Consciousness Blog 25 July 2010

Location-tracking devices, known as GPS data-loggers, such as Google Latitude and Foursquare which can be used on mobile phones are capable of undermining people's trust in one another, and since the devices are inaccurate at this stage of their development they can do unnecessary damage to relationships. Thus says PhD researcher Roba Abbas from the University of Wollongong, who recently presented her research on "location based social networking" at conferences in Australia. "There are fundamental trust issues where this technology is concerned," says Abbas.

The devices allow people to monitor the location of their partners, friends, relatives and others in real time on an interactive map. Working with a focus study group, Abbas found the majority of participants would not adopt the tracking technology. Their concerns included the potential for unwanted surveillance, invasion of privacy, and the ability of the technology to undermine trust in relationships.

In a further study in which 20 to 25-year-olds were asked to carry commercially-available GPS data loggers, participants ended up being negative about the devices: "While the data logging devices were initially perceived as a novelty by participants, significant concerns emerged after further consideration and extensive utilisation of the devices," says Abbas. "These devices provide you with information on where someone is but it doesn't provide you with information on why they're there and what they're doing. It doesn't actually tell you what a person's motives are."

Desdemona would tell you what can happen in a relationship when a partner happens upon inaccurate information. About a handkerchief, in that case, and the results were fatal for her.

Interesting that young people understand the importance of trust in a relationship so well, and apparently intuitively, so as to spurn a device which could undermine it. But where does that trust come from, and at what level of cognition does it originate?

It's not difficult to see that trust would be part of the package known as the 'social calculus' that emerged when human groups began to develop intricate social relationships. Humans seem to have a propensity to trust each other, and when one human meets another for the first time they eagerly commence learning about each other, using every clue they can find in order to establish trustworthiness. Many of those clues centre around group membership; they can be visual (your Old Etonian necktie), familial (you declare your kin-group identity), status-oriented (you say that you are a member of the stock-exchange) and so on. When enough information has been exchanged, trust is established, on one or preferably both sides.

Naturally, nowadays, much of this exchange uses language; but language is relatively recent, and trust probably existed before spoken language, based on visual cues (style of dress, physiognomy), sign language and perhaps primitive auditory exchanges. Carlyle understood the importance of dress to human society; in Sartor Resartus he explores the deeply-embedded foundations of human expression through dress.

If trust originated before language, and therefore before the development of self-awareness (meta-cognition), it is a fundamental building-block of human relationships, and one that is not under the conscious control of the human agent. Hence the unease of individuals who see that trust can be undermined by the conscious awareness of contrary data, and the 'unhinged' behaviour of someone who, like Othello, suffers a conflict between unconscious belief and conscious denial.

Read more in Chapter Three of Agent Human by Michael Bell, The Evolution of Social Consciousness in Humans.


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