Sun, 16 Dec 2007

Money is not a sign of poverty

Iain M. Banks wrote, in his science fiction book _Consider Phlebas_, "The Culture is an abundant society, with no scarcity economy. One Culture adage is, Money is a sign of poverty, meaning that money only has a function in a scarcity economy, and therefore its existence betrays a pre-abundant (poor) society."

All science fiction works as a story-telling milieu by changing a very small number of constants from our current society. If it changes none, then it's not science fiction, it's just fiction. Cryptonomicon is science fiction because of the Root's magical life-restoring cigars. If it changes more constants, then it's fantasy. If it changes too many constants, it's unreadable garbage because people can't relate to it.

One of the constants that Banks changes in his book is the idea that people are satiable. In his story, people in The Culture are satisfied with a certain amount of possessions, with a certain amount of experiences. This amount is presumably very large because of the abundance of goods and services. We can relate to this because in our experience, we think we would be satisfied with some amount of stuff and fun.

Back in the real world, that doesn't happen. I have a friend who would love to buy a $22,000,000 dive boat. He can't afford it. I mean, he could afford it in the sense that his net worth is greater than $22M. But what he means is that it would consume too large a percentage of his net worth. I have trouble relating to even considering the purchase of something so expensive. But what if we were members of Banks' Culture? All of us could afford such a thing, because it's a culture of abundance.

Human desire is insatiable. Now, some think this is a bad thing, blaming it on greed and consumerism. But think about Mother Theresa -- a saint if ever there was one. Was she greedy? Insatiable? Well, yes, she was. If she could have helped one more person, she would have.

Human desire is no more or less the ability to dream of accomplishing something currently undone. Everyone but everyone counsels people to dream big. Once you've achieved your dream, to what end do you put your efforts? To avoid ennui, you can only find another dream. I sat next to Danny Snider in high school choir. His deep-seated dream was to become a rock star. As Dee Snider, he has. He shows no sign of slowing down, and you can see from visiting his website that he still dreams big.

So, no, money is not a sign of poverty. Money is a sign of humanity. At least, outside of science fiction books it is.

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