Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value

Something that is valuable without strings attached has intrinsic value. I find intrinsic value is far more reliable than extrinsic value, because it’s self-reliant, independent, and free of the influence of others. The opposite of intrinsic value is extrinsic value. I like “extrinsic” as a word, but don’t see it used much. What it means is the value is assigned to the item by external forces. The item is worthless on its own. Or perhaps it has a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic value, so it is simply less valuable.

One thing that’s hard to accept about intrinsic vs. extrinsic value is that it’s a sliding scale with different paradigms. Nothing is binary. Something that has intrinsic value in one context and have no value in another. You might think the item has extrinsic value, and from a completely objective perspective it might, but it’s entirely okay to call its value intrinsic for the sake of comparison.

A great example of the two types of value is money. At the extreme end we have currencies made of paper and backed by nothing more than military might. These are called fiat currencies, because they’re valuable by legislative fiat (an order). The United States has fiat currency. My money has no value unless other people agree that it does and will exchange goods or services for it. It cannot be turned in for anything of value (besides coins), more of it can be created at virtually no cost at any time, and if all confidence is lost in it, it doesn’t even make good toilet paper. The money’s value is entirely extrinsic. In fact, it’s declined considerably in my short life. I remember in 2002 when gasoline was 85¢ a gallon, but now it’s over $4. It’s not because of shortages—there’s plenty of higher priced gas available. In terms of fuel, my money is one-fifth as valuable as it was six years ago. Granted, the increased prices are also due to the oil companies joining to form monopolies, but if our money had value that was fully intrinsic, such massive losses would be impossible.

Now, the U.S. dollar has not always been fiat. Before Nixon abandoned the Bretton Woods system in 1971, you could trade in a dollar for 1/35 an ounce of gold. So it had intrinsic value. During the world wars, convertibility was abandoned so more money could be printed, so for a time there was no intrinsic value. But even under Bretton Woods, paper dollars didn’t even have intrinsic value so much as representative intrinsic value. They’re still worth nothing on a deserted island, but as long as we were under the current system of things, their value may as well have been intrinsic, because they could be exchanged for something solid. The value was never fully intrinsic, or else Nixon wouldn’t have been able to pull the plug.

A step up from paper currencies are metal currencies, like the dimes and nickels in your ash trays. Though illegal, in times of panic they can be melted down to build real things, because they’re made of metal, not worthless paper. Gold and silver coins are even better, because people universally value those metals. However, as building materials, they are less valuable. Going back to paper, the bills in my wallet have some intrinsic value I forgot about. If it’s very cold and I need kindling to start a fire, I’ll be happy for my stack of $1’s.

The king of all currencies is gold bullion. It’s never going away, because people universally believe it has value. Its value is unchanging and largely intrinsic. When I see the worth of an ounce of gold is soaring above $1000, I don’t buy the hype that the gold has more value. What’s actually happening is that our dollar is becoming less valuable, but gold is the same as ever. Now, if you can buy more with $1000 of July 2008 money than you could with, say, $500 of July 2001 money, that’s doesn’t mean gold has gained value. It just means everyone is taking losses, by providing goods that are worth more than the money they charge. When the empire (the United States) is dying, everyone takes losses.

Even gold doesn’t have the true, objective type of intrinsic value I talked about at the start. If you’re back on your deserted island, all the gold in the world won’t do nothing to get you out of there. An airplane is something with solid intrinsic value. But you still need fuel, a pilot, and lots of other stuff. Heck, you even have to depend on the laws of physics remaining stable so that it continues working. But most of us would agree that little of its value is extrinsic, so those concerns are small. If all 6.5 billion of us agreed tomorrow that gold is as worthless as water, it would be that way in an instant, though.

