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The importance of trust


Published: 01/25/2012


We have one of those wide-screen TVs; it is only an inch or two thick (although newer models are even thinner). It works
well and has a great picture. I have no idea how it translates the impulses received from cables and wires into colourful moving pictures. I suspect not many completely understand the physics on which these marvelous TVs are based.


Having this new TV reminded me of my grandmother. When I arrived home late one afternoon from university, she asked
me to fix her radio. I told her I was sorry, but I had no idea how to fix a radio. To this she said, “Well, what good is a university education if you can’t even fix a radio?” Wow, that was a profound question. Studying history, philosophy or psychology doesn’t equip one to deal with vacuum tubes, solenoids and electronic circuits.


In the Victorian world my grandmother grew up in, a curious, intelligent person – even if they lacked the skills to fix the things they used – had a pretty good grasp on how things were made and worked. They’d seen blacksmiths making horseshoes or hinges; there was no mystery involved in using oil, candles and gas lamps to bring light to a room; it was easy to understand how letters got to the right destinations; the new telegraph used a simple switch – a telegraph key – for breaking the current
into dots and dashes; and while steam engines seemed complex, everyone who’d boiled a kettle understood how steam is made and its power.


Basically, the Victorians had a lot of independent control over their lives;if things went wrong, they could make do.


Years ago I bought a book, How Things Work, full of explanations about everything from the Doppler Effect to how steel was
made. It was my go-to-it book for answers to questions my sons had – even about how radios worked.


The latest technology has left the Victorians, and my book of explanations, far behind. I’m left with a lot of unanswered
questions. How, in heaven’s name, do they make the tiny metal balls in ball point pens? How does a memory stick work? How can the printer fire minute drops of ink onto the paper? And the GPS, how does that work? And how many have a
firm grasp of the technology that gives us smart phones, BlackBerrys and iPads?


Probably I should give up asking such questions. All I get as answers are: “You plug the memory stick into a USB
port,” … “Use the remote, go to the main menu on the TV,” … “Hit the print button,”
“… pay the Geek Squad $250 and they’ll get your TV up and running.”


We have become dependent on technicians, call centres, electronic networks and the ‘cloud’ – whatever that is. If the
stuff fails, even for a few minutes or hours, we feel betrayed; if there’s a power blackout, we are totally helpless.


In our inability to understand the technology and complexities we rely on, we’ve developed a backup strategy. It is called trust. We trust the people who know to keep the products sage; the systems working; and the promises, performances and prices to be honest, true and fair.


One thing I learned from studying history is that the people who have information – people in-the-know – have a lot of
power; and those who are not in-the-know are exceedingly vulnerable. I suspect a lot of people, corporations and politicians are not all that interested in honouring the trust endowed upon them. According to an interview of a hedge fund manager I caught on the car radio, the smart brokers who created the funds and sold them were looking for ‘dumb money’.


Trust. Without it, our society would come to a halt.


Let’s be honest, no one stops to read what the fine print says on the forms you sign before you have an operation, get
insurance or start an investment plan, nor the ultra-fine print on product  guarantees or sales brochures. If we read them all, got every question answered, the whole system would grind to a halt! Most of us simply sign; an act of trust in the midst of the complexities of our lives.


It puts a different spin on the ancient Latin saying, caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). Today, more than ever, one’s signature is not evidence of knowledge, but of an act of trust. We need to shift the burden of responsibility to caveat actor (let the doer beware). No one should be able to betray the trust put in them by using obfuscation and fine print.  


•  Jim Campbell is an Oakville-based author and writer. Please send your comments to or via post to 115 George St., Unit 1524, Oakville ON L6J 0A2




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