Money Is Social Media
New Money: How Payment Became Social Media, by Lana Swartz, Yale University Press, 272 pages, $28
As I was gathering my notes to review New Money: How Payment Became Social Media in a Google Doc, I was distracted by a ping from my connected Gmail account. Apparently, my Chase Freedom Unlimited card had not yet been upgraded to contactless technology—just wave your card over the terminal, no need to swipe!—which is critical hygienetech in a time of COVID-19. Not a huge deal, because I signed up for that card mainly to fund a trip to Patagonia with rewards points. For most expenses, my preferred card (called the Chase Sapphire Preferred) is in my Google Pay anyway, so I just wave my phone over the payment terminal without needing to fuss with plastic (or in this case metal) at all. I deleted the email.
For a certain cohort, this is a familiar vignette. To the many unbanked Americans, or to those who still visit their local bank branches in person, such arrangements might as well be the stuff of a Neal Stephenson novel. We all use money, but that does not mean we all use it in the same way.
Those who have given the matter some thought probably already appreciate that money is not merely “stuff that the government prints” but the result of an emergent (and often unevenly distributed) order. But New Money examines another facet: money as a form of social media. Its author, Lana Swartz, isn’t an economist; she teaches media studies at the University of Virginia.
There is a lot of specialized jargon here. But among all the academese are interesting histories of different nonstate payment systems and a glimpse into the networks that make the parts work, all presented upon an analytical foundation positioning money as an inherently communicative development.
This is meant literally. Western Union laid its rails as a telegraph company; Wells Fargo and American Express were expedited mail deliverers. Much of what we know of whole civilizations is divined from the scratched-out ledgers and unearthed coins of long-forgotten lands. Now Facebook, the biggest social media platform, wants to get into the payments game with its proposed Libra cryptocurrency.
Whether stamped by a state or mined on a blockchain, money is a medium that carries data. New Money traces a shift from a world where money is mostly government-produced t
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