The demise of social currency

In the late 90s, when moving back from Madrid to the U.S., my wife and I took time in the weeks prior to our departure to say goodbye to our friends at the pastry shop, the butcher, the cheese vendor and the fruit shop – our friends at the miniscule, fabulous fruit shop, Tomad Mucha Fruta, gave us one of the aprons they use at the shop as a parting gift.

We’d spent hours with each of these people, whether in line talking to the butcher and to a gaggle of old ladies debating the best cut for making a stew; at the cheese shop where we’d never have to remember the name of that wonderful piece of cheese he’d sold us last week; and at the fruit shop when spring came around and, for three short weeks, strawberries were everywhere.

In places where these stories are common, social currency is at play.  You are known and trusted and each individual transaction is small compared to the whole.

Increasingly, this is no longer necessary or common – all in the name of progress.  Need proof?  Once, every vendor commonly extended a little bit of credit to customers; everyone handed out an extra orange or a sliver of manchego to a customer who was also a friend.

Today it’s “Cash or credit sir?”

The old way wasn’t better, but something has also been lost in translation.  When commerce is everywhere, down to the smallest detail and interaction, relationships of trust – where the trust actually means something in terms of how people act – are harder to come by.

Are we better off?  We’re definitely more efficient.  We’re also probably reinforcing an unhealthy, unnatural level of isolation as we walk through the world.

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