Trust and technology

Trust in the age of the machine

In the medical world various equipment is now helping in the making of decisions relating to people. This leads one to wonder what exactly this does for the confidence that people have in various decisions made by themselves and by others.

imagePoliticians, psychologists, marketers, moralists and sociologists all mean something different when they use the word “trust”. Quite often it is merely an indication of the chance of succeeding in something, such as getting somebody to buy a certain product or vote for a particular party. In such cases, it is nothing other than an instrument in a transaction. That, however, is not what Dr. Philip Nickel understands when he talks of trust. “To me trust has to do with the conveyance of morals”, he says. “When you place your trust in someone that means that you are prepared to be influenced by that person when making ethical decisions but that you also subsequently hold him responsible if you are disappointed.”
The relationship which exists between a doctor and his patient is perhaps one of the most obvious examples. When it comes to making important decisions the latter follows the advice of the former because he does not possess the knowledge to accurately assess his own health situation. That is surely something fundamentally different from allowing yourself to be convinced that a certain washing powder washes whiter.
In the technological era in which we now live appliances are coming to play an ever bigger part in the medical world. “But a machine has no moral sense”, Nickel comments. “Why, then, should you trust a machine? Doctors are relying increasingly on the knowledge systems that are built into scanning equipment, to give but one example. The equipment thus does part of the analysis. What consequences does that have for the feelings of certainty surrounding the doctor’s diagnosis? How does that affect the trust that the patient places in his physician? These are the kinds of questions that intrigue me.”
According to Nickel, an interesting way of contemplating all of this lies in asserting that people must be convinced that the motives of others also extend to protecting their interests. You trust your doctor because you know that it is also in his interests to see that you get better. If technology is involved you similarly have to be convinced that the creators of such technology have also done their best to serve your interests.
These questions do not only pertain to medical matters but also to totally other issues such as open source software. Almost invariably the decisions of such users are not just based on practical factors but also on moral considerations: since the makers of open source software endeavour to achieve transparency by making their source code public they show that they are aspiring to uphold certain moral standards. “Open source fans” then identify with such a stance so that they, in turn, gain more faith in such software.