V.
The
Rip
van
Winkle
Caper


(Season
2
/
Episode
24)

A short interlude for a short month – toward
the end of
season 2, there is an episode called The Rip van Winkle Caper. It’s not
one of
the gilded episodes, but the twist is quite unexpected. Forgiving its
flaws (it
opens with a plot exposition complex enough for a movie, which takes up
most of
the episode’s runtime), it is the twist itself that provides an
interesting
link to some modern problems, and makes the episode end up in
unexpected
territory. This post will as well. Let’s dive in…

The story, as mentioned, is poor and
unbalanced. But it’s
the ending that matters. Gold thieves plan to cryogenically freeze themselves
until the manhunt cools down, then awaken to spend their riches. Of
course,
they wake up hundreds of years in the future, and one thief kills the
other
while guarding one precious gold bar. He sets off from the hiding
place, which
unfortunately was in the middle of the desert, clutching his valuable
prize,
and eventually drops dead from exhaustion.

But the lesson is not what you think – in the epilogue, a
couple swings by in their hover car to inspect the body and the gold. The man
tosses it back in the sand like junk. "What is it?" his companion asks.
"Just
gold." As they drive off, she asks "Didn’t that used to be really
valuable?" He
turns to her. "It was, at some point. Before they figured out how to
manufacture it." They hover-off into the sunset, leaving the anonymous
stranger
and his once-precious treasure to be covered over by the desert sands.

This episode seems to have more of a
commentary than a clear
moral. But the commentary is clear, and its implications are
multifaceted: the
nature of value is scarcity. Now, this isn’t necessarily a political
point, or
a social one, but it is so basic that it ramifies into numerous
different
fields. Some thoughts:

* The idea of valuing that which is scarce
most likely goes
back to prehistory, and thus can be considered a basic element of human
existence. Moutain people prized seashells; the Silk Road brought Asian
wares
to Europe. Manhattan was purchased for a trifle,
insignificant
to
the
Dutch,
but
desired
by
the Indians.

* Speaking of worthless money, the idea that
this episode
has particularly to do with gold is interesting (and ironic that gold
becomes
worthless through ubiquity). A little primer, if you don’t already
know, on fiat
currency.

* Perceived value (investor sentiment) can
be a powerful
force. Flower fans, consider this
and then this.
The
gold
market
of
course
is
highly
subject to investor sentiment, but so
is
everything else. Remember how everyone thought in 2005-6 that house
values
could
not
go
down
?

* Which brings us to the concept of bubbles
and boom-bust
cycles, and the difficulty in discerning the actual value of anything.
Which brings
up that classic capitalist-inspired sentiment your item is
worth what someone is willing to pay for it.
The thief
robbed and killed for his gold, which was discarded like an old tulip
by a
future person who saw no value in it.

* Today we grapple with an added problem in
markets, as high
speed and automatic trading algorithms are spit out by computers faster
than
anyone can react to them, having the potential to upend entire
markets
.

* And all that economic blather is nothing
compared to
scarcity as applied to you. As
futurists and tech companies are making
their
predictions
for
the
future
of
artificial
intelligence (AI),
one has
to wonder: what is it inside us that make us unique (read: scarce
(read:
valuable))? We are already seeing mechanical advancements in robots
endangering
the low-skilled tier of the human workforce, what about when machines
can learn
faster than humans? What when they are consistently stronger and longer
living,
without need for upkeep or maintenance? What when they can replicate
human
consciousness, the ineffable spirit of humankind which, like the gold
in this
episode, was once revered for its scarcity and uniqueness?

What then, the episode ultimately
postulates, is the nature
of anything?

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