Trust and utility

This Freeman Dyson article/review at the New York Review Of Books has many interesting points in it, and the new James Gleick book it discusses sounds like a title I’ll need to get my hands on at some point (his biography of Richard Feynman is a fascinating work). But there was a pair of sentences that really just leapt out at me, and I offer them here without further comment (but with a little emphasis):

Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible.

5 thoughts on “Trust and utility”

  1. “Meaning is irrelevant” only if you treat information as a mathematical abstraction. There are also a few logical conflations in that article hidden in the smoothness of the prose.

  2. I really like that thought: “Distrust and productive use are not incompatible.” Of course, it implies that one should always approach any information with some skepticism and a willingness to double check the facts asserted.

    When I read coverage of subjects I know a lot about — whether on Wikipedia or in the NY Times or in a hundred other places — I frequently find holes. So I always try to double check anything important in fields I don’t know much about.

    I’m looking forward to the article — I always find both Dyson and Gleick worth reading. Thanks for pointing it out.

  3. Actually, the scope of the sentence can easily be extended to the whole internet. You could even push it further, to include most interactions between humans. The categories of these which require complete trust to be useful/interesting for the participants are quite few, and all seem to belong to a small subset of interactions where trust is an inherent part of the reward (e.g., friendship or love). Commerce, for instance, does not require trust.

  4. “Commerce, for instance, does not require trust.”

    Except, an unfrozen functioning financial system that is necessary to support a robust economy does in fact require trust, and we’ve seen in spades the economic destruction and stagnation that occurs when there is a systemic breakdown in trust between financial entities, entities who continue to play hot-potato with silos brimming with toxic assets.

    There is also an ambient implicit layer of trust that maintains the fabric of society, which in Western academia is called the social contract. Whenever we accept a piece of elaborately decorated tree bark + cotton with the busts of dead presidents atop in exchange for some valued good or service of ours, we’re subtextually reaffirming the trust that that utility-wise worthless piece of paper has *potential* utility to us in the future, that is, we trust that we’ll be able to exchange that dollar or shekel or yen elsewhere for goods and services of equal value. We trust that our fellow players of the game of society are not all going to cheat at acquiring goods / services or said symbols of value through unfair and underhanded means, such as theft, or financial fraud. In Egypt, if you want to acquire a driver’s license, you must pay a bribe. If you want to see your child at the hospital, you must pay a bribe. Corruption is rampant. The trust in society that weaves together the fabric of the social contract had frayed under the Mubarak regime as people no longer believed that they were getting a fair shake, and thus they had the impetus for the upheaval and regime change. There is an ever present umbra of cynicism and latent distrust in the US towards the government and corporations, albeit often from different sides of the left-right spectrum . However since the 2008 meltdown, as the bubble-bandage papering over the cancerous underbelly of shadow finance has been violently ripped off and exposed for what it is, the gradual erosion of the belief in the “shining light on the hill” of *America, the American Dream, the promise of equal opportunity and the possibility of rags to riches has begun to wear away at the fabric of the star spangled banner.

    Not only in personal friendships and romantic relationships is trust necessary. Trust is instrumental in business relationships. If a consumer does not trust a corporation, or if that company’s reputation is damaged, such as Firestone’s or Toyota’s after their respective mass recalls, then that company’s business loses out. The very DNA of business that is supply chains are built on trust: any sane and moderately intelligent businessman does not continue to work with a supplier / employee if they can’t be trusted to deliver quality consistently. In our post-industrial — but not yet post-trust — society, you can’t feed your family unless you prove yourself trustworthy enough to your boss. Trust is the glue that holds the cogs of civilization together and the grease that allows the engine’s pistons to operate. We’d do well not to remember that.

    *The UK of course is not exempt, most recently illustrated by Barclays, who payed a criminal %1 in corporate tax while the public sector faces 20% “austerity” cuts.

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