No single source of truth

What do we do when someone tells us something we don’t quite believe? We Google it. We get out our phones and search the internet for some reliable information. We turn to the computers to tell us whether we should believe or not. We expect them to tell us the truth. We expect computers to always be right.

Maybe the Post Office fell into the same trap when it prosecuted 736 subpostmasters and postmistresses for theft, fraud and false accounting, when they had done nothing wrong. In fact, the Post Office’s faulty computer system was to blame for the accounting errors. But the Post Office believed the computer was right.

A system of record, like Google’s indexing of websites, the Post Office’s accounting software, your bank, or the annual leave booking process where you work, is a means of storing and retrieving information. They have been relied on throughout the history of civilisation to mediate relationships between individuals and institutions. When Gods and kings could no longer provide a single source of truth for us, we created systems of record instead.

In ancient Mesopotamia, clay tablets were used to create a central system of public administration. With the recording of who owed what to whom and who promised what pay in return for what work, larger scale civilisation could emerge. Smaller groups could remember for themselves, but larger groups needed a way to externalise that memory. The system of record held our promises and obligations, the contracts that bound us over time.

But to be effective, any system of record has to be recognised as authoritative and it has to be legitimate. A centralised institution must have the power to say, ‘this is how we keep records here, and this is what happens to you if you don’t abide by what the records say’. And the system has to hold unique records which can be traced to a source to demonstrate its integrity and validity.

When Satoshi Nakamoto published the whitepaper, bitcoin was referred to as an “electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party.” Bitcoin aimed to solve the problems created by relying on third-parties to maintain systems of record, problems such as non-transparent transactions that make it impossible for postmistresses to challenge accounting software. That vision, looking a little tarnished at the moment for sure, aims to replace trust with proof, to make the system of record more reliable and verifiable, so we can believe the computers are right with a even more certainty.

From clay tablets to blockchains, as society has became more complex we have required and relied upon increasingly complex systems of record. Not one system of record, but many. Every institution an individual interactions with has it’s own system of record. These institutions are, and always have been, the owners of those systems, and so the power to mediate our relationship with them is, and has always been, theirs.

That these are many separate systems of record is what prevents their power from being absolute. Were there to be one single system of record, a system of systems of record, we would have no choice but to accept what it tells us.

But we know that all of the systems of records together do not create a complete and trusted representation of what they claim to be. They are often mistrusted, have incorrect information, between them they have different information. The computers aren’t always right. And it is in these gaps where the power of the individual lays. It’s good that Google can’t tell us everything. Good that sometimes the bank shows errors on our statement. Good that organisations can learn that software is fallible.

There is not, and never will be again, a single source of truth. And that’s good for all of us.