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Dead medium: Dead Money
From: From: Richard Dorsett (no email address)
Source(s): *ShapinskyUs Karma, BoggsUs Bills, And Other True-Life Tales* by Lawrence Weschler, 1987

page 196:

"At one time, cows were the medium of exchange in Italy, and the Latin word for cattle, *pecus,* was the root of another Latin word for money, *pecunia,* which, of course, survives in our own 'pecuniary.' On the Fiji Islands, whale teeth were used, tea bricks were used in many inner areas of Asia, camels in Arabia; American Indians traded wampum (strings of shells), early Canadian colonists used playing cards, and colonial Virginians made tobacco leaves their legal tender in 1642. I've read of woodpecker scalps being used as money, though I donUt know where and can't imagine how. In Romania today, (((1987))) the underground economy for some reason runs on unopened packs of Kent cigarettes (ten pounds of lean beef going for one carton)."

Woodpecker scalps? In conversation with Bruce Sterling a few months ago, the Dead Media Project came up. In a classic Sterling throwaway line, he said that he was considering including money in a future Dead Media posting.

In Weschler's book, a collection of essays centered around some eccentric figures in the art world, there is a chapter on J.S.G. Boggs, the artist who draws currency and then 'spends' it. He will, for example, draw a ten dollar bill, go to an arts supply store, and exchange it for a $9 rapidograph pen. He always demands the change in real money, as that is part of the process. On convincing some clerk or waiter to accept his bill, he will get a receipt and document the entire transaction. The money he receives in change is never spent, it is part of the piece. After waiting a day or two, he calls a collector from a list of patrons and offers them the receipt, the change, and the location of the original transaction. The collector has to buy the documentation from Boggs, then has to track down the original recipient of the bill and offer to buy it from them. Boggs has done this hundreds of time.

This process, while having little to do with actual dead media, does set the mind to wondering about the origins of money, and the many ways humans have devised to get past the one-on-one barter systems that must have developed in the first agrarian communities. This *is* a dead medium, or rather hundreds of dead media, and the line from woodpecker scalps to Federal Reserve-backed notes is clear. Paper money, credit cards, on-line transactions, whatever agreed-upon method of buying and selling will be used in the future, is as fascinating as studying the development of photography from the salt paper process to the digitally enhanced covers of WIRED magazine.

Richard Dorsett

(((bruces remarks: Defining money as a "medium" might solve a lot of conceptual difficulties, while creating numerous practical ones for the dead media scholar. Money is certainly a so-called "medium of exchange," but is money actually *media* per se? Certainly many dead media have been used to transfer money. Telegraphic mail orders were once vital to commerce. Postal money orders were flown into Paris by pigeons during the Franco-Prussian War. Pneumatic tubes got their start at stock exchanges.

(((The Incan quipu was a form of accounting as well as Incan society's only means of symbolic communication. Literacy arose in the Middle East as an accounting process, long before people learned to adapt those financial symbols to express spoken language. Modern cash is the physical process of printing presses, which are certainly "media." Basically, cash is paper covered with symbols and letters. The American one-dollar bill communicates bald declarations to the end user (THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS PUBLIC AND PRIVATE) and trumpets political manifestos (ANNUIT COEPTIS MDCCLXXVI NOVUS ORDO SECLORUM). Why, exactly, is giving someone a one-dollar bill really different from giving them a postcard or a campaign button? And when a currency is dead and loses its government-backed value -- why do people still want to collect it?

(((Money may be the conceptual missing link that unites calculators, computers, and electronic funds transfer with more conventional "media." "Money" might even be visualized as a very large, very slow, highly distributed computer that society uses to calculate the value of goods and services. Money might be a form of computation so omnipresent that we have been marinating in it for centuries without really noticing it. This conceptual approach would make dead currencies the dead operating systems for defunct economies.

(((And why are "cash carriers" dead media? Because they are computer media -- distributed peripherals for a central calculating "mainframe," later abolished by individual cash registers in the cash equivalent of the PC revolution.)))