The Dangerous Art of Mixed Monetary Metaphor
My recent adventures in conjuring GameStop and Bitcoin imagery
The image above was produced by the fantastic Chief Nyamweya, who I met whilst teaching at Singularity University in California in 2016. I asked him to interpret the piece that follows below, and he came back with this comic image of me being buffeted by metaphors for market anomalies. The meaning of these images will become clear as you read on, but for those of you who’ve been following Altered States of Monetary Consciousness (see summary to catch up here) you’ll know that I’m very interested in visualization of systems that normally resist being seen. Visualization can be done through images, but also through words that conjure imagery in the ‘mind’s eye’ of a reader. In this realm metaphor is one of the most powerful ways to ‘see’ things that do not have any native visual imagery of their own.
For example, we live in vast interdependent economic networks, and we can’t survive without them. The goods on even a single supermarket aisle come from countless different places, produced by workers you’ll never meet, who themselves will never see the things you produce, but who remain connected to you nevertheless. These interconnected systems cannot really be seen, but I might invoke the metaphor of a mesh to conjure stand-in imagery for them. Thus, I could say something like ‘our economic networks are dense meshes held together by monetary systems’.
I’ll highlight some metaphors in the next couple of paragraphs. Here’s one. Right now, manic spirits are coursing through our economic networks. That’s a metaphorical statement… or is it? Within an economic system, we do feel forces that seem to have a life of their own, channelling themselves through us as if we were a conductive medium. Maybe those literally are spirits. Indeed, much modern economic life is characterised by vague feelings and inexplicable emotions - senses of exuberance or anxiety - generated through the actions of other people, which animate us, pass through us, and even possess us, somewhat like a Stadium Wave rippling through us.
I spend much of my time trying to ignore the day-to-day manias these spirits generate, but this is like trying to keep inside the calm eye of a moving storm (metaphor!). This is challenging, because I keep getting pulled in by people who message me with requests for hot takes about the anomalies that swirl around them.
For example, journalists, documentary film-makers and radio hosts contact me for comment on the rising price of Bitcoin, because the media exposure of these cyber-collectibles is rising, so more media outlets want to run more stories about them, which in turn increases that exposure, which in turn will push the price higher as people who read the stories experience FOMO, which in turn will induce more media exposure.
Every media wave about Bitcoin induces hundreds of thousands of people to open accounts on platforms like Coinbase, through which they will then reach towards the cyber-collectibles, but because the collectibles they reach towards are limited in supply, the objects will jump up in price, out of their grasp. And so it grows in concentric rings, each wave of people brought in on the outskirts pushing up the price for those in the inner circles of early holders. If those people turn their gaze away from those objects, the dollar-price will collapse, like the fragile ego of a narcissistic attention-hog (metaphor!), but even if the price collapses, the accounts remain open, ready to be activated for the next wave.
I’m going to cut that metaphor off there, and adapt it into a different form that I could give to journalists in soundbite form, one that neatly encapsulates Bitcoin’s situation: “Poor Bitcoin is a simple token, set within in a technologically-advanced infrastructure, that’s been turned into a kind of child god raised up by a hundred thousand wild-eyed men, like the reluctant messiah in Monty Python’s Life of Brian”.
To elaborate upon such a soundbite, I could speak of the fundamental loneliness and emptiness that lies at the heart of this child god (which I will elaborate upon in future episodes of this newsletter), but that’s a message that will struggle to get heard amidst the feverish clamour of a thousand crypto-prophets.
Bitcoin mania is not that hard to understand, provided you step back from it and refuse to use the language that typically accompanies it. When the Spirit of Anxiety is coursing through the global interdependent economic network held together by monetary systems, people may choose to use their money tokens to buy cyber-collectibles, rather than buying things like packaged holidays to Greece. The resultant effect is that the Bitcoin price goes up as dealers of these objects sell them for money, whilst some other price in the system goes down, as packaged-holiday companies fail to sell their products. These price changes are network recalibrations, reflecting the underlying sentiment of people within.
