Money on the Mind

You must be informed, engaged, and fully immersed. You cannot squint. You must look and keep looking.

Money on the Mind

ATMs give you a choice: Would you like to see your balance? Yes or no. It’s a practical question, one that might inform how much you withdraw, or if you withdraw, or how, in the future, you might behave with the knowledge that a certain sum remains in your bank account.

But what if you don’t want to know? What if those numbers flashing on the bulky computerized cash box only serve to agonize? More than once, when an account summary popped up without my consent, I squinted to avoid seeing the balance. If the account was empty, the money wouldn’t print. Short of that, anything else could be dealt with later, when I wasn’t standing in the back of a deli or a gas station.

Financial advisors would obviously advise against this sort of denial. Financial literacy is about facing up to reality and knowing your worth. It requires vigilance—a kind of learned sensitivity to the assets and liabilities that circumscribe your life. So you click yes.

There is an entire industry devoted to developing increasingly sophisticated means of helping consumers look. Financial technology or “fintech” companies have produced a surfeit of new products for tracking your economic footprint, from budgeting apps that allow you to categorize your every expenditure to gamified saving accounts that reward you for putting extra money aside. All of them boast their easy-to-use interfaces and seamless interconnection with your bank account. While they present themselves as superior alternatives to the current banking system, most fintech firms are backed by existing FDIC-insured financial institutions. So their true value is in presentation and packaging: they provide new ways of viewing the same information contained in your monthly account statement. The implicit promise of this technology is that there is an advantage in looking more and knowing more: that through the tech-assisted tracking of your finances, you can break the pattern of spending and saving that has left you financially insecure.

It’s a tantalizing offer, but the personal finance app is ultimately just another chirping tech-object designed to transcend human foibles. You can imagine their creators’ ideal: a mind attuned to every financial flow, every debit and credit, a kind of Bloomberg terminal in your skull. These are the killer apps that will finally prove out the Efficient Market Hypothesis, in which all prices reflect all available information, and every economic action is perfectly informed.

Knowledge is a prerequisite for action, and here too, there are new tools designed to encourage consumers to invest themselves literally and psychologically in the micro-movements of money and wealth. You’ve heard all about them in subway banner ads and Super Bowl TV spots, or maybe from some family member who has recently become an armchair stock picker. They are the retail investing apps and platforms that we are told helped send the share prices of meme-stocks to the moon—technology cutting out the middleman and shifting the burden of knowledge to the user.

To help these fledgling investors, a new information economy has emerged. The /wallstreetbets Reddit channel is just the most notorious example. Retail investors try to make up for their lack of paid analysts and expensive market-watching software with their own research. The best of them are reading SEC filings and doing technical analysis, but most are simply peeking at the financial press, reading blogs and forums, and watching their Twitter feeds. All the while, they are opening their investment apps daily to check the status of their own holdings.

One investment app, called Betterment, refers to this practice as “high frequency monitoring,” and helpfully advises its customers to occasionally “take a vacation” from checking their accounts to avoid stress. This same company, of course, is in the business of encouraging customers to more actively manage their financial life through its app, which, inevitably, provides a bright, cheery interface designed to maximize users’ ability to regularly monitor their portfolios.

Under the pretense of smart financial planning and the democratization of investment, the average person thus becomes more engaged with the financial economy than ever before. The growth of employee pension funds started this process, as workers became more dependent on the financial market for their retirement—even as their benefits were still guaranteed, and fund managers actually did the work of navigating the market. The transition to 401k plans eroded this mediating layer. Defined-contribution plans replaced defined-benefit plans, meaning pay-outs were now dependent on the market. The shift placed the onus on workers to more actively participate in ensuring their financial future.

Retail investing hasn’t replaced this regime, but extended it into new territory. Whether retail investors are hoping to retire from their Robinhood winnings, or simply to eke out some extra income, they are increasingly exposed, mentally and financially, to the market. The ambient effect of this dynamic is a general public that is more attuned to the flows of economic information, and the regular swings in stock prices that were once the sole concern of Wall Street traders.

