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Rebuilding a Foundation of Trust

We had a sad day for America this week. Rioters stormed the capital to disrupt the election. Everyone has a right to protest but it’s the way you protest that matters. At its heart, a good protest is about getting your voice heard while letting other people give their voice as well.(1)The Woodward Report, Yale University’s decades-long policy on protest, has a good summary of why you should do this. This wasn’t a protest, it was an attack on the infrastructure of democracy.

Democracy starts with having a good heated discussion. There are arguments and passion but that’s good because these things are important. Then we come to a vote and we all agree to follow that vote even if we disagree with that outcome. We hold this principle sacred and have faith in this process. This is like the faith that the dollar in our pocket is really worth a dollar in purchasing power. As a country, we all agreed to the fact that these electoral ballots have real power. These ballots are really just pieces of paper, and if the mob had been able to get to them, they could have easily destroyed them.(2)This sanctification reminds me of how a priest saved the communion wafers from Notre Dame.

In order to be successful, you need to be able to trust other people. This is the basis of community and how we arose from hunter-gatherers. We need to trust that the people who grow our food aren’t selling us harmful food. Because we can’t trust each individual farmer, we have regulations at the FDA to do it for us.

Working with computers I think about trust a lot. This is what cybersecurity and hacking are all about—who do you trust and who is trying to abuse that trust. Ken Thompson, one of the pioneers of computing, discussed this in his 1984 lecture Reflections on Trusting Trust.(3)Ken Thompson gave Reflections on Trusting Trust as his Turing Award lecture in 1984. The Turing Award is can be thought of as the Nobel Prize of Computer Science. Thompson said that in software, you always need to trust the people that you’re buying software or getting software from. If you don’t trust some underlying foundation of what you’re building upon you can’t be sure that your software is secure.(4)When I wrote this I didn’t think that the code itself was infected. Now it looks like it was so of course other people are quoting the same Ken Thomson speech.

Just as Thompson said, we need to be able to trust each other in order to trust the infrastructure that we’re building. We need to come together and reconfirm the basic facts and processes that run the government. Without that, we don’t have an election, we just have some pieces of paper.

Notes: NPR has a good article on the sanctity of the capitol. Stratechery wrote about how when we think about what should be moderated on the internet we need to separate discussions with each other vs. attacks on the infrastructure.

Footnotes

1 The Woodward Report, Yale University’s decades-long policy on protest, has a good summary of why you should do this.
2 This sanctification reminds me of how a priest saved the communion wafers from Notre Dame.
3 Ken Thompson gave Reflections on Trusting Trust as his Turing Award lecture in 1984. The Turing Award is can be thought of as the Nobel Prize of Computer Science.
4 When I wrote this I didn’t think that the code itself was infected. Now it looks like it was so of course other people are quoting the same Ken Thomson speech.