Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A New Perspective on Trust and Knowledge

Back in the days when knowledge management was being evangelized into the next major fad of information technology, the closest we seemed to get to an appreciation of the social dimension of knowledge came from those trying to escalate recent popular reading to buzzword status. One of more popular reading sources was the 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam. The book was actually an expanded version of an essay Putnam had published in the Journal of Democracy in 1995 under the title "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital;" and it did not take long for the phrase "social capital" to dribble from everyone's lips, whether or not they had actually read any of Putnam's texts or were aware that the concept itself had predated Putnam by at least eighty years.

One consequence was that one of Putnam's key points fueled interest in another aspect of social well-being that had attracted considerable attention from the business community. Putnam's point was that, if one accepted the commodity-based metaphor of social capital itself, then one of the key producers of that commodity was trust; and, in one of those ironic instances of Carl Jung's synchronicity concept, 1995 also happened to be the year in which Francis Fukuyama's book Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity was published. (In this historical context it is worth observing that Fukuyama had delivered a paper entitled "Social Capital and Civil Society" on October 1, 1999 at an International Monetary Fund Conference on Second Generation Reforms.) Needless to say, Fukuyama's judicious choice of a subtitle had the business community salivating as spontaneously as one of Pavlov's dogs; and things got to a point where you were surprised if the word "trust" did not emerge whenever a corporate leader gave a public address.

I offer this historical perspective as a context for reading a BBC NEWS report from China that appeared on their Web site this morning. Here it is (without the headline) in its entirety:

China's prostitutes are better-trusted than its politicians and scientists, according to an online survey published by Insight China magazine.

The survey found that 7.9% of respondents considered sex workers to be trustworthy, placing them third behind farmers and religious workers.

"A list like this is at the same time surprising and embarrassing," said an editorial in the state-run China Daily.

Politicians were far down the list, closer to scientists and teachers.

Insight China polled 3,376 Chinese citizens in June and July this year.

"The sex workers' unexpected prominence on this list of honour... is indeed unusual," said the China Daily editorial.

"At least [the scientists and officials] have not slid into the least credible category which consists of real estate developers, secretaries, agents, entertainers and directors," the editorial said.

Soldiers came in fourth place.

I can see why the Insight China editors would have been embarrassed by the survey results, since I suspect that they are under considerable pressure (even if it amounts to self-censorship) to downplay any aspect of the underground economy (or even to avoid admitting that such an underground economy exists); but a reaction of surprise is either hypocritically puritanical or just plain oblivious to the realities of the street. As I see it, the need for discretion is far more critical to the success of a sex worker than it is for scientists, who, in the spirit of the social capital of their profession see "knowledge sharing" as critical to the discovery of new insights. Put another way, the practice of science depends on a social setting that encourages considerable open discussion, much of which takes place over hypotheticals in language that can easily confuse or disquiet the lay community. Politics is not that different, except that normative behavior imposes greater restrictions on how open one can be. On the other hand openness is the last thing one expects from a sex worker. The United States even has a motto for that lack of openness: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." It would surprise me if the editors of Insight China were unaware of that motto; and it would surprise me just as much were they to assume that their prostitutes were any different from the "working girls" of Las Vegas. Mind you, I write this from the city where COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) was formed in 1973, serving as a first step toward the unionization of the peepshow dancers at the Lusty Lady in 1996. By all rights the Chinese should view this as a major episode in the grand narrative of the workers of the world; but I suspect that these particular workers must still contend with the "old tired ethics" of Chinese norms!

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