Ultimately, this information is still accessed voluntarily. Participation requires commitment: Apps must be downloaded, stock prices must be watched, and Financial Times subscriptions must be paid for. The incentives for this level of engagement are tenuous. Make a small fortune on some overnight meme-coin, and you might be willing to tolerate the slow grind of weekly gains and losses and the dispiriting lows of a bear market. But if you find yourself endlessly scraping around the edges for marginal gains, you might just lose faith in the whole enterprise.

This is where cryptocurrencies and the related Web3 movement step in. There is a calculated incoherence in the pursuit of cryptocurrencies as a form of payment, a store of value, and a financial asset all at once. The blockchain is a ledger after all. It’s a system for accounting. The goal is to embed these ledgers, and the financial markets built over top of them, in every corner of the web, thus extending the money fetish to every corner of our tech-mediated lives and raising the threshold of necessary knowledge and participation required to simply get by. Imagine a dollar that fluctuates wildly in value. Imagine a savings account or an investment portfolio that is constituted in said dollars. By design, there is no trust, no intermediaries, no federal deposit insurance; just reams and reams of code.

Some have called crypto’s project the “financialization of everything,” which is arguably redundant, given that everything is already seemingly financialized. Yet there is a crucial difference between this vision and the current economic system. As many Americans learned during the Great Financial Crisis, the financial economy seems to float above our heads, until the exact moment that it crashes down and wreaks havoc on our lives. Crypto aims to erase this middle distance, to draw finance into every aspect of your life—from simple payment systems to social media and gaming. Blockchains and the tokens flowing through them are pitched as the all-purpose infrastructure of a new internet, a final fusion of finance and technology that, in theory, aims to make financial-entrepreneurs out of every user of the web.

Crypto-enthusiasts themselves exemplify this money-mindedness, and not just in the hardline monetarist ideologies that underpin their worldview. They are notorious gluttons for information, gorging themselves on Substacks and Discord content, ritually checking the countless data sites that aggregate prices and trading volumes for every viable coin. They must be vigilant, because anarchy and uncertainty are the whole point. Every crypto-holder is a person alone, their wealth resting on abstract protocols rather than any trust-based system. They place the burden on themselves willingly, seeing it as a kind of emancipation, a psychic free state that they can inhabit, like a boat in international waters. They trust themselves to survive this chaotic state of affairs through the sheer dint of their hyper-awareness. If they can keep their grip on things, and watch closely the obscure movements of their holdings, they can endure crypto’s worst excesses: the hacks, the rug-pulls, and the cascading liquidity crises.

Taking a que from the crypto industry, more established tech companies like Meta aspire to a similar all-encompassing relationship with their customers. The company formerly known as Facebook has attempted two major strategic pivots in recent years. The first was an attempt to launch a proprietary digital currency called Diem, and the second was its embrace of the so-called Metaverse. The former was effectively squashed by signals from Capitol Hill that it would not pass regulatory muster, but Meta continues to push ahead with plans to monetize and financialize the nascent Metaverse. Both projects reflect a desire to erase the boundary between life and its financial substrate, and completely control rather than simply mediate our relationship with money. In the Metaverse, which is effectively a game stripped of game mechanics, your nominal financial status becomes the only identity that really matters.

Whether the metaverse succeeds or fails, it’s clear now that tech companies are trying to cultivate a new kind of capitalist subject. You must be informed, engaged, and fully immersed. You cannot squint. You must look and keep looking, or else their tenuous domination falls apart.

Tech companies pitch their shiny new tools as a kind of work-around or cheat code to navigate an increasingly precarious world, but their promises of independence and security are in fact drawing us closer to the beating heart of the financial economy. They are making us more dependent and complicit, all while requiring the utmost attention and effort—like being asked not only to dig your own grave but to engrave your own headstone. They will say this is better, because this is the world we live in, and adaptation is better than annihilation, but it should be clear now what they are laying the groundwork for: the idea that you might just have made it, if only you had paid more attention.

Alex Vuocolo is a New York City-based business reporter. He currently writes about the Federal Reserve, cryptocurrencies, and inflation for Cheddar News.