Friday, November 27, 2009

Trust me, I'm a blogger

Apparently, the pope doesn't approve of the Twilight series of books and movies. The Vatican feels it's morally unhealthy for millions of teenage girls to be lusting after soulless monsters.

The only person I know who's seen the latest movie agrees that His Holiness has a point. Vampires have always had erotic undertones, from Dracula to Buffy, but at least they had the decency to remain undertones and subplots in an Epic Tale of Heroic Resistance to Ancient Supernatural Evil. Whereas Twilight, from what I hear, has abandoned most everything but the sex.

Of course, vanishingly few teenage girls are likely to care what some decrepit crossdresser thinks of their favourite soft-porn fix. The pope still carries some influence, but not as much as he'd probably like. Which brings me to today's ramble.

There was a report on Slashdot the other day of a survey that said that more than one-third of employees surveyed (in Canary Wharf and Wall Street) would sell confidential customer data, if the price was right. Of course the penalties for that sort of thing are pretty stiff, and it's unlikely they'd ever be offered enough to offset those. But it's still preying on my mind.

It seems to me that there's been a sharp drop in trust. And with trust goes loyalty.

It's not so much that, once, we would have "trusted" bankers to be honest. Really we had no choice. Bankers - like butchers, bakers, priests, auto mechanics, lawyers, computer programmers, farmers, manufacturers of everything from airliners to zip fasteners - most everyone, in fact - did their work, or at least the important bits of it, behind firmly closed, opaque and soundproof doors. Even journalists, those apostles of openness and transparency, kept their own work to themselves.

Now all that has changed.

Take itemised billing. We got into the habit of checking our bills. And occasionally there would be a mistake - not often, but it seemed often enough to make it worth the trouble. Banks and credit cards led the way, followed by phone companies, shops, restaurants, professional services, hotels... slowly but surely, we reached the point where nobody just says "That'll be four hundred and seventeen dollars thirty-two, please" any more. We get itemised bills... and we're expected, nay, actively encouraged to check them.

The Internet has spread this 'doublecheck' attitude to all walks of life. Now you're considered a chump if you believe a news report, without cross-checking. You're supposed to check prices before shopping for anything that costs more than groceries. Check reviews of consumer goods, movies, hotels. Follow every link. What we get then is a barrel of conflicting reports. And none of them is authoritative, because what we've done now is to reject the very idea of authority. We don't trust anyone to tell us "the truth".

All of which is just the way we thought we wanted it. We're all economically rational beings in pursuit of the perfect information that will enable us to make the optimum decisions about how to use our resources. We're all smart enough to make our own decisions - aren't we?

But now we don't expect the truth, most people have given up even the pretence. Politicians and corporations openly talk about "spinning". Journalists increasingly disclaim responsibility for the truth of what they say. With the notable exception of FOX News, most media make some effort or pretence to tell "the truth" - but the best they ever manage, the best they can ever manage, is what we've learned to call "spin": a single view of "the truth", which may make perfect sense within itself, yet still look entirely different when seen from a different angle.

And so the "perfect information" that, economic theory says, we need to make our decisions, is more elusive than ever. The people qualified to make decisions are the ones who not only have, but also understand, all this information. Authority figures. The very people whose advice we no longer trust.

Even this could work, in theory. Instead of letting the professionals get on with their work, we watch them with the intensity of a child watching an ice-cream cone being filled. Unfortunately, also like the child, we have only a very superficial understanding of what the cone is being filled with. This doesn't matter to the child, because she trusts the ice-cream vendor...

What really screws us up is, as always, human nature. When someone says to you "I don't trust you, I'll be watching your every move", what's your natural reaction? Do you think of the person as a friend, one of us, someone you want to help? Or is there a part of you that starts to think: how much can I get away with, can they really tell what I'm doing anyway, damn' know-it-all prodnose...

When you treat someone as your enemy, over time, they'll start to think of themselves that way.

And yet it seems that, increasingly, that's the expectation for how we should treat one another. Employers monitor their employees' activities; and worse, that's increasingly seen as "reasonable". School-age children are told to include references and citations in their work - an undreamt-of requirement in my day, until I reached university. Parents are supposed to monitor their kids, not just outdoors, but increasingly in school, on the bus, on the Internet, you name it. In the UK now, you need to be registered on a central database if you want to work anywhere near children. In the USA, I'm told, you need to show photo ID to enter a government building.

I was listening to a BBC podcast recently, which talked about the policing of political demonstrations. Protesters complained about the practice of "kettling" - corralling people in a limited area and not letting them leave for a certain time - a practice that, not infrequently, scoops up and seriously inconveniences innocent passers-by. Then there's the practice of police systematically photographing demonstrators (try to photograph a cop, on the other hand, and you stand a good chance of being arrested on the spot).

The police superintendent wheeled out to defend the Met talked about the "small minority" of "troublemakers", whom, apparently, the police can't distinguish from the eternal "law-abiding majority". And so, he concluded, the fuzz have no choice but to treat everyone as a potential terrorist.

That officer, I thought, was missing the point in the same way I've been talking about here. By casting "police" as "us" and "protesters" as "them", the police have made their job a hundred times harder. Police are supposed to see all law-abiding people as "us"; only criminals are "them". If they didn't treat every protester as a criminal - an enemy - then maybe the protesters themselves would be more inclined to help the cops do their job.

Mistrust leads to resentment. Resentment leads to hostility. Hostility leads to enmity. The pursuit of economic rationality has led us into a deeply dysfunctional world, one in which everyone really is our enemy.

Somehow, we need to rebuild trust.

A good starting point might be to rethink what we mean by "trust".

If someone lies to us, and we know they're lying to us, does that mean we shouldn't trust them?
"What are you thinking about?"

"Oh, nothing."
There are times we choose to accept the lie, knowning full well what it is, because we trust the liar.

Catholics are familiar with this concept. They've long since accepted that the fairy-tales told in the Bible are not "true" in the strict sense of being literal descriptions of actual events as they happened. But that doesn't matter. What actually happened to a bunch of ancient Jews is not important to us, now, today: what matters is how we live our lives and bear ourselves to God, and the stories in the Bible (they believe) are the best guide to how we should do that. "Truth" is immaterial - only "faith" matters. That's what our sceptical age has forgotten.


HiStandards said...

This point of "who trusts whom and why" comes up as the root of many conversations lately. Very thoughtful post.

vet said...

Thank you, HS. I put a lot of thought into it. Came out a bit disjointed in the end, but that often happens. Thanks for bearing with me all the way through. :o)

Nodressrehearsal said...

Very though-provoking, vet. I think of myself as an above-average truster (truster?) I tend to trust until given a reason not to when it comes to personal relationships and interactions.

That said, I also consider myself to be an above-average research-focused consumer.

vet said...

NDR, I think I'm very much like you. I want to trust what I'm told, and I tend to, up to a point - but a lot always depends on what I'm being told.

I guess the most important question is: "how does s/he know that?" If there's a good answer to that question, then I'll usually believe it. Otherwise, I'll assume they're fooling themselves.