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The invention of the hamburger was a way of homogenising cows. Take whatever you want from any number of animals (but one hopes cows), grind it all up and suddenly you now have a consistent and uniform beef unit: the hamburger “patty”. In this same manner, humanity took time as it was once experienced and converted it into seconds, minutes and hours. A second is basically a “time patty”, or “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the Caesium 133 atom”.  Romantic!
Modern culture since 1900 has been about the relentless homogenising of anything that can be homogenised: pig by-products into hot dogs; coffee into Nespresso capsules; junk bonds into hedge funds.
In this spirit of investigation I began to wonder, “What, then, does money homogenise?”
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The average person with a high school education uses 3,000 words a day and is able to recognise about 20,000. But when it comes to sequences and numbers, when does a word stop being a word? Examples: is the alphabet itself a word? Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz – we all know it. It ought to be. Is the sequence 1234567890 a word?
We know that 1,000,000 is a word but is 1,000,001 a word, too? My high school maths teacher gave us all an extra point if we memorised pi to 10 decimal places and, of course, we all did, so is Threepointonefouronefive-ninetwosixfivethreefive a word? And if so, is it a different word from pi to nine decimal places?(Three-pointonefouronefiveninetwosix-fivethree.) Who would even know the answer to this?
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A few years back, I was cleaning out an old space that came with the house and, from inside a rusty paint can, I found a canvas bag filled with silver coins – silver Canadian pre-1967 dimes, plus a wide selection of older US coins. I don’t know what it’s like to find treasure but it must surely feel like finding a rusty paint can full of coins. I mentioned it on the phone to my mother, and she said, “Bring it over right now. Have you sorted them out yet?”
“Dump them all back in the can. I want to sort them here.”
I went to her place and she had a magnet ready to help sort them out (silver isn’t magnetic). It was my first money-sorting party in the Scrooge McDuck tradition and, in the end, the value of the coins came to $2,100. If my accountant phoned to say he’d found a tax break for $2,100, I’d be in a good mood – but it wouldn’t have felt like treasure. Good accountants should hide bags of rebated money all around your house. Imagine the joy they could bring to people.
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Worrying about money is one of the worst worries. It’s like having locked-in syndrome except you’re still moving around and doing things. Your head burns. Anything that looks like other people not having money problems infuriates you. It obsesses you and it pisses you off because it reminds you that you’re limited in the ways you can express your agency in the world. Worrying about money is anger inducing because it makes you think of time: how many dollars per hour, how much salary per year, how many years until retirement. Worrying about money forces you to do endless maths in your head. Most people didn’t like maths in high school, and they don’t like it now.
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People will do weird things for weird amounts of money. At the opening of a show of mine in Vancouver, the gallery’s fundraisers asked if there was something people could do to earn a $10 coupon from Starbucks, one of the show’s sponsors. I arranged a pile of red Lego into a 20ft strip and called it the “Lego Walk of Fire”. You couldn’t get your coupon until you walked across it without shoes. It was quite popular but then we noticed that if you put out less Lego, it’s actually much more painful to stride across. This made it irresistible. There’s a marketing lesson there.
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I’m not a Mormon but I admire Mormonism as a religion. They get things done, they dress nicely and they don’t seem preachy. I also like them because they believe – and I agree – that the two things that separate human beings from everything else in the universe is that human beings have free will and the perception of time’s passing. I think it sums up a fundamental aspect of humanity on earth – and maybe that’s as basic as philosophy gets. So I got to thinking that perhaps that’s what money is – a crystallisation – or, rather, a homogenisation of time and free will into these things we call dollars and pounds and yen and euros. Money multiplies your time. It also expands your agency and broadens the number of things you can do accordingly. Big-time lottery winners didn’t win 10 million dollars – they won 10,000 person-years of time to do pretty much anything they want anywhere on earth. Windfalls are like the crystal meth version of time and free will.
Time and free will. I’ve mentioned this before but it’s true: if you ask people over 50 which they would rather have, more time or more money, almost every person will choose time over money. But what would they select if they could choose between more money and more free will? We know the answer to that question, and it’s called Scandinavia.
Douglas Coupland’s most recent book is a non-fiction title, ‘Kitten Clone’, published by Visual Editions