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Wednesday, June 11

Distrust and the Darth Vader Syndrome

In my estimation a great challenge in this era is the widespread supplanting of in-person communications with ones made on the internet.  How we perceive a person is a gestalt of many things about the person -- perceptions that engage all our senses; it's also our perceptions based on a continuum of in-person interactions with the individual.  Only a tiny fraction of the gestalt is available to us through internet communication -- even with the use of Skype -- and the continuum of in-person relationships is often entirely absent in internet communications.
It's our experience with both the continuum and the gestalt that becomes a large storehouse of wisdom as we mature.  An older person can often 'read' a situation involving others, even strangers, by falling back on his accumulated wisdom from countless in-person interactions.  In this way petty misunderstandings are resolved before they snowball into serious ones, errors are spotted before they're replicated in transmission, and tragedies are averted. 

But the ability to read others is a learned skill that requires practice to maintain and increase. As with all skills, use it or lose it.  So while the era of distance communications has given humanity great power in many respects, our increasing reliance on the internet for communications is threatening to turn humans into psychological versions of Darth Vader, who when shorn of his powerful mechanical shell is a cripple.

Yet cyber prophets -- those who are nvolved in the digital revolution or in studying it and see in it humanity's salvation -- are not focused on the danger of increased reliance on distance communications.  They are focused on the benefits of the hyperconnectivity that the internet makes possible between millions of humans.  Cyber prophets see in this hyperconnectivity not only the emergence of a totally new, digitally networked social order but also envision it as spawning what's been termed emergent democracy and adhocracy.

These two closely related concepts refer to a nonrepresentative democratic government that does not depend on hierarchies of responsibility and authority and bureaucratic administration or on a political or legislative process.

So this type of government leapfrogs even direct democracy because it obviates the need for voting.  Instead, emergence democracy arises from the convergence of large numbers of internet-connected minds on the discrete problems that traditional government routinely deals with, and in ad-hoc cooperative effort dispatches the problems as they arise.

See the writings of VRML developer Mark Pesce and Peer-to-Peer (P2P) advocate Michel Bauwens, both of whom I've mentioned in an earlier post, for an introduction to ideas about nonrepresentational democracy that have gained coin during the past decade.

(I've found the link to remarks made by Pesce that I quoted in the earlier post, and which had been deleted from Pesce's Wikipedia article.  He made the remarks in a May 2011 lecture that was posted to YouTube.  Here's the YouTube link. See also his December 2010 op-ed The state, the press and a hyperdemocracy.  See Bauwens's P2P Foundation website for writings by other authors on the P2P theme and other experiments in nonrepresentational democracy.)
But again, all these ideas revolve around the internet and depend largely for their execution on internet exchanges.  These exchanges can't be considered relationships and so they can be broken as readily as they're formed.  I don't know whether this situation has a direct bearing on the trust deficit in the United States, which I assume is mirrored in many other countries today, but it can't be a help in overcoming the great distrust that characterizes social interactions in present day America.  A November 30, 2013, report from the Associated Press, wryly titled Believe it: Trust is on the way out, analyzed startling poll results on the trust issue and took a stab at understanding why trust has plummeted in the USA:
You can take our word for it. Americans don't trust each other anymore.

We're not talking about the loss of faith in big institutions such as the government, the church or Wall Street, which fluctuates with events. For four decades, a gut-level ingredient of democracy — trust in the other fellow — has been quietly draining away.

These days, only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked the question.

Forty years later, a record high of nearly two-thirds say "you can't be too careful" in dealing with people. An AP-GfK poll conducted last month found that Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards or people they meet when traveling.

"I'm leery of everybody," said Bart Murawski, 27, of Albany. "Caution is always a factor."

Does it matter that Americans are suspicious of one another? Yes, say worried political and social scientists.

What's known as "social trust" brings good things:  a society where it's easier to compromise or make a deal. Where people are willing to work with those who are different from them for the common good. Where trust appears to promote economic growth.

Distrust, on the other hand, seems to encourage corruption. At the least, it diverts energy to counting change, drawing up 100-page legal contracts and building gated communities.
There's no single explanation for Americans' loss of trust.

The best-known analysis comes from Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam's nearly two decades of studying the United States' declining 'social capital,' including trust.

Putnam says Americans have abandoned their bowling leagues and Elks lodges to stay home and watch TV. Less socializing and fewer community meetings make people less trustful than the "long civic generation" that came of age during the Depression and World War II.

University of Maryland Professor Eric Uslaner, who studies politics and trust, puts the blame elsewhere: economic inequality.

Trust has declined as the gap between the nation's rich and poor gapes ever wider, Uslaner says, and more and more Americans feel shut out. They've lost their sense of a shared fate.
 See the rest of the report for some specifics taken from the poll.

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