02/11/2009 12:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The New Value of a Buck

Most are dubbing the current economic collapse a recession. Others have dared utter the dreaded "d" word (depression). I posit that the current financial crisis may be a sign of something greater than either of the aforementioned: a total global, top-to-bottom reshaping of our value system--a system that hasn't thus far reflected where this nanotech Internet eco age is taking us.

I am not saying this as some kind of fiscal authority; far from it. But in my sphere of expertise--culture--I've noticed a couple of poignant valuation trends gaining moment in recent years: barter and collectives. While they may not become THE ONLY systems in a new economy, I believe, they will certainly account for at least half of our new valuation model--out of practicality and, on some level, ideology.

The term "barter"--at least to me--evokes images of bearded and draped, sandal-clad men in the time of Jesus. There's nothing contemporary or modern about it....until you factor in the Internet. I was struck by how culturally popular the "red paperclip experiment" was. The true life trial has almost reached urban myth status at this point.

Through a series of up-trades on Craig's List (which has a Barter section) a guy named Kyle MacDonald was able to swap the single red paperclip he started off with for a home in Canada. As you can imagine, the story generated publicity and tremendous web chatter--enough to merit the experimenter penning and publishing a book on his experience.

People were fascinated with MacDonald because he traded up, A LOT, but also because through him, they were introduced to a new way of using an ancient valuation system, to great effect. And now, as the economic situation worsens and people don't have much cash to spend, they are increasingly offering service for service, product for product. This kind of activity is of course facilitated through the myriad connections the web provides.

On one social network I am a member of, a man has started his own "free list." If you offer a service or product you get to look at the free list and choose whatever you want. Because his network is upscale, freebies range from business cards to a night at a nice hotel in Italy. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as barter sites are beginning to really sprout up.

The other term I mentioned, "collective," I am certain, conjures up thoughts of a bunch of patchouli doused hippies eating wheat grass en route to Burning Man (not unlike the aforementioned Jesus example). But just last year, the New York Times ran a financial trend story on how people were collectively buying up apartments in Paris' best arrondissements, sharing renovation costs and then splitting their time there, sometimes with a dozen others--a sort of time share for people with taste and style.

Certainly, the MP3 swapping phenomenon that has plagued the music industry is part of this. People have been trading music for as long as recording devices for such media existed; MP3's predecessor cassettes stand as an example. But nanotech and the Internet have transformed that old time habit into a New Millennium adaptation. The generation growing up now may be less attached to "things" and more drawn to functionality--from software to digital images to MP3s. Caressing the beloved album may still occur in collectors' circles, but overall, people are loving the music, not the "thingness" of the tangible album.

Perhaps the greatest mainstream example of this collective valuation methodology is something already recognized as massively impactful: the Microloan. Thanks to its inventor Muhammad Yunus --who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006--a group of people can go on sites like, donate a little money (as much as they can afford) each and help a small business owner in a developing country with a loan. With a little innovative thinking, this model could be employed with other systems and goals to great benefit.

Lastly, wasn't it President Obama who recognized the power of the collective micro-masses during his historic campaign? He raised staggering amounts of money not by simply targeting a few deep-pocketed investors, but by setting his sights on the multitudes--and using the Internet as a tool. Joe Schmo may have only had $25 to give. But a whole lot of twenty-five dollars add up.

In summary, I refer back to one of the financial giants so central to our current debacle, Mastercard. Their ads rant on about how there are some things that are priceless in the spiritual/emotional sense. Before plugging the 'brand,' the voiceover says: "There are some things money can't buy." In this time of shifting financial values such 'clever' TV aphorisms may well come back to haunt them.