Trust is when you can rely on an entity to behave in a certain way in a given relationship. This can be based on varying degrees of evidence of the reliability of the entity, ranging from none at all (effectively just faith) to decades of shared experience. Trust is important because it allows us, to an extent, to engage in interactions with another entity without having to constantly be suspicious of their motivations and intentions. Without trust, it is reasonable to predict a greater degree of social friction as entities require proof of motivation/intention at each interaction, because if you cannot trust the other side then you must put greater weight on the possibility that they are acting maliciously.
Trust can be broken down based on context. For example, you may trust an acquaintance to watch your backpack while you go to the bathroom but not trust them with your feelings about your boss. You may trust a corporation to provide quality items, but not trust their support team. You may trust people on the road to not ram your car with theirs, but not trust them to actually drive your car. All of this however still falls under the general rule of relying on other to not act maliciously – we can label this societal trust. This root form of trust can be applied to literally everything in society that requires interaction with other conscious entities. We also have a second root form of trust that is built upon physical laws and mathematical relationships: 1+1=2, the energy output of sun in relation to the amounts of its component elements, the behaviour of compounds when subjected to various conditions. Many of the thing that fall under this form of trust can also be readily verified by any given individual with sufficient education. This form of trust grows and primarily undergoes revisions instead of retractions as we accumulate more evidence – we can call it logical trust for now.
Generally speaking, trust is straightforward – we have sufficient information about many things in our daily lives to be able to trust them. There is one big problem with societal trust however – often we are interacting with other humans, where matters are not necessarily as ironclad as trusting that 1+ 1 = 2 or that the sun will rise in the morning. Humans are subject to a wide variety of variables that can influence our behaviour, and even having information about finance, education, cultural background, etc. can be completely thrown off by emotional or character issues. It is not difficult for a human to conceal or manipulate information either, throwing into question the validity of the information much more readily than with logical trust. If it would be advantageous for an entity composed of humans to act maliciously, then it must be assumed that they will and plans must be made accordingly or the interaction completely cancelled. This would make life significantly more difficult – there are a lot of interactions in our day to day lives, and having to do this for every single one of them would get exhausting very quickly. It is also important to note that many people do not think about trust in the first place and instead blindly accept whatever information they are given, which is not only dangerous for them but can also have an adverse impact on others around them. In some situations, there may be no choice but to trust the other even if the other entity behaving maliciously would have disastrous effects. Thus, societal trust brings along with it the necessity of laws and enforcement.
Laws and Enforcement
Laws serve to discourage malicious behaviour, by providing codified rules as well as civil and criminal procedures for seeking redress and delivering punishment. They can reduce the difficulty of developing trust by heavily discouraging available actions and increasing the probability that the entity you are interacting with is not acting maliciously. They are the sledgehammer to the slap on the wrist of being ostracized, which is especially important given how much easier movement is these days. You cannot simply move to a new city and begin acting maliciously again without anyone knowing your history if you got thrown in jail the first time. Of course, these laws may also impinge upon personal freedom, but that in many cases is not due to preventing malicious behaviour but instead the enforcement of personal moral codes upon others or the pursuit of personal agendas – which is a whole essay in of itself. Suffice to say that laws do have a place in a society and are to an extent necessary, in spite of what some extreme libertarians/anarchists may wish. There also must be a mechanism in place to enforce those laws, thus the need for police. There are many problems with police today but that does not invalidate the original need, just our implementation. Laws and enforcement must equally apply to those who write the laws and those who enforce them, else abuse is effectively guaranteed to occur.
It must be acknowledged that laws and enforcement do not prevent malicious actions – they simply decrease the probability in any given interaction of an entity behaving maliciously and thus lower the trust barrier. There is a trade-off between maximizing impact of a law and the actual benefits of that law, especially because some laws may affect personal lives and liberty without actually accomplishing their stated objectives.
Industrial regulations are critical. Not just from a theoretical point of view – there are plenty of examples throughout history of companies behaving in a manner detrimental to consumers, and when it comes to safety regulations there is the saying “safety regulations are written in blood”. Some argue that regulation is bad – it can be. If the entities being regulated are able to influence the regulations, then the purpose of regulations cannot be fulfilled. This is called regulatory capture, and is why transparency is critical. Without information about the influences acting upon a regulatory body, it is impossible in any way, even legislatively, to trust that body.
