15 Networks of Trust

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"Did you see me come into your shop?" "Yes, I did." "Good. Now, have you ever seen me in your life before?" "Never in my life." "Then how do you know it is me?"

--Idries Shah, The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nastrudin


Sometime in 1996 a London reporter emailed Bill Gates to check a fact. The point is not that he got an answer at 3 A.M. Seattle time, nor that Gates ought to have had better things to do. It's that this is the utopian vision of the Net: it flattens the world so you can talk to anyone and be heard. The middlemen can be put on a spaceship and sent to crash on another planet, like they were in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.


The startling thing about this story is that it happened in 1996, by which time that utopian vision was already being drowned. It's really the kind of story that harks back to when the Net was young, when a person could read all of Usenet in a single day, sending an email message required knowing the names of all the machines it had to pass through to reach its destination, and the Net community was so small and homogeneous that you could trust that any email that came in was going to be worth the trouble of reading it. Now, with millions of email addresses, long-time email users get megabytes of the stuff, email software comes with automated filtering and re-routing features, and secretaries are back in business.


Everywhere you look on the Net you see the same story: the simple volume of data makes it impossible to read or assimilate everything, and even the search engines that are supposed to make meaningful selections from that data do the job badly, especially compared to traditional library indexing systems. There's a parallel problem with people and businesses: whereas in a small community, online or real, you assume that everyone you meet is trustworthy unless proven otherwise, in a large one, you assume the reverse. The difficulty is that no matter how infinite and populated cyberspace becomes, it always feels small, partly because we experience it in the privacy of our own computers, and partly because everywhere you look people are dividing themselves up into small groups: newsgroups (which often split if they get too big), conferences, IRC channels and chat rooms, and now small online discussions on Web sites organized around those sites' official content.


In times like these, trust is precious: trust that when my computer links to yours your security will be good enough that my system won't be compromised; trust that the information I receive and pass on is accurate and true; trust that if I give you personal information about myself I won't find my privacy betrayed. As we've already seen, these are not simple things in a world mediated by technology. But the hardest one, as the Internet experiments with what works and what doesn't, is trust that your communication will be worth my time. As trust erodes, it's middlemen who will fill the gap and sell our trust back to us. They will be the brokers in the new power structure that is already forming on and around the Net, however much people might like to think that all Netizens will always have an equal shot in the meritocracy of ideas. The advent of electronic commerce is hastening the change: companies know that in order to trade successfully online, customers will have to believe they are trustworthy, both in terms of handling customer data and in terms of the quality of their merchandise.


This is an area where familiar names have a huge advantage. The mythology of the Net is that it equalizes competition, so that a Mom-and-Pop outfit in Singapore has the same reach as General Motors. In intellectual property, that may be at least partly true: companies like Netscape, Superscape (a publisher of virtual reality software), games publisher id Software, and many other companies got to their multi-million-dollar status by sending out their products over the Net and letting people try them. But would you buy digital cash for more than a trivial amount of real money from a company whose physical address you didn't know? Even though what we now think of as "real" money spends most of its time in cyberspace as the ones and zeros that ultimately make up computer data, to turn over that money you have to believe that the virtual banking outfit is trustworthy and that there will be enough places to spend that digital cash for you to get your


    

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