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MetaRocks - The New Collectibles

By Gary Fisher, Ph.D.

About the Author

Gary is Co-Director of Armchair World

In the 1960's John Lyman, Professor of Engineering and Psychology at UCLA, coined the term 'metafact'. What is a metafact? It is a fact whose meaning or significance goes beyond that which would attain solely from consideration of its objective or inherent reality. A metafact is 'beyond' fact; it transcends fact.

Metafacts are everywhere. The stock market runs on metafacts. The media generates metafacts. Generally, when things become more (or less) important, meaningful or valuable than they would be based on objective reality, we are in the realm of the metafact. It can be argued that the ability to separate fact from metafact has definite survival value.

Take the statement that "moon rocks are precious" as an example of a metafact. Moon rocks were last collected on the moon during the Apollo Project in the 1970's. Most people's perception of the value of moon rocks arises from the high cost of getting the rocks, their rarity (on earth) and even romantic associations with exploration - not from the moon rock's intrinsic properties or potential uses. (We will undoubtedly ascribe even more value to Mars rocks when we succeed in returning a few of them to earth.)

Aside from their objective scientific value, moon rocks are little different than those we might find in our own backyard. If we tossed one of them onto a vacant lot and tried to find it, it'd probably take a laboratory and a lot of time to differentiate between the native rocks on the lot and the transplanted moon rock. And yet when these drab and common appearing fragments were exhibited in the 1970's, they were accompanied by armed guards and were placed in secure, glassed-in kiosks generally reserved for display of crown jewels (whose value is also part metafact).

So it's intrinsic reality with an extrinsic overlay that turns a fact into a 'metafact.'

The New Collectibles

I'm sure that many of us, especially when we travel to places of historical significance, are tempted to some degree to pick up genuine artifacts - i.e. a piece of the Great Wall of China, pottery shards from an Indian ruin, a piece of the pyramids. And a few have gone beyond temptation to actually "collect" (steal) these relics from the past.

In Chaco Canyon, for example, pottery shards from the Anasazi era (ca 1200 AD) lay exposed and scattered on the ground throughout the monument. And while there are strict laws and penalties to discourage taking them, some shards still mysteriously disappear into the pockets of hikers.

With this kind of behavior taking place worldwide on a daily basis, we and future generations are loosing our historical and cultural resources on a piece by piece basis. Is there a socially responsible alternative? I think there is. Enter the 'metarock'.

I've coined the term 'metarock' to describe an intrinsically worthless rock or pebble that has personal meaning and value arising from its being collected in the vicinity of a site that has some significance to the collector. The significance can be geological, historical, religious, political or purely personal. On one level the metarock is simply a record of "having been there".

On another level, there is something existential about collecting metarocks. Metarocks don't really have meaning except to those who collect them. And in a long range view collecting them is probably no more or less meaningful than many other of our endeavors. In any case they satisfy a need that some of us have for a tangible connection to a past era or event. And collecting them doesn't disturb archeological sites.

I've been a metarock collector for several years. And over time I've come up with some simple collection rules which I follow.

I'll post some pictures from my personal metarock collection in the near future. My metarocks won't be very interesting to you but they sure mean a lot to me. Do collect your own metarocks. You'll find the experience much more interesting than looking at someone else's collection. You can even display your best metarocks in glass or plastic cases or mount them on polished wood bases. This incongruity (giving importance to the intrinsically valueless) can lead to many intriguing philosophical discussions. And remember, you are leaving the real artifacts for future generations to enjoy.

© 1997 Gary Fisher

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