[ExI] Trust (Was: Security clearances)

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Sun May 15 19:57:29 UTC 2016

On 2016-05-15 18:18, spike wrote:
> >…Cool. And mildly frightening… Anders
I was refering to disagreeing with Spike as mildly frightening, but 
sure, crazy presidents also belong in that category :-)

> So what if…the internet goes down that day, or some important portion 
> of it, and now America does not know the rightful legal custodian of 
> all those fireworks?  What if there is an ambiguous outcome and the 
> electoral college convenes, then perfectly legally hands us a third 
> candidate?
> Anders, being an outsider and black swan expert, your take on this 
> will likely be most enlightening.

The key thing is trust. That is what holds societies together, not 
communications nor money. If there is trouble and confusion, will you 
trust your neighbour? Or the local authority figure? Or other 
institutions? It seems to me that the US is suffering a pretty big 
breakdown of trust in federal institutions, although it is hard to tell 
how much that is actual distrust and how much is venting. It is harder 
to tell what the trust levels in civil society is, since it is fairly 
inhomogeneous in the US. But overall my impression is that it is 
actually fairly OK compared to many other places.

If the net goes down on election day, you will have a lot of 
institutions scrambling for restoring legitimate structure. Some will be 
at odds by accident or design. Believing they will fail to come up with 
workable solutions suggests a rather serious distrust of them. But that 
is not the same as actual reasons to think they will fail. Compare to 
thinking that the engineers and sysadmins will fail at restoring the 
Internet after a serious error: does that (less political) scenario 
sound likely? Sure, we can construct scenarios where it happens, but do 
we really think those scenarios have the bulk of probability?

My outside perspective is that the US is a loud, messy democracy with 
some unhealthy polarisation and obsession with the constitution, but 
also fairly competent political engineers and a way stronger civil 
society than many other western states. Just like how courts often 
sidestep what seems to be deep technological or logical problems by 
using rough but kind of common sense praxis, that messy system is 
actually quite robust to even severe challenges as long as the core 
trust is good enough.

Your (and many others) disquiet is perhaps not driven by evidence of 
maliciousness or incompetence, but rather a feeling that DC (and many 
other governments) is not really legitimate anymore. If it does not 
represent you in the proper way, then it is a frightening, dangerous 
behemoth. If it is really true that general trust is too low, then it 
might be fragile to a disturbance. But the real problem remains the lack 
of trust-building legitimacy: no amount of risk management can fix that.

Anders Sandberg
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Oxford University

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