Trusting technology, ourselves, and others

Trust is a feeling of confidence or conviction that things can unfold within a dependable framework that embodies order and integrity. The feeling state of trust is important to cultivate in a mindful practice.  -John Kabat-Zinn

In the olden days in Kerala, India, so the story goes, when a new bridge was opened, the architect responsible, and his family, would stand under the bridge whilst a herd of elephants would walk across the top.

Nowadays, we have design standards and systems by law, as well as extensive testing and simulation. In safety critical software systems, like those used in aeronautics and medicine, we build redundancy, duplication and fail-safes so that we trust that we have enough time to intervene and prevent a disaster in the event of system malfunction. Back then the architect and family had no choice but to have the four essential trusts (in self, life, God, others) which spiritual teacher Iyanla Vanzant talks about in her book Trust.

But can technology emulate trust? The following urban myth is still doing the rounds, and raises a laugh even today, I sometimes tell it in lectures when I am talking about software engineering:

Seminar leader: Imagine you were on a plane, sitting on the tarmac and you found out that your software team had written the software which controls the plane. How many of you would immediately get off the plane?  [Everyone’s hands but one go up.]

Seminar leader: Wow you must really believe in your team.

Answer: Are you kidding me? With my team the plane would never make it down the runway.

When I worked with architects and engineers, trust was an issue which came up time and again. They would never use a piece of software if they didn’t know exactly what it was doing, even if the result seemed right. The stakes were too high.  I have to trust it was a recurring theme.

Trust in tech: Computer says no

As designers, we want people to trust and collaborate with the software we create and, we do that with the usual ways talked about in human-computer interaction: usability, user agency, robustness, transparency, observability, familiarity. We have Ben Schneiderman’s (or Spiderman’s, as one of my students wrote in an exam once) eight golden rules of interface design, originally dialog box design – because that is what we are doing – having a dialogue with a computer. These rules cover: consistency, shortcuts, feedback, closure, error prevention/handling, undo, internal locus of control, and short term memory reduction. And there are many more of managing user input (see the design theory series).

But does it convince the user? To which the answer is, well that depends on the user and their relationship with uncertainty.

Mathmo Trust: The Erdos discrepancy

Mathematicians are a little bit more relaxed about uncertainty and acknowledge that they are doing their best with the tools available. This is demonstrated by the Erdos discrepancy which is basically: Well we know there is likely to be an error in there somewhere, but it’s good enough for now to help us to get to where we want to be.

Normally, though when looking at mathematics we look for accountability in peer reviewed journals. We look to the history of the proof to see how it has been used in the past and how we can trust it. In the same way that with Blockchain you look at the ledger and you have accountability.

What is trust anyway?

At the bottom of any trust issue is the fear of someone, or some tech, or ourselves being found out as inadequate.  It is mainly ourselves though. I have seen many people not attempt things, from not using a computer, not doing a coursework, not sitting an exam, not having a conversation, the list is endless. All because that person fears that they will be found out as inadequate, because with the fear of inadequacy, comes the fear of rejection. 

Research done by social psychologist, Ray Baumeister, has shown that it is enough to for us to anticipate being rejected, and we will begin to make unhealthy choices (like not doing something) and start to believe that we are worth less.

A definition

Trust is one of those words that has no corresponding picture like table, chair or orange does, and since our learning is contextually conditioned, we make a connection to our first experience of a given word. Consequently, trust is like beauty, truth, joy in that it means different things to different people. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Due to our semiotic desire to create meaning from polarities: light and dark, joy and pain, it is logical that we reach for heartbreak in order to remember love and  for rejection to remember acceptance.  And, because we are embodied, we interpret all our future experiences through the lens of the first one. So, if you have had your trust violated at a young age, it can be nigh on impossible to trust again. This is because you don’t trust the new experience to turn out any different, so you misbehave and alienate yourself from others, thus proving that you were right.

Trusting others

Google’s Aristotle project researched what makes a perfect team and found that the key factor was psychological safety which is the confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.

We all want to feel safe, and feel connected. It is the third level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We want to trust people and we have to feel safe in a relationship in order for us to be ok. Otherwise we feel inadequate. Once that begins we then attack others with our criticism, because defensiveness helps us to regain some equilibrium. However, I am with Nina Simone on this one:

You’ve got to learn to leave the table
When love’s no longer being served
To show everybody that you’re able
To leave without saying a word

Trusting ourselves

Iyanla Vanzant poses these questions:

  1. Do you trust your own voice?
  2. Do you trust that you can hear the voice of God?
  3. Do you trust yourself to see and hear what others are really saying and doing?
  4. Do you trust (no matter how hard it may be) that there are no mistakes in life?

The voice of God and trusting life is often a step too far for many people. But, at the very least trusting our own voice is necessary. This involves knowing ourselves and knowing what happens when your buttons get pressed.

It is also very important to be present in any given moment to allow yourself the opportunity to really see what other people are saying and doing, not what you think they might be saying and doing.

And finally, when people do demonstrate how they behave, whether they are good to you, or careless with you, it is important to learn that. Do not assume that they will/can/want to, behave any other way. Rather like software, we are all programmed to respond in certain ways. And, we can trust that people will behave as they always do. People will not behave differently just because we want them to.

As Maya Angelou once put it:

When people show you who they are, believe them.

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