Don’t Trust Talk of Trust

cameron tonkinwise
Jun 26, 2014 · 10 min read

You all know this. The moment someone says, ‘Trust me,’ whether it’s your lover or the President, but especially if it’s a corporation, your BS-detectors engage. We intuit that values are things you enact, not things you should need to declare.

But there are lots of declarations about trust these days. And increasingly designers are joining this talk, partly as they make contributions to the project of social innovation, both on the intractable societal problem side and the ‘collaborative consumption’ platform opportunity side. This should make you really suspicious though. Can you design trust? Can you even design for trust?

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“Wouldn’t it be better if we all just trusted each other more?” When you live in a world filled with wickedly complex problems, simple solutions are tempting, especially ones that seem to involve flicking a switch in people’s minds — no need to restructure our built environments, reform our how our societies distribute resources, or deal with the legacy of centuries of unsustainability and inequity. “Sure, it will take effort for people to change their mindsets, but the solution lies within each one of us, with that infinite resource — individual will-power.”

At this level, trust is a bit like a religion. It is perhaps true that some new uber-religion could bind us all together in ways that compel us to get on with each other in all our differences, including our non-human earth companions. You can even design that religion (as some deep ecologists have attempted). The problem is in getting people to believe in the religion — and not just at the level of ‘this is a good thing to believe in,’ but at the level of lived value, an unquestioned background to every undertaking, an ethos. The gap between the design and getting it used, getting used to it, is unfathomable. As Nietzsche I think once said, “It is one thing to build a temple, another to get a god to come dwell in it.”

Is this what people are after when they extol the value of ‘trust’? Do they want the equivalent of a religion, a shared unconscious that exists as a total, unquestioned faith?

One of the paradigmatic instances of trust is supposedly a couple’s loving relation. That love exists as fidelity to each other. To be together in love is to trust each other, to let your lover be their own self (love is not ownership) yet never doubt that how your lover is themself always also entails faithful loving of you.

As we may all know from experience, the moment the word ‘trust’ arises between a couple is the moment trust is no longer able to be taken for granted, the moment it begins to cease to exist. To say, ‘I trust you,’ is therefore almost unavoidably a lie: to have to say it is to no longer be doing it.

So trust in this setting seems to exist only when it is not discernibly there, not spoken of or even thought of. Fidelity just is how the relationship is practiced. At best trust is a retrospective account of what was happening, a summary of how you were in the relationship. Trusting your lover is why ‘love b(l)inds.’

Trust is then very paradoxical even in this exemplary situation. Because of trust, there is openness. But because there is openness — to your lover’s freedom, including the possibility that trust is misplaced, that your lover might be unfaithful — there is trust. It is wrong to equate trust with the certainty of religious faith. There must be risk for trust to be there. Trust is instead not feeling the need to contemplate the risk that must nevertheless still be a possibility.

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Russell Hardin, one of the leading philosophers/sociologists of trust, defines trust in a necessarily convoluted way via the idea of “encapsulated interest.” I trust you when I have reason to believe that you will do what is in my interest; not because it is in your interest — this is just the loose coupling of separate self-interests — but because my interests are encapsulated in your interests: you have my interests as your interests. As Hardin notes, this mostly happens when you want to maintain a relationship with me — as a lover, friend, neighbor or client. I trust you because I have reason to believe that you value me as a (social) person.

But in this regard, you start to wonder if the notion of ‘trust’ is actually adding anything here. What is actually going on are social relations, people valuing other people as the individuals they are. It is not like trust is something other than those social relations. At the risk of sounding like a Thatcherite, trust is a bit like ‘society,’ an abstraction capturing the outcome of other kinds of more individualized and material activities. Trust is a practice, not a value.

For instance, note the distinction between ‘trust to do x’ and ‘trustworthiness.’ Trust is not only an evaluation of someone’s value set, but also an assessment of their instrumental capacity. There are plenty of people who I consider trustworthy but would never lend my Spanish espresso coffee machine to, just because I know that they do not know how to handle its idiosyncratic complexity. The latter is perhaps readily fixable — some training sessions.

The real question is whether the former is perhaps also fixable by the same solution. Do I care if you are trustworthy or not if I can trust that you know how to use my coffee machine? Well only if I am strongly materialistic about my possessions and believe that the risk is not getting it back rather than you using it incorrectly. I worry that a lot of talk of trust has the conceptual frame of reinforcing consumerist materialism. The truth is that whilst I am addicted to my coffee machine, I have no attachment to this one. If you stole it after I lent it to you, I would not be emotionally wounded, just pissed off that I would be without coffee for a couple of days while I took delivery of another $1500 coffee machine. (You see, trust and materialism cannot avoid structural economic privilege — more later.)

If there is a trust issue I have in lending my neighbor my car, it is not with my neighbor, but with my insurance company, who I have no doubt does not have my interest as their interest and would use my car lending as a reason to make it difficult for me to get car-based mobility in the future should my neighbor crash my car.

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So trust often seems to me to be an overly inter-personalized version of evaluations of (in)convenience in a harried world. Sharing economy systems, when well designed, do not so much enable trust, as make cooperation more convenient.

