The Manufacture of Trust [essay by Mike Arst] : LUSENET : Human-Machine Assimilation : One Thread

The Manufacture of Trust

by Mike Arst is so interesting — for instance, this "about me . . ." business: certain reviewers' having their reviews collected in mini-sites of their own. Truly a parade of vanity!

Who would want to read several of a given person's reviews having nothing to do with the book in which one is interested just now, unless the review seen first were uncommonly well written, and the reviewer uncommonly well informed? But how often does one encounter such reviews on Amazon? Not often.

I can't recall now on what web site I saw these: product reviews — could be about anything — submitted to the site by Ordinary Mortals, each of whom can create a mini-web site within the larger site. The mini-sites tell all: who I am, where I live, what interests me, what I hate . . .

There's more: In my mini-site, I might include links to the mini-sites of other Mortals whose reviews rank high on my personal-favorites lists. On their own mini-sites, these others also tell all about themselves; they rate me; they rate yet other Mortals whose reviews they have liked and who, themselves, have their own mini-sites in which they express their high esteem for the others who are holding them in high esteem . . . on and on it goes.

Many Mortals include photos of themselves. When you're done reading (in truth, you'll never be done), you'll have learned their spouses' names, their pets' names, their kids' names, the names of TV shows they liked. You'll hear how they are blessed to live in such-and-such a place with the babbling brook out back, and oh, yes, don't forget the family's beloved pony, Jumper (if not Blaze or Scout).

There's more: The site uses a concept of "trust" as a measure of all this mutual admiration — as if the Mortals were exchanging encryption keys with others whose "trust levels" are high (and of course not exchanging them with people whose "trust levels" are low). Mortal A's collectively agreed-upon trust level is "x"; Mortal B, somewhat less esteemed, has a trust-level 60% that of A. And so forth.

I spent way too long there — perhaps as long as a half-hour — fascinated by the utter uselessness of it all, the utter falsity. The sites-within-sites masquerade as a community whose "residents" somehow know whom they can, and cannot, "trust" based on . . . based on . . . based on what?

What image could represent this collective illusion? A balloon, perhaps? Push hard enough, and you learn how flimsy its surface is. Push harder, and in short order you discover nothing but air. Whatever little there was of substance collapses into a pathetic little shred. You might not even get a decent BANG out of it.

But balloons are cheap; they're easy to inflate; and there's no shortage of them.

It found it bizarre. I found it disturbing. Small wonder, I thought, people imagine they can trust each new sincere-sounding Hairstyle who reads the news — or, for that matter, the Hairstyle that is Bill Clinton.

Who cares who these recipients of unmerited, unearned trust really are? Who cares what they've done? Who cares what they don't know or what they don't want to learn? Nothing need matter, other than what we imagine them to be. Isn't it enough that we can feel trusting?

And small wonder, I thought, that so many people were deeply offended by the intense focus on Bill Clinton's private life. Indeed it was invasive, and even an unprincipled man like Bill Clinton deserves a private life. Yet the anger surely went beyond finding the invasions offensive. After all, don't Americans lust to discover each others' ugly little secrets? If they did not, Jerry Springer would have been off the air a long time ago. And who cared when there was an intense, invasive media focus on the private life of Newt Gingrich? The problem of invasion was not the primary source of the anger, methinks.

No, I think what offended a lot of people was the very bursting of the Clinton-balloon skin. He had to be Good, because we needed him, this caring man, to be the great wall of strength, holding the line against Bad People Who Don't Care. How dare anyone tamper with that? How can we continue to be reassured he's good, when he's been exposed as bad?

To reconcile the different images is difficult — even painful. In the end, the blame for the discomfort must be placed with the messengers. Nobody enjoys having to live with two opposing points of view — the one held by desire alone, the other held because it cannot be avoided. (But people do pull it off. A co-worker of mine once wrote to me: "He [meaning Clinton] might be scum, but at least he's our scum." And she meant it.)

Now Al Gore, once the subject of jokes in which you couldn't tell him apart from the furniture, has been re-invented. He is trying to become the new balloon. Rub the balloon skin — it squeaks. The more air you put into it, the tighter the skin becomes, and the louder it squeaks. He shouts, he growls, he howls about his "passions". Al is no longer only the boy of wood. He's a real boy now.

It's astonishing and spooky to see the desperation of his audience — their need to be seduced once again. What could be more obvious than the long shadows of the spin-doctors — the ones who did the cosmetic surgery on Gore's image — standing in the wings, watching him pose and strut and bellow his "passions" as they've taught him to do? How quickly his transformation occurred. How quickly his followers, needy for another Hairstyle to take them out of the clutches of the evil Others, helped him re-inflate his balloon . . . and theirs.

So Al is now "trustworthy". He trusts them, he says; they can trust him in turn. They notice that many others trust him, and this collectively expressed high esteem — whose basis is the very experience of being within a collective expression of high esteem — tells them that they've made the right decision.

If one of his daughters has a pony named Jumper, so much the better.

-- Scott (, May 26, 2000

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