Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Big Thaw

Today a man stopped me in the street, complimented my hat, high-fived me, told me he had just been released from prison, and asked if I was on my way to BART. I told him I didn’t have any money, which was true. I’m not asking for money, he said, offended. I was trying to ask you where the BART station is.

The thing is, asking for directions doesn’t involve such elaborate strategy. Information, unlike money, is generally freely exchanged between strangers. Our instinct, if someone simply asks, is to give directions to the train station—even if we don’t really know exactly where it is.

Money, on the other hand, tends to be frozen, and thus involves some thawing: flattery (I like your hat) or the instant creation of a bond (High five!) or of sympathy (I just got out of prison). Another—ingenious—tactic, of course, is to begin by asking for information:

Hey, do you know where the ocean is?

Yeah . . . Seven or eight blocks that way, then take a right at the Best Buy.

Thanks. Do you have a dollar?

While sob stories and undue respect may actually put potential donors more on guard, the opportunity to freely exchange information warms them, unwittingly puts them in a generous mood, softens up any previously frozen cash. Springtime in Moneyville.

I’ve noticed an increase lately in this tactic. We are, after all, in the midst of the Information Age; maybe what was already a generous instinct—the free exchange of information—has only quickened with the invention of the Internet. It’s hyperbolic, of course, yet strangely true to say that information has come to be almost as essential as air. From the protests sparked by BART’s suppression of cell phone use to the discussion around keeping the Internet regulation-free to Wikileaks to the Arab Spring to the rapidly spreading Occupy Wall Street movement, even institutions are increasingly being held responsible for withholding information—it only makes sense that these phenomena would color our daily interactions in the street.

Money, however, both on an institutional and individual level, seems to be growing ever more frozen, concentrated in the pockets of the wealthy few. It would follow that it’s probably only gotten harder to get passersby to give you spare change. Thus people—desperate people locked outside those glacial stores of wealth—are learning to take cues from the customs that have formed around that essential-as-air commodity: Information. A commodity that, however valuable, won’t buy you shelter or food.

Money is an object used to get you more objects. Information is something more abstract. Yet is this really true? Money’s worth seems so arbitrary to me, so far removed from the needs of those whose lack of it impedes their ability to survive. As cash becomes rarer, and information more free, perhaps this arbitrariness grows more apparent. Information access for all, yes, of course, but what the hell are we standing on right now? Maslow’s pyramid has been built on melting ice.

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