Trust, Balanced on the ‘Razor’s Edge”

For the last several weeks I have been immersed in the business of world building for the novel that I’m writing. The phrase “world building” is perhaps a bit misleading. I’ve also spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to destroy this world that I have built. A key plot point in the novel is the fragility of my constructed world. I have been busily concocting demons and monsters to bedevil my protagonists. This not a hard thing to do. I am a devout convert to the church of St. Murphy. This is an easy church; even if your faith is not that strong, things go wrong anyway. The challenge is to make them go wrong in a way that is entertaining.

This whole process has caused me to take a look at the world in which I actually live. I’ve written about trying to clean up my digital presence on the Internet, closing accounts and strengthening passwords. I’ve come to realize just how much I am forced to trust the digital world. I don’t have any ingots of precious metals stacked in my basement. What I do have are ones and zeros that are recorded in a computer located “someplace out there.” The whole thing works but in many respects it is astonishing that it does. There are millions of interlocking parts and processes that all have to function as expected to make modern life possible. I trust that there will be a steady supply of electricity and natural gas to my home. I trust there will be gasoline in the gas stations. I trust that there will be food at the grocery store that is safe and wholesome. There are so many ways that it can go wrong and so few ways that it can go right.

As a result of some of the recent changes in my life, I’ve had to get errors of omission and commission fixed. I’m not surprised that these errors occurred. I’ve lived more than long enough to have seen virtually every kind of glitch come down the line. I think it is pretty much impossible for someone aware of the world to get to be my age and not be at least somewhat cynical. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Lowering your expectations means that you’re not as disappointed so often. In general, I trust that things will work but we still verify all the statements that we receive in the expectation that some of them will require some additional attention.

All of us want some kind of stability and certainty in our lives. My late mother-in-law Alice grew up during the depression. Her family was particularly affected by the economic dislocation and she never quite fully accepted the abundance that followed. Her experience made it very difficult for her to trust the world. It had betrayed her once and there was no way to guarantee that it would not betray her again.

We all seek to explain the world and its workings in a way that makes it more certain. Some of us slip into a bunker mentality and fill up all of the storage areas with canned goods and other food staples that should last through an extended interval of unrest and incompetence. Some of us bury gold coins someplace out in the woods where the uncertainties of the world cannot not reach. Some of us turn away from the world into fellowship, family and faith. Some of adopt mythologies, both ancient and modern, in an attempt to impose order upon a disordered world. Still others assume that somehow the system will go on working well enough, if not perfectly; if it fails almost everybody will be harmed and they do not see how that could be allowed to happen. Somehow we all try to establish a perimeter around our lives that we can patrol and control in the hope that will keep the bad things away.

Trust is one of those things that is slow to build and quick to be destroyed. There are organizations that seem to be building trust at every step. My own personal example is Amazon. I order a lot of stuff from Amazon. It is apparent that they have spent a lot of time making the experience to be as good as they can possibly make it. They are not perfect. They have made mistakes. But in each case that they made a mistake, they have made it easy for me to seek a correction and to remediate the problem. Because of that trust I keep going back to Amazon, again and again and again.

But I see organizations, both large and small, that seem to think that trust is automatic. The United States federal intelligence community lies by acts of omission and commission and seems to be surprised that people don’t trust them anymore. My local municipality spends more money than is wise and then tries to claim that they had no choice, when clearly they did. They, too, are surprised that people don’t seem to trust them anymore.

I remember reading somewhere, long ago, that civilization was based upon the belief that one could forgo gratification today in the expectation that there would be greater gratification in the future. The farmer plants seeds that could be used to feed his family in the expectation that those seeds will turn into a bountiful crop. The farmer trusts that the future will be stable enough to allow that crop to ripen and be harvested. Throw in some wicked weather or marauding bandits or corrupt government officials and that trust will falter.

Trust in our modern world becomes increasingly important, as more and more of our assets become digital in nature. I have purchased hundreds of audio books from Audible. At any given time I only have a handful of these books downloaded into devices in my possession; the vast majority of “my books” exist only in the cloud. I trust Audible to honor the agreement by keeping accurate records and not going out of business. My financial assets are scattered over a dozen different accounts which have no existence other than the cloud. When I was very young, I had a physical passbook that recorded my savings; such things have passed into history. Trust stacked on trust. Even something as seemingly physical as paper currency is really only a promise that almost no one ever asks to be fulfilled. We trust because there does not seem to be any other realistic choice.

Trust is essential to make our modern world work. Rather than drag around bushels of beans and herds of sheep to engage in trade, we create abstractions in the form of coins of precious metals. In reality we don’t want the gold coins so much as we want the goods and services that the gold coins will bring us. We trust that the world will be stable enough that we can exchange that gold coin for what we actually want. We invent paper money because there is not enough physical gold to support the economy. We trust that the mechanisms that handle currency will work and that we will receive those things that we deserve to receive. We invent ledger books and a whole host of financial instruments which are in reality no more than sophisticated promises. Again we trust that in the end, everything will work out the way it should. Without that trust, the economy and the abundance that it brings would stagger to a stop.

Please understand. I’m not saying that we should not trust the various institutions, digital or otherwise, in our lives. I do think it’s important to realize that these institutions are balanced on a “razor’s edge” and that these institutions need to be constantly nourished and maintained to preserve that trust. It is all too easy to sacrifice the long-term good for the short-term gain. It is all too possible to make that sacrifice a few times without harming the overall system, but it cannot be kept up forever. Trust is a good thing; verification is also a good thing.

As I said at the beginning of this essay, I have been building a world and figuring out various ways to destroy that world. I have become familiar enough with the demons and monsters that I have created that I have worried that they might escape out of my fictional universe into the real one. My fictional world is, of course, different from this world, but not by that much. My demons and monsters might well find purchase in this reality.

But trust me! I assure you that I will not stop my labors until I have set everything right in the final chapter. There is no reason to worry. There is no reason to panic. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.