The upside of system distrust and social dread

Although not first thought of as such, critical infrastructures are a key institutional mechanism for the distinguishing and dispersing social values.

Critical infrastructures instantiate social values not abstractly but as differences taken into account when societal reliability and safety matter now. These differences—more properly, differentiated knowledge bases about and orientations to reliability and safety at the event and system levels—are reconciled by infrastructure control rooms (where they exist) in real time and in the name of ensuring high reliability (including safety), then and there.


Trust is a good example of how a social value is specified and differentiated by infrastructures. Broader discussions about “trust requires shared values” miss the fact that team situation awareness of systemwide reliability operators is much more about knowledge management, distributed cognition, and keeping a shared bubble of system understanding than it is about “trust” as a singularly important social value.

For that matter, distrust is as core as trust. One reason operators are reliable is that they actively distrust the future will be stable or reliable in the absence of the system’s vigilant real-time management. There has been much less discussion of the positive function of distrust as a social value. In contrast, “distrust” often takes the adjective, “polarizing.”


So too for “dread.” Widespread social dread–as in the societal dread that drives the reliability management of very hazardous infrastructures–is almost always taken to be negative. Here too, though, dread has a positive function.

Every day, nuclear plant explosions, airline crashes, financial meltdowns, massive water-supply collapse—and more—are avoided that would have happened had not operators and managers in these large systems prevented their occurrence.

Why? Because societal dread is so intense that these events must be precluded from happening on an active basis. (It might be better to say that we don’t know “societal dread” unless we observe how knowledgeable professionals operate and manage complex critical infrastructures.)

There is such fear of what would happen if large interconnected electricity, telecommunications, water, transportation, financial services and like did fail that it is better to manage them than not have them. We’ve structured our lives to depend on these systems, at least for right now.


All of us of course must wonder at the perversity of this. But that is the function of this dread, and distrust for that matter, isn’t it? Namely: to push us further in probing what it means to privilege social and individual reliability and safety over other values and desires. We are meant to ask: What would it look like in world where such reliability and safety are not so privileged?

For the answer to that question is altogether too evident: Most of the planet already lives in that world of unreliability and little safety. We’re meant to ask, precisely because the answer is that clear.

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