Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Word. Economy.

Spoiler alert: this entry will include another Twitter rant.

There seems to be, with the eruption of multiplied sources of word content, a coincidental and inverse action upon the sources of value content. While the word count goes up, the dollar count seems to go down. The more the world talks, the less economic value the world seems to enjoy.

On the one hand, we have escalated from mechanical typewriter to IBM Selectric to word processor to personal computer to fax and cell phone to Blackberry to…well, you get the idea. In the meantime, the more we Twitter, the less we produce. Sometimes, I wonder at the negative covariance of the two trends.

There are many who will argue I’ve got it wrong. The fact that we can fling words from one corner of the world to another in nanoseconds is sheer proof that we don’t have to wait, anymore, to finish our assigned tasks. That alone, Boss, should qualify for the Worker’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Words even have leverage now. What I used to key into a device to text a friend now can be broadcast, thanks to Twitter, to multiplied anyones who care to know my mundane daily musings.

There is something diametrically in opposition to the fluff of multiplied communications, and that is the pre-requisite of productivity.

I remember working on a genealogy project years ago—something I’ve always enjoyed as a hobby—when I found an online group suited to tackling the particular research aspect I was stuck on at that moment. While I can’t even recall whether the group helped me unstick from my dilemma, I do remember someone commenting on the frustration of not being able to find genealogical answers in, say, those church records of the 1870s in Prussia. Someone else was kind enough to provide the reality checkpoint that people in past time frames might have been a little busy with something other than wondering who their great-great-grandparents were. Say, something like whether there would be enough food to take them through a particularly chilling winter season. Point being, when it takes all you have to give to get food on your table, you don’t spend a great deal of time expounding on the virtues and values of much besides what will get that food on your table. We, on the other hand, can dally in luxuries of little consequence. Our productivity requirements have amply been over-exceeded.

Today, we have all sorts of commentators spouting off all sorts of opinions, recycling and passing along all sorts of tidbits of information, which dutifully get tossed everywhere but on the trash-heap of internet forwards. Perhaps these talking heads (well, now we don’t even get to see the heads!) are paid well for their participation in the chain of communication. But they aren’t really producers.

And it is the true producers that provide the value in a society. At least at the bedrock foundational layer. If someone on the bottom weren’t doing the sustaining work that provides our needs—with plenty of profit to spare—none of us would enjoy that spendy gift of gab. That bedrock productivity fuels our divergence into the countless iterations of thought—or thoughtlessness—that we enjoy.

There is a phrase I found once in an ancient writer’s work which has stuck with me, concerning the point at which value is actually created. It from a warning by the revered Hebrew prophet, Moses, who was reminding his people that, though they became wealthy and felt self-sufficient, they still needed to remember the source of their abilities. The concept I bought from that passage was “the power to produce wealth.”

I took a look at the original language (with lots of help from reference books) and isolated three key words.

The Hebrew word for “Power” came from a root word meaning “to be firm.” It had the idea of vigor or force, the connotation of a capacity or means to produce.

“To produce” was from a root word meaning to work, labor, or toil, and gave the sense of making, creating—especially building or constructing something. It often was linked with a sense of ethical obligation. Over the years, it came to be understood generally as “to do” or “to make,” but the creative implication was not lost on me.

“Wealth,” however, was the most interesting in this emphasis on creation. It originated from a verb whose two main ideas were spinning, and twisting—as in labor pains before giving birth. To bear a child, to be strong: those were the main messages of this word’s history. From this sense of causing to bring forth, word usage evolved to include concepts of multiplication: “army,” “strength” and “wealth.” Once again, it involved something tangible, and something which required strong effort to produce. And it yielded something of value.

The take-home message from Moses’ lesson for his followers was: Don’t forget the one who gave you your ability. Today, that message reminds me that true wealth comes from creative, productive effort—the hard work of creating something from “nothing.” All talk does is redistribute wealth. And the more we try to redistribute someone else’s wealth, the less it is worth for the ones who didn’t work to produce it.

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