Musing about trust and vulnerability in the space where real and virtual meet

There’s been a lot written recently about the interaction between real and virtual worlds, by people far more knowledgeable about the subject than I could ever be. Yet, something that happened to me over the past couple of days made me think harder about the days to come.

What happened was almost trivial. Some of you know I had had a heart attack last Christmas, and that I wear a pacemaker. (An Implantable Cardioverter-Defibrillator, to be precise). This wee tim’rous beastie they call an ICD has a little built-in alarm. And said little built-in alarm went off in the early hours of Monday morning.

It was an unusual feeling, having an alarm go off inside you. A small part of me went into immediate panic mode, while the rest of me looked at the “facts” as I could see them; I reasoned that I’d never felt better, I was working out every day, I was learning to swim, the weather was hot and gruelling, my recovery rates were good, I was eating well and sleeping well, God was in His heaven and all was well with the world.

And so I carried on through Monday, determining to check things out after I returned to London. There were little voices whispering irritating things to do with having to have another operation, but I wasn’t listening.

Then the same thing happened Tuesday morning. This time I could not let it be, so I woke up early and called my cardiologist. Waited for his call back, resigned myself to not exercising or swimming until I knew better. He called back, and the answer was what I had hoped for.

What mattered most was how I felt. The alarms could have been caused by a number of factors, the key issue was how I felt. And I felt fine.

The incident made me think about the intersection between real and virtual worlds, and how more and more we live in that hybrid world. With hybrid signals. Lots of signals.

The signals need interpreting. Which means we have an increased reliance on people who can do the interpreting, although in most cases the final call will be personal.

This reliance on people doing the interpreting is what concerned me. It requires people to give honest open professional advice, making themselves extremely vulnerable. We need the “valuable but vulnerable” professional advice that Michael Power spoke so eloquently about in The Risk Management of Everything. Yet all the signs are that we are moving into a more and more litigious society, with (as Professor Power intimated) the small print outweighing the valuable advice.

Trust is going to mean something else as the real and virtual worlds collide, and as the sources and devices for signals and alarms increase exponentially. Trust is going to mean vulnerability on both sides, both trusted and trusting. That vulnerability is going to require covenant relationships in order to do away with the garbage-net of litigation.

Unless we do this, unless we move to covenant relationships between professional parties and the public at large, we are going to be overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the noises we hear rather than the signals we should be listening to. Not waving but drowning.

3 thoughts on “Musing about trust and vulnerability in the space where real and virtual meet”

  1. JP, I do not think these issues have anything to do with the “meeting” of the virtual and the “real” (which I prefer to call “physical”). I think it has more to do with how the prevailing cultures of work and leisure seem to be eroding our capacity for social discourse. This was the primary message behind the “death of communication” post on my own blog yesterday:

    Note that this post incorporates that Stravinsky quote I threw at you and takes it in a new direction. Note, also, that my point of departure consisted of some “hard” data points reported on the CNET News Blog. This was a serious effort on my part to get beyond the anecdotal!

    For all that your final paragraph is equally valid in either context (the meeting of the virtual and the physical or the more general question of social discourse). Nevertheless, here I must also disagree. We are dealing with questions of normative behavior, and normative behavior can only be covenanted under the most draconian forms of authoritarianism. In any other setting human behavior one can attempt (but not necessarily succeed) at INFLUENCING but not covenanting. Unfortunately, influence is most often achieved through communication; and, if our capacity for social discourse really IS deteriorating, then your drowning metaphor may be the shoe that fits the best.

  2. Yes, the signals are increasing. But the human animal has proven to be superb at abstracting the significant from the distracting. So far we have shown no signs of succumbing to the information overload.
    You interpret the intersection of the real and virtual worlds as increasing the hybrid signals and therefore imperiling us with information overload.
    Certainly there is a real danger that this could happen. But I want to suggest that, counter intuitively, the reverse is happening for four reasons.
    First, in earlier decades we were hostage to the presumed professional skills of those in our vicinity. Now the virtual world allows us to check their conclusions by consulting others in the virtual world. This extended sharing of experiences helps us make better sense of the world around us by liberating us from the proximate.
    Secondly the virtual world is evolving means of abstracting information that we can appeal to. Wikipedia is an early, if still imperfect example of what is happening. I call this liberating us from presumed authority.
    Thirdly it liberates us from the persona. The professional intermediary who interprets our signals has a persona finely tuned to instilling belief and respect. This leads us to replace critical assessment with credulous acceptance. The virtual world strips away the mask of the persona.
    Fourthly we are liberated from dogma. The flood of information the virtual world exposes us to seems to me to have the effect of sharpening our critical and evaluative faculties as we are forced to search through, sort and categorise the information.

    In earlier decades we evolved to quickly make sense of a multitude of visual, auditory, olfactory and tactile cues.
    Now we are evolving to quickly make sense of a multitude of cognitive cues.

Let me know what you think

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