Steven J. Moss
I was five years old when dimes changed from being 90 percent silver, to having none of the precious metal in them. In 1965, to save money the government stopped minting and recalled silver dimes, which had been in circulation in one form or another for more than a century. They were replaced with the cheaper coin sandwich we know today: cupronickel on the outside, copper on the inside. For several years after they were officially withdrawn, silver dimes continued to circulate, stray bits of history that hadn’t yet been seized by the banks, and returned to the Treasury. Overnight the pre-1965 ten centers jumped in value to 15 or 20 cents; they’re now worth $5 or $6 a piece.
During the period before they disappeared, my Dad relentlessly hunted for escaped silver. Dad is a serious stamp collector, occasional coin collector, and, most saliently, has a Depression era-bred obsession with acquiring anything that can be gotten for free. He’d exchange paper money for rolls of dimes at banks, and, mostly while waiting at stoplights in his Ford Comet station wagon, sift through them in search of a glimpse of silver. At first he’d find a few, then a couple, then one, and, finally, none. He’d deploy the newly silver-less rolls of dimes to make routine purchases at stores. In those post-Kennedy, pre-Nixon years the cashiers never bothered to bang open the rolls to count what was inside. But sometimes they’d ask Dad to write his telephone, or even social security, number on the coins’ paper tube, in case there was a problem.
“I’m not giving them any of that information,” my father would mutter, under his breath, writing down a series of faux digits. It wasn’t a scam; the dimes were all there. But Dad felt that such private information as a telephone number – and certainly his social security identifier – was nobody’s business but his.
Almost a half-century after silver disappeared from dimes, money has continued to evolve from the tangible – progressing from sea shells, colorful beads to precious metals – to the conceptual: numbers on a computer screen or embedded in a piece of plastic or computer chip. Our faith in our monetary system has become almost religious, separate and apart from the underlying things being acquired by money. Stock exchange movements are tracked and examined in a similar fashion as the entrails of ruminants were inspected for glimpses into the future a millennium ago. The search for errant silver has been replaced by a constant hunt to find new financial instruments: junk bonds and tradable home mortgages. When we discover that our financial gods are nothing more than greed-driven suits – in 1929, 2008, and periodic times in between – it shakes society’s foundations. And then we willfully return to our beliefs, silently praying that everything will be all right.
An even faster change has occurred related to privacy. When I was five it was possible to be almost completely anonymous, with personal details known only to those with whom they were willingly shared. Now, precise details about anyone who touches a computer or is visible to a cell phone photographer – meaning pretty much everyone – are discoverable as fast as the speed of the available Internet connection. Today everything we do is everybody’s business, though whether we’re naughty or nice isn’t so much used to gauge gift-worthiness, as to identify potential buyers of pornography or pet food supplies.
Trading in the untouchable intangible, rather than shiny elements, reflects a movement from a culture steeped in physicality – lifting, pushing, hand-crafting – to one that’s dominated by images created by the mind. So too does the shift between being anonymously present in the world – working, walking, shopping, sitting in plazas – and being transparently on view everywhere, all at once, on computer screens, but nowhere in actual space.
We seem to have mixed feelings about this transformation. We want authentic, physically manifested neighborhoods, and handmade food and other products that can be linked to specific individuals and places. It’s likely that people are already embedding false information in their screen lives, like my father writing the wrong digits on a roll of coins. But we also spend hours staring at our computers, managing our images on Facebook, trading representations of companies through the stock market, and looking at, or making, the latest YouTube videos.
Where this spin of history goes, nobody knows. In many ways we remain the same animals that gazed at the stars and formed images in our heads about their shapes and messages. But we’re also fundamentally changed and changing, rewiring our brains and our culture, and altering the world around us through our buildings, cropping patterns, and emissions. Increasingly, we ourselves determine our, and the earth’s, reality. In the end, who we are, and what we value is no longer anonymous; it’s there for everyone to see.
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