Systems of Distrust: Can technology save us?

A man in Ontario gets angry when the service technician at the car dealership disables his two dash cams. He’s angry because he can’t tell what they may have done to damage his car during service. The news media cover it. People comment.

Then there’s the seemingly endless stream of stories from people about how the medical system failed them, or some government department or a bank or insurer. We’ve all seen some similar sort of story on our social media feeds. Then all the stories of privacy and data breaches.

The common theme in all of these types of stories is systems. Financial, healthcare, insurance, government and so on. These are all the systems that we rely on, entrust and believe in. But today, it would seem, we increasingly distrust them, even though we still do rely on them. The fundamental proof that we do still trust these systems at some intrinsic level is that society hasn’t put a run on the banks or stupid Googling things. Even terror organizations like the Islamic State still hoard US dollars and entrust the US banking system so they can buy weapons and such. Ironic that isn’t it? And we still go to hospitals.

But there can be a breaking point. Distrust in democratic process is a prime example with the rise of populism and nationalism in countries around the world. Then there’s the Gini Index, the relationship measure between wealth and freedom in society. The gap of rich and poor. And it’s getting wider.

And while the internet and world wide web have brought humanity closer, it hasn’t all been peachy. The Arab Spring was when the West declared democracy and social media was winning and dictatorships would collapse. Instead, Iran clamped down and became worse, Egypt just added a new dictator and Saudi Arabia and friends became even more brutal. China uses Big Data analytics to track its citizens and now uses a system to rank social behaviour and when you don’t obey, you lose privileges. The surveillance state is there. And thriving. Right now, Chinese citizens feel powerless to fight such a system. That may not change and there are other states like Russia and African countries that admire what China is doing and may be very content to copy it. Democracy is fragile at best at any time.

Big systems are hard.

Politics and social issues aside for a moment, the underlying challenge to why people increasingly distrust systems is scalability. Many thousands of years ago, we were all in various kinds of tribes. Nomadic originally, then we became more agrarian and we all hung out in the same place and grew nice veggies and such. Religion helped to organize societies.

Today, we see increasing distrust in religious systems though; the Catholic Church and its history of sexual abuse (and other Christian churches) and Islam dealing with fundamentalist sects. Christianity has fundamentalists too, just less violent, for the most part. No longer do we turn to religion for healthcare, now we trust in science.

Countries are battling increasing costs of healthcare as the Yuppies age. The battle for doctors is huge in many countries. And it’s going to get worse. Japan loses 1,000 people a day and it’s not making it up in babies. They need robots to sustain their population and are probably one of the most culturally closed nations in the world, immigration is a nightmare scenario. Yet Japan is such a wonderful and incredibly rich culture. And Japan is starting to open up on tourism.

America as a hegemony is on the decline and China thinks it can step in in the Asian world. Unlikely, but they’ll try. India’s economy is now larger than the UK, its former colonial governor. Yet we see the rise of populism and nationalism.

Research has shown that humans can really only effectively manage relationships with about 150 people at any given time. More than that and we just kind of fail to be real. Corporations grow quickly and become unwieldy. Facebook with over 30,000 employees today is a small city and has utterly failed at self-governance. It’s just too big.

Systems of a down

The reality is, humanity is connected unlike ever before in its history. Yet we are simply terrible at scaling our governance of ourselves. Democracy is messy, but it’s much better than dictatorships. Communism as an economic system doesn’t work. Neither does fascism. India is perhaps the best example of the potential of democracy, but even it needs to tread carefully as it grows.

In part, one can propose that part of the issue of these troubles, aside from mass migration and economic inequality, the backlash against globalism, is the inability of systems to scale to meet the challenges of society. The systems that worked, are in troubled waters, struggling to keep up.

Can technology help save us?

If you’re in Silicon Valley, technology is your hammer and every problem is a nail. It’s an interesting approach, but it’s failing. Yet we increasingly rely on technology every day, from our social behaviours to finances, work and healthcare and more.

Technology can play a vital role I think. But it must be deeply humanized. As we’ve seen with Facebook, simply building a solution with one goal in mind fails at scale. As facebook was created, Zuckerberg could never have predicted the impacts his service would create, how his company would impact geopolitics and social order. And as we’ve seen, Facebook has failed miserably at stepping up to the plate, gazing at its silicon navel.

Technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain can help us scale our systems, make them better, enhance social order and global governance. But they need the checks and balances of democratic processes along with ethics and philosophy. But we are human and to be human is to err.

We are facing the greatest time of distrusting systems. If we use foresight and attention and let humanity and guiding principles work, then technology can be the tool we can apply. But we should never consider technology a saviour, for we have seen already, that does not work.

More to come. What are your thoughts?

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious