As the leaders of some of the richest and most powerful countries on Earth convene in Davos for a three-day summit Trust, or rather the lack of it, is high on the agenda. So, how did we get to this state? How have we managed to scale the heights of technological innovation, reach the verge of being able to casually travel in space (not yet, but it will happen), fly across the globe at three times the speed of sound (which will be available faster than casual spaceflight), digitally teleport ourselves anywhere through the miracle of teleconferencing (from Skype to Hangouts, Hangouts on Air to GoToMeeting) and seamlessly work across time zones and country borders from our devices, without also building trust?
In truth, across our world, trust is both at its highest and lowest levels than ever before. We are more willing to trust strangers, share dreams, ideas and opinions with people we cannot see and have never seen before and less willing than ever to trust the critical institutions that run the infrastructure of our world. We are unwilling to trust governments and large organizations. We are suspicious of brands and corporations. We are unwilling to pay attention to elected leaders and even religion is suffering.
“Only Tribes held together by a group feeling can survive in a desert.”
How can this paradox be reconciled in a way that helps restore our faith in what is happening? How can it be made to make sense so that it does not become the reason we lose the will to carry on?
Ibn Khaldun,the 14th century Arab thinker and one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, historiography, demography, and economics once said that “Only Tribes held together by a group feeling can survive in a desert.” He was making the point of social cohesion in small groups where trust grows implicitly through the unacknowledged acceptance of known strengths and weaknesses and shared expectations.
This is an important point because the mighty cables of social trust which become the anchoring points that hold all of our institutions together, start life as tiny tendrils of trust extended from one person to another within a small, tightly-knit group. That setting is the proving ground that trust works which then allows us to extend it confidently outwards to the world.
Trust then does two things: First it allows us to mitigate risk by assessing the potential for disaster. We used to trust governments and institutions because we felt that using the entire monolithic structure at their disposal to hoodwink us, as individuals, was something that was unlikely to happen. The small gain they’d make from such an effort was unlikely to bring a return sizeable enough to justify it.
Second, it helps us simplify the world we are in. A world in which we can easily extend trust is one that is friendly, forgiving and generally amiable. It allows to go through life on autopilot, without worrying that behind every corner there will be an enemy hiding and around every curve there will be danger that needs to be faced and overcome.
Trust then allows us to optimize the resources of time and energy we have at our disposal which then enables us to work towards things that have meaning greater than survival. Works of art, music, literature, cities, social order and civilizations do not arise out of low-trust environments.
We have. Our higher degree of connectivity has broken the traditional compartmentalized silence we’d been held in. When we can freely communicate with each other and compare notes we can see that the individual failings of the institutions we used to trust are actually universal.
We can see that the assumptions we made about the mechanisms we put in place that help run the world for us, are fundamentally flawed. So what we considered the bastions of our world, the very things that gave it structure, without the anchoring points of trust have now become our enemies. Banks and money institutions, for instance, are now seen working almost exclusively for their benefit rather than ours. Governments and large organizations have become self-serving instruments that no longer reflect our wishes.
In contrast, individuals, strangers scattered round the world, answering to different creeds, speaking different languages and having different belief systems, close up become people. Just like us. The similarities we observe in them adding yet another lie to the differences that traditionally those in authority have focused on in order to keep us apart.
So, where do we go from here? As the Davos agenda suggests “business as usual” is not going to cut it. In order for trust to be rebuilt we need tangible processes marked by:
Transparency that allows us no opportunity to demand that things are put right gets us nowhere. Empowerment has no purpose if we lack the ability to see where we should exercise our new-found voice. We are still tribes. But now we are bigger than ever before. The 21st century is going to be one interesting place.