No one, least of all in the press — least of all in the business press — has seen the beginnings of what may be the greatest revolution in the history of commerce: the end of money, and with it the concept of the customer.
Until there was money, there was no such thing as a customer. It wasn't swapping tools for fish that turned a Polynesian islander from a trader into a customer. That's simply barter. The idea of "buyer" and "seller" emerged only when one party swapped something with a fixed use for something fungible. Often, the money received by the seller had a modest utilitarian purpose; gold, for instance, could be hammered into nose rings, false teeth or satellite solar arrays. But money became the foundation of economic life precisely because it had symbolic more than practical value.
Then God gave us lawyers and accountants to prevent underweighing and overcharging, to make sure that every exchange of tangible things for intangible money was perfectly balanced, perfectly reciprocal. But this is a conceit of economists, accountants and lawyers, as everyday commercial life reveals. Because it can be turned into anything, money represents dreams unfulfilled, and unrequited dreams, at any price, are worth more than dreams realized. We all realize this intuitively. A buyer asks a seller to give up a mere thing; a seller asks a buyer to give up hopes and possibilities. For the same reason, it's more costly for sellers to recruit buyers than for buyers to recruit sellers: Sellers can exchange their stuff for only one thing (money), while buyers can exchange their money for anything. That's why, in the real world of purportedly balanced transactions, sellers invariably defer to buyers — why we say "the customer is king" and "The customer is always right."
But let's say it's 2000 and you're Time Inc. You own some of the best-known media properties in the world: Sports Illustrated, People magazine, etc. You want to leverage those properties. So you approach Yahoo!, say, or American Online. You propose to provide content to them. They propose to promote your brand. And as you sit down to the bargaining table to sort out the economics of all this, you throw up your hands and ask, "Are we paying you or are you paying us?" That's how these negotiations actually go.
"Who's paying whom?" Asking a question like that signals that maybe nobody needs to pay anything to anybody. Lots of value is created, but "nobody's paying for it". It just happens because two (or more) business partners create something together. In these situations firms can't begin to account for the nickels and dimes in the deal and may not even bother trying. In these situations, relationships triumph over transactions. Money drastically diminishes as a factor in the deal. And the identity of the customer — Are we paying you or are you paying us? — becomes fuzzy. The very concept of the customer begins to disappear.
Look at Silicon Valley. Every major firm there is a node in a complex network in which a huge fraction of the value creation could never be accounted for in monetary terms. Should Intel pay for Microsoft to optimize operating systems in a way that makes Intel chips ubiquitous? Or should Microsoft pay Intel to design chips that make Microsoft operating systems ubiquitous?
The press and the pundits are clueless about the effects of these de-monetized value-added dealings. No wonder, because all their measurements are expressed as units of money. Unless some dough changes hands, even the biggest commercial developments are as unheard as trees falling in the distant forest. The data mavens at Commerce are blind to the value created when Yahoo! adds a new Web site listing or when Mapquest shaves 0.6 miles off my trip. When the Labor Department calculates the Consumer Price Index it has no idea that its own Web pages are being dished out on free Linux source code or that a building contractor in Bowie, Md., decided to eat a change order because he wanted to preserve the goodwill of his client — and that more and more of the economy is being transacted on such a basis. When Dr. Greenspan and the poo-bahs at the Fed deliberate over the "irrational exuberance" of the stock market, how much weight do you suppose they're giving to the fact that the marginal cost of a transaction in a world of e-commerce has essentially dropped to zero? More de-monetization.
Today most of the money in the world isn't even made of paper, much less metal. It exists as binary digits. No wonder the central banks of the world are heaving their gold reserves into a collapsing market. Who needs gold when money sheds the slightest pretense of being anything but data? Say good-bye to gold. Gold is history. If you want currency backed by something tangible, sign up for 5,000 frequent flier miles on a new Visa card.