In my cultural anthropology class, I show a film called “First Contact” that details the first encounter of a highland New Guinea tribe with outsiders. The contact occurred sometime in the 1940s, and was between the tribe and a group of white Australian gold prospectors. The prospectors found the gold they were looking for in the highlands, and employed the native people to help them mine it. They paid the natives with shells, which the Australians brought with them by the hundreds, purchased for only a few dollars on the coast. In return, the Australians took the gold nuggets that the natives helped them mine from the interior rivers.
My students, in reaction to this film, often point out the unfairness of the Australians taking away the natives’ gold. To this, I ask them to explain why it is unfair. “It’s gold!” they protest. “The natives are just getting worthless shells!” This is my opportunity to point out that one man’s gold is another man’s worthless pebble. This amply and, often to the students, shockingly, drives home the point that the things to which we assign value are often completely arbitrary. But, the real point is made when I then discuss the value of the gold to the natives today. No longer do the people of the New Guinea highlands value shells – something that was exceedingly hard for them to come by pre-contact (hence their value). Today, if the Australians had told them of the value of the gold to the world outside their valley, those very same natives from 1940 and their descendants could be much better off than they are now. But, the Australians conveniently – and deliberately, I have no doubt – continued to pay the natives in the shell currency they valued, along with items such as cloth and steel tools, all the while concealing the fact that just a few of the “worthless” gold nuggets they were hauling away could have kept the tribespeople in shells, cloth, and axes for generations to come.
Today we live in a world where we still value arbitrary things. Just witness the explosion in businesses that will buy “your old gold jewelry, fillings, and coins!” Gold is worth more than ever, but at its base it is still just a shiny rock. Even more bizarre, when you really stop to think about it, is the fact that some of the arbitrary things to which we assign value are themselves simply symbols – abstractions that represent something else just as abstract. What I mean is that we value the symbolic signs of wealth: the brand name, the label, the job title, the very size of the LCD-HDTV screen. Is it really the car we value, or the shiny medallion that graces its hood? Is a flat screen LCD TV worth as much to us, symbolically, if it says, maybe, “BOB BOBSON ELECTRONICS” along the bottom instead of SONY? “I have the latest iPhone. Check out all my apps!” a friend may brag. A no-name phone still places and receives calls, probably has apps of its own, but if it’s not an iPhone or related high-status device, how does that affect its symbolic value? It’s no secret that marketers know this and capitalize on it for all it’s worth… and it’s also no secret that even if you know it, you’ll probably still fall for it.
So what does value all come down to in the end? How much of what we value is based on want vs. need? All we really need, down to the bare bones, is food, water, shelter, and (I would argue) companionship. But what we want has, in many ways, also become what we need. Value translates into status – the status that comes from having the most and the biggest shells, or the most gold nuggets, or the biggest screen. Nothing has really changed – it’s only the arbitrary markers of what constitutes status today that have shifted.