Economy of Meaning

Mon, Jan 24, 2011


As our industrial economy marches on to greater and greater productivity and more and more automation, we are faced with a new question: what work will we all be doing?  Are we headed towards an apocalyptic world of Matrix where robots dominate and humans are simply batteries?  Are we headed towards dire poverty where a few individual business barons earn massive bonuses while the rest of us go hungry?

The answer to all of these is no, because we are headed towards the Economy of Meaning, an economy in which, people are engaged in the production and exchange of meaning.  In effect, people will pay other people (or organizations) because they do things that add meaning to their lives.

A good example is music. Most economist would argue that we purchase music for entertainment. The problem with this analysis is that it gives no indication as to why some songs are wild successes while others are ignored. In the Economy of Meaning the reason is clear: people purchase music because it adds meaning to their lives, and so the success of a song can be measured by the meaning it adds to people’s lives.  This applies to similar products such as books, movies, education, or services such as going to a therapist or taking a Yoga class.

But what is meaning?

Meaning is what enables us to do two things:

1.    Mediate physical existence:  By this I mean things that help us deal with our emotions, help us cope, come to terms with, to accept, and whatever it takes to interface with a world that is often at odds with who we are.

2.    Expand consciousness: this in the past was known as becoming spiritual, but, in this new rational scientific age, the term spirituality is so muddied with dogma and superstition that consciousness carries more significance.

Of course, there will always be some part of the economy engaged in producing the material things necessary to physically live.  It’s just that this part of our economy has continuously shrunk over the last several hundred years, and will keep on doing so.  It was just a few hundred years ago that more than 90% of people were farm laborers, and less than a hundred years since most were working in manufacturing.  The same will happen to our Information workers as we find more and more ways to automate information work.

As productivity grows, and our economy opens up so that wealth is distributed better, individuals will find more free time on their hands, and assuming that we have an innate need to grow, we will find ways of adding meaning to our own lives, and in turn produce meaning in the lives of others, in effect creating the ultimate service economy: an economy focused on exchange and creation of meaning.

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5 Responses to “Economy of Meaning”

  1. Rob Says:

    Thought-provoking post. To some degree, whatever we produce and purchase that is not necessary to survive is about increasing meaning, entertainment, or physical comfort (or a combination of these). To allow more people around the globe to participate in this economy, we must continue to become more productive — and “greener” — when it comes to the necessities like food, clothing, shelter, and raw materials.


  2. tony Says:

    cool! i want this to be true.

    in another post, safa, you refer to apple and facebook as examples of successful meaning-makers. are songwriters categorically the same as these high-tech corporations?


    • Safa Says:

      Let’s be careful on this. Facebook & Apple are not part of the Economy of meaning, but song writers are. Why? Facebook & Apple, while incorporating meaning creation at the core of their business, do not actually produce or exchange meaning. Instead they use meaning to inform their product design. Song writers, on the other hand, are exactly part of The Economy of Meaning because their songs directly add meaning to the lives of their fans. I’ll be posting an article on this soon.


  3. Maggie Says:

    Thank you for posting this amazing article. I am including a link to this on a blog that I am creating in conjunction with an art work that examines cloth and meaning. Similar topics emerge and overlap.


  4. Jacqulyn Buglisi Says:

    The collective unconscious, mapping, meaning, opens up the continued positive charting of mans existence and fosters the future…Mans need to create, creates meaning through (a silent listening) the collective unconscious… is it art and the natural world that guides us up the mountain?…


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