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Nutters.org The Nutter Log
'Hierarchy' of trust? Entry id: web-of-trust
By The Famous Brett Watson
On Tue, 27 Mar 2001 16:20:00 +1000

[An email to Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News.]


I take exception to your use of the word "hierarchy" in your recent Mercury News column.

A hierarchy (roughly speaking) is a structure with a single node at the root, and an increased number of nodes at each level below that, with a "subordinate of/to" relationship between linked nodes in adjacent levels. Most businesses have a "management hierarchy" in exactly this sense. Hierarchy is far too suggestive of an artificially imposed bureaucracy, like a "ministry of truth".

Rather than a "hierarchy" of trust, people naturally construct a "web" of trust. A web of trust is not a neat structure like a hierarchy, but has different threads assigning trust of different weights on different matters to different people. The subjective nature of webs means that people will disagree about who to trust and what is a fact, but that's normal.

The Internet has disrupted many webs of trust because it's changed the rules of communication, but, given time, people will adjust. The best any of us can do in the interim is speed the process by educating people about the new rules: teaching them to identify the publisher, and how to detect forgeries. So you're absolutely right that we need to re-learn the boundaries of trust, but trust is more like a web than a hierarchy.

Personally, I'm moderately hopeful that exposure to the Internet will make people think more actively in general about what and why they believe. A little epistemic auditing never did anyone any harm.


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