The project I’m writing centers on trust. The more I think about the word and the concept of trust, the more complicated it becomes.

Most definitions of trust contain some combination of “confidence” and “reliability,” both of which often include trust in their own entries. Circular definitions are not especially helpful, so let’s try to pull them apart.

Confidence is an inner conviction, a firmly-held belief often (but not always) supported by facts or prior experience. I have confidence that it will not rain today, because it’s below zero outside.

Reliability is the quality of being able to depend on something to consistently perform as expected. They’re expensive, but the reliability of these hard drives is unmatched.

Combining these two ideas, we can arrive at a pretty good definition of trust:

Trust is confidence in the reliability of someone or something.

Or, in longer form:

Trust is the inner conviction that someone (or something) will do what you expect.

When you look at trust this way, you see several fascinating characteristics:

  1. Trust is something internal, a personally-held belief.
  2. The focus of trust is something external.1
  3. The focus of trust is something that can take its own actions. You can trust your neighbor or your dog. But it’s weird to talk about trusting a chair or a newborn.2
  4. Trust is a prediction about the future. Even in the past tense, it’s referring to the then-future: “I trusted him, but then he slept with a barrista.”

Trust has many thematic cousins — faith, hope, belief, honor — all of which can be explored in fiction. But for the screenwriter, trust is better.

Trust is dramatic.

Trust works well on screen because it’s about a relationship between two characters, and can be explored with actions rather than just words.

The rival soldiers who find themselves stranded behind enemy lines? Trust.

The husband whose wife snoops through his email? Trust.

The scorpion and the frog? Trust.3

Like faith, hope, belief and honor, there’s an internal aspect to trust, but it manifests outwardly. You don’t just trust; you trust someone. And the process of one character growing to trust another character lends itself to interesting scenes and conflicts. Often, late-story actions reveal whether that trust was well-placed.

We often speak of trust when it’s broken. Or shattered. Or destroyed. Worth noting: when we lose trust in someone, it’s rarely described gently. It’s almost always smashy and violent. In fact, we often discuss trust using crystalline metaphors:

Trust is like a mirror, you can fix it if it’s broken, but you can still see the crack in that motherfucker’s reflection. (Lady Gaga, Telephone)

Trust means drama.

Impersonal trust, and corporate anthropomorphization

Trust is also supposedly at the heart of the sharing economy we live in, but what does it mean to trust Facebook, or Amazon, or Uber?

In the case of Uber and Lyft, the companies have a human face: the driver who picks you up. You have a pact of unspoken trust between you. You trust the driver to deliver you to your destination; she trusts you not to vomit in the back seat.4 Both of you trust the service to handle all the money details.

But with Amazon or Google, there’s no person in front of you to trust or distrust. When Stuart says he “trusts Google Maps,” what is he actually trusting?

I’d argue he’s trusting an anthropomorphized entity he’s created in his head. He’s already granting it a sort of consciousness: “Google Maps wants me to take the 10, but that’s crazy, right?”

The Supreme Court was criticized for recent decisions that treated corporations like individual persons, but the truth is we do it all the time. It’s a useful shorthand (“Apple fears Android growth”), and allows us to distinguish the employees of a corporation from the corporation itself. “I admire the engineers at Google, but not Google.”

And we’ve always done it with countries. (“France wants a carbon tax.”)

In personifying abstractions like countries and corporations, we’re able to talk about whether we trust them. But I’m not sure that’s a good thing overall.

Maybe if we looked at them for what they are — a collection of moving pieces, more like a swarm than a single entity — we’d be more prudent. Can you trust something that is constantly changing and reassembling itself?

That’s a good dramatic question. I call dibs.

  1. In a phrase like, “trust my own eyes,” the eyes are not the person speaking. Even in phrases like, “trust yourself,” it’s still a transitive verb. I’d argue the “you” you’re supposed to trust is a projection of an idealized person.
  2. Can you trust a robot or a zombie? The answer depends on the degree to which you believe it’s making its own decisions. If it’s just following its coding or brain-chomping instincts, the best you can do it predict it, not trust it.
  3. And overdone. Can we please stop referencing the scorpion and the frog?
  4. My last Uber had paper bags, much like you’d find in airplane seatbacks, ready for drunken Saturday night customers.