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Ray Pennings: Trust is our core currency

Commentary

Trust is a core currency in democratic and prosperous society.

Growing concerns about the decline of trust are valid and deserve discussion, especially as we consider the resulting drop in the impact and social benefits social institutions provide.

Unfortunately, these discussions often take place without fully appreciating that trust is contextual and is not unlike banknotes. Trust needs to be exchanged into specific currencies if its benefits are to flow from various social institutions. Each context requires its own currency. So, while “trust” is relevant to politics, business, media, and non-governmental organizations, dealing with the decline in these different settings will require solutions specific to them.

As recent polling shows us, trust in our vital institutions is low.

Parsing the concept of trust invites us into the science of social capital, a term that has become a common part of the social science vocabulary only in the past few decades. The concept is of older vintage, perhaps best understood as what Alexis de Tocqueville was getting at when he wrote Democracy in America in 1840. In brief, social capital involves voluntarily working with and through institutions other than government to achieve social good. Understanding how citizens viewed and dealt with their neighbours when government wasn’t looking has been a key component to understanding the health of a democracy long before the words we use today were in vogue.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to look at January’s Edelman Trust Barometer, a two decades-old annual measurement of trust in 28 countries. After documenting the continuing decline of trust in credibility almost right across every institution, Edelman found high trust in business. (Canadian respondents viewed their employer as their most believable information source.) Even more interestingly, a full 65 percent agreed that CEOs “should step in when government does not fix societal problems.” More than 60 percent of both consumers and employees indicated that economic choices were the means to drive change. Almost half of employees (46%) indicated, “I am more likely now than a year ago to voice my objections to management or engage in workplace protest.”

The popularity of specific economic levers to influence decision-making — strikes, lockouts, boycotts, tariffs, subsidies, preferential policies, closed bidding — change over time. However, the use of economic leverage to achieve non-economic results has always influenced the exchange of labour, goods and services. But the implicit premise that somehow this will remedy the trust deficit in other institutions, specifically government in this case, is like offering pesos to buy land in France. Euros are the expected currency and the currency mismatch confuses rather than solves the problem.

We need to use the right currency in the right context.

There are at least two parts to the challenge of trust: the core basics common to all institutions and the institution-specific requirements.

The first part includes things like accurate information, ethics, honesty, and reliability, to mention just a few. These are essential ingredients no matter the context. Character matters and is inexorably tied to trust. Words must also reliably communicate dependable information.

The second part of trust involves the added dimensions of trust that need to be accounted for if the trust deficit is to be resolved. Each institution has its own task. Government is about dispensing justice, treating people fairly and equally, and ensuring security. Business is about investing inputs to create greater outputs, stewarding the resources they are given into goods and services that have value for their customers. Media is about informing people as to what is happening, providing information with courage and not skewing it to deceptive outcomes. Faith institutions are about truth and service of others. Families are about love and fidelity.

The basic, and usually overlooked, premise is that each social institution has its own leading functions or characteristics, which it must faithfully serve or express for it to maintain or regain its trust. So, when business is expected to “fix” government, or any other institution steps out of its lane to “fix” different other institutions, the result is rarely progress or an increase in trust.

So how then how can society make deposits in our trust accounts? And how can the various institutions withdraw this in order to contribute to flourishing?

There are no quick fixes but a few less-considered principles merit reflection.

First, recognize that all institutions have both a private and public dimension. Marriage and family, on the one hand, are very personal institutions, but let’s not overlook their public implications. They remain the primary context in which future citizens and taxpayers are born. Fertility rates are essential to any GDP and economic prosperity forecast. Religion is another example. Were it not for the $67.5 billion that faith institutions contribute to Canada’s GDP, a full range of services we take for granted (especially education and social services) would look very different or disappear. Every institution, while having a primary group of participants and stakeholders, also serves all of society. Through its behaviours it is either a net contributor or withdrawer on our collective trust accounts.

Second, although there are various institutions that can deliver on specific outcomes, some are better suited for the task than others. I don’t doubt that teens who join gangs build an impressive skillset of teamwork, esprit de corps, other practical know-how that could have significant economic and public benefit when applied in the workplace in later life. I also don’t doubt that most of us would prefer a society in which young people learned these skills through sports teams or community youth programs. A healthy society needs trust deposits from the full range of healthy institutions. No single institution, including government, is in a position to fill the gaps by the failure of any other institution. And just because an alternative institution may fill a vacuum when one isn’t doing its job well, that doesn’t mean the result will be interchangeable.

Third, trust is not a value-neutral term. Our egalitarian age is preoccupied with overcoming historic prejudices, which is important. Every person, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other distinguishing aspect of their personhood, deserves respect based on the simple fact that they are a human being created with dignity. And those categories, which too often are used to divide people, should not become a shorthand for distinguishing those who are trustworthy from those who are not. But that doesn’t mean that respect is a synonym for trust. Trust is earned and our trust for others is increased or decreased by our past experiences with them. Even as we correct for past misapplications of categories being unjustly used as proxies for trust, it is naïve to think that consequently trust is an egalitarian concept.

Yes, trust is on the decline but contrary to public opinion, assuming the Edelman take is accurate, business and commerce can’t fix what is broken.

The trust bank requires deposits in the right currencies from the full range of social institutions healthily functioning. It also calls for a much more multi-dimensional take on things than the singular “this will fix it” solution. It requires us to look around and within to see where opportunities for growth might work.

