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A Penny For Your Thoughts?

Imagine you are going out for the evening to meet three of your best friends – all going for a nice meal and a drink at your favourite restaurant. Throughout the night everyone is very relaxed, enjoying each others’ company, having a good chat, sharing some memories and laughs, and talking about whatever’s going on in their lives. Sounds like a pleasant way to spend an evening, right?

Now imagine the same night, the same people, in the same place but with one important difference: For every word you speak you earn six cents, and every word you hear will cost you two cents. The same rule goes for everybody. It sounds ridiculous of course, but what do you think would happen?

First, you will probably be thinking that you are going to have to talk more – but without making it too obvious of course. Secondly, you might be thinking about one of your friends in particular who usually talks a lot more than everyone else, and probably stands to gain considerably more than you. Maybe you’ll even be trying to think of ways to stop them monopolizing the situation. Thirdly, if you are the quiet type, you will probably be starting to worry about how much this night is going to cost you listening to everyone else, and you’ll more than likely start trying desperately to think of things to talk about.

Most people talk an average of about 120 words a minute. That means that just a minute’s listening is going to cost you $2.40, while a minute’s talking will earn you $7.20. Unless you’re talking as much as everyone else, over the course of the night, you could start running up a huge bill very quickly.

So, in an effort to control the situtation, you decide to tackle the matter head on and, immediately on greeting your friends, you say, “Guys, I think for the sake of fairness we should all try to divide our talking and listening equally.” Your friends all shrug and generally nod in agreement.

“It’s a fair solution,” one of your friends says. “In fact I thought the very same thing earlier and went out and bought this little digital verbometer.”

“Verbometer?” you ask, looking at the tiny black device. “Cool! How does it work?”

“Well it’s a digital word counter with a built in voice recognition, so it remembers each voice and keeps a running total. All we have to do is switch it on at the beginning, then stop it at the end and work out who owes what.” Everyone looks impressed. “Anyway if we all keep an eye on the count and just keep the conversation even as you say, then no-one should owe anything, right?”

Everyone laughs as the new gadget is passed around, and all agree to use it. The verbometer is placed on the table, switched on and everyone settles down to look at the menu….

So what happened next? Well, there are really just five possible outcomes:

  1. Everyone did as agreed, kept the conversation equal and paid nothing at the end.
  2. Everyone forgot about the counter and the conversation continued normally, each person then paying their respective dues at the end.
  3. Everyone was desperately clamouring to talk as much as possible, ending up in an exhausting evening, but a roughly equal bill for everyone.
  4. Everyone was being over-polite, resulting in hardly any conversation and a pretty boring night, but roughly equal billing.
  5. One or more people took advantage of the situation and earned a considerable amount for themselves from the others.

So which do you think is the optimal outcome here?

Of course, the answer is that none of the outcomes are optimal – if the object is just to have a good conversation. Even if everyone forgets the counter and talks as normal as in option #2, some people may end up being severely out of pocket at the end of the night and will probably want to avoid that situation again in future.

If everyone tries to keep the conversation equal, as in #1, the conversation can’t flow. Maybe someone’s exciting stories will be cut off halfway, while someone else desperately starts mumbling something completely uninteresting just to fill in the required number of words. Of course anyone deliberately monopolizing the situation in #5 is going to attract animosity, jealousy or bitterness from the others, and if everyone is speaking at the same time or are afraid to speak, like options #3 and #4, well, you might have been better off staying at home!

The point is that all conversation is free. Of course it is free. But when you take something that is already free and start imposing a value system to it that is directly linked to your own survival and prosperity, everything changes. What was once a self-organising, free flowing system immediately becomes distorted, unfair, and creates feelings of suspicion, doubt, greed and isolation for the people involved.

The same goes for all other aspects of life that come with a price tag. Food, water, energy and resources all come freely from the planet we inhabit, yet our value system renders access to them distorted and unfair. Human labour, ingenuity and ideas also come freely, yet access to them is hindered by the value system. We truly believe that our resources and work have a value and are subject to a market system, but this itself is actually just an ideaperpetuated by our culture that has absolutely no basis in our physical reality.

Can you conceive of a world without any exchange? If not, that is only because you have never been taught any differently. Value and exchange are cultural notions that we have inherited from a time of primitive culture and crude technology, where finding resources and making things was incredibly more difficult than it is today.

The fact is, nowhere else on Earth or in the known universe do wilful trades and exchanges take place for anything. That’s worth repeating. Nowhere else on Earth or in the known universe do wilful exchanges of any kind take place. We invented that. Now that invention, money, is wreaking havoc in all our personal lives, in our communities, in our animal kingdom, our climate, our planet. Our entire living ecosystem is now in peril, because of the artificial boundaries and limitations we have placed on ourselves.

You certainly wouldn’t expect to start paying for talking. So why should you pay for your food, your home, energy or technology? Money doesn’t give us these things. People give us these things. Life on Earth is for free. Really. It’s time to start making everything free again.

Published in Blog


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