Trust and Trustability

How Promise Theory tells us trust is really an economy of attention

Mark Burgess
10 min readMay 11


“Trust is one of the most commonplace ideas in our lives, at the root of almost everything we do, and yet it remains an elusive idea that we hand-wave about and even dismiss as part of the moral mystique of the human condition.”

So begins a summary of the Promise Theory of trust, that I’ve worked on as part of a project to understand the role of trust in our modern cybernetic society. Trust is upheld as one of the major challenges in the Internet age, where new power tools for deception and broadcasting have been handed to Everyman as part of a dream of freedom (freedom to do, but not freedom from harm).

In this short summary I want to try to explain how trust is really about how much effort we choose to put into watching over a process designed to keep some kind of promise. It’s a measure of our anxiety, perhaps, but based on some assessment made with (often) incomplete information.

The literature on trust is enormous, but almost none of it attempts to determine what role trust plays in life. That’s something researchers have taken entirely for granted. They focus rather on what leads people to trust or mistrust, as if knowing that is simply useful. But if we don’t know what trust “does”, why should we care?

The semantics of trust, confidence, and risk

Promise Theory

Ironically, the new Promise Theory of trust tells us that taking something (like trust) for granted is a naturally trusting reaction. We would rather trust trust than expend effort to understand it or hear about what it is. According to the Promise Theory, trust is a counting currency, something a bit like energy, that we use to put a number on work. In this case, it relates to the effort to obtain information — not just any information, but information about whether everything is as it should be: whether a promise is on target to being kept. Unlike physics, Promise Theory is not only about dynamics. It also adds the question of more detailed semantics of information (see my book In Search of Certainty for more details about semantics).

Trust and Promise Theory have had a long association, going back to 2007, when I was seconded to a retreat in Germany with my friend and collaborator Jan



Mark Burgess

@markburgess_osl on Twitter and Instagram. Science, research, technology advisor and author - see Http:// and Https://