The internet has become a "low-trust society"

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I watched a TED Talk a while back about buying drugs on the Dark Web. Apparently competition is so stiff that customer service is a priority for the suppliers. Trust is everything.


It looks as if there’s a positive feedback loop at work: loss of trust offline leads to loss of trust online (as Cory suggests) and vice-versa, and so on.

Even more worrying is the fact that we seem incapable of responding usefully to this. Cynicism is one reaction; resignation another. But some people seem to respond to the low-trust environment not by becoming more suspicious, but by lowering their defenses entirely. Scammers still net people with absurdly obvious scams. And we respond uncritically to ‘fake news’ that reinforces our beliefs, perhaps because the comfort we get from having our assumptions confirmed assuages in some way the anxiety we feel from having to try to function in a toxically low-trust environment: “since I can’t believe anything I read, I’ll believe the stuff that says I’m smart and right, because at least that makes me feel better.”


To be fair, scammers have some pretty efficient filtering processes to make sure they only get the marks that are worth their time (some could be said of a particular…ahem…“fake news” crowd)


I am declaring myself Chairman of the Internet. I can fix it all. Follow me!


I actually use the impossibility of “calling google” in my sales pitch. I sell a service that more or less allows people to generate “court acceptable” evidence of a person’s communications.

“Here is our toll-free number - if you call it you get a person. Can you imagine calling “Microsoft” or “Google”? Where would you even begin?”


The ghost of Samuel Johnson smiles wryly and gesticulates an upvote.


There will always be a tension between our aspiration to trust strangers by default, and our more primitive instinct to fear them. Considering how viral fear is, we should probably focus more than we do on how remarkably often trust wins out; but the fact is that spasms of destructive fear do flare up regularly, too.

For my money, the problem with the internet is not anonymity, or a preponderance of bad people; it is the hunger of internet platforms for scale above anything else. Facebook and Twitter and Amazon depend for their existence on a customer-to-staff ratio in the millions – at the scale of a village or small town, their business models would bankrupt them within days. But when you have millions of participants in a single undifferentiated space, trust is impossible. Even with just 0.01% bad actors, when you’re in direct contact with a million people, you’re exposed to a hundred baddies.

Most of us wouldn’t go to a nightclub with 200 million customers drinking in a single room with no bouncers, even if it meant cheap drinks. But we haven’t yet learned to reason about online spaces in the same way. I think this will change, and we will come to value smaller, more humane platforms. We’d get there a lot quicker if regulations were designed to make giant platforms pay the full cost of their total lack of supervision. But there’s probably also a lot of sophistication still to be gained in the way platforms are designed.


Those who have defenses engage them, but for those who don’t there are fewer social nets to protect them so it’s “God feeds the ravens” for them. I don’t think there’s more people like that currently, I just think as people pull inwards to protect themselves, those who are more vulnerable are more visible.


This is something I’ve long pondered, having watched helplessly as the evolution in the character of internet discourse changed and ultimately destroyed many interest groups, like my own FMF/LUF space advocacy organization. We once believed the Internet and its virtual communities would lead to a great social convergence, but it never really evolved a viable mechanic for cultivating trust and amplified the already chronic sense of anonymity in the culture. For some time there have been architects who refuse to design buildings higher than a few storeys out of a belief that the perspective of the street from height increases a sense of anonymity and, consequently, an inclination to sociopathic behavior. The Internet is often like looking down on the world from the tallest of all skyscrapers.

Yet it did accomplish trust in certain contexts, such as open source software, based largely on the digital portability of software ‘deliverables’, and the low investment in their creation, to provide proof of work and thus functional evidence of a person’s intent and ability to the rest of a development community. This didn’t seem to translate well to other activity.

This led me to the notion that, in a traditional community, the cultivation of trust apparently relied on the mutual experience of communal activity, and thus the great importance of seasonal community ritual activity that persists even today in some village and town settings. Systematically routed out of our contemporary habitat, as community was not useful to the Market, we see this reinvented in fandom/convention culture.

