers, and through computers with the internet, in a manner that makes us feel somehow there are so many possibilities before us. We are misled to think that somehow that world shown to us through the computer screen is more appealing than the one we live in, or that if we just send a few more messages, our problems will be solved.

The computer through the very nature of the tasks it asks of us renders us compulsive. We are caught up in a constant back and forth with the computer in front of us. But the computer is not human. It has an infinite amount of information to us, but it offers no meaning, no real dialogue. And the exchanges we have with our friends via internet are also sadly superficial. It is not surprising people take comfort in the collection of objects.  

Ritual could mean simply sitting down and clearing one’s mind before using the computer. Or it could mean creating certain spaces in your daily life when you do not use a phone or a computer. To be disconnected from the internet for a certain period of time is essential for humans if they want to retain balance and to be able to effectively make judgments. The distance that we get from taking an occasional break from the computer will help us to maintain our perspective, especially when it comes to the sensitive question of “value.” Something we should assess independently from mathematical calculations.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: