Diversity in Fungibility

Fungibility is unreasonably useful. Two things are fungible if they can be substituted for each other. The best example is of course money. A one dollar bill, a dollar coin, four quarters, or a credit card with a $1 balance are all essentially fungible.

Credit card payments don’t have to be made immediately so their value may not always be fungible with cash if the amount is large. The dollar bill and four quarters are more akin to each other than the credit card. If you have ever driven a car in an aging American city where parking meters only accept quarters or have slow credit card machines with dial-up modems, you understand the unique value of the quarter.

It’s obvious that fungibility always exists under specific conditions and fungible things can suddenly become diverse. Consider our fungible dollar assets. If you find yourself in a third wave coffee shop in San Francisco where they still don’t accept anything but cash, then your credit card, and dollar bill are no longer fungible.

Dark Room Earth

The common saying about tools is that we shape them and then they shape us. Continuing this recursion over time leads to the inevitable conclusion that eventually we become one with our tools. One technology where such a runaway process of merging with the tool has occurred is photography. We recently turned our entire planet into a cosmic camera to photograph a black hole in a neighboring galaxy.

Going beyond the metaphor, a closer look at today’s computational photography and social media reveals that algorithms are taking over the photographic medium and humans are acting as inputs and outputs in a planet-scale photographic apparatus.

Companies like Instagram and Snapchat have built some of the components of this apparatus. Snapchat creates social media software but defines itself as a camera company. Snapchat went public in 20171 and described its vision for the future as follows.