Tangibility

Days until departure: 5

As some reading this may know, I’m a fan of the tragically short-lived television series, Firefly. The series was billed as a “sci-fi western,” which I haven’t find to be the easiest premise to sell, especially to a public used to TV catering to the lowest common denominator. As The New York Times put it, it was “a character-rich sci-fi western comedy-drama with existential underpinnings, a hard sell during a season dominated by ‘Joe Millionaire.’” (Also, as the article mentions, the network showed the shows out of order and didn’t sell it right…but I digress.) The general idea is that 500 years in the future, as new worlds are settled, a new frontier arises, one that bears some important similarity to the Old West.

In any case, I recently acquired the DVD box set of the series, and rewatched the pilot episode, with the commentary of the creator and the star of the series. Among the things that the creator, Joss Whedon, brought up was a central theme, the idea of regaining the tactile sense in life. You’ll see it throughout the series, if you care to watch it, and it’s striking just how…earthy the whole thing feels. The elements of the show are very interesting, and I might go into them more another time, but what I want to talk about is something that Whedon hints at in his commentary, but doesn’t discuss too much.

I think that these days we’re only beginning to grasp how far we’ve gotten from tangible things. Take money, for instance. Originally, we didn’t have money. Everything worked on the barter system. You would trade physical goods for other physical goods. Then, to make things easier, we adopted a crude form of currency, usually by assigning semi-arbitrary value to a sufficiently shiny and rare metal. Think gold or silver. Then, for convenience, we started issuing currency, which had value not in the physical composition of the money, but as a representative of stockpiles of precious metals payable upon request – a sort of IOU. It’s true – old U.S. paper currency used to be called “gold or silver certificates,” redeemable for their value in gold or silver bullion. That’s what Fort Knox was, a huge stockpile of gold to back our currency. Then, this ability to exchange banknotes for precious metals (called “convertibilty”) stopped, leading to a system of currency called “fiat.” (Read about it all here.) It’s gets a bit more complicated than this, but under a fiat system, we basically all just agree to treat government-issued bills as valuable because our government said so, and can enforce that declaration. And now, we have the final step, where everything goes digital. Yes, we still use paper currency, but I imagine the vast majority of money in use today is no more than ones and zeroes in some computer somewhere. Money has become less and less tangible, to the point where it’s now just floating out there in the ether of computer memory.

I could point to this same trend in any number of other areas of modern life, and I wonder how much we realize what it does to our psyches when nothing is tangible, so nothing feels real. Personally, I find it terrifying, and I think this fact accounts for the large amount of anxiety felt by your average person plugged into our modern culture.

I want to talk more about this lack of tangibility and this feeling of life not being real, especially its roots in philosophy and the sciences, but I think that will wait until another night.

One Response to “Tangibility”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Deep. May I lighten it up? Food. Food is something that will always be tangible, unless we manage to survive off of vitamin pills and power bars.

    ~R

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