Too often we’re driven by the notion of value that has nothing to do with us.

In the most basic case we might think that something is valuable just because it can be measured in something else: the money or the amount of attention that it can be exchanged for.

// “How many likes did this post get?”

Money and popularity. These are valid criteria, but they should not be the only ones. There are many more dimensions that make something valuable and they have nothing to do with quantification.

What if something can be valuable just because it makes you feel good, here and now? How do we measure that? What if it’s something that cannot and should not be stored for further exchange? What if we think that it’s valuable only because the platform makes us think it is valuable, but, in reality, it is valuable to them and not to us? What if the value of that particular thing is not something that can be agreed upon by more than one person? And even if they did agree — people agree on many things that do not make any sense…

// Quantified value versus qualitative value

“This is not valuable because nobody cares about it.”

“A value-driven approach.”

“A valuable contribution.”

“To fight for one’s values.”

To add another perspective: the origin of the term “value” comes from the Proto-Indo-European hwl̥héhyeti, from hwelh — to rule, be strong”.

The connection of value to power is evident. Those who control the notion of value also control the world: people tend to choose to put their energy into things that are deemed valuable, otherwise you are a procrastinator, a loser, an outcast. Someone might say that owning a house is valuable and then somebody else will work all their life to achieve this goal and pay off a mortgage. Somebody else might buy into the idea of nomadic mobility and never own their own house, living a precarious life where they constantly have to pay rent.

People say “knowledge is power”, which may be true, but only when this knowledge is of any value.

How to determine this value for ourselves, so that it’s not somebody else’s?

The value of information is measured in the decrease of uncertainty that a message provides as well as in the amount of entropy, or disorder, that it removes.

Knowledge has value when it removes uncertainty, then.

My values. Their values. Our Beliefs.

The most extreme case: people who are ready to kill for their beliefs. Or to die for them. The ultimate way to get rid of uncertainty.

This notion of certainty is very closely related to money. Money makes people feel safe. “I want to be certain in tomorrow”.

However, can something be valuable when it’s uncertain? Can uncertainty have value?

Perhaps the main question is: how to decouple the notion of value from the notion of certainty? The more uncertain, the more valuable. As one of the possible options.

What kind of ethics emerges? If we are to value things that cannot be exchanged, cannot be measured, and do not provide any certainty — what kind of world do we build with this kind of attention? And how does it affect our environment?

Let’s take an economical perspective. It may seem that everyone can give whatever value they want to things and the market will then adjust that value based on the law of demand and supply. In theory, this might be true. In practice, we are already engaged into a complex web of relations and legitimizations, so it is not only the law of supply and demand but also the context that determines the value. And the context may have to do less with the value of exchange and more with power. That’s why, for instance, some people are underpaid for their labor. It’s not about being fair or the value added. It’s about control. Beliefs. Ethics. Religion. Playing by the rules. Making your own rules.

Example: Tom McCarthy wrote “Remainder” in 2001 — a novel that won several prizes and became very popular around the end of the 2000s. For 4 years he’d been trying to get it published, but nobody wanted it. Then, in 2005, a small French publisher Metronome Press ran a 750-copy print of the book. After a few years, it became a success. Why? Because it touched upon something that was important at the time. Truly contemporary, Agamben would say, so contemporary that it is not possible to see it contemporaneity from the present time. The big publishing houses could not see it because they rely on statistic, rarely on vision. When they approached McCarthy a few years after the success to make a re-print of “Remainder”, he refused saying that it was still the same book as the one he submitted to them 10 years ago, which they ignored. 

Image credit: still from David LaChapelle’s film “Rize”