I am not talking here about digital system that claim to enable trust-building or trustworthiness evaluating systems. In fact, I am trying to explain why I think that they are wrongheaded. To enable trust they often begin to betray what trust is all about — an ability to tolerate risk:

- If I establish complete knowledge about you (to predict your behavior, or even real-time surveillance of your behavior), it is not trust anymore, just social engineering

- If I compel you to do as I wish (disciplining your behavior, or indicating that I have the capacity to discipline you), it is not trust but control

- If I establish systems of complete restitution should you not do as I wish (insurance), I can afford to move trust into risk management

It is not for no reason that the final word on surveillance, by exploitative corporations or undemocratic government agencies, is, ‘trust us.’

I actually also think that ‘trust’ platforms are dangerous. What goes through your head when a sharing site for instance shows you a profile of a stranger so that you can make an assessment of their trustworthiness? You are trying to see things in someone’s profile that you recognize and so can extrapolate from. You are seeing if there are things that they like that you like, so that you can work out how alike you are, so that you make a prediction about whether they will behave like you. You are actually making a kind of aesthetic judgement, an evaluation of what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu used to call someone’s ‘taste regime.’ You are trying to find ‘people like you.’ Which is why trusting is often the nice word for a gated community, an exclusive religion.

It is worth recalling the point made by Russell Hardin again, and his colleagues Margaret Levi and Karen Cook, that one of the values of capitalism was that it enabled Cooperation without Trust. It is a bit of myth, but the story says that exchange relations based on abstract measures like money backed by the rule of law were what allowed people to move from villages where everyone knew everybody else to cities where they did not. The great thing about money-based capitalism, it is claimed, is that I can walk, as a stranger, into any shop in the world and buy what I need (so long as I have money).

It is true that when everywhere becomes this sort of commodified non-place, I might yearn for ‘third places’ where ‘people know my name.’ But in that case, I am looking for cheers, not trust.

It should also be remembered by advocates of ‘trust-restoring sharing economies’ that those kinds of communities can be quite claustrophobic, and xenophobic. In the story of the origin of capitalism that Karl Polanyi tells, The Great Transformation from localist gemeinschaft to capitalistic gesellschaft was about pursuing greater freedom though at the necessary cost of greater risk. ‘Sharing economy’ advocates should remember that this is what they are up against.

As I just noted however, this is most likely a fable — see David Graeber’s deconstruction of the claim that money is just a natural evolution of barter for more complex systems of exchange: it is rather part of historically specific forms of military-backed imperialism. For the purposes of what I am arguing here, this history means that there never was some moment in our collective past of harmonious trusting-ness.

It also means that I am not sure that historical ‘social values’ surveys that claim that we all are less trusting of each other these days are very significant. These studies are based on a third type of ‘trust’ — if the first is trustworthiness of particular people’s character, and the second the more functional version of whether particular people can be trusted to do X or Y — what is sometimes called ‘generalized trust.’ Surveys about whether people think the world or its key institutions are ‘in general’ (still) trustworthy suffer self-reporting biases. People always think that everyone else is less trustworthy while they themselves are still as trustworthy as ever.

One the things these kinds of value-based approaches to trust do indicate is that people who more readily trust others find more evidence that others are also trustworthy — whereas paranoid people have a confirmation bias toward rare stories of people who take advantage of those who trust — and that trusting people also tend to be more trustworthy.

More likely than a historical drift away from the period when people were more trusting and trustworthy is the fact that it is harder these days to deliver on a our promises. It is not that we are all meaner, but rather that in most cases we no longer have the means to do as we mean to do.

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And this is the crucial point.

If trust is a practice, or the abstract outcome certain everyday practices, then the problem — if there is one — is not that we are less trusting but that we are less able to do the sorts of practices that amount to trusting.

Much of the problem for instance, especially when it comes to organizations, is that we have to have multiple encapsulated interests — the families who depend on our income, the colleagues who depend on our collaboration, the share-holders who depend on our productivity, the customers who depend on our service (and these are all just the obligations associated with being regular employee in a commercial business; the obligations increase if you also trying to create alternative futures). It is just not possible to create this much, or this much balanced, ‘shared value.’ It is not that we are less trusting or trustworthy, but that we are not able to be multi-trust-fulfilling.

Again, the issue is less about attitudes and values and the decline of civilization, and more about practices and the structures that frame those practices. It is a matter of our built environment design — how much travel we have to do to fulfill someone’s trust in us, for example. It is a matter of societal resource distribution — how much money I have to buy a replacement should an accident happen, how much education I have been able to buy to make me look like you so that you feel alright about lending me your car to go to a job interview.

If you stop thinking about trust as a value, and instead think of it as the outcome of practices, then and only then does it become something designers could and should be involved in.

So let’s have ‘trust talk,’ but let’s talk more about the designs that enable and inhibit certain kinds of practices (you could call them conventions or rituals, if you want to preserve something of ‘trust talk’). And let’s talk more about systems that multiply unsustainably the commitments we must make whilst depleting our material resources to fulfill those commitments.


This is a somewhat summary of a paper about Design and Sharing Systems.

    cameron tonkinwise

    Written by

    (post)sustainable service systems, (post)critical design thinking, contemporary (post)classical music, bemoaner of US (post)politics - http://t.co/F7elOTDg

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