The Metamorphosis of Value

Something that has startled me in my young adult years is the concept that value isn’t timeless; it isn’t fixed, finite nor objectively true. The value one places in a certain object, person or even memory is constantly subject to every day movements; one’s mood, one’s activity and – by extension – one’s knowledge of the world.

Take gold as an example. Gold is regarded as a supposedly objective valuable good and product, a rare blend of substances that causes its price to remain encrusted within the perception of wealth and divinity. The matter has many appealing properties, including its malleable nature (making it useful to make coins out of, in later years), lack of corrosiveness and the fact that humans are naturally drawn to it as a shiny material.

However, gold was not always objectively valuable. It took Pharaohs in ancient Egypt thousands of years ago claiming that the substance was of some higher power and suited to be bestowed by royalty, for the material to first be prescribed a higher meaning and, therefore, value. This unique and compelling ability of humans to story-tell was the crux of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, a novel concerned with the future of humankind, in which he argues human’s ability to story-tell was one of the core reasons as to why we eventually grew to dominate the planet as a species, over all other animals.

Therefore, when you really unravel the layers to think holistically and critically about the concept, gold, and by extension currency, has no intrinsic value in and of itself as a material in existence. It is purely the value we humans attribute to it, through our agreed subscription to this story, that has allowed us to mutually place value and artificially inject worth into these objects.

So, what’s my point? Though slightly perturbing, but ultimately refreshing, nothing has value unless you decisively attribute this to it. Even if this is done subconsciously, for example you subconsciously accept the story that has been believed for thousands of years that gold and currency have value, that is a decision you made to subscribe to this view and place value yourself in these materials.

This same realisation can help with many facets of life, including relationships, events in one’s career and particularly with material possessions. I could go on for days about the internal conflict I have with designer labels; on the one hand, you can generally be assured that the product will be of good quality. On the other, as a consumer who purchases a designer good, a fraction of the price tag is undeniably purely feeding the buzz around the label itself; the fact that you get to flaunt a Gucci purse, or those Louis Vuitton red soles. However, how much value do I place in being able to do that? Can I really extract and quantify how much value I place in that elated feeling of knowing I have a top-tier product? In short, no, because the two have always been intrinsically intertwined within each other, for as long as I can remember.

This whimsical foundation is then the basis on which we have built powerful, monumental markets such as the foreign exchange market, whereby currencies are prescribed value based on their relativity to other currencies, influenced by a number of factors including the trade market and other domestic and international events. It becomes harder to see the truth in this argument the further you follow the evolution of value; surely a British pound is worth more than a Singaporean dollar if you compare the two – a bottle of perfume will undeniably have a large figure price tag on it in the Singaporean malls than in the British shops, even if the two should equate to the same worth overall.

However, this relative value is nothing but another layer to the original value we have prescribed onto these currencies in the first place. A British pound is worth more than a Singaporean dollar, because I believe it is so. I was told this, and other people agree on it, therefore it is. There is no law or regulation that states the British pound will always be worth more than a Singaporean dollar, because that could very well change should international events turn in this favour. But, until then, this is the understanding, and we operate on this assumption. If we can agree that currency itself has no innate value, then how could two different currencies have any value themselves, nor even relatively? Indeed, two zeros will not make a whole.

Above all, what I would want my reader to take away from this is to think a bit more critically about worth and value in your everyday life. The two are often lumped together, but what value is that worth is not, is a platform to capture one’s personal affiliation to the product; one could prescribe an emotional value to a good, who’s worth is universal in sum. This will hopefully enable a more meaningful practice in life, one that challenges and is more consciously aware of the decisions we make, even and especially day-to-day.


PC: Freddie Collins




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