Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My Word of the Decade: Monetize

The American Dialect Society designates a Word of the Year.  In 2011, that word was "occupy."

In 2010: "app."

In 2009: "tweet."

The group also designates a Word of the Decade, and for 2000-2009, that word was "google."  That is google as a verb rather than a noun -- to search for something on the Internet.  Much the same way Xerox went from being a brand of photocopier to the word for photocopying.

I would like to suggest a different Word of the Decade.  And it might turn out to be the word for the current decade as well.  I hope it does not become the Word of the Century.  It is a suggestion based not on its pervasive use, although it is a word that has been in increasing use in the past few years.  No, it is a suggestion based upon the pervasive influence of the concept the word designates.

That word is "monetize."  It means converting an object, service, or idea into currency.

I saw the word recently in a New Yorker story about developments in high school football, especially in large, successful programs.  The most successful teams are starting to play teams from other states.  Tickets for such games are pricey, and the promoters can sell the broadcast rights.  The article, "The Jersey Game: Will High School Football Become a Big-Money Sport?", included statements from a man who "is monetizing a high-school pastime."

No, I thought immediately.  No.  We do not need to monetize high school football.  We do not need to convert everything, absolutely everything into money.  There must be some things that are off-limits to being monetized.

I realize that it is probably too late.  High school football is probably well on its way down the perditious path of commodification.  But still...

"Blah blah money blah blah."
"Monetize" is a word I had not heard of before 2000.  After that, after the explosion of business news with the popularity of media outlets such as CNBC and Bloomberg, it gained circulation.  And then with the financial crisis, it was a word that we not only heard frequently, it was a word that impacted our lives in very real and powerful ways.

As U.S. legislation in the 1990s and 2000s deregulated a host of industries, the financiers began to monetize everything they could.  Until finally they were monetizing the monetization of other things.  Collateralized Debt Obligations?  Credit Default Swaps?  They are methods of buying and selling the buying and selling of things.  And that hasn't worked out so well.

Uncontrolled monetization is like cancer.  Cancer cells are very successful and they spread rapidly.  Although cancer is an illness, you could say cancer cells are not sick; they are quite robust.  They outgrow regular, healthy cells, replacing them with cells that do not conduct the originally intended functions -- until at last they kill their host.  Victims of their own success.  Sounds like Wall Street.

Monetize and metastasize.  Too close for comfort.

Like those cancer cells that spread quickly and supplant the function of the cells they replace, money will take over high school football.  Its existence as a commodity will supplant its existence as a sport that builds individual character and a sense of community.  (I love football, by the way, and lament the damage money has done to the college game.)

Too often in the United States, commodity trumps community.  It does this when our drinking water is sacrificed so others can make money.  It does this when the quality of our air is sacrificed so others can make money.  It does this when the safety of our homes, workplaces, vehicles, medicines, etc., are sacrificed in the name of profitability.

It is not that I am against all forms of capitalism.  My brokerage account and my IRA would tell you that.  But I am against unregulated capitalism.  I am a believer that many things should be protected from commodification and commercialization.  Not everything should be for sale.

Louise Erdrich (by Bettina Strauss)
As I stewed, in vain, about this corrupting force in high school athletics, my thoughts quickly turned to a poem by Louise Erdrich, "Dear John Wayne."

In that poem, which I teach each semester, a group of American Indians are watching a cowboy-and-Indian movie at a drive-in theater.  They are experiencing a moment of cultural alienation: the actors portraying their ancestors are the bad guys; they know they are intended to cheer the victory of the cowboys and the U.S. cavalry, although this would mean cheering their own defeat and dispossession.

John Wayne (1907-1979)
Erdrich describes a moment when John Wayne's face fills the drive-in theater screen.  In that moment he represents a monstrous desire for land, signifying "Everything we see belongs to us."  The poem concludes a few lines later, comparing the desire for land John Wayne represented on the screen with the cancer that would take his life off the screen, suggesting a kind of national sickness:

Even his disease was the idea of taking everything.
Those cells, burning, doubling, splitting out of their own skins.

Perhaps the desire for land will not kill us, but the desire to turn everything into money just might be the cancer that does.