Notice that I analyse Bitcoin tokens as objects priced in money (albeit objects with superficial ‘money-like’ appearances and branding). After ten years hanging around crypto circles, I have no problem calling them what they are: blank digital objects (branded with monetary imagery) that you can move around using a sophisticated transfer system. The transfer system has highly advanced features, but once you strip away the branding from the actual things being transferred using that system, they are revealed to be - in themselves - ‘featureless’.
When I said this recently on Twitter, I made a lot of crypto-prophets angry, and I have a piece elaborating on this coming out in the big crypto media outlet Coindesk (which I will share once it comes out). For now, let’s go with my analysis of Bitcoin tokens as ‘cyber-collectibles’ that can be bought and sold for money. If you throw such objects into a transnational economic network, but manage to mystify those objects through good branding and rhetoric, there’s no telling how far they can rise in money price. It’s a bit like letting a kite go in a storm.
Let’s break this metaphor down: the ‘storm’ here is our interconnected market system (held together by money systems), with spirits coursing through it, and the ‘kite’ is the object thrown in. If, say, 100 million people are experiencing some form of temporary anxiety, they might become captivated by the narrative of the kite, and they can create a kind of upwards pressure differential which can send the price of that object lurching into the high atmosphere. There’s no real way of knowing if that height reflects much about the kite itself: it’s just an object without ‘tethering’ to the ground, as it were. If Bitcoin prophets are successful at bringing in new waves of buyers for the object, they indeed can push it even higher (note that this is a different way of conveying the same idea I was trying to get through with my ‘child messiah’ metaphor earlier).
Recently, though, there was another mania I got asked to comment on. The British Guardian newspaper contacted me to write a piece about the insane price rise of GameStop shares. The piece I wrote for them focussed on the dynamics of the day-trading industry, and the power of the swarm.
GameStop shares are a fundamentally different beast to something like Bitcoin tokens. Both are objects in a monetary market, but shares are actual financial instruments, which is to say they are legal contracts promising a fluctuating stream of future money to whoever holds them. Bitcoin by contrast is a digital object with ‘money like’ branding, but which promises nothing to the person who holds it other than the ability to move it, or resell it at some point.
Shares, thus, are not ‘untethered’ like lost kites, because they are legally connected to activities ‘on the ground’. The object (the share certificate) legally entitles the holder to a cut of the future money that will be accruing through specific economic activities (such as a person walking into a shop and buying a games console). It is entirely possible to push the price of such an object beyond this ‘fundamental’ ground-level situation, but eventually the reality of the legal promise will clash with the market price if they are out of sync for too long.
To use an extreme example, if an established company which finds itself in a state of decline only stands to make $10 in the next ten years and yet has a share price of $10 billion, something is probably out of sync: the share has become ‘kite-like’ in the sense that the price of the legal contract has been pushed up into the atmosphere, but the object is not an untethered kite. It must eventually experience some reverse counter-pull towards the earth.
All the different analyses around GameStop were variants on a theme, asking firstly how it was that the ‘kite-like’ nature had emerged, and, secondly, when the counterpull back to earth would occur.
The danger of metaphor jams
If done right, metaphors really can make invisible things visible. For example, the only native visual imagery there is of GameStop are pictures of its stores, and graphs showing its share price. Many media outlets reporting on this story were trying to use those in some way. Those images, however, show us very little about the market dynamics of Gamestop. That’s why my Guardian piece drew upon the visual imagery of swarming (alternatively, I might have also used herds or flocking).
These words create images that get across the idea of people moving in a similar direction as a dynamic collective, co-ordinating through signals and observation of each other’s actions (stigmergy is a more technical term to refer to this kind of thing).
Nevertheless, if overdone, metaphors can distract from the thing you’re trying to illuminate. For example, even in this piece you’re reading right now I’m in danger of metaphor overload, as I generate imagery for large network systems and the forces within them. So far I’ve already used:
Some of these metaphors work well together, whereas others are at risk of clashing. For example, when viewed from a stationary point, a stadium wave rises and falls as it passes through people. Could this harmonise with the idea of gravity, which conjures imagery of something that goes up and then comes down? I could, for example, choose to talk about the rise in GameStop shares as reflecting a kind of manic stadium wave that then collapses as ‘gravity’ kicks back in. This is risky, because I’m blending metaphors which could begin to fight each other for image-generation rights in your mind, a process that could cause more confusion than clarity.
