What is Wealth?

Kaliya: What is Wealth? Isn’t it many things? You can have a wealth of information, a wealth of physical things, a wealth of land, a wealth of money, a wealth of friendships and relationships…

Jean: Wealth is the collection of currencies. It is the accumulation of a currency. Think of water being poured into a container, and then, in some cases (tradeable), it can also pour out. So wealth is the fullness of that container.

image courtesy of bettlebrox

Kaliya: Mmm….

Jean: And yes, all the things you listed, I would include as forms of wealth.

Kaliya: Googling “wealth of” one gets wealth of networks, wealth of the rainforest, famously “wealth of nations” from Adam Smith…”wealth of communities” from Bill Mckibben – Deep Economy

Jean: We could also speak to this in terms of capital and access to capital accumulating to form wealth.

Kaliya: Capital is a stock of something?

Jean: Capital – yes exactly, it is the stock of something, part of a flow – probably not an end in itself, but for the purpose of producing something.

Kaliya: Like Donella Meadows talks about in Thinking in Systems articulates how systems work in terms of stocks and flows – in a forest the stand of trees is the stock and the flow “in” is the new trees growing and the flow “out” is the trees that are cut down for lumber.

Jean: Right, so, you suggested some forms of wealth, which is wonderful, and this is parallel to the forms of capital we hear people talking about in recent years:

  • financial capital
  • political capital
  • human capital
  • social capital
  • natural capital

And to know that we have these forms of capital, we have a currency that acknowledges it, and wealth is the accumulation of the flow of it. Accumulation in financial flows is what we most often think of, but it is also the accumulation of political flows of attention and influence, or wealth of the human capital as in the accumulation of skills and abilities.

Kaliya: But some are so intangible, like a “relationship” and “trust”

Jean: Yes!

Kaliya: Why do we have to MEASURE these things, they just are….or they are feelings.

Jean: Some of them are not really measureable. They might just be sortable or even acknowledgeable.

Kaliya: Sortable?

Jean: I might say one politician has more political wealth or political capital than another, but I may not be able to put numbers on it precisely,but I can see the evidence of it in the world.

Kaliya: Like what?

Jean: Anything from count of people at a rally to the public perception of their integrity.

Kaliya: I guess an over arching view is that wealth is that it transcends “money” – that to limit thinking about wealth to money is narrow.

Jean: The political influence is wealth, the framing of an issue is evidence of it, or the success of that framing is, anyway. Yes, wealth transcends money.

Kaliya: Influence is wealth ….mmmm. Yes, via relationships. Is there “negative wealth” from not wanting to damage a relationship via actually criticizing and calling something for what it is?

Jean: Well, there can be a poverty of influence, for example or a dearth of social connections.

Kaliya: Or overwhelm at trying to manage the ones I have

Jean: Yes. 🙂 So when we are talking about wealth, we are talking about the flows that contribute to prosperity, happiness, and welfare. – the sound or prosperous state of a person or thing.

Kaliya: And then I don’t want to use proprietary tools where the site I am in “owns” the information/relationship data I put in, when they are my connections I want to have them be autonomously mine.

Jean: Yes, when you give that site with proprietary tools your relationship information, you are giving them some of your wealth. Now, it could be that this form of your wealth is non-rival, so it might not diminish the wealth you have. They can, however, terminate me in their system.

Kaliya: If I violate the terms of service or something

Jean: Yes, I am not saying it doesn’t have complex issues to consider and consequences to be aware of.

Aggregating Currencies

Kaliya: We were talking about the different forms of currencies last time. Can you explain more about acknowledgement as a form of currency?

Jean: Sure, why don’t we talk through an example.

Kaliya: So like I was recognized by Fast Company as one of the most influencial women in technology – is this a kind of unmeasurable recognition?

Jean: Yes. It is acknowlegded that you are, but it isn’t clearly measured. If they are serious about it, they will disclose their combination of metrics with qualified influence testimonials.

Kaliya: mmmm… – ok – I think they just made some phone calls.

Jean: So let’s imagine, instead, they came to that through a combination of speaking engagement count + online mentions + 5 testimonials by other influencers.

Kaliya: I see.

Jean: So what I described is an aggregated currency… because it is one currency that is taking into account several others. It is aggregating the currencies of count, mentions, and testimonials into most influential woman in tech.

Kaliya: So one currency can be the culmination of several others?

Jean: Yes, this happens often, and it makes meaning from many bits of information, making it easier for us to understand and work with. However, that aggregation often covers up interesting information. For example, we don’t know, when we hear most influential woman in tech, what that currency means exactly. How much can we trust it? With the count+mention+testimonials possibility I mentioned, we know more about what the most influential woman in tech means as a currency. There is often a tension between sense-making and the meaning lost in aggregation.


What are currencies?

Kaliya: What is a currency?

Jean: Currencies make the invisible visible. A currency is the thing being measured or seen. So… we are motivated by currencies to take actions…those currencies can be acknowledged, perhaps measured, and maybe even traded. We can think of currencies as anything that incentivizes a flow…

Kaliya: mmm… flow?

Jean: Let me share more currencies, so you have a sense of the spectrum.

Jean: So postage stamps are a currency, as are movie tickets. Postage stamps and movie tickets are both bought and then traded in. Airline miles are a tradable currency. Metrics for your company are a currency, but those are not tradable.

Kaliya: So, stamps are currency because when you put them on a letter the post office recognizes it and then agrees to send it on.

Jean: You trade in money, get a stamp, trade the stamp (get it marked) and it pays for the service of mailing.

Kaliya: In the tech side of the identity conversation we also call these “tokens.”

Jean: Yes, tokens. Usually when people talk about currency, they focus on the tradable forms, or even just specifically on money. But a currency like your grades might be measurable, but it isn’t tradable. You can’t give someone your grades.

Kaliya: Yes there was a whole thing with the US Mint and how people would buy $10,000 of one dollar coins on credit cards to get airline miles – they took the coins when delivered (free of charge) to the bank and paid the credit card bill.

Kaliya: ohh – so, measurable things are also currencies?

Jean: Smiley faces in social media are a currency. Yes. The height of CEOs is a currency.

Kaliya: How so?

Jean: We respond to height as power. It changes our behavior. We are more likely to have taller CEOs. And we can measure how tall they are. But they can’t trade their height to someone else.

Kaliya: mmm… so is skin color, in a culture that treats people differently because of it, also a currency?

Jean: Yes, skin color also acts as a currency. Having the appropriate skin color in a culture that sees that as a difference will afford you privilege (or restrict privilege).

Jean: There are currencies we can acknowledge or maybe sort, but we can’t measure them. Skin color isn’t really measurable, but we can certainly acknowledge it and probably sort it.

Kaliya: so currencies can be tradable, measurable, and acknowledged (but not measurable).

Jean: Right, these are concentric circles. So all currencies are acknowledgeable, some of those currencies are also measurable, and some of the measurable currencies are also tradable.


Kaliya: externally “seeable” – is that another way to understand it?

Jean: Yes, When I finally understood what a currency was, I had this matrix moment of seeing the whole world in a state of perpetual flow, and it was all being modified and directed by currencies.


Welcome to Reputation Currents. Here we ask you to explore with us the intersections of currency, reputation, and identity on the idea plane as well as the technical plane. We discuss the possible, the viable, the tangible, as well as the past we can learn from in co-creating a better future.

Thank you for your curiosity, your wisdom, and your generosity.