Friday, December 26, 2008

Who Do You Trust?

It was a long time ago now, back in the mid-1960's. I was a young Physics major on a half-tuition, fees, and books scholarship from the United States Navy in those post-Sputnik years when the government was subsidizing science education. In my Summers I worked as a student-trainee intern for the Navy at the Naval Air Development Center in Warminster, Pennsylvania. It's not there anymore, a victim like so many other facilities of refocusing of priorities.

On a particular day I was walking across one of the big hangers where we reconfigured aircraft for development testing with another student. The topic was how anyone could really understand the complex systems that we worked on. The point was that total system understanding didn't necessarily grow out of local subsystem understanding, what is called today emergent behavior. How did anyone know that the whole complicated thing was going to work? Of course the answer is really that no-one really knows. There is a whole lot of hubris wrapped up in the design of complex systems.

Mike Hess was my companion and he said something I've always remembered: "My dad says it's all a game of who do you trust?" said Mike. His dad was an engineer. The point was that the integrity of any system depended on the integrity of the pieces and these in turn depended on the integrity and expertise of the people who designed them. It really is a very large game of "Who do you trust?"

Later my dad, who had risen to the rank of Rear Admiral was talking to me about how to assume the command of a large organization you were unfamiliar with. He said that you had to find a trusted assistant who knew how the organization worked and then trust him (or her) to give you good advice. These and other experiences rattled around in my head and gelled into a philosophy that popped out when I was traveling with a friend of mine in Sperry's marketing department, Harvey Dennison. We were talking about what was important.

"Two things," I said, "are important. People and ideas." People are important because it is only because of people that anything at all is important. Ideas come from people and the good ideas, the true ideas, the meaningful ideas are those that guide our lives. Sometimes the ideas are too complicated or too involved for everyone to understand them, whether they are true or false, good or bad, meaningful or meaningless. Then it becomes a game of "Who do you trust?" The signposts of trust are knowledge and good will. Good will is useless without knowledge and knowledge is destructive without good will. I find myself still reflecting on "Who do you trust?" and that has been much of the motivation of my search for the clear minds I talked about a few days ago.

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