Saturday, November 1, 2008

Story and Stuff

Like flour and leaven, the weaving together of "story" and "stuff" makes our economic world possible.

In my last essay I determined that something I am calling "story" is one of the major elements binding together all of human society. One aspect of this is what the Greeks called rhetoric, or what we might call advertising or preaching or history or even language. (Math, less so – despite its greater abstraction, it is less amenable to taffy-pulling into new shapes.)

Story is simply the human imposition of patterned abstraction on the world. You could say that “story” is everything that isn’t “stuff”.

Stuff stays what it is despite our preferences or attempts to disregard it. The ancients said the elements which underlay all creation included Air, Fire, Water and Earth, and in many ways that idea can help us to understand stuff. A radio broadcast is story – the fluctuating electromagnetic waves (Fire) that bear it through the air, is stuff. The waves are still waves if they impinge on a deer or a raindrop – the pattern of language, however effective, loses that effect if the recipient is not appropriate.

Where does economics come into this simplistic duality? Well for one thing, all economies must be built on stuff. Despite what the monetarists claimed, especially in the giddy 80s and 90s, there is not and cannot be such a thing as an “information economy”. As Dorothy L. Sayers said in 1933, "... There's yeast in bread, but you can't make bread with yeast alone. Truth in advertising," announced Lord Peter sententiously, "is like leaven, which a woman hid in three measures of meal. It provides a suitable quantity of gas, with which to blow out a mass of crude representation into a form that the public can swallow.”

Without the yeast of story, all we are left with is a “crude mass” of stuff. I have made bread without yeast by accident, and though it would sustain life if one were lost in a cave, it’s not the kind of thing you would build a culture on. Stuff is sufficient for life and for an economy of a sort, but woefully inadequate for even the most limited sort of cultural achievement. It is the two together, in correct proportions, which enable us to achieve the marvels of our species.

I knew some time along here I would need to start drawing diagrams. Here is the first, the old economic cycle model, with a few doodles.

It shows a team of producers, with some product flowing from them, passing through middlemen and shippers, and finally arriving at the customers. This is nice, but not sufficiently accurate.

The real situation is probably more like this:

The customers are mostly producers, the flow is not linear but in a network, and the potential for unintended consequences seems to approach a mathematical certainty. On the minus side, this looks ridiculously complex – on the plus side, it is the reality, not the pretty but unreal DC circuit of buyer and seller.

To pin down and quantify the bottlenecks of this webwork is not an impossibility, I am sure. I bet calculus will come in here somewhere. But after the work is done, I expect to see a model that will let us see how to bring all the interconnecting rings into relationship in order to yield a more stable, more compassionate, fairer and incidentally far richer society.

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