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The Limits of Trust
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

We Can No Longer Agree On Conclusions, So Perhaps We Need Shared Processes?

Anybody who regularly flies in airplanes these days knows there's something up with the weather. There are more storms closing airports or causing bumpy fly-arounds. Is it a minor circumstantial occurrence, something that might last years or decades, or merely a step along a process that has been going on for millennia?

Concurrently, you and everyone else has an opinion on what America should do about its economic problems; I know I do, especially since it seems that what should work doesn’t and what hasn't worked might. No action undertaken by our political leaders seems right, even though we can all agree that living through the current situation is about as turbulent as a bad airplane flight.

What do these phenomena have in common? They're both examples of "big" issues on which we're wholly incapable of agreeing. It not only won't happen but structurally can’t happen, mostly because our technology has:

  • Increased to infinity our access to information, without increasing our abilities to process or apply it, while
     
  • Compressing to an instant the feedback loop for any action, which means we stay imprisoned in a perpetual here-and-now (in which nothing has time to work) instead of having the patience or perspective of a longer view.

Culturally, these technology prompts not only hobble us from reaching shared conclusions, but they increase in virulence with the importance of reaching collective agreements (i.e. it makes things harder the harder we work, like specific gravity increasing the closer you try to travel at the speed of light). This means we instead retreat into our biases and anger, substituting less useful or constructive behaviors like interpretation, opinion, intentions, and values. The major issues that face us are just too big for us to deal with and, just so conveniently, the technology exists to support our retreat into loud, mutually-supportive inertia of declarations and absolutes.

We don't have a problem accessing information, and there’s no shortage of proposed solutions. What our society lacks is any agreement on process. We've lost our ability to get to solutions just as we've adopted the tools that should have made those answers better and easier to share.

I wonder if this isn't a core problem for brands, too? As more marketing communication shifts to conversational media does it mean better understanding and agreement, or simply multiple, sustained divergent opinions? Is more informed synonymous with better informed? I'd bet that there are communities of consumers convinced that any given brand is either 1) great, 2) horrible, 3) in league with the Devil or with aliens, 4) marginally funny when they produce videos, but otherwise merit no more than a click now and then, or 5) a combination of the above.

There are many maps that purport to document how themes and ideas emerge from the collective of social media, but they're mostly retroactive; namely, they note points at which conversation occurred and what means were used, but no reliable model emerges to suggest the process is replicable. Worse, I'm not aware of a model for producing factually accurate conclusions, let alone good or helpful ones.

The process for conversation today, whether political or commercial, is about as deep and opaque as an ocean into which we're supposed to throw our trust that whatever surfaces represents the thoughts or will of the, er, fish. Or the best we can hope for is to find fellow fish swimming in the darkness and give them our trust, or hope that we can swim together and somehow find our way to whatever. Bad analogy, but you get the idea.

Maybe we're reaching the limits of trust?

If so, it would mean that the need is to craft more obvious, detailed, and transparent processes for reaching conclusions. Could politicians do this? Of course:

  • First off by banning any reference to "The People have said..." and instead creating reliable tools to register and share that input (although you could argue that voting already does it quite nicely)
     
  • Specifying metrics that will be attached to their policies and then sticking to them as reporting tools would help, too
     
  • Doing a far more focused job of checking on understanding along the way -- not just gauging approval, which can have beneath it woefully poor comprehension -- to ensure that citizens are buying into every phase of the process. This would make the conclusions simply points along a continuum of conversation (instead of the exceptions that break through the clutter and piss everyone off).

What would better processes look like for brands? I don't know, but they’d probably have nothing to do with marketing and be based instead in business operations. What do you think?

Added: 16th December 2010

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