The Dialectic of Language and Control: From Confucius to Cryptography
Western society’s epistemological hierarchy is collapsing, and its successor may be 'cryptographic truth'.
Different civilisations are based on different hierarchies of control. Some maintain a monopoly on the water supply, many through military power, and others yet through financial and naval power. Yet there is another disputed battleground of power that swings from centralisation to distribution like a pendulum through history; to determine what a word means, and how these words are woven to shape a narrative. Epistemology is one of the tacit sources of power in society.
Hilary Putnam’s socio-linguistic hypothesis states that language is a division of labour in centralised structures. For instance, gold has many uses in society: it can be used as currency, jewellery, embellishment for art, and in key technologies, among other things. For a word with complex applications like this, having one person verify the linguistic meaning of gold would be overwhelming. This task becomes the exclusive occupation of an elite caste, such as a religious priesthood or some other administrative structure monopolising the production and dissemination of information.
On the other hand, others believe that verifying the meaning of language was a simple matter that any ordinary person could do. Confucius’ famous call to ‘rectify names’ expressed the belief that society having a shared understanding of language was core to its political, moral, and cultural stability. Mozi, founder of the Mohist school in ancient China, believed that the verification process (called Fa 法) that would contribute to social stability should be available to any ordinary person to partake in. A simple set of rules could be applied to verify the meaning of any word. For Mozi, the Putnamian hierarchy was inimical to stability because it was prone to elitism, “chanting” memorisation, and eventually stagnation.
Putnam’s hypothesis characterises hierarchical control of language and information, while Mozi’s Fa system has parallels with what many call ‘distributed consensus’. In a distributed system, everyone has a shared ‘ledger of record’ (i.e. systems of verification, be that Mohist Fa, Islamic silsila, and so on) that contains the same information and can verify it based on consensus. These are not stable regimes; every so often, the incumbent faces a challenge as it stagnates and its opponent sees an opportunity to create a shift in power, be that from hierarchy to distributed consensus or vice versa. This dialectic of language is core to power struggles across history.
As an example, in feudal Europe the Protestant Revolution was enabled by changes in the socioeconomic balance of power between secular princes and popes, and also by the shift from the Putnamian hierarchy of the Church to a system of distributed consensus that came to be known as Protestantism. The printing press allowed every Protestant to participate in a distributed consensus of their own through learning how to read and interpret the Bible, as well as communicating their ideas and opinions with each other. This shattered the epistemological chokehold of the Catholic Church over feudal society.
Alasdair Macintyre's 'After Virtue' has a very interesting introduction where he discusses a hypothetical society in which people continued to use terms even though their original meaning had long been lost. Lacking a shared language meant that no one could verify what information was true. For Macintyre, this was not hypothetical; our society today exists in this very predicament when it comes to moral language. We can no longer discuss and come to an agreement on what is objective good because we no longer have a shared language which contains words we agree to the meaning of.
The dialectic between hierarchy and distributed consensus is important because in the middle of a transfer of power, there is epistemological discord that can make it feel as if the world as we know it no longer makes sense. Today, the ‘legacy nexus' (government-media-academia) that maintains our epistemological structure faces off against a motley assortment of dissidents who have lost all trust in public institutions, for control over language, narrative, and the meaning of meaning itself.
The Western Putnamian Hierarchy
In liberal political theory, democratic and authoritarian structures are often divided based on their epistemological structures. In a democractic society, language is unrestricted and determined by a distributed consensus based on principles such as democracy by the ballot, freedom of speech, and so on. In an authoritarian society, speech is heavily censored, with official meanings and narratives maintained and disseminated by central hierarchies of control and surveillance.
Or so the narrative goes.
By 2021, it’s self evident that the liberal conceit in its promotion of free speech is just that; arrogance that covers for the fact that western society is very much Putnamian. We do not have a system of distributed consensus resting on full freedom of speech or a “marketplace of ideas” in which anyone may hawk their theories to popular acclaim. Institutions implicitly designed as the arbiters of official narratives, such as academia and the media, very much maintain a central hierarchy of control and surveillance. This group of institutions jealously guards its right to determine what information is true and false and what narratives are communicated to the public. They maintain an epistemological chokehold through the tyranny of expertise.
Their cadres are selected from a select group of college graduates, mainly from the Ivy league, Oxbridge, and other select elite institutions of higher learning. It’s a small world where everybody knows everybody. These schools function very much like the seminaries of an official state religion. Muslim, Jew, Christian, or otherwise go into Yale and Harvard and come out believing in the same faith; a secularised, Anglo-Protestant elite mandate to rule Empire. Their manner of indoctrination and missionary fervour is akin to that of a religious priesthood in say, pre-Colombian Mesoamerica or medieval south Asia. They are our secular priesthood, and they are responsible for the Putnamian gatekeeping of our epistemological structure.
