what is trust? (archived post)

by benjamin hollon on december 31, 2021

Life is full of questions: Who should we trust? Why is there so much untrustworthy information available? How far should trust extend?

This year, I want to do something different; I’ll be closely looking at how technology has shaped our lives and what you—yes, you—can do to be more in control of your digital environment.

Understanding technology begins with understanding how trust works—at least, how it should.

Everyday Trust

Who do you trust?

It’s a simple question. Do you trust your family? Your coworkers? Your friends? Your teachers and classmates? The news? The government? Wikipedia? Google? Social media? Apps on your phone? YouTube videos? Ads? This article?

Trust is healthy. Paranoia leads to broken relationships, time wasted peeling off layer after layer of abstraction, and skepticism far past the point of diminishing returns.

Trust is evident in everything we do. When I tell my friends about the latest discoveries in space exploration, they don’t immediately fact-check what I say with peer-reviewed scientific journal articles. When I’m told to come downstairs for dinner, I don’t assume the presence of an elaborate plot to waste my time.

Some trust, however, is misplaced. Sometimes, we extend our faith toward people and organizations that do not deserve it.

Broken Trust

When does someone cross the line into being untrustworthy? Surely honest mistakes are okay. Are there other misrepresentations of the truth that are not acceptable?

Usually, I lose trust in anyone who willfully distorts the truth for his or her own gain. If someone puts personal advancement over truth, it shows me that they do not value my trust in them enough to justify its continuation.

That goes for businesses, too. If a company lies or bends the truth for the sake of profit, it does not deserve my attention or money, and I will do all I can to move away from its service.

Categories of Trust

Trust is not always absolute; I might trust NASA to tell me when the next Ingenuity flight will be, but not to inform me on the proper amount of toothpaste to use when brushing my teeth. I trust my parents to recommend excellent books but not to tell me which software exploits its users.

This is because my decision-making progress appeals to authority. While the Appeal to Authority is a logical fallacy—meaning that an expert’s say-so is not proof—it is usually an excellent gauge of how much you should trust someone. A Nobel-winning astrophysicist is more likely to know how stars work than your average Joe.

I don’t ask my parents how secure apps are because I am a more knowledgeable authority than they are in that specific area. I have spent the last year doing a great deal of research into how software can betray its users’ trust and know the signs of dishonest software better than my parents do. Please note, this does not mean I do not trust my parents; on the contrary, I have the utmost trust in my parents and would even say they have a better understanding of software security than most people do. That being said, I do not think they are more qualified than I am to recognize insecure or dishonest software.

That’s an important step: sometimes you have to realize that you are more qualified than others to make decisions. It’s a difficult realization to have, so I have three questions I ask to help me decide whether I am knowledgeable on an issue.

Have I read multiple arguments from every side of this issue?

To be knowledgeable, you need to know all of the common opinions people have on your issue. Please note that I said “every side” of the issue, not “both sides.” Nearly every issue has more than two opinions. Even when discussing “yes” or “no” questions, different people will have different reasons for their beliefs and usually defend those beliefs with various levels of fanaticism.

I also believe you need to read multiple arguments from the same side. Not everyone knows how to present an argument well, and you should give every idea a fair chance by trying your best to find a source that makes it shine. If you read multiple sources and none of them makes logical sense to you, you probably have not looked hard enough.

This can take some time. It’s taken me over a year to get to this point with the issues behind ethical software usage, and I’m discovering new hot topics of debate daily.

Earlier I said you should generally trust the experts; I don’t think that applies when you are claiming to be knowledgeable in your own right. Experts are not always correct. While you should still read their arguments, you need to make your own decision once you have read all the opposing viewpoints.

In fact, these questions are an excellent way to gauge the experts’ own ability in their field. Try considering whether they apply to the people you’ve seen who appear knowledgeable.

Can I intelligently hold my own in a respectful debate about this issue?

Here’s the test. Conversing with someone who cares about your issue and making points you feel proud of shows that you may be knowledgeable.

In my case, I have had discussions online with other people who care about digital privacy and the fair use of tech and have come out of them feeling proud of myself and respectful of their sometimes differing opinions. I’ve also had in-person discussions with people who are less informed about this issue. They have been interested in hearing my views and pointed out some ideas I had not considered.

There are two key words in this question: “intelligently” and “respectful.” A debate is not a shouting match or a chance to insult your opponent. You have to listen to your opponents and respond to them with points they acknowledge as well-formed.

I don’t think good debates are “won” or “lost”; the point is to blend ideas and come out with something new. Sometimes, both parties will agree with each other at the end, but they will seldom agree with what either initially argued. Compromise can be a beautiful thing.

Am I willing to change my mind?

This is possibly the most crucial characteristic of knowledgeable people but is often missed. While experts may have studied for years, done research, and had debates, I do not consider any “expert” trustworthy who is unwilling to admit mistakes and change opinions.

Here’s why: if you aren’t willing to change from your original ideas, no amount of education will benefit you; you will see precisely what you wish to see in your research and dismiss the rest.

Sometimes change happens. Sometimes, you begin with false assumptions and evidence. Sometimes, you’re just plain wrong.

But as long as you’re willing to switch viewpoints, you can become knowledgeable in anything you put your mind to.


As I said early in this article, I’m doing something different this year. I want to focus what I post on this blog on a specific topic: digital citizenship. Our modern society revolves around technology, but technology should revolve around it. Rather than adjusting our lives to match what tech companies want, we should force technology to fit what we want.

Ability comes from understanding. To be able to shape technology, you must first understand it.

This year, I will do my best to teach you how the technology you use every day works.

A key idea behind being a digital citizen is trust; online identities don’t work the way we’re used to. It’s easy to lie or cheat or steal with few consequences, if any. That’s why I began the series with this article; so we adjust to thinking through who we can trust in the digital world we’ve built.

Another thing I want to do from now on is to end each post with a simple, actionable step or list of steps you can take to apply the lesson. Here’s what you can do this week to evaluate the ways you currently trust people:

  1. Write down the names of three people you trust. Think about why you trust them and what areas you trust them in.
  2. Write down the names of three organizations you trust. These could be businesses, news sources, or even random websites.
  3. Write down the names of three people or organizations you do not trust.
  4. Write at least three sentences explaining the difference between those you do and do not trust.
  5. For extra accountability, post your results from step four below in the comments (it’s all fixed!). You don’t have to leave your real name if you aren’t comfortable with it; if you’d like, you can even contact me directly. I promise I’m willing to hear any criticism and feedback and reconsider my own stance!

See you in my next post, and I hope you’re enjoying this new direction as much as I am.

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