In What We Trust

You may recall a post I made a few months ago .. in which I mentioned that “I am not at all proud of the species I apparently belong to” (“I understand that this is very important to you”). Another way of putting this idea is that I have little trust in the human species (that is very general – perhaps it might be more appropriate to say that I have little trust in the vast majority of humans; there are a very small number of humans in whom I might be able to manage to have a small amount of trust in).

When the so-called “Founding Fathers” framed the Constitution of the United States of America, they were strongly influenced by an idea referred to as “Natural Law” – and it is out of the same historical context that the American currency (the US dollar) received many of its emblematic quotes – one of which is “In God We Trust”, That quote seems increasingly far-fetched as time marches on, but still most people on Earth do seem to need to have something they can trust.

Some trust in news media. Some trust in large corporations. Some trust in religions. Almost everyone trusts in something, be that the hopeful expectation that the sun will also rise tomorrow, or that gravity or similar physical properties will continue to function in the future as they have in the past.

I, myself, have for quite some time increasingly placed trust in something I refer to as “natural language” – even though it seems quite difficult to say exactly what is or isn’t such a so-called “natural” language. It seems to be a technology devised by humans – but according to the Bible, it also seems to be closely associated with the original creation (namely, God seems to have created many things simply by mentioning [or naming] them).

There are, however, a few things that can easily be identified as NOT natural language, the most prominent example being strings governed by intellectual property law. The most common of these are trademarks – commonly referred to as “brand names”, and since all “intellectual property” must comply with intellectual property laws (in the case of trademarks: trademark law), they cannot be said to follow the laws of nature. Natural law is an enticing concept, but codified rules, laws and regulations seem quite the polar opposite to being “freaks of nature”.

Nonetheless, what is deemed “natural” versus what is deemed “artificial” (or “man-made”) is largely a judgment call, much like the decision whether or not to consider humans to be a part of nature itself.

Let me get back to the way many people place trust in currencies and other financial instruments. Some people will “take money to the bank”, others will bank on a currency’s hard value by investing in it (this happens in the “bond” market, and is thereby also closely associated with interest rates).

There is a weird overlap between trust in language and trust in money: very masterful artisans of language have what is referred to as an ability to coin phrases (this is often said to be the case, for example, of William Shakespeare).

Likewise, as I am feeling very confident and bold right now, I will go out on a limb and hypothesize that all financial instruments actually do represent something, whether that is a valuable metal, a piece of livestock, a share of ownership in a corporate entity, or whatever. This is very similar to the way in which words and more generally languages represent things. Words and languages are instruments, tools, … and even more generally: a communications technology. We can invest in communications by investing in words and language. These investments take place in marketplaces — more specifically: linguistic communities.

And this is where I hope to close the circle: Those of us who trust in written language and those of us who trust in the Internet, we trust in the governing bodies of the organizations referred to by the strings we use on a daily basis. I trust in “com” (which is managed by Verisign) and I trust in “blog”(which is managed by Automattic) and also in many other strings (which are managed by a wide variety of registries). Yet I do not trust them equally, any more than I would be so foolish as to trust all currencies or similar financial instruments equally. Some registries are very general organizations, other registries are very specific organizations. Some have very well defined organizational structures, other organizational structures are more loosely circumscribed or even cryptic. They are all very different, and I place different degrees and modes of trust in these different phenomena, just like I differentiate between mountains and machines, mice and men, moons and magnetic fields.

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