From the category archives:



In a comment on my recent post about English as a kind of second language, Zoë Westhof mentioned the Surrealists’ interest in the unconscious mind, and their question of whether our unconscious experiences can escape the ‘taint’ of the conscious mind.

This got me thinking about all those wordless singers and composers, from Lisa Gerrard to György Ligeti, who have used ‘nonsense’ languages to sidestep the entanglements of verbal meaning. A lot of vocal music in the Western tradition was never meant to be understood by the audience. Avoiding the vernacular has been an important historical thread for centuries.

Our conscious mind wants to interpret, to construct meaning and narrative from our fragmentary sensations. Look at all those examples floating around the internet of human faces seen in everyday objects and urban landscapes: from fire hydrants to sinks to peeling walls.

When we see a manhole cover with a smile on its ‘face’ we know on a rational level that happy manhole cover is incapable of being happy.


It's just metal. (photo by skywaaker on Flickr)

Yet the ‘found faces‘ group on Flickr has nearly 5000 photos, contributed by almost 1200 members.

Interpretation of sense as symbol seems inescapable. And once your mind has made such an interpretation, try undoing it. Try looking at that manhole cover without seeing a smile. It’s incredibly difficult.

I’ve found in music, as with fire hydrants and manhole covers, that sounds with no semantic meaning, phonemes that are presented entirely outside of language, are still perceived as meaningful.


Back in the 90s, I heard a recording of baby sounds on an effects CD I got from the library. The twists and turns in these little voices reminded me of the ornaments and appoggiatura you might add to a Bach sinfonia or a Haydn sonata. Why couldn’t these sounds become the basic elements of a composition, instead of a piano or an oboe? Surely they are more natural musical material than the sound of an organ or a turntable?

I began to imagine writing music for a choir of toddlers. While thrilled at the potential, I knew it was impractical in the extreme, but I also thought that maybe I could create some semblance of the idea by chopping up the recording and rearranging the pieces.

Click here to listen to the final result in a new window.

As I’ve played this piece for various people over the last fourteen years or so, the range of reactions has been fascinating to me.

Some people seem to run into an “It’s not music” wall, or for some other reason just don’t like it. And that’s fine.

In those that do react with interest, there seems to be a tendency to project whatever is on their mind onto the sounds.

For example, one friend, more concerned about the efficacy of her birth-control tactics than the ticking of her biological clock, felt haunted by it. The sounds evoked a terrible image of a baby army on the march — and maybe they were coming for her!

Another listener paused contemplatively at the end, and then, almost in tears, he told me that I had “captured the too-long-repressed voice of the Native American people crying for freedom!” In a random assortment of British babies?

By far the most common response has been: “Aww, that’s cute!”

Really? It wasn’t meant to be.

To me, these were just interesting sounds that I liked and wanted to work with. That’s all.

An Antidote for Too Much Math?

Well, maybe there was a little more than that going on. I created the piece in 1995, when home computers were only barely powerful enough to do this kind of thing. I used a system called CSound, which required tedious number-crunching: each entrance, exit, change in volume or position had to be calculated to the millisecond or programmed with a mathematical function. It was more like working on a complex spreadsheet than a musical score:

The original score for #30

Meaningless numbers? (Parts of the original score for #30)

The software took about an hour to process each minute of sound, so even the slightest change required hours of computing time before I could hear the results.

It was incredibly sterile and linear and boring work. The warmth and complexity and nuance of the sounds themselves — these little pre-verbal gurgles — provided an antidote to all that left-brain work. It kept me going in a way that might not have been possible if I’d been working with digitally-produced beeps and squiggles.

So I guess, even to me, as I was working with them, these sounds were not just sounds.

Meaningless: Impossible?

No matter how much I might have wished to work with meaningless phonemes, they just aren’t heard that way.

To our brains, that’s not a muted two-second sine wave that wavers slightly in pitch towards the end, it is a vulnerable little human that needs protection, affection, nutrition or attention. Maybe it even triggers instinctual responses?

Whatever we as artists and idea-shapers do to try to escape cultural references and connotations, we can’t control the other side of the equation: the interpretations of our audience.

What we intend to express and the message received can be very different.

We can deny that, or we can work with it.  And if we choose to work with it, we take on the task of understanding as much as we can about how the mind works, about how perception works, about culture, about history — about all the different things it means to be and feel and see and hear as humans.

Is it possible to perceive without interpreting or translating? What’s your experience?

Links and Related Articles


Cameras Are Spotlights

by Matt Blair on October 28, 2009

in Perception,Places and Contexts,Senses,Tools

People seem to be tilting their heads a little higher on the streets lately.

(No, not just because of the latest gushing story about Portland in the national press.)

Our trees — the moody ones that change their wardrobe with the seasons, not the stalwart evergreens — are baring themselves for winter, and Portlanders, often with cameras or camera phones in hand, are gathering evidence of autumn before it all falls away and leaves us with short days and drizzle.

This season brings all sorts of sensations: the first time in months when you feel cold even with two jackets on, the pumpkin lattes, the smell of roasting squash, the constant uncertainty over whether it is or isn’t actually raining, the seemingly endless variety of fresh apples, the piles of leaves that the kid in me wants to stomp through, and the intuition to look up a little more frequently than usual.

Life doesn’t stop, of course, and all the things that preoccupied us two weeks ago, and will preoccupy us two weeks from now, are still there, weighing on our minds enough to even our gaze, or turn it back down to the ground.

Looking down: Not such a bad view, either...

Looking down: Not such a bad view, either...

Whether absorbed in conversation, mentally re-prioritizing my reading list (again) or simply walking around mulling over nascent thoughts, whenever I see someone fussing with a camera, it acts as a silent, subtle alarm: something interesting must be happening here.

Hmm, a building — must be working for a real estate agent.

Or we see a toddler stumbling down the sidewalk towards the parent, who is documenting another step towards confidence.

Then there are those rare — and to me, beautiful — moments when a quick scan reveals no cause for photography at all. We can find no explanation for why someone has stopped to capture some part of this scene.  And we are left to wonder:  How often am I missing something among all that seems ordinary?

A camera is an attention-directing device as well as an image capture device. To point a camera is to convey to all those around us: I find this worth remembering.

When passing a woman carefully framing a shot causes us to pause, and wonder what she’s looking at, she has done us a great favor by making us more attentive to our surroundings.

Even just seeing a photo later, out of its original context, on Flickr or a postcard or an email, can have a similar effect. We think:

“I saw something like that last week, and I didn’t stop to notice the details.  Maybe I should.”

And with that in mind, I’m going for another walk, before all the leaves are on the ground.


600 Milliseconds

by Matt Blair on October 16, 2009

in Audience,Life Cycle of Ideas,Meaning,Perception

I was just taking a break from editing a followup to my English as a Second Language post, and heard this story on NPR:

In Milliseconds, Brain Zips From Thought To Speech.

A new study using electrodes in the brains of epilepsy patients has hinted at the location, timing and sequence of thought formation and verbal response. (The electrodes were voluntarily implanted prior to surgery, in case you were wondering!)

Here’s an approximate time line in milliseconds of what happened after the patients were asked to read and respond to a “group of words”:

  • 200 ms — Word recognition
  • 320 ms — Grammatical processing
  • 450 ms — Preparing a response

Previous research suggests that it takes about 600 ms to form and speak a thought.

What are the practical implications? What does all this mean? That’s not yet clear.

A quote from Ned T. Sahin, one of the researchers involved in the study:

“Sometimes I feel like we’re a colony of ants who’ve come across a cell phone,” he says. “We can describe parts of it, but we really don’t know what’s fundamentally going on here yet.”

Feeling like one of those ants, I’m going to crawl around that followup post and re-work it a bit.


Textural and Temporal

by Matt Blair on August 30, 2009

in Books,Perception,Senses

The Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría is the shortest book I’ve read in quite a while.

This concept book consists of a series of paired black pages: text describing a color in both braille and white letters on the left page, and an image in raised black ink on the right. (You can see an example in this review.)

Ostensibly a book for children, it is a book meant to be touched and felt. Sighted readers can tilt the book back and forth in the light to perceive the image — but that’s cheating isn’t it?

Thomas, our guide through this seemingly monochromatic world, explains each color to us:

“Thomas says that blue is the color of the sky when kites are flying and the sun is beating hot on his head.”

Touching the adjacent page with eyes closed, I scanned from upper left to upper right, out of instinct.  There didn’t seem to be anything at all.

Descending the left side of the page, my fingertips caught a bare thread near the bottom. With no other distractions, they followed that thin line up and to the right, until it exploded into the shape and form of a kite.

Our eyes can take in a page at a glance — not every detail, of course, but the general structure of it.  With touch alone, our sensory connection to the page shrinks to narrow points — a fingertip or two. The experience of the page happens not in an instant, but through time.

Looking at a page, we think: there’s a kite on the right.

Touching the page, there’s nothing at first, then a spare line, and then a burst of complexity.

It’s not just that we’re using a different sense: the entire sequence of the experience has changed.


What is your primary sense?  How do your perceptions change if you mask or ignore that particular sense and focus on your other senses?

Does your primary sense allow you to perceive something in an instant, or does the experience unfold through time? Do some senses take longer than others?

With practice, could your perception with that particular sense get faster? Would you want it to?

Could your perception with that sense get slower over time? Would you want to develop that ability?


For at least half a day earlier this week, a story about clouds was the most shared story on the BBC News website:

Clouds: More popular than Reagan and Bee Thieves

Clouds: More popular than Reagan and Bee Thieves

Clouds, something most humans see all the time, were ranked above something quite rare: a jet falling out of the sky over the Atlantic.

Of course, the clouds that were eliciting such excitement were not just any clouds:

Asperatus (Credit: Merrick Davies, Source: BBC's The World)

Asperatus-type clouds (Credit: Merrick Davies, Source: BBC's The World)

That’s obviously not something we see every day.

Why are clouds so compelling?  What can we get from clouds?

The Cloud Appreciation Society, generators of the buzz described above, makes a strong claim in their manifesto:

“Clouds are so commonplace that their beauty is often overlooked.
They are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul.
Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save
on psychoanalysis bills.”

(Shh, don’t tell the FDA, but that almost sounds like a medical claim! Good thing CAS is based in the UK…)

Are clouds art?

What makes clouds so pleasing to us?

They hit a number of my own aesthetic pleasure points.

Clouds are abstract: There’s no message or agenda lurking inside a cryptic scene. There are no hidden cultural references to miss.

They are dynamic, never finished, rarely even pausing. They are ephemeral, a reminder that nothing lasts. We pay closer attention to what won’t happen again, and to that which requires presence. As Emily Dickinson put it:

“To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie —
True Poems flee —”

Clouds are free — to all who are free to see the sky — and more readily accessible than most aesthetic experiences. Also from the CAS manifesto:

“We think that they are Nature’s poetry,
and the most egalitarian of her displays, since
everyone can have a fantastic view of them.”

And the sky engages multiple senses: rain is a cloud reaching out to touch you. (Well, not really — I’m personifying a bit here.) Lightning, too, though in a more extreme and thankfully rarer form. A good thunderstorm also engages our senses of sound and smell. What would summer be without the scent of the air just before a good soaking begins?

Some Notional Lessons from The Sky

What can we learn from an enthusiasm for clouds? Can a bunch of water droplets suspended in air teach us anything about creativity? How can clouds remind us of what we already know?

The Ephemeral requires attention. We don’t know what we might miss, but we do know we might miss it.

Portland, June 2007

Technology is limited. When not even a tenth of what we see fits within the frame of a photo, we can’t pretend that a camera captures much more than a token reminder of what it was like to actually be there.

Portland, November 2008

Nuance emerges as a result of process, not design. Clouds are the product of a complex, generative system. Instead of trying to meticulously make and fix every detail, set up a system that creates nuance, and hone the results.

Our surroundings set the mood and shape our perceptions.

How does this image make you feel:

Deliberate Underexposure

Portland, March 2007

And this one?

Portland, May 2007

There’s a need for a star. Beauty emerges from interactions. It’s not just the clouds, or the light alone, but the interplay between the two which can make the sky so compelling. A subject without illumination, illumination without a subject — neither alone is as good as their combination.

Osaka Skyline

Osaka, December 2001

A star can also overwhelm. The sun is so intense it blanches everything in its path. Beauty is more often found away from its spotlight, in the shadows, in layers of oblique, indirect light.

Art without an Artist? Are clouds a reminder that the art and Beauty we seek externally are actually in us?  Could it be that Beauty is an attitude? A way we choose and learn to perceive? Are cloud formations art without an artist? Or does observing clouds remind us that we are all artists?

"What's this cloud type called? Who cares..."

Naming is but one of many kinds of knowing. We can appreciate Beauty without learning a taxonomy or a specialized vocabulary, or having the ability to articulate why we are affected.

There are certain enhancements of experience available if we learn what chiaroscuro is or the role a French-sixth chord plays in a harmonic progression.

Maybe a better indicator of Beauty is to be rendered mute: To have an experience so profound we are less worried about the distinctions between stratus nebulosus translucidus and cumulus humilis, and more worried about being hit by a bus because we’ve stopped in the middle of the street, transfixed by the sky’s tableau.


Larger Than Life

by Matt Blair on May 12, 2009

in Audience,Exercises,Perception



That’s probably all you need to get a particular music theme in your head.

It is a pattern found all around us, from the way we knock on doors to the way advertisers frame the ominous.  It might be one of the most recognized and over-exposed musical phrases in history.

The source? The opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C Minor.

To my ear, the loveliest and most under-stated presentation of that musical idea comes at the end of the third movement of that symphony:  Most of the orchestra has fallen silent, while the strings gently pluck a flattened version of the theme. And then it is reduced to a simple pulse played on timpani — one of the first moments in the Western “art music” tradition when percussion carries the main theme.

From there, the orchestra slowly reassembles around that insistent beat, mustering the bombast of the opening of the fourth movement.

It is an extraordinary moment, more than 20 minutes into the piece.

But how often do we get that far?

Daily life keeps us busy.  We’ve all heard that theme dozens or hundreds of times. The initial notes enter our ears, and, if only subconsciously, we think: Yep, I’ve heard that.

Now that I’ve pointed it out, there’s nothing to stop you from going directly to that part of the third movement on a CD or an iPod and listening to the transition.

And there’s the problem: that’s akin to walking into a concert hall with a full orchestra, asking them to pick it up 80 bars before the end of the third movement, and then disrupting them after a few minutes with a “Thank you, that’s enough.”

Described that way, it is absurd. But that’s how we so often treat great music and great ideas.

And by we, I mean me, too! I’m not saying it is easy. Even listening to the Fifth while writing this post, I cheated and started at the beginning of the third movement.  Sorry, Ludwig: You and I both deserve better.

There is an inherent beauty to this passage of the symphony, but what makes it profound is the twenty or so minutes that precede it.

If we encounter the passage as a 30-second excerpt, underscoring a particular emotion in a film, or by starting up the car after an hour shopping for shirts, we have an entirely different experience.

Art, Squeezed Into Life

We tend to connect with art that fits within our hectic and idea-saturated lives.

At 227 minutes long, “Lawrence of Arabia” sits gathering dust as we plow through shorter films in the Netflix queue. The Salman Rushdie novel that makes us wish we knew more about the Partition of Pakistan and India gets postponed, half-read.  Self-appointed critics describe a seven-minute pop song as “artistic self-indulgence”.

I’ve noticed that YouTube has warped my perception of short films: When watching something online, my hand rarely leaves the mouse. Barely thirty seconds in, I find myself grumbling: “If this doesn’t get interesting in the next 10 seconds, I’m on to the next thing.”

That’s not a disaster for most of the trifles on YouTube, but what if I subconsciously transfer that same sensibility to other experiences of art or music or film — or even human interaction?

The experience of beauty often requires sustained attention, physical expanse, perception of nuance and deep thinking.

When we “don’t have time” for such experiences, we will have less beauty and awe and inspiration in our lives.

Meeting Claudio

When I was eighteen, I had a chance to hear Claudio Monteverdi’s opera “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” performed on 17th-century instruments.

I had never been to an opera. I had never even listened to a single act of one, let alone a whole work. How long would it be? Would I get bored? Was it worth the time?

I went, and was enthralled from the first note. Monteverdi remains one of my favorite composers to this day. How much later in my life would I have discovered that music if I hadn’t gone that night?

We don’t have time for such experiences every day.

All I’m saying is give 220-minute-long Italian Baroque operas — or something like them — a chance.


Clear some space in your schedule for a big idea or big art. Set aside the time, make a date, and go to a specific place, if needed, to experience the enormous, however you define that.

Choose something you don’t typically have time to enjoy and absorb, and that you think might be humbling and awe-inspiring. It could be:

  • Something physically or sensually larger than you, like standing in the middle of a redwood forest.
  • Something on a timescale outside your everyday experience — like “Lawrence of Arabia”.
  • A complicated idea that requires intricate thinking and focused attention.

Seemingly small ideas and experiences can become enormous in our heads. An Emily Dickinson poem may seem small, but if it expands in your mind and occupies your thoughts for days or weeks, its import and impact could be enormous. Give yourself time to let a small idea grow in your mind.

The amount of our time and energy attracted to an idea is a much better measure of its size than word counts, duration, or physical measurements. The critical ingredients are time and the ability to focus.


  • How was this experience different from your typical day-to-day encounters with art and ideas?
  • Was it worth devoting the time to it?  Was it worth whatever hassle you had to go through to make the time in your schedule?
  • Will you do it again?  How often?


The Experience of Enormity

by Matt Blair on May 8, 2009

in Perception,Senses

In the mid-nineties, I was hearing a lot of buzz about the way CD-Roms and multimedia were going to “change everything”. (There’s a pair of words that should always be interpreted as a warning…)

I was working in computer art at the time, and I should have been excited by these developments, but I just couldn’t get into it. In my experience, these CDs were limited to trite little sound-effects, pixelated graphics and postage-stamp-sized video — when they actually worked. Remember what it was like to get video to play on a computer in 1994?

It was tiny. It was puny. It was so much smaller than the scope of our senses.

Was this really the future?

Then I saw Laurie Anderson on her Bright Red tour, and it was precisely the kind of rebuttal I had been yearning for.

Enormity: to be within, and to be enveloped. That’s what this new notion of “multimedia” lacked, and what the concert hall could still provide.


A gorgeous photo of lightning is not the same as the visceral experience of being in — and underneath — a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon in Alabama.

Seeing a film of people walking around a Richard Serra sculpture is not the same as standing in the shadow of one.

No photo or map conveys the cultural shock of the Reconquista as well as circumnavigating the cathedral built in the center of the Great Mosque of Córdoba.

Going there matters. Being there matters. But it’s not enough.

A Canyon

I have been enjoying Chris Guillebeau’s blog lately, yet I was a bit horrified to come across the Grand Canyon on the over-rated list in his post 9 Overrated Tourist Destinations (And 9 Great Alternatives).

Don’t get me wrong: this is a great article, largely because of the evenhandedness of suggesting alternatives for each overrated spot. His essay/manifesto 279 Days to Overnight Success is also full of excellent insights. The title alone is such a succinct blend of aspiration, pragmatism and volition.

Here’s how he described his experience:

I went there with my family last year, and my 16-year old sister and I had fun coming up with alternative names for the Grand Canyon. Our top choices were:
The Decent Canyon
The Not-Bad Canyon
The “If you’re 10 miles away, go and see it” Canyon

You get the idea. Technically speaking, the Grand Canyon is impressive, but there’s so much hype about it that it’s hard to live up to your expectations upon arrival.

So many people reacted to this that Chris recently added a comment to the post calling for a kind of truce on the subject:

1) I think we’ve discussed the Grand Canyon enough – some people love it, some don’t, and as for me I’m kind of in between. Each opinion is valid, but let’s move on.

Rather than jump into the fray, I want to use it as an example of how we experience enormity.

You can’t really see the Grand Canyon. No human can.

Instead, you go to selected viewpoints, gather information, and try to piece this phenomena together in your head. From this thin dossier, you try to interpret its meaning and significance.

Put another way, a human visiting the Grand Canyon is like a gnat visiting your ankle. Would you say the gnat understands you or your significance?

Such expansive sites and moments are sensually humbling because they surpass the limits of our perceptive abilities.

From any one vista, or by visiting a dozen in a single day, you are merely assembling clues about the nature of what is in front of you.

These clues help you construct a not-entirely-accurate mental model of a physical place, and that is ultimately where you visit places like the Grand Canyon: not in front of you, or beneath your feet, but in your mind.

When we finally arrive at a site we’ve imagined visiting, each sensation is compared to our expectations and the models we bring with us. We confirm some suspicions, invalidate others, and add unexpected nuance.

To truly perceive, we must leave our expectations behind. Otherwise, it’s all comparison.

Big art, Little artifacts

No matter how you go or where you stand, you won’t be able to fly through a place like the Grand Canyon and switch perspectives like you can in Google Earth. No matter how many times you visit, you’ll never capture each vista at the precise light conditions found in the 100 highest-rated photos of it on Flickr.

Do such tools and services take the magic away? Do they give us such a rich set of expectations and such a strong sense of having been there that real life — the sight and sound and smell of any particular spot — just can’t compare?

When technology delivers fragments and artifacts of sensory experience to our desks and kitchen tables and mobile phones, what does it mean to go somewhere anymore?

It’s worth noting that many of the commenters who disagreed about the Grand Canyon had immersed themselves in the Canyon by hiking into it or rafting through it.

Immersion seems to make a difference.

And that was the problem with the multimedia hype in the 1990s: we were trying to connect with big ideas by looking through the jaggy and unreliable window of a computer monitor and hearing tinny sound from little speakers, with no other senses engaged. We were outside, looking and listening in. It was too small for us to be enveloped.

Yes, computers have gotten better and faster and better able to convey beauty.

But a 24-inch screen and a great speaker system still offer mere hints and fragments of what the world is like.

Here is an image of a painting by Salvador Dalí:

The Hallucinogenic Toreador by Salvador Dalí

The Hallucinogenic Toreador by Salvador Dalí

You may have seen it before.  Did you know that it is four meters tall — taller than one person standing on the shoulders of another? Approximately 25-times the size it appears on your screen?

When we go to enormous places and encounter big art, we all have our own distinct experiences. When surrounded by something bigger than any one of us can perceive and comprehend, we notice different things, and we come back with different stories.

The collection of all of our stories continually reshapes the myths, and the myths reshape our perceptions.

The only way to judge the hype and keep the myth connected to the reality is to go there, and let the sensory richness of a place or an idea infuse your mind and body.

You still have to go there.


Disposable Culture

by Matt Blair on April 29, 2009

in Meaning,Perception,Publishing

As I was working on the next piece in the surplus series, I found the following quote in an article by Michael Pollan:

“But even with more than half of the 10 billion bushels of corn produced annually being fed to animals, there is plenty left over. So companies like A.D.M., Cargill and ConAgra have figured ingenious new ways to dispose of it, turning it into everything from ethanol to Vitamin C and biodegradable plastics.”

I’m highlighting other aspects of the quote in my next post, but in this one, the word I want to point out is dispose.

If you are a hungry person, corn has intrinsic value. It has nutrition, and your hunger is telling you that you need nutrition. Corn doesn’t lose value and become something that a society needs to “dispose of” until there is far more supply than demand.

Faith -- by The Cure

Faith -- by The Cure

I was recently going through old records (the musical kind, not the financial statement-kind) that I have in storage, thinking about selling some of them. The Cure’s “Faith” came out in 1981, and though it is still one of my favorite records, I don’t necessarily need the physical object in my house anymore.

It’s old enough that I figured a collector might be interested in it, until my thumb felt something at the lower right corner of the sleeve: a precise cut, about 1 cm into the cardboard.

It had been remaindered before I bought it.

You’ve probably encountered cassettes or CDs or DVDs that have a cut in the plastic container, or books that have ink from a marker across the bottom of the pages, and are selling for a third of the original price.

Remaindered Books

Remaindered Books

At some moment in the past, there were 20,000 too many units sitting in someone’s warehouse.  Their solution? Mark it down, and sell it off as cultural scrap. It was an inventory management decision, a change in accounting status at a particular time in the life of that physical expression of an idea.

Such intentional damage is a minor humiliation compared to the common practice in the book publishing world of pulping unsold copies.

Price and Value

Physical surplus makes culture seem cheap.  It creates an illusion of valuelessness.

The price of a particular cultural product is only a comment on that product at a specific moment, and not an indicator of the real value of the ideas the product conveys.

Not long after the vibrations caused by vinyl grooves have been dutifully transcribed by iTunes and saved on my phone, I won’t remember that the sleeve of that Cure album was cut — that someone somewhere years ago thought it was only worth half of what it was the day before.

As I listen, I’ll remember what it has always meant to me, regardless of scarcity or surplus.

Price is often a false or ephemeral indicator of  true, long-term value.

Want a more corporeal example?

Paper is relatively cheap.  Paper masks are relatively cheap.  What is the value of a paper mask that keeps someone from getting sick?

Related: This article is part of a series on creative surplus.


