Language, Money and Wealth Acknowledgment

David Abram, in his book The Spell of the Sensuous, describes the history of written language and its evolution from pictographic directly representational symbolic system to an abstract phonemic system. He describes the incredible intellectual leap taken by some scribe who realized that the symbol doesn’t actually need to have ANY visual resemblance to the thing it represents. Apparently this evolutionary step came as a joke, as a pun. To describe this, the example Abram imagines is putting the image of a bee together with that of a leaf, making the word bee-leaf = belief. There is simply no pictorial representation of the abstract notion of a belief, but the pun simultaneously allows this representation and brings us to the first step of writing words phonemically. There are historical example of this in pictographic writing systems, and even in the first truly phonemic script of the semitic scribes, letters are often visually reminiscent of the word that contains that letter. For example our letter “A” comes from the aleph, which is drawn like our letter “A” turned upside-down and which looks like the head of an ox. The semitic word for ox began with the sound that the letter represented.

What strikes me is the deep resemblance of this process to the evolution of money, both in terms of the “technology”? itself and in terms of the socio-political context surrounding it. This shouldn’t be surprising because at its core, a monetary exchange is really a linguistic utterance (more on that later). Money doesn’t look like language to us though, because we live in a stage where our money is still a very literal representation of things of value. Our instinctive direct perception of monetary exchange, is that we are exchanging things of equal value. Five dollars worth of carrots, is exactly that, an equal exchange of five valuable notes for a certain weight of valuable carrots. But this situation is very close to the idea that to write down carrot, I have to draw something that looks like a carrot. Of course I CAN draw a carrot to write it down (and it may be some-how “safer” to do so, in that the drawing is a much more universal representation of a carrot, than abstract symbols). But I don’t have to, as long as I get community buy-in to the symbol I use. The same thing is true of money. The gold coins and warehouse receipts of of a century ago clearly are like that drawing of a carrot, they are very close to things of value. Our modern debt-issued legal tender money is not quite as close, but there is a huge legal and governmental system behind it to enforce and essentially secure that relationship of money = value. I can hear the complaint, even in my own mind, that says, “but isn’t that what money is? Value?” It must have been just as terribly hard to see that the word for carrot need not look like a carrot.

carrotThe evolution of the symbols of writing is from the obvious to the abstract through four steps: first, a drawing of a carrot, second to some stylized strokes that vaguely look like a carrot, third to a one-off visual pun that sounds like the word for carrot, and then fourth, and this is the discontinuity, the huge leap, to a systematized set of symbols that map to the sound bits in the spoken word for carrot. In the evolution of money, we haven’t yet reached that 4th step. Paper notes backed by the debt which are secured by the “full faith and credit of the US government” (fancy words for its power to tax its citizens against their will) are like those stylized strokes that look like a carrot. This fourth step will only be taken when we recognize monetary exchange as a particular form of speech namely: statements of wealth acknowledgment. Money, at it’s core, is a symbolic way of acknowledging a wealth flow. It’s a way of making a statement to the community one lives in about an event. The five dollars is not really of equal value to the carrots, it’s a public statement of receipt of wealth. The statement has a consequence because of a community compact of what the statement means and when we are allowed to make such statements. The most basic form of the compact being that you can’t make a wealth acknowledgment statement (i.e. hand someone a bill) until someone has first made such a statement to you. In another form of the compact we allow ourselves to make such statements in advance of other having made them to us. That is what we call “credit.” The encoding of the statement into something physical, the coin or the note, is just part of how we as a community “buy-in” to the symbol system. (Note that the obvious monetary equivalent of a verbal lie, is counterfeiting. It’s a statement that breaks the chain of true wealth acknowledgments.)


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Writing at all levels of its evolution is a social compact of symbols and rules of placement that imbue them with meaning to the community that together adopts that compact. Through that social compact a fantastic and powerful feat is accomplished: the transmission of meaning across distance and time. The beauty of the fourth step in the evolution of writing is that it is the step that allows universal literacy. By simplifying the system down to a handful of symbols readily learnable by anybody that match sounds the already know (as opposed to a massive dictionary of pictographs only memorizable after long training), we enter the age of literacy. Observe the similarity with money. The social compact of the wealth acknowledgment statements likewise gives us the power to transmit across time and distance, but it’s not meaning, rather it’s value that we transmit. This we already experience with modern money, but what is the equivalent of the fourth step for money? It’s the simplification, and democratization of the forms of our wealth acknowledgment statements. To see what this means we can look back at the evolution of written language, but this time, not at the technology itself, but rather the socio-polical context surrounding it.

The scribes who initially held the knowledge of writing held it essentially as a trade secret, almost by necessity. When each word is represented by a different pictograph, written language becomes extremely complicated are requires lengthy training. (Apparently a 1716 Chinese dictionary had 40,000 characters in it compared to the 8000 in use today). At such a stage, Abram says “Literacy … was in fact the literacy of a caste, or cult, whose sacred knowledge was often held in great esteem by the rest of society. It is unlikely that the scribes would willingly develop innovations that could simplify the new technology and so render literacy more accessible to the rest of the society.” Even after the event of phonemic writing systems, the legal and cultural enclosure of expression by the elite was (and still is) common place. Witness the keeping of Latin as the church language and the prohibition of translating the Bible into other languages. Such limiting naturally sets up power structures and economies.

When I was growing up in Ecuador, I remember in the market place there would always be a couple men sitting by tiny tables with pen and paper and a line of people waiting for them to write letters, for which they would pay a small fee. This is a common sight wherever literacy isn’t universal. This situation is almost exactly the same we are in today with respect to money. We, and by we I mean our communities (not ourselves as individuals) are monetarily illiterate, and therefore we need others to make our wealth acknowledgment statements on our behalf (and we pay a pretty penny for it) when in fact, we could simply learn to write.

Learning to write in the monetary context, is simply issuing a currency. Or, more precisely, creating the symbols and rules that a community will use to make wealth acknowledgment statements. But the problem is that we don’t have an alphabet, a grammar that we can follow with which to make such statements. Our monetary system and the financial world behind it is essentially that 40,000 character dictionary and the scribes who can interpret it. It does work. It creates a system in which we can make wealth acknowledgment statements at a global scale. But it does so at a direct cost like paying the scribe in the marketplace, and also a systemic cost, that of allowing an elite who control that system to grow and take advantage of those who do not.

Fortunately like the evolution of writing to phonetic scripts, money will also inevitably evolve. The next step is the development of the equivalent of letters to represent monetary phonemes. Where we are now, we can barely even hear such phonemes for what they are. Imagine the incredible leap of consciousness when those scribes realized that words actually were broken up into regular phonemes. That self-awareness was not always in place. Words were just entire units. The awareness of how they are composed of parts only comes to consciousness with writing. Think of how hard it is for children to detect when and where particular sounds of words start and stop. If you have learned another language as an adult you too will have had that direct experience yourself.

The discovery, and creation of the new “monetary script”, is exactly what the open money project is all about.

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