In a Wilderness of Mirrors: Do we still need Trust in the Online World?

  • TYPE: Keynote DATE: Tuesday, May 10, 2016 TIME: 15:10-15:30 LOCATION: AUDITORIUM
Conference Agenda

Dictionaries define "trust" as 1) assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; 2) dependence on something future or contingent, hope. The notion of "trust" implies two concurrent concepts. The English term "trust" originate from Old English treowian "to believe, trust," which comes from Proto-Germanic *treuwaz- "characterized by good faith, honest".  Interestingly enough, this is the same root of "truth". So, on the one hand, trust is related to truth. One is honest because he tells the truth. One trusts that something is true, but also one trusts because something is true.

On the other hand, there is a parallel notion of trust, which comes from Latin and Ancient Greek languages, and it is still present in English with the word "faith", which today means 1) fidelity; 2) firm belief in something for which there is no proof. Faith comes Latin fides, which meant trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence, belief. Fides came in turn from an Indo-European root -bheidh*, which was connected to animal sacrifices made for ratifying an agreement (with other people or with gods). What was the meaning of animal sacrifices on a solemn oath, or a contractual promise? That symbolic gesture meant, "Who will ever fail to keep his promise, he will suffer the same fate of this animal".  Trust is thus the penalty for breaking a contract and, consequently, what bolsters a contract.

By definition, trust occurs when an individual is confident of the result of an action, and the occurrence of good or bad results is contingent on the behavior of another agent that could be a person, a machine, a process or a system. Trust is thus always a gamble on the future. Today an important aspect of trust relates to the trustworthiness of collective infrastructures and technology.  In other words in the Information Society it is no longer possible to distinguish between the trust in technology systems per se and the trust in our fellow citizens with whom we communicate and (trans)act using those systems. When we take a plane, go to a restaurant, shop with a credit card, drive a car, etc., we entrust our goods and life not only in our fellow humans, but also, and to a wider and wider extent, in technology. People do not "trust" (or have no confidence in) technology alone. People  "trust" (or distrust) the social and political structure of which technology is a part.

"We have proposed a system for electronic transactions without relying on trust" (Satoshi Nakamoto, 2008).  With this sentence, Satoshi Nakamoto - the mysterious founder(s) of Bitcoin and initial creator(s) of the Original Bitcoin client – concluded his research paper presenting Bitcoin. In 2009, in the P2P Forum, Nakamoto explained better his thought "The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that's required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts".

The technology that underpins Bitcoin is called “blockchain”. A blockchain is a distributed database that maintains a continuously growing list of transaction records hardened against tampering and revision. It consists of data structure blocks with each block holding batches of individual transactions and the results of any blockchain executables. Each block contains a timestamp and information linking it to a previous block. Blocks can be used to prove ownership of a document (in the case of Bitcoin they include the number of bitcoins transferred) at a certain time, by including a one-way hash of that document in the transaction. Somehow, the blockchain crystalizes the electronic memory. There is indeed an ongoing discussion on the blockchain’s (in)compatibility with the so called “right to be forgotten". The permanent record created by the blockchain transactions could make it impossible to wipe out your digital traces and hence be incompatible with EU's privacy framework. Your past insolvencies, traffic tickets etc. become part of your permanent record.

The blockchain technology can be used – and it is in progress to be used – also in other fields beyond cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin. Basically any electronic transaction can be certified through a blockchain, e.g., 1) official records for ownership of any item; 2) intellectual property claims; 3) digital contracts; 4) employment and work records; 5) medical records; 6) supply chains  (e.g., to guarantee the origin of foods). Potentially disruptive blockchain applications also include, a)  m2m transactions via the Internet of Things: by using the blockchain would be possible for any object to be rented, sold or shared securely - without middlemen – allowing for direct payments between objects themselves; b) digital ID:  individuals could prove their existence and identity through documents recorded on the blockchain like a distributed public ledger. If this is coupled with biometrics, one could definitely overcome the standard scheme based on birth registration certificates issued by national authorities, creating a decentralized system for personal ID.

Bitcoin has been ultimately generated by the same global wave of distrust towards institutional bodies (not only governmental bodies) responsible for national and international governance. Such a mistrust has overwhelmed, in sequential waves of suspicion, politicians, political parties, trade unions, democratic institutions, the economic and financial system, and international institutions. This global trend has been sided by the spreading of conspiracy theories of any kind, ranging from fanciful recreation of 9/11events,  to urban legends about HIV infection (more recently Zika Virus infection), vaccination and autism, and so. The economic crisis has generated quite a number of conspiracy theories and weird stories about the financial system and its governance. Funny enough, for instance, the professional conspiracy theorist, David Icke, claims that all world financial institutions – such as the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund – were created and are currently run by a global elite, that he calls the "Babylonian Brotherhood". Such a secret organization - which would enlist people who range from Bob Hope to Queen Elizabeth II and Mario Draghi - would be made of descendants of an extraterrestrial race, the Reptilians. 

The blockchain appears as a technology invented to resist global elites (e.g., no more central banks and international institutions, no more passports), and - in the same time  - a technology  supporting  globalization, even in its extreme versions (e.g., one sole global currency, one unique global ID, etc.). This contradictory attitude can be observed also in the case of "trust".  The blockchain is marketed as a technology that does not oblige to rely on trust, yet in the same time the blockchain could work only because users trust it. One should more correctly state thus that the blockchain is not "against" globalization per se, rather it promotes different globalization schemes;  similarly, the blockchain does not eliminate the need for trust but it aims at relocating it from "discredited" actors  (i.e., politicians, bankers, bureaucrats, etc.) to a  network of  interconnected machines.  This explains the definition of blockchain as "a programmable distributed trust infrastructure" (Economist, 2015).

Blockchain users are asked to trust 1) the integrity of a complex mathematical formula; 2) that honest nodes collectively control more CPU power than any cooperating group of attacker nodes. Actually, the large majority  of Bitcoin users are not able to understand the mathematical formula and they cannot personally  assess its robustness.  (e.g., the Interpol has recently warned that at the blockchain can be used by hackers to export malware to all computers in the network).  Similarly, many Bitcoin users probably ignore that today 95% of hashing power is controlled by only a few pools of people.

Trust always involves some level of vulnerability on the actions of another. When we trust others, we are relying on them and consequently we are making ourselves more vulnerable. A bit naively, some scholars argue that trust decisions are based on a cost/benefit analysis, which is maybe theoretically true but it rarely happens in real life. In reality, many other elements play an important role, and they are critical in the case of the blockchain.  "In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do?" (Gerontion, T.S. Eliot 1920)

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Emilio Mordini is a clinical psychoanalyst, based in Paris (France) and San Vito al Tagliamento (Italy). Emilio has a background in medicine and philosophy. He is an expert on risk communication and psycho-societal impact of emerging technologies. His research activity focuses on the collective...

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Dr. Emilio Mordini - In a Wilderness of Mirrors: Do we still need Trust in the Online World?


European Identity & Cloud Conference 2016

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