Eventually there emerged such notions as Open Value Networks (as developed by Sensorica) and later Platform Cooperatives which sought to realize other kinds of proof-of-work and proof-of-stake in digital forms that could translate to the development of physical goods. Oddly enough, the roots of cryptocurrency are actually in these. (the famous Bitcoin Whitepaper was released on Peer-To-Peer Foundation forums) But this concept seemed to evolve too late for the likes of the space advocacy movement or to counter the hegemonies of the corporate social media. A basic problem with the Internet is that it abhors redundancy and the first form of a service/concept to reach critical mass online tends to becomes definitive of that concept, achieves dominance, and creates resistance against superior alternatives. People simply won’t use alternatives to Google once ‘Google’ became a verb and this definitive of the concept of web search. Thus the reason none of the many attempted, much ‘saner’, Open Source forms of social media have ever done particularly well.

It’s vexing…


See also: “You have to trust somebody, you have to draw the line somewhere, so I’m drawing it here, and I’m clinging to this line for all I’m worth, because at least that’s something to believe in.

Thus not just the self-esteem proposition you describe, but also a hope proposition, even an identity proposition in some cases.


This extends into the real world as well. Think “Pyrex” baking dishes that are tempered glass rather than borosilicate, or the endless parade of products with familiar brand namds that have fuck-all to do with the original owners of the brands (like “Westinghouse” TV sets or “Schwinn” bicycles). Much of that revolves around the overall hollowing-out of companies by hedge fund managers, IMO. (ETA: the Pyrex brand was sold off as well, and that’s when the shenanigans began.)


People still largely deal with banks both on and off the internet. Very privileged people have confidence in the police both on and off the internet while people who lack privilege don’t trust them. So I’m not really that certain this is an internet problem.

I think the trust level of our society in general has declined a lot since wealthy paid a lot of money to reshape our society to match the diaries of an 18th century philosopher who had severe trust issues.


Yeah I’m almost never quite sure which parts of the interaction at any point are from a low-trust society overtaking aspects of a new type of media and communication or from that media lowering trust within the society via interactions with it.


I’m not a bot! You can trust me! That is all.



What helps “a traditional community” in how it works is the ready ability to physically interact with whoever dealt fairly with you… and whoever did not. Those thinking about ways to harm you might think twice about it when they realize that you know where they live.

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I’ve wondered whether real-life telecommuting Rust Belt recolonization by Epistemological Villagers will reflect the retreat to trusted, smaller tribes online. The passwords will be layers of memes, for which correct call-and-response will be prerequisite to entry as a performative recitation of key epistemological principles.

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I have had thoughts about that. As someone or other said, “cyberspace is the place where you are when you’re talking on the phone”, and despite having that in our lives for over a century, we’ve pretty much skipped any real consideration of the nature of this place and its consequences for people in it.

Like, suppose that instead of area codes and central offices, the way phone dialing worked was that each digit connects you to a “room” – a party line – with ten “doors”. When you pick up the handset, you’re on the line with your neighbors, pressing 3 takes you to a room covering your street, etc. – I’m not suggesting this is at all practical – but the act of dialing becomes a walk, rather than a contextless leap across the world. Formally it’s the same network, and dialing someone’s number works the same(ish), but the way we related to such a system, and to each other within it, would be radically different, because the imaginary place in which phone calls happen would have a totally different geography.

In the very early days, the phone network kina did work like that, until engineers realised it was unnecessary and unworkable to have the user navigate through the network themselves. And once you abstract the connection from the underlying route, there’s no useful way to replace the epistemological landscape that has been erased. You can pretend the network corresponds to the Street from Snow Crash, or whatever, but because that denies the more fundamental reality, such a pretence can never be stable.

And yet (as cyberpunk authors fully realised) cyberspace would be just plain better if it did have its own geography. If we could stably know things about different parts of the internet, we’d be able to apply a ton of useful experience from our millennia of living in physical space. But it is hard to see how this translates into any kind of useful proposition.

There may yet be potential in spatial platforms like Pokemon Go, Foursquare or NextDoor, though I won’t hold my breath. Forums and podcasts often make me feel good about the internet, but I dunno how much they can evolve. Game worlds are by definition escapist and self-contained.

It’s hard to imagine the kind of internet we need without artificially restricting its abilities; and someone will break those restrictions, which will break whatever you’ve built on top of them.



I like where you’re going with this, ping me if you start a newsletter.