Some things have intrinsic value that’s fleeting. The apples at the grocery market are valuable as food, but as soon as they turn rotten, the value is lost. The same can be said for human life: my Grandfather has no intrinsic value, because he’s dead and burned. Nor does my cousin, in spite of being dead and preserved in a coffin. The only value of his body is assigned, because many of us believe in stuffing and preserving corpses for some reason. We believe a corpse has value, but that’s extrinsic to the corpse. A person does have intrinsic value, but only while living. Value shifts from intrinsic to extrinsic upon death. Extrinsic value is not universal, either. My family values my cousin’s corpse much more than my neighbor’s. Extrinsic value can be fleeting. A lottery ticket is valuable extrinsically, but only till the numbers are called. Then it’s worth nothing. If it’s a winner (never happens), the value shoots up all at once, but it’s still extrinsic, just like the coupons in my wallet, because it’s reliant on fulfillment by others. Intrinsic value is not, or in relative cases, it’s reliant on unlikely-to-change entities like society or a humongous government, so it’s always a safer bet.

Where you can use the two types of value in your life, is in analyzing the time and money pits around you. Recognize that if you’re pursuing goals with extrinsic value, your goals belong not to yourself, but to other people. Sometimes, supporting the goals of others is inevitable. Florida Power & Light will cut off my family’s power if we refuse to continue to pay them in extrinsically valuable money. Could we live without power? Probably, but it isn’t practical. I couldn’t even share this writing with you without the power for my computer. Money is something most people value by mandate, despite being extrinsic. It even says on my $1 bill, “this note is legal tender for all debts, public and private,” so I’m required to accept money as a valid form of payment even if I open a business. The business isn’t truly mine if I’m required to give people valuable stuff for in return for crap (fiat money). But I accept that I have no alternative with what power I have now. There’s a massive gulf between this lost freedom and the lost freedom you are probably subjecting yourself to.

One thing that definitely has no intrinsic value is a college degree. A college education has intrinsic value, but only to the person receiving it, and then only if it is applied. A modern college education is utterly worthless. College is a crock. You’re trained to be a docile slave for any master and brainwashed to tell lies as truth to support the state. Lies like global warming, the cancer myth, and politically-correct language. Instead of learning real stuff like history or how to spell, you have to read and write garbage about The Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s worth less than nothing. College saps your mind and spirit. It is a self-accepted prison and you are a self-accepting prisoner. I am currently a prisoner with you, unfortunately.

What a college education does have, is plenty of extrinsic value. Employers, in cahoots with the universities, agree to accept only mind slaves with worthless degrees for jobs. Or perhaps they’ll accept anyone, but pay you much more if you’ve gone through four to six years of obedience school (on top of thirteen years of mandatory training). College is a job where instead of being paid, you pay. Can’t you see the irony there? You learn B.S. subjects like humanities and calculus, wasting upwards of thirty hours a week “studying,” when really you’re just memorizing pointless trivia and useless formulas to reiterate for a test and then forget. A typical collegiate essay is a series of citations, footnotes, references, maybes, “he or she”s, “what if”s, and semicolons. Nothing is from the heart, everything is crap, and no one would read it if they weren’t being paid. There’s no growth and you’re not developing as a person, despite how you may protest. College is at best an expensive social experience, and even that is on shaky ground.

A college education is firmly in the category of extrinsic value. Unlike universal concepts like serving others, inspiration, and passion, and working for yourself, college is ultimately a waste of time. It’s okay to do things with extrinsic value, even if they cost huge amounts of time and money. Repeat after me: “I, Richard X. Thripp, allow myself to pursue projects that have no intrinsic value.” BUT, you cannot live in fear by deluding yourself into believing you’re acting on some higher purpose. There is no higher purpose to my college education. Tasks with only extrinsic value must only be pursued for utilitarian purposes, should you claim to be living courageously.

Buying things that have mere extrinsic value, unless to resell, is something I cannot live with. Diamonds are an example. Unlike gold, they have no intrinsic value because they’re as common as dirt. One company (De Beers) controls all of them, releases very few, and advertises how wonderful and valuable they are. De Beers has managed to make diamonds extrinsically valuable to an insane degree. If you can make yourself (or a product) highly valuable, you can make a lot of money, even if it’s extrinsic.