However this does not invalidate the necessity of regulations. Those who say that the market will act to push out bad actors greatly overestimate the availability of information to and the mentality of the average consumer, not to mention that consumers cannot vote with their wallets until at least one of them has experienced the product and disseminated the feedback. The question is, how many people dying or being maimed is an acceptable threshold to say the market was too slow? Regulations learn and apply preemptive measures to prevent future events in a codified manner. Consumer memory cannot be relied upon as readily. This applies to any area of the economy.
There have been two incidents in particular recently involving international relations where I feel a discussion of trust would be relevant. First, the situation with HuaWei. Second, tech workers protesting company involvement in military projects.
The United States does not wish HuaWei hardware to be used in either its facilities or the facilities of its allies because it does not trust HuaWei. This is perfectly valid and in fact should extend to all foreign companies in all aspects of government and infrastructure, potentially excluding companies tied to our allies. Beijing cannot be trusted at all – their mindset and objectives are opposed to that of Washington, and their style of governance is fundamentally at odds to that which most Americans ascribe to the country. It must be noted that Beijing is already known to be behind cyberattacks on American companies. The same goes for Moscow, although there may not be any Russian companies supplying hardware and software to the US. Even if HuaWei is not directly influenced by Beijing, even American companies defer to Beijing when it comes to their products – is it so unreasonable to assume that a company actually based in China would be even more malleable to the wishes of Beijing? There is no defense HuaWei can use here.
This also applies to our society at large – while outsourcing labour has brought cheap consumer goods and in many ways has benefited innovation (especially the availability and variety of hardware components), it has also put American supply lines in danger. It is impractical to inspect every piece of hardware imported (even if it was done with occasional random spot checks). The only way to ensure integrity is to have products produced by those you can oversee and regulate. This applies both to the integrity of the product itself and the security of the transport chain.
American Tech and the Military
There have been several instances of American tech workers protesting the involvement of their company in military contracts. This includes Google with Project Maven and Microsoft with HoloLens.
In each instance, there is the concern that the tech companies are endorsing and assisting in killing. Now, to be fair, generally speaking we want to minimize killing. The problem is that it may be unavoidable. This is a case of better to have and not need than to need and not have. We cannot guarantee that at some point we will not be engaged in physical conflict with Moscow or Beijing. If we hold back our military development because killing is bad, then if we end up in a conflict with those that had no such compunctions we will lose. There are concerns about usage of tech for civilian oppression – this is a legislative issue, not a tech issue. The tech is already out there, and even if America did not develop it there is no guarantee that Russia or China would not either. Refusing to help the military improve their tech can only harm the nation. For those who want to effect change, pursue legislative means. Establish laws, transparency, and civilian oversight. But do not cripple the only means of defense because if there should come a day when it is needed and found wanting, moral concerns will be rather irrelevant.
Problems with Trust
Trust brings with it significant overhead that must either be accounted for at an individual or societal level. This overhead also brings with it the potential for abuse, requiring additional overhead to combat. With any system, it is always advisable to find ways to reduce this overhead. In hardware, special materials and designs are used to harden components, instead of relying solely on redundant measures. In software, compile-time guarantees can greatly reduce run-time costs and developer time expenditure. Building a system that reduces uncertainty is always more effective in the long run.
This principle should also be applied to our society. We must investigate ways to design social systems to reduce the need for trust. I believe this can in part be accomplished by shifting production and governance to be as local as possible, both physically and in terms of the people in charge. There are of course instances where this may not be possible: specialized production such as chemical manufacturing, or social/legislative issues that require national coordination. Analysis is required to determine in which specific areas and to what degree localization would be viable. Critically, this analysis must in no way involve moral or personal judgments – the only considerations must be ones of practicality and logistics, as quantifiable as possible. In the future, I plan to take a look at various areas and take a crack at such an analysis.
This may also apply to international relations. Currently, international trade can be used as a weapon in the form of sanctions, tariffs, etc. as well as providing potential security risks. Localized production does not have these issues – if nations were independent of each other except for trade in luxuries, then trade relations are no longer as relevant to politics or military concerns. I will talk more about localization, its benefits, and how I think we can get there in future posts.