Trust is a small word, so often used and sweeping in definition- it can feel soft, fuzzy, even insignificant. But trust is perhaps the most critical indicator of our collective wellbeing and at the foundation of any healthy relationship.
Think of a bridge overhanging a gorge. Or a partnership with a loved one. You need trust to take the next step and to risk taking increasingly vulnerable advances beyond that. Trust is what allows us to build anything substantial or long lasting.
Without trust we can be rendered immobile, unsure of how to make our way forward. This is where we find ourselves today. We’ve lost our trust in institutions, trust in our neighbors, and increasingly trust in what we see. We’re left reactive or paralyzed. We’re so tired of treading water but unable to make gains in any direction, for fear of dangers surrounding us.
Sometimes we place blind faith in things, based on emotion over evidence, just to find reprieve from the menacing depths. But our mistrust only grows. We become fiercely protective of the stories and people we find solace in, ready to attack anything that may poke holes in our certainties.
There are plenty of definitions breaking down the different components of trust, but in our eyes, it’s the idea that what you see in front of you is real, safe, or in any way reliable.
Counter to our original hopes for the internet, our unprecedented access to information is stripping away trust rung by rung. Instead of empowering us with knowledge and collective certainty, it’s causing our mental health and consensus reality to crumble. That’s not to say our world was any more trustworthy prior to the internet, it’s just that trust was never questioned by the majority.
AI is only driving us deeper into mistrust and potentially paralysis. AI further undermines the credibility of what we see in front of us. The environmental, societal, and psychological damage it inflicts is overlooked in favor of convenience. All while top researchers in the field openly admit that the tool is utterly unpredictable, likely harmful, and hurling us towards an even more uncertain future.
If the present day internet gives us little to hang on to in terms of authenticity, safety, and reliability, AI obliterates whatever remnants we’ve been clinging to.
How do we even begin to rebuild trust in the internet? In the systems we rely on? Or in humanity? Or the world at large? We’re not going to pretend to have answers to these massive, philosophical questions. But we can offer up a helpful metaphor, along with a potential path to consider.
Food, per usual, serves as our point of comparison. We’ve previously explored the different factors that contributed to the erosion of trust in our food industry, and how this downturn parallels the decline of quality and trust in our media culture. You can read all about this here. But suffice it to say, over the past few decades we’ve become acutely aware that automated production and synthetics in our food system are damaging our collective health. We’re witnessing similar negligent practices and their repercussions play out in Big Tech and large-scale media production.
But there is hope. We can learn from the slow moving wave of introspection, investigation, incentivization and regulation that eventually started to hold Big Food accountable, making room for more nourishing, trustworthy alternatives. Of course our global food systems are far from perfect, but we have come a long way in reestablishing faith in the quality, safety and long term impacts of the foods we buy.
How could a similar path course correct our internet industry?
Looking inward is the simplest way to start. Tuning into how your body and inner voice respond to specific content or technology can offer immense insight on where to place faith.
It’s wise to withhold trust from foods that leave us sluggish or sick, just like we should withhold trust in technology or content that makes us feel paranoid or defeated. Rather we should rely more heavily on foods that make us feel energized and vital, and media that leaves us feeling restored, motivated, or connected.
However, listening to our inner knowing can be challenging, or even misleading. We live in an ad-driven, disembodied era built on either suppressing or overstimulating our feelings.
Which is why we need to lean on our curiosity and logic to build a more solid foundation.
Deeper, more critical questioning helps pull us further towards truth and authenticity.
Once people started realizing their food was making them sick, they started asking questions…
What had they been consuming so blindly?…. What exactly were those 16 letter ingredients sprinkled throughout?…. Why was all this food so cheap?…. What was happening on all those far away farms?
This same level of curiosity should apply to the content we take in. Ask questions, read fine print, follow clues- all of this will further prove or disprove what your intuition is saying.
You’ll discover things like: This image is AI generated. This media outlet is funded by a company you don’t feel good about. This platform no longer employs human fact-checkers, or writers, or models. This software takes astronomical amounts of energy and water to run.
