Trusting Wizards

There used to be two groups of highly trained experts whom the average person could reasonably risk expect to need help from and whom they had no real way to check up on, other than talking with other members of the same group: Doctors and lawyers. Not incidentally those are both licensed professions pretty much in any jurisdiction on earth.

How do you find a good doctor? You can ask around, but unless you ask doctors or are lucky what you will end up with is a bunch of doctors that people trust, but not necessarily doctors who have great expertise; the people you ask are in no better position to judge a potential doctor than you are. However you do know that in any case your doctor has graduated medical school.

In theory it is the same with lawyers, but in the nature of lawyers is such that typically you either end up getting one assigned (i.e a public defender), get one you can afford where affordability is the most important criteria, or you are a relatively rare outlier.

Unless you are technically inclined yourself, you are essentially in the same position when you need computer assistance as when you need a doctor, except that there is no school you can be sure your computer guy has attended.

Your computer help guy is almost certainly self-thought, or he had any number of courses and degrees that may be highly relevant to your problem, but most likely are not (I have a degree in Computer Science and have taken a semester long course in networking but I don’t benefit from either of those when I need to configure a wireless network, remove Ask Toolbar, figure out why my sweet as pie grandma can’t get online or coach somebody on how to use a mouse. I benefit from being able to use google, a skill that, remarkably enough, is not thought in any class I remember to have taken).

So how do you figure out if you computer guy knows what he is doing? Well you could try to see if he solves your problem, but that requires you to: a) know you have a problem and b) be able to known when you no longer have a problem.

Can you do that?

For people who do not have great technical skills, computers might as well be magic and to deal with magic you need a wizard, and you better hope he is friendly. It is not a great concern what the wizard does exactly, and at any rate you are not likely to understand either what he does or why he choose to do it that way, what is a great concern is if he fixes the damn problem.

That is if you get to choose your wizard. Mostly you don’t: computers are everywhere, embedded in everything and control everything. So you absolutely have no choice but to blindly trust whatever group of wizards implemented them to not leak your personal files, let the bad guys in or mistakenly lose your important, personal or embarrassing data. And these wizards are not necessarily hostile, but your priorities are not likely to rate very highly with them. The quality of the coffee and the security of their jobs and professional reputation is going to be far more important.

This leaves a huge issue of trust. Trust is essential for any group of animals to work together and humans are an extremely trusting group (try to walk up and talk to a stranger and compare that to walking up close to almost any animal, even those that have no natural predators) but a lot of that trust comes from the certainty that transgressors will be punished for their crimes: I don’t really have to trust that you have my best interests in mind when you walk up to me, as long as I can be reasonably sure that your interests are not served by attacking me.

Historically that meant that I needed to belong to a tribe or alliance that was powerful enough to beat you up if you tried to attack me.

With computers the main problem isn’t being able to beat up the transgressor – there is absolutely no individual or group is powerful enough to inflict violence on a modern nation state and get away with it and any modern nation state will use its force to protect its citizens – the problem is to find out that there has been a crime committed and who did it.

How do you know when a wizard has attacked you?

When your computer stops working or acts funny? Computers stop working and start acting funny for any number of reasons, it could be your wizard or it could be any number of other wizards, but most likely it isn’t the fault of any particular person or even mal-intended at all.

So how do you find out if you have been attacked? You could ask your wizard, but there is an obvious problem: what if he claims that it wasn’t his fault? What if he claims it is your fault? You could assume he is lying and talk with somebody else, but if you do so to often, you will quickly run out of people willing to help you.

Only one thing to do: consult another wizard. This of course leads back to the original problem of finding a wizard you can trust, with the added issue that you now don’t have your first choice available and the new wizard will be somewhat suspicious about your questioning (though if it turns out that you were right, the new wizard is very unlikely to have any sympathy with your former wizard as nobody likes a person who reflects negatively on his or her tribe).

This suggests that wizards are the scary people: people that can do harm to you and get away with it – they could hack you computer, steal your bank account numbers and your nude photos then share them with some other criminals online, and never be in any real risk of being found out.

If your doctor or pharmacists poisons you, you can be reasonably sure that some other doctor will realise something is wrong (unfortunately this may not happen until you are dead), check it out and raise a rokus. If somebody puts a virus on your computer, it is almost certain that they will never be caught.

It is no wonder that people look with suspicion on people who have the technical skills to hack other computers then. These people feel like you feel being in the wrong neighborhood in the wrong city in the wrong country: I am not safe here, somebody could hurt me.

Now doctors and lawyers have overcome this with professional guilts that accredidate their members, long mandated schooling periods, rules for what you can and cannot do and they have the right to remove members who have breached professional codes of ethics.

Wizards do not have some sort of grand-wizard system, they do not have professional, legally mandated, accredations that gives a monopoly on being able to preform certain services and therefore cannot have a way to remove members that do not live up to their rules. The wizards lacks these things because they generally abhor authority, except the kind of authority you earn by being Right – and it seems the more powerful the wizards become, the less likely they are to be willing to subject themselves to the control of others. A surefire way to be bestowed esteem by other wizards is to use your skills to promote freedom or access to information.

But even if such a system could be mandated it would need to cover every country on the planet, unlike doctors (who must be physically present to treat you) and lawyers (the law is different in each country) programmers don’t benefit much from being in the same area as the client, which means that if you make a guilt system in the US the programmers who will be hired will mostly be Mexicans.

So without an international system, how can you trust a wizard? How can you feel safe knowing that they can’t attack you without being discovered?

Well you can’t. Without technical skill of your own you have no way to know if you are being bullshitted or not and you have no way to see if you are being bullshitted by a person who knows what he talks about (and is therefore lying to you) or somebody who is not (and is therefore likely not hostile, but also not to be trusted).

There is one other way to trust a wizard: find somebody you already know well and trust, who also happens to be a wizard (thankfully wizards are much easier to find in real life than in most fantasy series).

Unfortunately that is almost certainly going to fail when you don’t get to chose your own wizard, which as we have seen are most of the time.

This has consequences for wizards, who must work hard at being trustworthy and who will always be considered suspect by non-wizards, because they have no guaranty that the wizards can be trusted and this has consequences for a society that must have special class of people who have access and ability to interperent reality for them. Between the fall of Rome and the wide spread use of the printing press, this was the position the Catholic church found itself in. In a world without mass literacy you needed a priest to tell you about the faith and be your connection to God, and you better hope he was friendly. In a technological world you need a wizard to tell you the nature of reality, and you better hope he is honest.

So the real solution to trusting a wizard is to become a wizard yourself. Or at least more of a wizard: if somebody knows how a computer works it requires much more skill and cunning to bullshit them than if they don’t.