Intrinsic value is the only path that has a soul, though. In sociological terms, coordinated efficiency (i.e. teamwork) represents intrinsic value, whereas allocated efficiency (i.e. buy the best people) is to extrinsic value. Money has its place: it represents you contribution to the world (either type of value), and it can be exchanged for goods and services of either type (food vs. diamonds). But if you do something for money alone, that means it has only extrinsic value, be it to yourself, the world, or both. With my website, I hope I’m doing something of intrinsic value to others, and I know it has intrinsic value to myself. I take, post, and give away creative photos, write free and hopefully insightful articles, and develop as a person through all of it. If you’re doing something of intrinsic value, you’ll know it because you’re energized, dedicated, and excited about it. If you don’t feel the heat, you might be providing a service that’s intrinsically valuable to others, but not to yourself. If I fixed computers for a living, it would be an important service to others, but it wouldn’t do anything for me. The other thing that can happen, is that you’re doing something you love (intrinsic value for you), but its worthless to others. Perhaps it is painting, playing piano, or taking nature photographs. What you want to do is to find something that’s intrinsically valuable to you and others, or convert what you’re presently doing over. Often, this just involves publishing your art online, or releasing a music album by burning the CDs on your home computer. But when you’re on the path of good for yourself and the world, everything will feel right.

While it takes a lot of soul-searching to reach the goal, I can tell you some of the clues that you’re on the wrong path. If you’re not sharing it with others, it can’t have any value to others. The first step to converting something that’s valuable to you but not to others is to show it to them. If you’ve written an awesome book but can’t find a publisher, just set up a blog and give it away free in installments. Tell a few friends about it. If it’s interesting or useful, lots of people will pick up on it and visit. You’ll know this because you’ll be getting lots of comments and trackbacks, and your bandwidth meter will be maxing out quickly. If this doesn’t happen, it means you suck. It’s okay. Right now I suck. But sucking is the only way to progress.

Once you’ve built you a following and love what you’re writing, you’ve already made it. It doesn’t matter if you’re giving everything away and losing money. If you have a website, and a lot of visitors, it’s impossible not to make money. Then put ads across the site. Register for Amazon Associates too, then start dropping product links everywhere, like this. Soon, you’ll be making money off something that’s intrinsically valuable to everyone, which is great. A lot of people will try to tell you that you can’t do it, you have to pick between money or heart, and that you should keep your day job and just follow your passion on the side. Ignore them and forge ahead.

If you’re working for a corporation with no intrinsic value, it probably puts up a smokescreen of purposeful charity to substitute. Instead of changing the world directly, the company donates a couple percent to charity. This is the “throw money at the problem” mindset, and instead of integrating charitable practices into the business, it’s just tacked on as a “me too” afterthought. Corporations like Wal-Mart, Target, and Publix do this. Then, they’ll come up with some phony mission statement for their employees, like Office Depot’s “delivering winning solutions that inspire worklife.” I couldn’t help but laugh hysterically when I first heard that one. Next, require all the employees to wear shirts with the mission statement and chant it over the intercom.

Ask any candid Office Depot employee if he cares about the mission, and the answer will be an obvious no. Very few people who work there, or have any sort of job, do so for an intrinsically valuable purpose. “For the greater good of all humanity” is an excellent purpose, but most companies that bandy it about don’t believe it. It is of extrinsic value to them. It’s fake, a charade to fool dummies and investors. You’re never living intrinsically if you’re living fakely. It’s better to work for a company with the mission, “to make the most money possible, at all costs.” Or live your life like it. But that’s a petty experience. Most companies are not that bad. They have a decent amount of respect for their customers and employees. But to call themselves charity cases is false and pretentious.

What else is only of extrinsic value? Certification. Education. Expensive clothes (unless radiation proof). Rites of passage. Careers. Tradition. Rules and procedures. Legacies. Religion. Sleeping at night. Clocks. Being an employee. Corpses. Funerals. All these have no value on their own. Only if other people agree, or demand them, do they become valuable, and then only extrinsically. Don’t be too worried about them. They’re red herrings.

What things do have intrinsic value? Love. Doing what you love. Purpose. Learning. Passion. Discipline. Wealth (for leverage). Power (the power to know better). Respect for human life. Serving others. Serving yourself (you have to to serve others). The list goes on, but you can see that aligning yourself with these principles, and paying no attention to the ones of extrinsic value will alienate a lot of would-be friends. Do it anyway.

