Trust in a Trustless Society

In a digital world, how do we build and understand what trust means?

Posted Sep 08, 2015

Have we always been a trustless society? How did the concept of trust work in tribes, and how did it evolve in the context of cities, where millions of people interact? Now, in a global, interconnected society of billions, what does trust mean today?

Do we trust each other less now than we did 50 or 100 years ago? In our daily lives, what and who do we need to trust?

When we only dealt with others face to face, did that help build trust? Can we perceive a broader spectrum of signals when we interact in person? Might this mean we can process many more kinds of input than we might be conscious of?

When we interact only through digital media, isn’t that just data, i.e., "minimum-context information?" All the input is what has been digitized. We can't be sure who the sender is and whether the communication is "honest". How do we interpret this kind of data? What is meaningful data? Is there enough bandwidth in the signals? Critically — how relevant are old perceptions and mindsets for our protection now?

We are increasingly aware of our vulnerability in the global digital realm. Has the anonymity of digital communications made it easier now for some of us to bend our moral compass? What about cyber-bullying, spamming, phishing, and even outright identity theft? We've even had to add new vocabulary words to describe these activities.

Technology, like every tool invented by man, is always a double-edged sword. Its power can and will be harnessed for good and for evil. Convenience delivered to an honest user is a backdoor shortcut for a dishonest one. Especially in digital communications networks, it appears that the "bad guys" are more advanced than the "good guys." They also have a massive advantage in that they need just one point of weakness in the entire ecosystem of networks, while the good guys are tasked to protect every user and every connection against attacks that can be totally unknown in nature. Cyber security experts validate what our common sense tells us — this is an impossible task. Networks in every country are under constant attack. Villains are now organized groups of very smart, technical and business-minded folks who have made it their ambition to destroy our sense of trust. Of course, they don't see the situation that way. They are simply taking what they want, without regard to laws or moral principles. Why? Because it's easy to do. The risk of being caught and punished is very low. Our fear feeds their egos.

If the bad guys have inherent advantages in their ability to harm us individually and collectively, what can we do? If we are forced to admit we can't trust anyone, how can we organize our social structures, including government, financial institutions, healthcare, so we can protect ourselves? Clearly, we have to accept this responsibility for ourselves. No one else can or will take care of us.

Trusted communications are critical. If I call you on the phone, claiming to be a friend of yours, but my voice doesn't sound right, won't you be suspicious? How can a unique identifier be built into digital communications, so I can be perceived as who I really am?

Industry experts claim “the Internet is broken!” In many ways, this is true. The Internet as we know it grew out of market forces. There was little strategic thinking or discussion about possible ramifications because few among us, aside from a handful of futurists, imagined what we take for granted and can look forward to in the coming years. There was very little international cooperation. In hindsight, it’s easy to think of many questions that should have been asked a long time ago.

As there is now a digital record of almost every aspect of every move we make, literally, these questions are just beginning to be asked. In just one year, how much data about us will be available? To whom? How might it be used, to benefit or harm us? How can we claim ownership of our own data? How can we protect the veracity of our data? Do we have any idea of what all this means? Are we going to accept one common position — “Privacy is dead, get over it”?

The fundamental issue is: how do I know what and who to trust?