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Somehow, a Banknote seems to be Valuable

Adrian Heuberger: Excerpt from a speech at the 2nd International Banknote Designers Conference (IBDC) in Stockholm 2012

Somehow, a banknote seems to be valuable. What is this 'somehow'?

We perceive a banknote as a slip of paper that is somehow valuable. In the following text, we try to focus on this 'somehow': What is the 'somehow' that makes a slip of paper valuable?


Banknotes are value carriers.

Normally, I carry banknotes in my wallet. But banknotes are carriers themselves: They carry a value. So in fact, I carry value carriers in my wallet.


This value is bound to a measuring system.

As money is bound to a currency, the value that a banknote carries becomes an amount of units of the superior measuring system. In everyday life, we deal a lot with various measuring systems and their units. They allow us to compare objects in the outside world. But what is a measuring system?

A measuring system is communication via units.

A measuring system can be conceived as a language that allows communication via units.


Communication via units only works if its units are generally accepted.

Only if a meter is accepted as the general unit for height, can an apple tree measuring ten meters and a pear tree measuring ten meters be considered as being the same height. If a meter was not a general unit but rather a subjective one each of the trees could be claimed as being higher than the other one. This example shows that the success of a measuring system is based on its general acceptance. In daily life, when we use a measuring system, although we do not question its general acceptance, we still rely on it.


What do we believe in, if we say that we believe in money far too strongly?

A sentence that is often uttered as criticism of our pursuit of fame, power and – money is the following: We believe in money far too strongly. However, is it actually correct to say that we believe in money? Do we really believe in money?


We believe far too strongly that everyone else believes in it, too.

Did the example with the measurement of the apple tree and the pear tree not demonstrate that we do not believe in the measuring system itself but rather in its acceptance by everyone else? – General acceptance means exactly the following: It is not only me as an isolated individual that uses, accepts or believes in something, there must be a sort of community that uses, accepts and believes in the same ways as I do. Thus, when we say that we believe in money far too strongly, we actually mean something else. We mean that we believe far too strongly, that everyone else believes in this belief, too.


The more everyone believes that the others believe in this belief too, the more credible money is.

In times of a banking crisis, this belief completely changes. We can no longer believe that everyone else believes in this belief, too.


So, the value of a banknote consists in its success of evoking and maintaining everyone’s belief that everyone else believes in this belief, too.


What are the elements on a banknote that try to evoke and maintain this belief?

(1.) First, there is the denomination expressed in large numerals indicating that what I have in my hands is an amount of units that refers to a measuring system. The denomination guarantees that we all speak the same language when dealing with a banknote.


(2.) Second, there is the signature of an institution, attesting that this measuring system is a generally accepted one. The signature indicates that everyone connected to the institution uses this very measuring system when measuring the value of goods in the outside world.


(3.) Third, there are various security features. They try to support my belief that the banknote I am holding is genuine. But, what exactly is meant by the genuineness or originality of a banknote? It means that the note was not produced by a counterfeiting single individual but by a public institution that – again – is something generally accepted.

This evocation is made in a visual language that is always cultural.

I am a typically European type of person. I think in a European way and believe in a European way. My thoughts and my beliefs are connected to my European culture. The attempt to support my belief that everyone else in my society believes in this belief too, cannot ignore my cultural background. In fact, the evocation of the belief must be made in a language developed within that culture and the time I am living in. Otherwise, I might not understand the evocation.


Just as there are countless cultures, there are also different visual languages leading to different banknote designs.

There are countless other cultures among which the European culture vanishes. So, there are also countless ways of evoking the belief that everyone else believes in this belief. And maybe, this is the reason why banknotes differ from one country to another.


The belief that a banknote evokes is claimed to be continuous…

A belief that everyone in my society believes in this belief too, is constituted by two aspects:

(1.) First: I believe that my belief is shared by others. In short: I believe that my belief is independent of space.

(2.) Second: I believe that tomorrow both I and the others in my society will still have the same belief. In short: I believe that my belief is independent of time.

Thus, I believe in a certain spatiotemporal continuity of my belief.


…whereas the cultural language wherein it is evoked is not.

Culture is something that depends on time and space: Culture changes when generations change and culture changes if we change locations and travel to another place in the world. Culture and its language are far from being something spatiotemporally continuous.


The continuity of a belief must be made in a language that is not continuous at all.

The evocation of the belief's continuity must be made in an appropriate cultural language that isn’t continuous at all. The visual language that tries to convince me that the belief is a continuous one is not continuous itself because the cultural vocabulary changes in space and time. 


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