Literate Debt in the Digital Age

Literate culture has mortgaged its future. Who will pay?

In OS1 (oral) cultures, debt did not exist. Obligations existed. You can, for example owe someone your gratitude, or your allegiance, or your help or your vengeance in OS1 culture.

But obligations in OS1 culture are defined by relationships between people. Whereas in OS2 (literate) cultures, debt is defined by relationships between pieces of paper.

Debt is a literate phenomenon. And today, at this moment of crisis for literate culture, debt is spiralling out of control.

The origins of debt overlap intimately with the origins of writing and of literate culture. And for that matter with the origins of money, another OS2 app. Money and debt both originated in ancient Sumer, as did cuneiform, the first known writing. What cuneiform was initially used for was tracking deposits – of grain or salt or gold – in a shared warehouse. The written receipts offered in exchange for these deposits could be reclaimed when corroborated against a master text held by the storehouse, thus giving birth to both money and debt. And to the earliest banks.

This was no longer an obligation based on personal relationships between people. It was not OS1. This was a debt between papers. Or, back in Gilgamesh’s day, between clay tablets. But above all between written texts. This was the dawning of OS2.

Today, with OS2 having increased the world’s population by some 7,000% in a mere few hundred generations, we are experiencing an unprecedented crisis of OS2 culture. Many of us are blind to that crisis, immersed as we are in OS2’s luxuriant distractions and confident in its essential merit and universality. But even those of us who fail to look beyond the limitations of OS2, who refuse to see and hear and taste our ongoing OS2-driven ecocide, are beginning to take note of some of OS2’s most glaring internal pathologies. The mad and uncontrollable growth of debt, for example, is starting to catch people’s attention.

In my new book, You Are Your Media, I describe the disastrous impact of strapping an OS2 application like debt to the hyper-efficient rocketship that is OS3 technology and letting greedy self-interested financiers light the fuse. Here’s a quote from it:

“Financial markets have undergone a massive global integration since the deployment of the first real-time networked trading infrastructure at the NYSE early 1970s. As a result of dialogical OS3’s ability to network previously monological OS2 economies, vast amounts of money have since been created. But most of it has been negative money! Most of it has been debt! And literate OS2 loves debt, because all of that money is owed to someone, or to some corporation, existing as a massive future profit on some bottom line somewhere. So the more the better! Even if it is destroying the actual living abilities of actual living people. Who cares? Not the pieces of paper. Or the people in charge of them, who profit when bottom lines fatten, regardless of what impact those numbers have on other people. In 1970 the USA had a national debt of about 200 billion dollars. In 2011 the USA faced a budget crisis of vast implications due to its inability to raise its debt ceiling to 14 trillion dollars! In 40 years the amount of negative money in the USA alone created has increased by about 7,000%! Has this been matched by a 7,000% increase in individual or collective wealth during the same period? Do I really need to answer this question?”

A few days ago BBC.com ran a lengthy opinion piece called The Revolution of Capitalism, in which author John Gray says, among other things:

“In a society that is being continuously transformed by market forces, traditional values are dysfunctional and anyone who tries to live by them risks ending up on the scrapheap.”

This is true. The monological values of OS2 must be upgraded to dialogical OS3 values to avoid all of us living on the scrapheap. Or worse.

Gray goes on:

“Currencies and governments are likely to go under, along with parts of the financial system we believed had been made safe. The risks that threatened to freeze the world economy only three years ago haven’t been dealt with. They’ve simply been shifted to states.

Whatever politicians may tell us about the need to curb the deficit, debts on the scale that have been run up can’t be repaid. Almost certainly they will be inflated away – a process that is bound to be painful and impoverishing for many.”

OS2 is eating itself in its capitalist mode just as it did in its communist mode. Which is why we desperately need to build bridges between sustainable OS1 culture and hyper-efficient OS3 culture. That is our only hope of overcoming the increasing bugginess of OS2.

My book aims to lay the groundwork for such bridges.

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