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Trust, a disappearing commodity?

Who or what can you trust?

When you eat your steak or your hamburger, do you wonder if in fifteen to twenty years you will be struck down by some nasty bug that scientists swore couldn't be transmitted from cows to human beings? Can you trust what is served up on your plate? The other day Kraft Suchard had to withdraw its stock of Toblerone from shops because they "discovered" it contained genetically modified soya which is (temporarily) illegal in Switzerland. Can a company trust its suppliers? When your surgeon announces you need an operation or that a caesarean is necessary, are you sure he's not simply increasing his monthly income at your expense? Recent statistics indicate that a strikingly high percentage of people in Switzerland, compared with certain other countries, have had one or another part of themselves removed by a kindly doctor.

Who or what can we trust? Is this just rampant paranoia? Or are dominant materialist interests such that the importance of our well being and our physical integrity is quite insignificant? Some twenty years ago, when the French were considering going over to nuclear power so as to be independent of Arab oil sources, it was argued in full page adverts that nuclear power would be cheaper, cleaner and more reliable. It predictably turned out to be none of them. Did the experts of Electicité de France really believe what they were saying? Can we trust what experts tell us when the very fact of being an expert implies they have a vested interest in defending such a point of view? In comparison, wondering whether you can trust the Internet when sending your credit card details appears somewhat trivial - at least on a personal level, even if general distrust would be disastrous for world commerce.

Trust in commerce

To be able to commerce (in the broadest sense of the word) there has to be trust on both sides. What exactly do we mean when we say we trust someone or something? That he, she or it will live up to the promises made or the expectations created, whether that be to keep a secret, to send some goods, to be reliable or to be what he, she or it pretends to be. "Trusting" is having the necessary confidence to believe that these conditions will be fulfilled when we can only be sure later, if ever.

To insist that trust is essentially a technical or regulatory problem as far as Internet services are concerned is misleading. Trust has to do with perceptions and relationships. Why do people trust the postal service and the letter as a safe way of sending a message? In absolute terms it is probably no safer than sending an e-mail message. Yet people trust it more.

Perceptions and commonly held beliefs are the keys to building or loosing confidence and trust. The major problem is that, as a new system with an apparently different logic, creating confidence in the use of the Internet to exchange and commerce with others is absolutely necessary if it is to be taken up and widely used. Unfortunately, changing beliefs and ways of working that are deeply anchored in society is slower than the evolution of the tools we use. On the other hand, new tools will simply not be used if potential users haven't got confidence in them. So either the speed of social change will put a brake on the helter skelter of technological development or ways and means need to be found to precipitate social change. Or - and this seems the most likely outcome - society will split into two distinct parts: the users and the non-users. That wouldn't be a problem if it weren't that many apparently essential activities are likely to be available exclusively to users.

It is revealing to see things from this point of view. Dealing with security and privacy questions in the case of the Internet - whether these be done technically or by regulation - then appear first and foremost to be strategies aimed at creating sufficient confidence to allow wide-scale migration to its use and as such need not be a hundred percent fool-proof. Secondly, if there is not widespread confidence in the use of these toools then society is likely to be split in two by the advent of the Information Society. Yet, in seeking to create confidence, is it wise to set aside the misgivings of so many people as being totally unfounded?

Selling rare stuff

Has trust become a disappearing commodity? Economists preach that scarcity is a prerequisite for a product to be marketable. If everybody has access to something for free then who would be silly enough to pay for it! If trust is becoming rare, then companies can step in and sell it, provided, of course, that they can by trusted themselves! This is what e-trust are doing. With the backing of organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which are supposedly seen as free of vested commercial interests and therefore trustworthy, they sell trust. This is done by a process involving auditing web sites according to certain criteria and providing a "seal of guarantee". Additional control is done by the Internet community itself which is invited to report any breach of trust. The outcome, however, remains unclear. What will be the impact on public confidence in such purveyors of trust when they become financially dependant on those they are supposed to certify as trust-worthy?

Behind the veils of trust

Trust is absolutely essential for all human exchange. The difficulty is that trust depends on there being a delicate balance between self-assertiveness and collaboration. This natural order has been disturbed by the prevalence given to competition in human affairs. Following Darwin with his idea of the survival of the fittest, commerce is one-sidedly seen as a battle in which the best wins. But the "best" at what? Fitness in commerce is measured almost exclusively in terms of the capacity to accumulate material riches, not in terms of appropriateness to a "larger order of things".

Pressingly or insidiously, we are invited to trust the doctor, the technician, the scientist, the politician, the journalist, the police, the judge, the architect, the local official, the salesman,... and a whole host of tools and commodities. Yet careful consideration of arguments - if they can be called such - put forward in favour of trusting these people or the things they sell often turn out to be based on very partial and far from impartial visions of the world. Underlying considerations set in a more general perspective are generally shunned by those who seek our trust ...

Alan McCluskey

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey, info@connected.org
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Created: April 17th, 1997 - Last up-dated: April 17th, 1997