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In God we trust – all others pay cash

June 1, 2010

So go figure: I’ve been writing this blog for about three months now, and I’ve gotten more feedback and comments on my posts on early Christianity and ECM than on all of my other posts—which were up the middle ECM/business topic posts—combined. That and a quarter will get my wife on the bus every month when she cuts a check to Salle Mae, but I love hearing what folks think and having great conversations around the ideas.

In that spirit—pun intended—I wanted to get a conversation going around the transformational power of technology. When you look at those times in history where a new technology was introduced (e.g., the printing press, the computer, or the codex example from the last series of posts), there are two levels of transformation. The first is the immediate transformation: I can print books instead of writing them by hand, a machine can do calculations for me, I can have more content in a smaller, more portable format, and so on. But there is a deeper, more profound level of transformation, one that takes longer to emerge and extends beyond (sometimes far, far beyond) the immediate one.

The printing press, for example, was a catalyst for the speed and the success of the Reformation; the computer has become a part of every facet of our business and personal lives; and we’ve seen how the codex helped enable the spread of Christianity across the ancient Mediterranean and beyond.

In this next series of posts, I want to add my two cents to the ongoing and heated debate over the real implications of social media in an oblique way by taking a look at another one of those transformations: the introduction of money into the European economy during the Medieval period. At this time, folks living in Europe were shifting from what’s called payment in kind, i.e., things that have intrinsic value like gold, silver, cows, wheat, etc., to payment in specie, i.e., things that represent value like paper money or checks.

What makes this a fruitful comparison is the fact that in both cases, the new technology seems not too different from what came before: instead a gold coin, I give you a piece of paper that’s worth as much as a gold coin; instead of a mainframe with a bunch of VT100s hooked up to it, we have a cloud or instead of a BBS, we have Facebook.

In terms of the deeper, long-term implications of these transformations, we know all too well what they were for the shift to a money economy in Europe (see Lester K. Little’s Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe for a fantastic and accessible analysis of this subject), while for the rise of social media, they are still emerging, and likely won’t be fully known for decades. But taking the introduction of money to the European economy as a starting point, I want to make some educated guesses about what the ultimate transformative effects of social media on our society might be.

In the next post, we’ll take a look in some detail at how Europe shifted to a money economy and the immediate and long-term impacts it had. With that done, we can turn to how we might think about the implications of social media in light of this earlier transformation.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2010 1:36 pm

    Interesting analogy, Joe. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on this.

    A quick thought, while the printing press was definately transformational, it also occurred after the Black Death had wiped out 1/3 to 1/2 of the population of Europe. The Plague changed the social contract in Europe, giving (a little) power to those not of the nobility or the Church. Are there any similar cultural shifts going on that will contribute to the growth of social media?

    • June 7, 2010 8:29 am


      Great point about the Plague–definitely acted in concert with the printing press to help actualize the Reformation.

      Let me give some thought to what other forces might be contributing to SM’s growth.

      In the meantime: anyone else out there have insights on this?



  1. In God we trust – all others pay cash (part 2) « agile ramblings

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