So, here’s a conundrum that I’m currently working on. This newsletter - in general - is focused on revealing and visualizing the monetary system, which is the otherwise invisible structure within which the far more visible things like GameStop shares will then express themselves and grab attention.
The dominant visual approach I have thus far taken when trying to show the monetary system has involved a lot of height-based metaphors, contrasting a ground layer with a sky layer. Look, for example, at my hovering banks image, where I try to convey the power of a monetary system by presenting the money issuers as being in the centre of a network, but up. The ‘ground-level’ is where money users are wandering around using money between themselves in markets, but the sky-level is where money issuers are ‘pushing money down’ into the networks below, and ‘pulling money up’ to take it out of circulation.
In this context, the rationale for using this setup is to illuminate the politics of a monetary system, by making a clear distinction between money users and money issuers, which is a very poorly understood distinction that is very seldom used in most analysis.
When we enter into the far more common realm of market analysis, though, we are in that realm of watching money users decide how they use their money and how that affects prices. When I’m building metaphors from this standpoint, my tendency is to reorientate the imagery, because I have a desire to present the monetary system as a foundation (or substrate) upon which market activities are built (a variant above has been to use the ‘storm’ imagery of invisible air currents where visible kites may express themselves). This does create a potential clash of image paradigms in my work, and I have logged this as something that will need resolving in due course.
For now, though, we don’t need to resolve this conundrum. With stuff like GameStop shares (and Bitcoin tokens) my immediate objective isn’t necessarily to reveal the monetary system that they find themselves within, but rather to visualize how they are responding within the bounds of that monetary system. So, let’s return to that to explore two possible metaphorical approaches.
Playing with gravity metaphors
We might imagine our planet as a giant magnet that will hold you to it. You can temporarily free yourself by leaping upwards with some exertion, but it will grab you and pull you back down to earth. This feeling of ‘grounding’ is quite comforting to us (the alternative is that we simply drift off into space), but is it a valid metaphor for stock market systems?
Well, it could be. As mentioned, a share is tethered to a ground-level reality, and while it can ‘detach’ and leap up for a bit, gravity will eventually kick back in and bring it back into sync with its ground level reality.
While this metaphor is very effective in one sense, the problem with the visual imagery it evokes is that most of us are used to defying gravity only very briefly. If you jump up, you might leave the ground for a second before being pulled back down, but ‘gravity defying’ in the stock market can go on for quite some time. We could switch to moon-based gravity imagery, where we could imagine bigger jumps, but conjuring moon imagery for shares is going to get super complex and spacey. Is there another approach?
Playing with bungee cords
Well here’s a very different, yet related, visual metaphor. If I leap off a bridge with a bungee cord, gravity pulls me down, but the bungee cord stretches and eventually hits a point where it snaps me back up. Could that ‘snap back’ be used to convey the point where a market hits its furthest limit and ‘corrects’?
Note that this directly clashes with my gravity metaphor, in the sense that gravity is now on the other side of the equation, but there are two reasons why I might prefer this metaphor to illustrate the correction in the price of GameStop shares.
Firstly, by visualising a bungee cord, we’re actually able to imagine the feeling of the gradual buildup of some resisting force, which will eventually snap back. This is actually a very effective metaphor to convey the feeling of a market correction, where resistance builds to the price of a clearly overvalued share to the point where it suddenly stops and reverses.
Secondly, this metaphor gives us far greater scope to convey the dynamics of market size. The longer and thicker an elastic cord is, the more it stretches. Likewise, the larger a market is, the more ‘flexibility’ or ‘slack’ there is in the system (even if it may initially take more energy to get it to stretch).
