Deriving a reliable trust protocol that scales to the planet (Pt. 1)

This is the first post in a line of workshopping I’m doing on a new project. Together with blockchain, I believe it’s possible to design a worldwide trust protocol. In doing so, we could truely reform the worldwide economy — but more on that here. I’m Liam, a longtime hacker interested in HCI and blockchain, and I’ve never felt such burning in my brain as this idea.

Overview: What is a trust protocol?

A trust protocol, facilitated by a blockchain-like immutable ledger, enables anyone to figure out how much they can trust anyone else.

There are a couple of difficulties in designing such a protocol:

  1. How do you define trust?
  2. How do you rescind trust?
  3. How can you assume the trust a priori of someone you don’t have direct, or transitive, relation to?
  4. How do you stop people artificially inflating their trust in the eyes of others?

In this series of posts, I’m going to answer these questions.

How do you define trust?

Trust, as is any word, is a lossy term. We could apply it to trusting people to do their job, or trusting that you won’t lose your keys tomorrow. We could trust our brother and trust our colleague, but both in different ways and to different degrees.

If we analyse this, there are a couple of concepts we can abstract:

  • agency (my trust in myself vs. others)
  • domain (in work, in family)
  • degree

Trusting that someone will do their job means you’re relying on them to do their job. Trusting your brother will walk the dog is also reliance. Trusting your colleague will walk the dog is not something you should rely on, unless you’re in a really cool workplace.

The point of this example is reliability — defining trust is a quality in some domain, the key theme shared is repeat liability from yourself to that other person.

Liability and Vulnerability

How can we surmise someone’s reliability? Very simply — how often can they fulfil their promises?

Relationships can offer us the logical parallel we need — not only are friendships the first domain of trust, but they are also remarkably logical in structure. Science tells us that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness — and indeed, it is true. You do not tell a secret to the world, you tell it to someone close, because if the secret gets out, you’re liable.

The greater concept at play here is what relationships are built on — bonding. And again, I’ll call allusion to the word’s use in another sphere: finance. Because bonding in finance, where one is in debt to another, is the same concept as bonding in relationships. The difference is that the currency, is not money, but trust.

The saying from M.J. Arlidge goes — “Trust is a fragile thing - hard to earn, easy to lose.” And this is completely correct. The bonding that begins from first meeting someone to marrying them is a repeated process of putting yourself at liability that they will break your trust. Relationships are a back and forth of intimacy in a form of currency that only we ourselves can back.

The mechanisms of trust

Trust is thus created by each individual when they stake their trust in someone else in the form of bonding. And it is destroyed when that person breaks that trust.

To model this as a protocol, we could consider trust as an actual currency, in the form a token:

  • Trust is minted when the person stakes an amount of trust in someone else
  • Trust is burnt when these bonds/stakes are taken back.
  • Everyone has unlimited trust to give.
  • Trust is valued relatively: my trust in you does not affect my trust in Obama (broadly speaking).

Indirect trust

We’ve covered trust as it applies to direct relationships, but what about indirect relationships?

Transitive trust is the term of the implicit trust you have for a friend of a friend. It’s based on how much you trust your friend, weighted by how much they trust theirs.

This works for small-worlds, but what about on a planet-wide scale? How does trust flow to people who we don’t know? Consider the example of an Australian meeting a Brit — there is definitely some degree of trust here, but how?

The answer is in network trust.

Network trust

Network trust is similar to how nations make bonds. Even though we could consider Britain leaving the European Union, and thus the dissipation of the related trade agreement, as an action of forfeiting trust — there is still a large trust between the citizens of the two nations.

What we could describe this as is network trust — that is, the trust that is generated amongst a network of individuals trusting each other. If you think of the number of British with a European husband/wife, trading relationships, every aspect of relation between the individuals of the two networks — you can see that there is a lot of trust there.


So we’ve analysed what is trust and discussed some model of how it works. Trust is something generated between people through bonding, it is infinite in its supply and demand, but can be lost quite easily. It exists 1) directly, 2) flows transitively and 3) implicitly in networks.

In the next post, we’ll look at “how do you stop people artificially inflating their trust in the eyes of others?”.

22. Blockchain/full-stack engineer // writer // R&D hacker.

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