The horror writer Stephen King caused a ripple in the money world last month by announcing that his latest novel, The Plant, would be published only on the internet, bypassing the book industry. The moral, as pointed out by several investment gurus, was that, in the new economy, the most significant assets are the intangible ones - ideas, images, authorship - while the tangible hardware and real estate of the old economy (in this case, printing presses and bookshops) are suddenly a lot less important than they used to be.
In Britain's social order, a corresponding shift is beginning to appear: there is a new kind of aspiration and a new kind of envy, attached not so much to tangible wealth as to the intangible attributes of sophistication and social presence that wealth can bring.
The rich are no longer interesting to the rest of us just because they qualify for the label "millionaire", even if parts of the press still lazily use it to signal disapproval, as in "Gay Tory millionaire defects to Labour" or "Blair's millionaire pal in tax row". Who Wants to be a Millionaire? - the hugely popular television show - is hypnotic viewing not because it makes people's dreams come true, but because it humiliates them with the crudeness of the urge expressed in its title.
These days, what provokes fascination - more often tinged with hostility than admiration - is not the meat and potatoes of wealth itself, but the side salads and savouries it brings to those who understand the new menu: to be a man or woman of influence, taste, freedom and cool is a much more conspicuous sin than to be a person of property, a true, old-fashioned millionaire.
This is partly because millionaires in the strict arithmetic sense are now ten a penny. Thanks to rising share and house prices, total personal wealth in Britain increased by almost 50 per cent in the past decade. Over the same period, the sum required to win one of the top 200 places in the Sunday Times's annual Rich List tripled from £50m to £150m. At the entry level of millionaireship, an actuary will happily certify your seven-figure status if you own a family-sized property in central London and have any sort of decent job with pension rights attached to it. What with the sale proceeds of the Islington house, the little weekend place in Sedgefield and Cherie's income from the Bar, the Blairs - who were, until the recent horizontal-Euan incident, Britain's undisputed model family - could clearly claim the title. If your surname happens to be Patel rather than Blair, your likelihood of be-ing a millionaire is as high as one in 72, and you have a one-in-a-thousand chance of breaking the more challenging £5m barrier. That's a seven times better chance than if you're called Smith, incidentally. But, whatever your name, material wealth is waving at you from not very far away.
What all this really means is that, as a result of inflation and economic growth, a million ain't what it used to be, here or anywhere else. There was probably a time when being a lire millionaire made you a big pecorino in Italy, but so what? All we have to do is add the prefix "multi" to restore the lost frisson of exclusivity. But that misses my point about the intangible assets that distinguish new fortunes from old ones.
What interests the tabloids about the Downing Street adviser Gavyn Davies is not that he has just sold £15m worth of shares in his employer, Goldman Sachs, and has another £85m-worth up his sleeve, but that he made it on to the Brown-Macaulay wedding invitation list, and once commissioned the building of a prize-winning modern house in Devon. By contrast, no one seems to give a fig - to pick two out of many possible examples - about the newspaper-owning Barclay brothers, holed up unseen on their private Channel Island with £650m; still less do we care about the £2bn empire of the conscientious, stressed-out Duke of Westminster, who gains so little joy from owning whole postal districts of prime London property.
So we have the beginning of a sociological theory here. The puritanical streak in the British nature - which underpinned, for much of the past century, the socialist streak - disapproves at heart not so much of assets as of attitude. Expansiveness, eclecticism and membership of powerful, mutually admiring elites are things that money can, but doesn't always, satisfy, and they are things that the wider British public and its media tribunes regard with the deepest suspicion. They are also precisely the things that the switched-on new rich aspire to, rather than richness itself. Thus the ultimate hate-icon of the new puritans is fox-hunting, while the ultimate aim of the new rich is, as it were, to hunt with the Beaufort and dine with the Blairs, a combination that is almost bound to get them into tabloid trouble. But if the alternative is to sit in a tax haven clipping dividend coupons, or to work a 15-hour day in some City bear-pit, well, what's rich about that?
Time to spare and a measure of originality are essential elements of this new wealth. The most basic ingredient, the money itself, has to be made quickly or in short bursts of intense creative activity (inheriting it can be OK, too, if you spend it right), so that it doesn't interfere with the self-expression. It may even be possible to acquire the attitude of new richness without actually acquiring the assets first, but what used to be called "independent means" will certainly help.
For a while, until the bubble burst, making a dotcom fortune looked like the best way to reach that starting point, because it could be done in a year, in a casual, dressed-down way, setting your own work patterns and astonishing your friends with the blue-sky boldness of your business plan. Television production is also cool, Lord (Waheed) Alli of Carlton TV being, in every perfect detail, an archetype of new richness. Fiction writing, the source of wealth and new-rich recognition for the likes of Robert Harris and Ken Follett (or, across the Atlantic, Stephen King), is even cooler.
But what is uncool, what nobody cares about these days, or wants to write about, is the old-economy wealth of bankers, industrialists and landowners, burdened with all that hardware and real estate and feudal responsibility. In the case of the first two, they are probably condemned to years of arduous full-time office work before they can cash in their share options and even begin to emulate the new rich, with their spacious, balanced, pick'n'mix lifestyles, their networking and patronage and passionate causes. Bankers and their ilk once occupied the staterooms of life's great cruise ship, courted and waited upon; now they are no more than well-paid mechanics down in the engine room. Poor fellows: nobody wants to be their kind of millionaire any more, so no one really hates them.
Meanwhile, the new rich, harbingers of the new economy, with time on their hands, opinions to express and a deep belief in their own importance, jostle for places at the captain's table. They're the ones the reporters are watching and the tabloid-reading steerage passengers envy. In the conflict between "us" and "them", they are the new "them", the new class enemy.