Imagine a very small market. Let’s say it’s a vegetable market in a 15th century country hamlet. Such a market probably has a ‘catchment area’ of no more than a few kilometres, and might involve only a few hundred people. We might visualise it like a small interdependent net spread over a limited area. Items within such a market might be able to experience sudden jarring price changes, but probably not for very long. To use the ‘elastic’ metaphor, if a group of 10 passing travellers seeks to buy up potatoes before a long trip, they might indeed cause a temporary perturbation which will warp the network, but it will very quickly recalibrate back as the townsfolk who remain reject the price increase the next day. The ‘elastic band’ very quickly ‘snapped’ (or snapped back).
In a transnational market of billions, though, a swarm of millions of investors can push up the price of a financial instrument for months - even years - before the ‘bungee cord’ kicks in, and jolts the price back. The slackness of the bungee cord is in a direct relation to the size of the network, because the larger the network the more delusion is latent within it.
Just look at the 2007/08 Financial Crisis: all of those financial instruments were overvalued for years before the contradictions in the network forced that contraction. If you watched the Big Short, a large part of the film was based on showing the psychology of contrarian investors, who have to hold their nerve whilst waiting for the snap back to occur.
With the bungee metaphor, though, I now have a new problem. I am working against gravity. Bungees are good at conveying the ‘snap back’ and ‘network slack’ concept, but - in the final analysis - a person actually doing bungee-jumping eventually gets pulled the other way again by gravity, which is always the final force. The snap back is followed by another fall, and another small snap back, and another fall until they settle and get lowered to the ground. So, is a bungee cord really the correct metaphor to convey a market ‘correction’ back to ‘fundamental reality’?
Mixed-metaphor hacks: bring in the yo-yos and rockets!
One interesting hack, introduced by Chief Nyamweya in the opening image, is the yo-yo, which has some bungee-cord connotations, plus a kick-back connotation, but also has the advantage in that the final resting position of a yo-yo is actually back in your hand, wound up.
I’ll leave you to mull over the contradictions and possibilities within a yo-yo metaphor, but perhaps my ideal metaphor would be one in which I blend the first two approaches above, hacking the visual imagery native to gravity and bungees to harmonise them. To do this, I’d have to convey the idea of a market price launching off like a rocket towards space, but with a bungee cord tied around it tethered to the ground. The return back to Earth is either induced by the rocket running out of fuel, in which case gravity pulls it back, or alternatively by the bungee cord kicking in and overriding the exuberance powering the rocket.
(For the record, I actually tried to use this metaphor in the original version of my GameStop article, but the Guardian editors rejected it for being too weird. I even started making an image of a nyan cat rocket heading towards a doge moon.)
The ‘rocket’ in this metaphor could be used to talk about the ‘swarm power’ I previously used. Both are trying to convey some idea about some energy in a group of people that will push some object into the stratosphere.
Earlier I used a kite to talk about the untethered crypto-token Bitcoin. Hypothetically we could also use a rocket metaphor to convey Bitcoin mania, but given that Bitcoin is untethered, there would be no bungee cord tied to it. This is because Bitcoin’s main enemy is not a ‘bungee cord’, but rather a loss of interest or a re-prioritisation of spending: if a person indeed decides that the economic outlook is better and they’re prepared to spend their money on enjoyable holidays rather than cyber-collectibles that cannot be directly experienced, eaten or held, then a sudden lurch downwards in crypto-token price might follow. On that, I’d have to say ‘the Bitcoin rocket is very prone to running out of fuel if its swarm stops swarming’ (now there’s a turgid mixed metaphor for you!).
Let’s conclude this by exiting the realm of metaphor, because all of this market mania is actually happening on the ground horizontally between us. There is, perhaps, a person sitting in a house a kilometer away from you, on a computer, imagining a battle ‘in cyberspace’ which you may actually be on the other side of. The victor of the battle might come out of it with $100 more than before, and walk out of their house to buy a bottle of whisky, passing the loser as they drift past like a stranger.
One goal in monetary and market visualisation is to be able to eventually translate the metaphoric imagery into stuff you can actually see at street level in front of you. How does the price of cyber-collectibles manifest within 200 metres of yourself in an actual physical environment? Well, being able to translate metaphorical network imagery into actual sensory experience in a real place is a whole other realm of visioning we’ll get to in due course.