Being a Free Photographer

break away

I run into a lot of photography purists, but I don’t believe any of it myself. Photography is nothing but a series of manipulations. You’re manipulating the scene by composing it any differently than a non-photographer. You manipulate the appearance of the scene by zooming in or out. You manipulate your viewers’ outlooks by composing to exclude unsightly objects. Motion blur, shallow depth of field, under or over exposing… these are all creative manipulations on your part. You may not have as much creative control as with painting, but you can still be quite expressive. But creativity isn’t “pure.” If we can define any solid definition for “pure” photography, they’re going to be dull, boring snapshots that no one wants to look at. Don’t do pure photography. Anyone can do pure photography; it takes a real master to do impure photography.

The great thing is, when you embrace impure photography, a whole world of creativity opens to you. Pure photographers are constantly wasting time with ethical debates: is it okay to make the world look purplish in Photoshop, or only through the white balance setting in-camera? Can I crop my photos, or is that misrepresenting the scene? Can I add contrast to a scene that obviously needs it, or do I need to stick to my limiting philosophy? Impure photographers have no such shackles. The “code of ethics” is: do whatever is right to make the photo beautiful. No one cares if you change the white balance. Adding contrast is great. Brightening teeth? Spot-editing blemishes? Sure. It makes people look like they should. It isn’t a question of keeping the image true to the camera sensor; the goal is to produce an image true to the vision in your head. Creative photographs come from people, not computers.

Ironically, as an impure photographer, you’re always making the world look like it’s supposed to. Sunsets are supposed to be beautiful, bright, breath-taking, colorful. Raindrops are supposed to be frozen still, black and white, shiny, and contrasty. And darn it, flowers and people are supposed to be bright and animated with nicely blurred, defocused backgrounds. If you’ve ever debated F1.2 as impure for not showing the world like our eyes see it, you’re really steeped in the dogma. Let it go. You’re on to a grand world of free photography.

In truth, the only way to be a photographer is to be a free photographer. As a creative photographer, your task is to create an idealistic reality that is also a realistic ideal. If that means desaturating backgrounds on roses, removing specks of dirt, and burning in corners, then so be it. If it means adding a glow effect, filters, and sunrays to a sunset, it’s all good. Your tool is your camera, but your real power is your mind. It’s like painting, where you get to pick all the colors for the scene, but without all the heavy lifting. You can create so much more because there’s no need to build everything from scratch. You start out with a solid base (the world), and then you take away or alter the elements that need changing, be it by composition, post-processing, or any other method. As a photographer, you unlock your creative mind and become a more free person, because you’re set free from the grunt work of other artistic mediums and can instead work on the big picture. It’s like moving from assembly code to a high-level programming language.

As a free photographer, you will refuse to support film where digital surpasses it in quality and efficiency. There is no purism; hard work does not contribute to the creative value of a piece. It makes no difference if I took 100 shots of the falling droplets on my digital camera, picked the best, then edited out the ugly bits, rather than wasting 100 expensive frames of film and 15 prints in the darkroom getting my exposure and burning right. Even if I do that with the film, it’s not going to be as good, because I’m not good with film. If you’re not good with film, so what? Use digital then. It’s the wave of the future. The finished product is what counts. If it took you three days in the darkroom or thirty minutes in Photoshop, it makes no difference and each medium is as valid as the other, as long as what you do looks good. Your photos have to be inspiring, beautiful, challenging, creative, and fresh, all at once. That’s what counts.

If you’re in any sort of camera clubs or photography classes, your friends won’t like what I’m writing. They’ll spout some spiel about how photography is a time-honored and labor-intensive craft, and it must remain so. It’s not your job to change or influence the world; you’re just a recorder. If you edit your work, you are cheating your viewers. Your taking away from all the good photographers who put the work in (a.k.a. luck) and create one-tenth the beautiful images because of their fear-based orthodoxy. That’s what you’ll be told. Don’t listen to it. It’s not your friends who are talking. Their true thoughts have been stolen by the prevailing spirit of oppression and negativity. It is not your job to change them. Just go into the world pushing forward with your art, and if you are being a free photographer, other people will take note, because you’ll be producing fantastic work. And they’ll start switching over too. We can start a revolution.

