Post Truth or Post Trust?

Some Historical Perspective

One generation questioning the cherished assumptions of the previous is not new, especially in times of crisis. While the Visigoths ran wild in the streets of Ancient Rome, Christian Bishop Augustine wrote The City of God Against the Pagans and flipped the script on classical Roman ethics. In 1517 an incensed monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Europe rode with this audacious act, on the back of the newly invented printing press, into Protestant Reformation and eventually the Enlightenment. In the aftermath of WWI T.S. Elliot questioned the value of civilization itself. In his poem The Wasteland he described London factory workers, shuffling off to work in the morning haze. Dead soldiers merged in his mind with a new type of corpse; the industrialized automatons of modernity; despairing and somnolent.  In the Seventies cultural touchstones like Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence Speech, Punk Rock, and the film Taxi Driver were all symptoms of Western Society doubting itself.
Some say that in today’s world the idea of truth is under attack. We are told we’re living in the Post-Truth Era. Facts aren’t as important as appeals to emotion, ad hominem attacks, and other rhetorical skullduggeries.  The generative crisis, goes the theory, wasn’t a civilizational cataclysm like the Sack of Rome or the carnage of The Great War but instead the election of Donald J Trump.  I believe it’s far more likely that people still believe in truth but no longer trust the institutions that used to dispense it.

Breaking Kayfabe

The true beginning of our post truth age shouldn’t be traced to the election of 2016 or even the economic crisis of 2008 but to Feb 10th, 1989, when WWE owner Vince McMahon admitted to the world that pro wrestling was fake. He pulled back the curtain and showed the people what was really going on in his business. In the jargon of the wrestling trade, he “broke Kayfabe.” Almost thirty years later, his friend and close business associate, Donald Trump, broke political Kayfabe and won the Presidency of the United States.  This is hardly surprising in a culture where breaking Kayfabe has become ubiquitous. Reality TV, celebrity Sex tapes, psychological meltdowns on Twitter in the wee hours of the night,  it’s like the World has become one big exercise in experimental theater.

From Ideology to Identity

People have ceased to trust social institutions and are skeptical of the common narratives that unify societies; religion, cultural advancement, objective truth. However, they still believe in the things that validate them personally and the increasingly individualized narratives of their daily lives. Identity has replaced ideology and the heightened language of religion is re-purposed for the mundane. Brands evangelize, celebrities become Icons, and everyday events take on the nature of the sublime.  Into this vacuum of sincerity emerges the promise of Blockchain.

A Technological Solution to a Moral Problem

Blockchain resonates so strongly today by combining the two things that most people still have faith in; Consumerism (in the guise of wealth) and technology.  It’s Laissez Faire on steroids, equal parts utopian idealism and mercenary capitalism, amped up around the world by the digitally connected economy. Culturally, Blockchain is a reaction against the Zeitgeist of the times, against the widespread mistrust of centralized authority, a response to post truth anxiety, to rhetoric, to propaganda.  But is outsourcing our desire for competent leadership and the personal obligations of honesty and civic responsibility a move forward or a capitulation?

Not So Random Reflections

  • The first killer app for Blockchain is Cryptocurrency. An interesting term: The prefix Crypto is derived from the Greek word Kryptos meaning hidden or concealed. Currency, from the same root as the word current and indicates a condition of flowing.
  • Blockchain combines entrepreneurial energy with revolutionary passion. The more you learn about it the more you feel the pull of liberty in your gut.
  • Value can be created, distributed or captured. A sense of fairness leads us to prefer systems where the party creating the value captures most of it.  Of course, this is not always or even most often the case.  The possibility to democratize the access to economic value creation in the same way the Internet democratized access to information is why Blockchain is the favorite of libertarians and revolutionaries.
  • Trust may not be drying up but searching for new sources. People are more likely to trust someone like themselves than a media conglomerate, conventional authority figure or government institution. This could mean we are actually reverting away from the modern Nation State and back towards something more like the ancient Greek Polis.
  • People still trust technology because society has, by in large, only benefited from it in the last fifty years.  That could begin to change as privacy concerns, dangers to democracy and economic dislocation start to take effect.

Quotes on Trust

  • It is better to trust in virtue than Fortune. – Publius Syrus
  • Trust but verify. – Ronald Reagan
  • Trust is the coin of the realm. – George Schultz
  • Trust God but tie your Camel. – Arab saying

Data Points

The Crisis of Trust
  • Back in 2015 the economist magazine described Blockchain as a machine for building trust and noted that the technology spelled bad news for institutions in the Trust business like banks, clearing houses and government agencies.
  • This abstract of Political Trust and The Crisis in Democracy makes the point that there are three narrative frameworks about the effect of low political trust in democratic societies.   1. The lack of trust puts Democracy at risk 2. Low political trust can revitalize democratic processes as citizens activate to change governmental leadership and institutions 3. Low political trust can be a sign of a more general cultural malaise.
  • The Edelman Trust Barometer breaks down in great detail how much trust people have around the world in Business, NGO’s, Government and Media.  One take away from this year’s reportis that as the definition of Media has expanded to include things like technology platforms and social media influencers as well as Journalists, overall trust has declined. Another way of looking at the data might be to say that trust in Media has been diluted.
  • This excellent article from summarizes Frederic Nietzsche’s thinking on knowledge. His most vital point in my opinion is that what the human mind considers truth is actually society’s unspoken agreement about how to describe the world through language.
  • George Orwell saw clearly how the abuse of language always benefits autocrats and demagogues in his classic essay Politics and the English Language.
  • The French Post Modernists, who were among the most vocal skeptics of the ideas of objective truth and knowledge, became steadily disillusioned with Marxism through the 80’s until the fall of the Soviet Union.  The defection did not go unnoticed by this CIA intelligence brief in 1985.
  • In this article for the New Yorker Magazine, Salman Rushdie argues that the idea of Truth in world literature has always been an argument between competing narratives of the same basic facts.
  • In the 1982 film The Verdict attorney Frank Galvin, played by the late great Paul Newman, tells jurors that institutions are just reflections of society and if they want a just society it’s up them to make one.
Blockchain Quick Start
  • The God Protocols-Way back in 1997 writer Nick Szabo envisioned something very like the Blockchain, a perfectly trustworthy mathematical protocol for the Internet.
  • Bitcoin: A Peer to Peer Electronic Cash System-Saitoshi Nakamoto wrote himself (or herself or themselves) into history with the invention of the Blockchain and Bitcoin.
  • Blockchain Revolution– Futurist Don Tapscott uses a flock of birds to illustrate the sort of collective action blockchain promises the world.  In this view collaboration replaces competition, centralization becomes a liability and the only trusted authority is the consensus of the crowd.
I hope you enjoyed the debut issue of The Uses of Money Newsletter. In future issues, we’ll explore more timely topics from business, technology, and the new global culture surrounding them.
Next Time: Is Knowledge Still Power?

By Donovan

My name is Donovan Craig. This is my blog.

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