While the situation is surely serious enough to warrant broad social dialogue and a consideration of how trust and flourishing interact for the common good, it also requires individual action as we interact within our families, communities, places of work and other institutions we are part of. When we live not just for ourselves but with a concern for our neighbour in our everyday lives, the interest on these trust deposits will result in an overall value that might even be measurable the next times the surveyors come along to audit the books.

Joanna Baron: Blame Big Tech all you like, but polarization is in our nature

Commentary

Can we blame Big Tech social media platforms for increasing polarization and the seeming dearth of civil discourse?

Or is the problem a deeper quandary concerning postmodern identity politics and base human nature, one which has been highlighted by a year and counting of lockdowns?

Last week, Facebook VP Nick Clegg wrote a long Medium article defending the company against charges that it encourages polarization. This theory Clegg, a former UK politician and highly competent hired gun, was defending Facebook against goes something like this:

Ruled by robots programmed to keep our attention as long as possible, social media algorithms promote stuff we are likely to double-tap on or share — and bury everything else. The effect is that people exclusively read and shape their worldviews via articles that confirm their priors. They meet and converse with others who are similar. Eventually, some of them end up at the U.S. Capitol building with guns.

This narrative was developed at length in Shoshanna Zubkoff’s Surveillance Capitalism, as well as the popular Netflix documentary the Social Dilemma.

Clegg countered the “filter bubbles” narrative that has become dominant concerning the effects of social media on polarization. He cited independent academic studies that undercut the idea that the network encourages us to retreat into cocoons of familiar information.

He also laid out Facebook’s new plans to allow users control over their algorithm:

“People should be able to better understand how the ranking algorithms work and why they make particular decisions, and they should have more control over the content that is shown to them,” Clegg wrote. “You should be able to talk back to the algorithm and consciously adjust or ignore the predictions it makes — to alter your personal algorithm in the cold light of day, through breathing spaces built into the design of the platform.”

Indeed, independent studies confirm that the most polarized demographic groups are the least “extremely online.” They are usually boomers and above, people who report getting their news mostly from cable television.

We are motivated not by truth but by emotive stories

Clegg contends that human nature itself is the problem. “Consider, for example, the presence of bad and polarizing content on private messaging apps — iMessage, Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp — used by billions of people around the world,” he writes.

Clegg’s apologia for Facebook points towards a much bigger problem that moving all societal discourse onto digital platforms has occasioned and for which the train has already left the station: we are motivated not by truth, but by emotive stories.

The problem is not with the Facebook or Twitter algorithm, but with human nature, and the quirks of our primal wetware. To wit: it’s already possible on both platforms, with a few clicks, to reset your feed to rank posts chronologically versus algorithmically, but who wants to do that when being fed piping-hot outrage porn is so much more satisfying? Big tech platforms essentially serve as an etheric parrot that collects information on our impulses and mirrors back the content we find tantalizing.

In the secular age, there is no central mediating authority or reservoir of meaning. Everyone is fundamentally a solipsist, the main character of their life’s movie. This epistemological fact has become elevated to a moral imperative and burnished through the rhetoric of identity. But in 2020, this solipsism expanded into the algorithmic architecture of all our social interactions.

The default in cultural and political discourse is the rhetoric of identity: who you are, which group you can profess to speak for, and your subjective experience. The problem is that we have not only begun to acknowledge our partiality, and the partiality of others, we have also begun to revere it, and this is a mistake.

In so doing, we ironically evince a fundamental post-Protestant moral puritanism — as Mark Lilla recently wrote, “The uptight Bible-thumping humbug of yore has been shamed off the public square— but only to make room for networks for self-righteous beautiful souls pronouncing sentence from the cathedra of their inner Vaticans.”

Discourse happens in our digital public squares, which have become increasingly irrational and seemingly disconnected from any earnest desire to engage in speech for the sake of the pursuit of truth. The cognitive disaster of a year and counting’s worth of lockdown is that it’s not clear how it’s even possible to disrupt our filter bubbles or widen one’s horizons. It’s as though navel-gazing was transposed onto digital fences that monopolize our line of vision.

So I spent much of this past year watching as people in my orbit demonstrated their consistent inability to peer out of their own digital channels. Sloppy diatribes, vicious personal attacks, rank partisanship. It is paradoxical that while the effect of social media has been to eliminate barriers to entry into public discourse, it has simultaneously withered down the Overton window to a sliver, enforced by the digital mob.

In pre-pandemic times, of course, the potential for disruption existed by interfacing with physical reality — whether at the ‘water cooler’ or its analogs, or even just driving through parts of one’s city where the reality is at odds with your own. Since March 2020, the only funnel available to form our views of the world has been mediated through a digital filter.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari points out the somewhat paradoxical reality that information overwhelm has made our fundamental irrationality more glaring: humans think in stories rather than facts, numbers, or equations. The simpler, and the more emotive the story, the more persuasive it is to the human brain: “Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.”

How this looks on a daily basis on the timeline is that nuance, reasonable disagreement and complexity became eclipsed by mutual perception of one’s political opponent’s villainy. To my friends on the right, pro-lockdown and identitarian leftists are peddlers of dangerous authoritarianism, surreptitiously buttressing the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda not just by pushing for longer and stricter lockdowns but by dividing Western culture in a million fragments over debates on trans rights and cancel culture.

To my friends on the left, conservatives are outright complicit in or adjacent to white supremacy, “murderclowns” indifferent to the effects of the virus, and — at least in the US — directly responsible for the attacks of January 6th on the U.S. Capitol building.

This won’t end well. As the philosopher Sam Harris puts it:

“We have a choice. We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That’s it: conversation and violence.”