A note on “camera clubs”: don’t join one. I’d never join a camera club. If I want to be with my people, I’ll join a photography club–not a camera club. Just like if I want to read, I’ll join a reading club, not a book club. It’s not so bad with book clubs, though. The unfortunate thing that happens with camera clubs, is that people get caught up in the science of photography and forget about the art. And even then, they’re not focusing on the science so much as their own notions: limit-based notions that keep them from pursuing their art form for want of some technical limitation. But there are no technical limitations. Sure, this is all relative. You can’t do much with a cheap disposable camera, and there are just things our cameras can’t capture, like huge ranges of light or certain shades of purple. But the difference between what our cameras can do, and what the camera club participants pretend they can do is quite vast. If you have a Canon PowerShot A590 or anything like it, you can do anything. Practically anything. In fact, by the time you get near the do anything level, you’ll be four cameras up. It won’t even matter. Start creating your best work now, not ten years from now.

I remember when I started getting serious about my creative photography in 2005, and all I had was a Fujifilm FinePix A360. And there were some things that I just could not take pictures of, or they were really hard to take pictures of. I could never get a good shot of lightning, despite numerous attempts, because I had no control over the ISO speed or shutter speed. With the cheap cameras, many things are automatic-only, like the settings on mine were. I wanted a good shot of falling raindrops, and after much perseverance, I got Raindrops. Unlike with my Canon Rebel XTi and fast lens, the only way to do it with the FinePix A360 was in the bright sunlight, so it had to be raining in the sunshine, but that happened because I kept watching. Then I had the necessary light to freeze the rain in motion.

You’ll run into all sorts of limitations like this in your photography. Perhaps you have the Canon Rebel XTi, and you’re finding the kit lens is too slow for indoor low-light portraits (I did). Or you’re filling up the burst buffer too quickly with your rapid shooting on the football field. The limitations can be anything, but the free photographer’s way is to embrace and work with them, at least till you can afford the expensive gear that attacks them directly. Learn how to be still to avoid camera shake with a bad lens, accept grainier photos with a higher light sensitivity setting, or just take three shots for every one so you’ll be bound to get one right. Switch from RAW to JPEG for quicker burst shooting, or buy a faster memory card to compensate (rather than a faster camera, which is much more expensive). Whatever you do, don’t give up saying that good photography is impossible with your current setup. That’s the coward’s way out.

Free photography, as much as it is about embracing all formats, methods, and editing as equal and valid, it is about not making excuses for anyone but yourself. If you miss the moment when the lightning struck the ground, don’t blame your camera, or your lens, or your lack of a college education. If you can’t produce a beautiful image because your source image needs work and that work isn’t permitted by your oppressive photography religion, don’t accept it as fate. Don’t blame anyone or anything else for shortcomings in your work. Have the courage to accept that anything you’ve failed to do or any photo opportunity you’ve missed is your own fault. The reason you can’t create beautiful photographs isn’t because you never see anything interesting. There are plenty of interesting things in your house, in your yard, and around your neighborhood. Or there are dull things which can become interesting when you shoot them in a new light or from a new angle. The “I never see anything / go anywhere interesting” excuse is your own way to excuse yourself from the guilt of not following your artistic passion. But you can stop it, right now. Instead of saying “there’s nothing interesting,” say “I don’t put enough effort in.” Once you rephrase your thoughts and words to put the keys in your hand, you’ll be on your way to putting more effort in, or making whatever change you need for your art form. It’s the first step. No more excuses.

I’ve used the “I never see anything interesting” excuse myself, once or twice. But if all I’ve written hasn’t appealed to you, I have one more piece of advice. Go somewhere interesting. It’s not that hard. Millions of other people do it every day. Go for a walk, visit the park, climb to the top of some high building. If you’re not seeing interesting subjects, it’s your responsibility to change that. It’s all part of being free and empowered, rather than a slave of fate.

Enjoy your life as a free photographer. You’ve just made a huge step above 99% of the other people in your field. I hope to be with you too.