Trust; in the internet age

Image by Lisa Caroselli from Pixabay

The internet is effectively our exo-brain. A two-way, information multi-lane highway. Sure, we have limited machine interfaces as of now, color touch screens and voice interfaces, but this is set to change soon with neural interfaces. (Here’s a fun blast to the past link to my 2006 blog post on it :)

This highway though is not without its inherent flaws. The biggest one is that of trust. Pre-internet, trust was all about a firm handshake. A subtle glance at the face of the counter-party was sufficient to decipher the creases on their faces, the twitch on their eyes, the slight lift on the lip muscles. A tell. Our ability to make (at times, even fake) and read these slight cues is itself an evolutionary one. Apparently, even our canine friends seem to share in this evolutionary ability. While many things have been digitized, attempts to digitize trust have proven to be exceptionally difficult.

Sure, we have encryption et al, which is all about trusting math, prime numbers and algorithms. These do enable one machine to trust another. But could that trust automatically extend to the humans using it? For example, my web browser can have a more-or-less trusted conversation with a web-server. But the real trust deficit is in the human elements of this chain. How do I as a person using the computer trust it in the first place? Further, how could two humans on either sides of two machines talking to each other trust each other? For example, assume for a moment that a WhatsApp message is indeed cryptographically secure from one mobile to the other. The question is, how do I trust the message that the person on the other side of the planet has just sent me over WhatsApp? Further, I may trust the other person implicitly, but does that extend the trust to the message sent by this person? It is a problem that defines this era and it is a complicated one.

Fake news, for example, has influenced everything from national elections to medical advice on viral infections!

We can only hope that the few people working on this may be able to solve this for the rest of us, soon enough. Otherwise, the shade of anonymity that this information highway offers us, coupled with its global scale and the propensity for misinformation to look more appealing and glamorous than information, could threaten our very existence.

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