Most surveys and interpreters of modern life note a deterioration in trust by the majority of the population in political leaders, political parties and in authorities and experts of any kind. Politicians are automatically assumed to be self-serving, narcissistic and essentially corrupt and business leaders seen as excessively paid fat cats acting purely in their own interest? Along with this jaundiced view has come, for many, a loss of belief in the legitimacy, effectiveness and relevance of institutions. For a good portion of the population, certainly a significant minority, this amounts to a loss of trust in the basic systems of societies and governance and the narratives and shared assumptions and commonly presumed facts that support them. At the extreme, this turns to a loss of trust in scientific knowledge and the existence of objective facts. In this vacuum of trust and certainty, there is increased reliance on personal judgement, intuition and networks for validation of opinions. Modern communications networks make seeking and receiving such validation easy and immediate. Where there is trust, it is rooted in personal and local observation. This is leading to growing trust in employers and in local communities and networks of friends and the likeminded as trust in the distant and abstract decays.
It is intriguing that as trust in long established systems decays, because they are seen as opaque, trust is beginning to be placed in new technological systems that are unfathomable to the majority in terms of their working mechanisms and their security. A backlash may be looming, centred on fake news, extremism and echo chambers but, to a perhaps surprising extent, we still appear to trust technology – even to the extent that we leave terms and conditions unread – to deliver services and goods and eventually to solve many of society’s problems.
How accurate is this diagnosis? To what extent is the loss of trust by the public in leaders and institutions a reasonable reaction to a lack of a compelling vision for the future? To what extent is a loss of trust a reaction to betrayal and disappointment of the provinces in governing international metropolitan elites; or to perceived policy errors such as inconclusive and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global financial crisis of 2008? Is a loss of trust justified by the economic and social facts in our homes, streets and towns? How far is a loss of trust driven by deeper factors – a continued decline in deference to authority; the continued erosion of religion; the extension of democracy and self-determination; unresolved but persistent fears about the future? Are we facing new challenges to creating trust or just old ones in modern form?
What can we do to renew trust? Which institutions and leaders are succeeding in this and what can we learn from them? How do our institutions and systems need to change? How can technology help us, whether through centralised or distributed systems of identity and trust? What is the right balance for promoting trust between freedom of speech and publication on the one hand and moderation of comment and the protection of anonymity on the other?
This Ditchley Foundation discussion will bring together an eclectic mix of politicians, government servants, campaigners, commentators, technology innovators and business people to address these issues in support of the renewal of democratic societies, states, markets and alliances.