Background information is not always easy to find. You’ll encounter countless convoluted paths and dead ends. This in itself is a finding. Companies and creators producing with integrity are proud of their practices. They welcome transparency, readily detailing information about themselves. The more hidden the sourcing or means of production, the more reason to be wary.
No matter our level of rigor, questioning can only be effective if it comes with a willingness to change our minds and actions. Without openness or the ability to face our findings, our confirmation bias will pin us into distorted, destructive corners of our own making.
We developed a Reliability Deep Dive to help guide your investigation.
Introspection and curiosity can guide our daily interactions with technology, but putting them both to use consistently is exhausting. Which is why incentivization paves the way for longer term solutions.
Many food companies only started prioritizing our health + wellbeing over unmitigated profits once they were incentivized to do so. When people (who could afford to) rejected items and brands reliant on chemicals, additives, or unethical practices, in favor of higher quality competitors, the whole industry shifted to meet these changing demands.
This can happen with our media climate too. We can start abandoning content and platforms that make us feel dulled or paranoid. We can look into who’s actually creating or distributing the content we take in, along with what sorts of political or financial agendas they might inject.
We can favor platforms and creators that lead with authenticity and transparency. We can financially pressure tech companies towards more ethical and sustainable practices. We can place value in trust.
To further ensure legitimacy and compliance, legislation is the last piece that needs to come into place. Thankfully, there finally appears to be regulatory momentum in the digital space. The EU’s recent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Digital Services Act (DSA) show us what the future of consumer protections could look like- starting with more tech accountability, more ethical algorithms, and greater child protections.
Unfortunately bureaucracy will never keep pace with the tech world. We’re just starting to make a dent in mega-sized screen-based social media and sales platforms. AI, along with augmented and virtual reality necessitate drastically different conversations. The only way to expedite these discussions is to push these topics to the forefront of our political deliberations. Our internet climate underlies so many of the looming issues we face today. A society can only be as healthy as the information its fed.
Brené Brown famously likened trust to a marble jar. Marbles signify the countless micro-moments that cause your trust in someone or something to either deepen or degrade. Trust is an ongoing process, where marbles are continuously being added or removed.
The first jar to fill is our own. Building trust in the internet starts with the daily practice of nurturing trust in ourselves. We can soothe the cognitive dissonance that comes from engaging with media that we know hurt us. This uncomfortable feeling of self-sabotage is something we are forever trying to escape by reaching for our devices. Every time we make a choice in accordance with our values, we add a marble to our jar. And each time we ignore our better judgment in favor of convenience or convention, we take one out.
Once we start living in alignment with our values and collective benefit, ethical makers can start to trust that there’s a market for better creations. If there’s no faith in people’s willingness to select high-quality, ethical products over cheap dupes then what’s the point? The jars we assign to specific creators, platforms, and companies are slowly filled or diminished over time as we evaluate the integrity of their process and products. A full jar is the result of many transparent choices that prioritize our societal and psychological wellbeing over profits.
As we support these conscious producers, more will follow suit. This is when we can finally exhale and lean on the safe, authenticated and reliable networks that we have willed into being. This is when we can finally start adding marbles to the jar set aside for the system at large.
Perhaps this is the bright side of AI, and dare we even say, the larger cosmic purpose behind it all. Establishing trust is now an inescapable priority. No longer soft, insignificant or assumed, trust is being examined as our only hope for a stable future.
Our original conception of the internet and the open-sharing of information laid the foundation for unprecedented levels of societal trust. Let’s realign our daily online actions with that initial hopeful vision.
Make a list of the top 5 places you turn to for information. These may be:
- Specific news platforms or personalities.
- Online educational or instructional material.
- Authors or podcasts that you follow regularly.
It can be challenging to isolate specific sources. Scroll through your social feeds.
Browse your histories on the platforms or browsers you often visit. What sources grab your attention or show up most frequently?
Use our Reliability Deep Dive to evaluate each.