The rise of the term 'post-truth' is less about capital-t Truth and more about the nexus’ loss of control over the narrative of society through its elite-exclusive crafting and gatekeeping of language and narrative. The Putnamian structure is teetering, having been repeatedly exposed over the past few decades through the lies surrounding the Iraq War, the narrative violation election of Donald Trump in 2016 and ensuing hysteria, and through their systemic lying and failure to deal with COVID. These institutions have wracked up an enormous public trust deficit as people are no longer willing to believe the official narratives coming out of the nexus.
Palladium's article on 'America’s New Post-Literate Epistemology' is an excellent deep dive into the rejection of the nexus' Putnamian control of language to coordinate American society. By rejecting written language itself, these rebels mitigate the effectiveness of central messaging to influence them by relying on more homegrown, oral networks of information transmission. However, like the more extreme factions that arise in every era of conflict, movements like America's Trumpist/Alt-Right groups cause a lot of damage and are incapable of building new socio-cultural structures of language owing to their primitiveness. They are unlikely to be the faction that can build a system of distributed consensus that replaces the epistemological structure of old.
Cryptographic Truth: An Alternative to Hierarchy?
A more mature call for a system of distributed consensus is Balaji Srinivasan's concept of cryptographic truth. Cryptographic truth is established by allowing any individual to hold the ledger of record, a ‘global feed of cryptographically timestamped, undeletable history.’ This distributes the act of information verification away from the nexus and to anyone who possesses a version of the ledger. Therefore, the recording and verification of information is undeletable and relies on consensus. This blockchain technology is the basis on which cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum are built on, and can be seen as the technological equivalent of the printing press enabling every Protestant to have a Bible which they could read and discuss.
The call for cryptographic truth comes at a critical inflection in digital history and may be able to provide a more stable system of distributed consensus for a few reasons.
Firstly, the Internet by its nature remains decentralised even though Big Tech attempts to rule vast swathes of its territory. This is demonstrated by continued dissent to official narratives and Big Tech's failure to implement the nexus' demands for 'truth verification' (i.e. censorship in favour of official narratives). The response to Big Tech's arbitrary decision-making could then be cryptographic truth whereby every owner of a ledger engages in verification. While deepfakes are often touted as one of the biggest dangers of misinformation, it’s nexus narratives that create the majority of disinformation on social media. One only needs to look at the early months of COVID and how our governments, media, and health bodies got it completely wrong and attempted to censor information contrary to official narratives, information later proven correct.
Secondly, cryptography is a material technology that seems well suited to the social technologies unleashed by the Internet. People are freed from their physical environment and regulatory regimes to participate in an online economy where anybody can buy and sell goods and services. People involved in building online communities or engaging in digital marketplaces increasingly identify with and adopt the ways of their respective digital tribes. More and more of our cultural production, information consumption, and human interaction is being built on the Internet, creating astronomical amounts of data - and none of it is being verified in any discernible manner.
To improve coordination mechanisms, new forms of information verification arise to deal with this reality. Our old structures are clearing buckling under its weight. Cryptographic truth becomes the material technology around which this culture operates to build communities, run businesses, and engage on the Internet and build new parallel structures away from the nexus.
However, the claim that 'code is law' is insufficient in understanding the interaction between social and material technology. Law is a social technology that allows human beings to interface with each other and to arbitrate and resolve conflicts and disputes. While cryptographic information can help us to determine whether the facts of a case are true or false, ultimate judgment - and the wisdom that has to come with managing issues of public policy and interest - must lie in human relationships and trust. As such, in seeking a successor to our Putnamian hierarchy, we must be careful not to fall into a trustless system.
Whether you adhere to Putnam’s hypothesis or Mohist teachings, the question of who gets to determine what a word means, what narratives are created, and what information is disseminated at large through centralised media or the Internet, is one of the key pillars of power in our world today. Is it no longer restricted to the stability of any one civilisation but a key weapon to wield against rival powers. States like America, Russia, and China are all engaged in ‘wars of disinformation’; direct assaults against the very structures of our epistemological realities akin to American warplanes bombarding Germany’s industrial heartlands in WWII to break civilian morale. While propaganda was once restricted to national structures of government propaganda departments and media organisations, the Internet creates a global battlefield in which everyone becomes a combatant, willingly or otherwise.
The future is uncertain, but one thing is clear: the battles of today are the battles of yesterday. The collapse of epistemology is probably the most salient issue facing western society today as the nexus' incompetence has been completely exposed owing to the Internet's scrutinising gaze over all things. What is needed more than ever is a campaign like Confucius' Rectification of Names, whether that is through rebuilding a Putnamian hierarchy or by developing the means of Mohist verification of language. My personal bias is towards the latter: it is hard to reform an existing hierarchy when the salaries of its priests rests on it not being reformed.
Abstract philosophical debates over language is often dismissed in its importance to civilisation where material processes are deemed of greater relevance. However, as history shows, rectifying language can aid in reversing the course of a declining civilisation. Language is our ultimate coordinating mechanism, and where language fails, coordination at scale is no longer possible. The Internet has given us new means by which to coordinate outside the clutches of the nexus, and our hope will probably rest upon the creation of a competent culture which develops new social technologies on top of new material technologies like cryptography to develop a shared approach to truth verification, so that we may make sense of the world once again.