Reconsidering Wealth

by Matt Blair on March 20, 2009

in Meaning,Perception,Senses

I was traveling through Europe during the financial crisis of 1998. While it was not the kind of crisis that was obvious on the streets of western Europe, there were stories here and there of how the froth of the markets — especially the currency markets — had spilled into every day life.

In Helsinki, I met a German motorcyclist who was making plans to return home by ferry.  He’d made it through Poland, the Baltics and Russia, but with great difficulty: he couldn’t get any hard currency out of the banks at all during the last half of his trip, though everyone wanted to hand him rubles — as many as he could take.  But no one would accept rubles from him, a non-Russian.  Dollars, they told him.  Deutsche marks.  British pounds.  You’re a foreigner, went the implied argument.  You must have some real money.

He did, back in Germany. But the numbers in that account didn’t matter to a local bank in Latvia.  They had no dollars or Deutsche marks to give. No one was willing to translate those distant numbers into a fungible, functional currency, though they were eager to give him all the local paper he could carry.

He told me of the relief he felt crossing into Finland, inserting his bank card into a machine, and watching it proceed with the transaction, as though nothing unusual was going on. The alchemy of the ATM seemed like a small miracle. The numbers in his account in Germany could be made real again, translated into paper that meant something, no questions asked or explanations needed.

A few weeks later, I was in Paris, and pensive photos of Bill Clinton had pushed the financial crisis to the inside pages of the newspaper.

As I reached the top of one of the towers of the Notre Dame cathedral, my eyes moved upward to look out over the city, and stopped at a newspaper resting on the ledge. It had been carefully folded to the section with stock quotes. Given the climate, I immediately began to imagine some poor soul who had read it one last time, then set it aside before jumping. I hadn’t heard murmurs of anything like that, so maybe this paper’s reader had the sense to set it down and walk away, life intact, regardless of financial status.

I hadn’t followed any details of how the crisis was affecting America at all during my travels. I had limited access to the internet, a very small amount of money invested, and there was just too much to see to be bothered or worried. But curiosity got the better of me. On closer inspection, without even turning the page, I noticed one of the minor tech stocks I owned: it had lost more than half its value since I had landed at Heathrow ten weeks earlier. I shrugged — not because I didn’t care. I shrugged, as my eyes looked out across the city again, because I was in Paris.

I slowly walked back to the youth hostel where I was staying for the week. It was autumn, and I wanted to change into warmer clothes before a night of wandering.

Returning downstairs, I noticed two of my roommates sitting at the bar, in a cloud of smoke and gloom. They were paying 12 francs each for bottles of Kronenbourg beer, and I counted at least six empties on the table in front of them. (This was before paper Euros, and 12 francs was about US$2 at that time.) I walked over for a chat, and before I’d finished my hello, one of them said “We’re so broke, and everything costs.”

This was actually a decent youth hostel, one of the better ones I stayed in during that trip. It was not as though they had been subject to the kind of humiliating delousing described in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London or were shriveled by hunger with nothing but murky water and days-old bread to eat. They had blown through more francs in beer in one afternoon than I had spent on food and drink in two days. And still they thought themselves poor.

The places we go, the books we read, the films we see, the ideas that excite us, the culture we share, the beauty we perceive, the friends we make, the people we care for, and who care for us — that’s wealth. Some of these require money, and some don’t. But they all add to the richness of life.

Earlier that afternoon, I’d had a late lunch, sitting in the sun, on the tip of the Île de la Cité, as the Seine seemed to flow all around me. I had a loaf of fresh bread, still warm from the oven, that cost me three and a half francs, and a large bottle of Volvic water, which cost me two francs at a small grocery store in a neighborhood I’d meandered through earlier.

Bread and water — the old stereotype of prison food? Not on that day, in this spot:

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I’d had a great day. I’d go so far as to say intoxicating. This couple had spent at least twelve times the amount of money I had spent, getting drunk and bemoaning their poverty, staring at the wall of a dark lobby in the city of lights. Their mindset was costing them more than anything else, because it prevented them from seeing the the beauty and potential all around them.

They asked me to join them at the bar, and I just smiled, politely declined and walked out.  At that moment, it didn’t matter how many francs or centimes were in my pocket, or how many numbers were attached to other numbers in a data center on the other side of the world.

I had a whole city to see, and so many of the best parts were free.