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29 June 2021

How much should we trust technology?

We can't question every technology every time we use it – the price of eternal vigilance is mental exhaustion – but we must strive to be aware of our vulnerability. 

One day, a car swerved across a little mountain highway and hit mine head-on. My car was completely destroyed. My physical injuries healed in a few months; my emotional relationship with driving did not. I kept hearing the sound of metal crumpling. And I couldn’t sink back into that easy state of mind where my driving stayed in the background of my consciousness. I constantly worried: is that car going to swerve into me? Or that one? My trust had evaporated.

That moment exposed how deeply and constantly I had trusted before the collision without realising it. Annette Baier wrote some of the foundational works in the philosophy of trust. She puts it this way: trust is like air. It is so utterly pervasive that we forget it’s there. I hadn’t realised how much I trusted other drivers. And I hadn’t realised how much I was trusting all the physical stuff involved in driving. I was trusting every other car on the road – trusting in an endless line of brakes and belts and power steering cables. I was trusting the traffic lights to stay synchronised and the road to stay in one piece. I had trusted my body and my life to all these things, a thousand times a day, and it had never occurred to me that I was doing it until something went wrong.

To most philosophers, trust is a wholly social affair. They think that trust is, by definition, an attitude we can only take towards other people. According to Baier, to trust is to rely on another’s goodwill. For the philosopher Karen Jones, trust is about relying on another’s responsiveness to your needs. For the philosopher Katherine Hawley, trust is about relying on people to live up to their commitments. Trust, in their eyes, is a moral relationship. And this explains why, when our trust is broken, we react with moral fire. The presence of trust, says Baier, is revealed in the possibility of betrayal.

But that can’t be the whole story about trust. We also trust in stuff – in technology and in our physical environment. We trust in cars, in dirt paths, in search engines.

You can hear hints of this in our ordinary talk. Here is sociologist Michael Kearl, on the experience of war:

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The veteran also suffers from a problem of trust, a building block on which all of social life is erected. The everyday, taken-for-granted reality of civilian life ignores much; civility assumes the non-lethal intentions of others. In war, however, all such assumptions evaporate: one cannot trust the ground one walks on, the air one breathes, nor can one expect with full assuredness that tomorrow will come again.

Essayist and psychotherapist Betty Berzon describes her emotional response to a violent earthquake this way:

There is something about being betrayed by the ground underneath you that feels like the ultimate treachery. It took weeks to regain my equilibrium.

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Kearl and Berzon lost their trust in the ground and the air. But it’s not that they’ve stopped believing in the ground’s goodwill or the air’s integrity. What they’ve is lost is something subtler, almost beneath the realm of thought. They’ve lost that easy, settled state of mind.

This exposes the existence of another kind of trust – one quite distinct from the strictly interpersonal variety. This other form of trust is about letting go of suspicions, about letting something drop away from your inquiring mind, into the background of your life. When we trust something in this way, we are taking on an unquestioning attitude towards it.

We view much of the world with a healthy suspicion. Should I believe this person, or that advertisement? Should I install this free programme? Yet with other parts of the world, we have suspended our suspicion. When I walk on the pavement, I usually don’t question it with every step. I just walk on it, while thinking of other things. We have settled our mind towards those parts of the world. When I trust a tool, I just use it. When I trust the air, I just breathe it. When I trust an information source, I just believe it.

Why would we ever adopt this unquestioning attitude? Isn’t it unsafe? Shouldn’t we be perpetually vigilant? But the price of eternal vigilance is mental exhaustion. If we had to question every tool every time we used it – if we had to worry about every line of every book, every Wikipedia entry, every car, every app – we would barely be able to act. We have to adopt an unquestioning attitude to at least some of that stuff to save mental energy.

Think about how we usually relate to our own bodies and minds. I don’t usually question my memory or my eyes, or wonder if my hands will go where I tell them. Most of the time, I just use my hands and believe my eyes. Our relationship to our parts is one of unquestioning trust.

When I have settled my mind about some external thing, I’ve brought it into a relationship with me that is very much like the relationship I have to my own parts. By trusting, we lower the barrier of monitoring, challenging and checking. We let something inside the boundary wall of our practical selves.

***

We have come to trust, unquestioningly, so much of our technology. When my phone’s calendar tells me to go to a meeting at noon, I go. It’s tempting to say that I trust my phone’s calendar like I trust my own memory but that’s actually an understatement. I trust my phone more.

For instance, my spouse and I keep a shopping list on a shared Google Doc. Either of us can enter things into the list. Then, when one of us goes to the store, they simply buy everything on that list. When I’m shopping, I don’t question the entries. Half the time, I can’t even remember which of us entered which item. I just trust the list – which includes trusting my spouse, but also the technologies that transmit and maintain that list.

To put it more philosophically: my trust settings give my spouse the right to directly input things into my procedures for action. By trusting the system, I’m putting her thinking on a par with my own – at least for determining my shopping actions. And by trusting Google Docs, I’m putting it on a par with my own memory as a system for preserving the conclusions of my past thinking.

This is one of the powers of unquestioning trust. It is a way of integrating external processes into your practical self. Trust sets up open pipelines into your mind, and these unprotected, open gateways are enormously efficient – and dangerous.

This might explain why we reach for the language of betrayal for some objects; it’s not just other people that can betray me. I feel betrayal when my hands stop following my will, when my memory suddenly breaks down. We can feel betrayed by our parts, when they fail to function as smooth and competent parts of the whole. The sense of betrayal, I want to suggest, can arise from an experience of alienation – from discovering that what you thought was a well-integrated part of you is suddenly refusing your commands, and acting with agency of its own.

Equally, my car isn’t just a tool I keep at arm’s distance: it has become tightly integrated with my basic way of moving. So when my car suddenly turns against my will, or my computer desktop rearranges itself, the sense of alienation is maddening.

Some philosophers have tried to describe these intimate relationships as “extending our mind” into the world. This might be the right image sometimes, especially when the objects are simple and well-behaved, like paper notebooks. But things look very different with, say, Google Search.

When I trust complex, opaque technologies and open my “mental gateways” to them, I can’t fully assimilate them. They are more recalcitrant than that. Rather than internalising these technologies, I am outsourcing a part of my own agency. I am opening a pipeline to a mutable process, whose innards are controlled by another.

And it’s not just that these technologies can fail us; it’s that they can change how we function. Most of us trust Google Search deeply. We let it order our inquiries into the world, let its rankings direct our attentions. But Google is constantly tinkering with how Search works. So we have outsourced a part of our attention-directing process to an algorithm under another’s control.

Other technologies can intrude even further. When you trust a Fitbit to motivate you – when you unquestioningly accept its evaluation of you and follow its promptings – then you are letting its measures and scores set what you care about. You want to pursue something as general as “fitness” or “health”, but you let the watch determines what counts as fitness or health. You’re outsourcing the content of your values to a watch.

We worry about being too gullible with other people. But we should also worry about technological gullibility – about being too willing and eager to trust technologies without realising how deeply they will change us.

Underneath some of the most mundane technological interactions – driving a car, Google-searching – simmers profound and expansive trust. We must trust, sometimes – but we also need to understand the scope of our vulnerability before we hook each shiny new thing into our selves.

C. Thi Nguyen is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah. He is the author of Games: Agency as Art and he tweets @add_hawk.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.