A Matter of Trust

I'm writing this column from table No. 3 at Peet's Coffee in Cupertino, Calif.

Why am I here, instead of working from my own home office two miles away? Therein lies a story.

Simply put, my Comcast cable service crashed Wednesday afternoon at 4 p.m. That not only means my Internet access is down on all five of our family computers, but my cable television is down, as well. In fact, the only service still working in our house is the landline phone, and that's only because, when Comcast offered that service, as well, my wife replied, "I don't trust you people not to screw that up, as well. I need something in this house I can depend on to work right."

And, in fact, she used that phone to call Comcast to report the outage. And I took off for Peet's to file this column.

How annoyed I am at this loss of service, a service I depend upon to make my living? A little bit less than load-the-Winchester angry, but a whole lot more than kids-having-a-drunken-party-next-door pissed off. The cable TV I can live without -- although it makes the kids a little more bored and truculent than usual -- but that's because I spend more time these days on the Internet than television.

But the loss of my wireless router and, thus, my Internet connection, has got me wandering about in a Lear-like confused rage. This is my livelihood, my entertainment, my connection to the bigger world. I can't get my e-mail, I can't research my story, I can't find out what's going on out there.

OK, but I'm actually angrier than the loss of those things would predict. After all, I can go into any Starbucks, Peet's, or even Mickey D's these days and find a wireless hot spot. And Comcast promises to come out today -- hey, thanks! -- to find out what's wrong.

No, I think the real source of my anger is what can best be described as a betrayal of trust. There is no greater source of anger in this world than just that sort of violation. Open the newspaper or turn on the news (as if I could right now) on any given day and probably half of the stories involve just such a betrayal: adultery, breaches of contract, anger at politicians, blown drug deals, embezzlement, child molestations, angry consumers, etc., etc. Seen from this perspective, it sometimes seems that almost every form of human friction devolves into some kind of betrayal of perceived trust.

What is surprising about this is that, despite the fact that we live in a largely scientific, empirical world -- one in which natural scientists, sociologists and economists have come up with yardsticks and equations to measure and quantify almost every kind of human behavior -- we really have no common and accepted measure for trust. And, it follows, because we lack that measure, we have no precise way of knowing when that trust changes, when it fails, or what the consequences will be of that failure.

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