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Trust and cooperation cannot be surged: From US maritime strategy to the Little Prince and the fox
Repeated simple encounters (in person or electronically) help develop trust and friendships.
Social software is a hot area in today's world. Facebook is valued at over $10 billion, Wikipedia and other wikis are major sources of information, and Twitter is captivating many industry pundits. Millions of people participate in special moments in other people's lives through YouTube. Short text messages connect a huge portion of the world's population and are a major carrier of social contact for a whole generation.

On first glance, a lot of what goes on in these communications channels seems mundane and worthless. As I've pointed out, though, in my "What will people pay for?" essay back in July 2000, people like to interact with people they care about. The interactions are often simple and repetitive, but personally important. They are willing to pay money for this.

There is another aspect, though. These social systems, by allowing (and encouraging) repeated, simple, personal interactions, actually help build community and trust. Understanding how that happens is important.

I want to look at two references that might help. One is from the Chief Naval Officer, and the other is from Antoine de Saint Exupery's The Little Prince.

Let me start with a community of cooperating organizations and people that is "a matter of consequence" (to borrow a term from The Little Prince, but I mean it for real). When Admiral Mike Mullen was Chief of Naval Operations (the CNO -- the head of the US Navy) he advocated the "1,000 Ship Navy". This is a pooling of the resources among nations, a community of trust that includes the sharing of information among navies of countries that may otherwise be untrusting of each other for political or economic reasons. A "...free-form, self-organizing network of maritime partners..." This is a somewhat informal relationship more like the one that grew the Internet than the command-and-control style of more traditional military or corporate relationships.

Admiral Mullen himself talks about it in a series of podcasts that he did starting in June 2007. (These are a little hard to find on the Navy's web site, but I found the old RSS feed on this page.) One of his podcasts (here's the mp3 file) included a description of his return to Vietnam, this time not in a war but rather to meet with his counterpart. In addition, I have a recorded interview that I did with Vice Admiral John Morgan (who worked with Admiral Mullen) in March 2007 where he explains this "community of trust". (For more about the 1,000 Ship Navy and the podcast, see my blog post "Interview with Vice Admiral John Morgan: Building a community of trust in a Pier-to-Pier world".)

Admiral Mullen is now the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The new CNO, Admiral Gary Roughead, recently restarted the CNO Podcast series with his own podcast. While listening to the first installment of Admiral Roughead's podcast series I was struck by his explanation of how to build up this community among navy personnel in different countries. He elaborated on a phrase in the Maritime Strategy document presented in October 17, 2007, at the International Seapower Symposium, "A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower". The phrase, on page 11, is: "Trust and cooperation cannot be surged." He explains (at about 9:30 in the podcast) that when he sits down and has tea with the head of other navies it is often the first time that they've met. He hopes that by participating in activities together over the years, the younger officers of today will develop lifelong friendships with their counterparts. Then, when they sit down for that cup of tea, they are not sitting down for the first time, but are talking as friends. He believes that if we do that the problems of the world, the issues that we face, will be much easier solved than they are today.

What I hear him saying is that it takes time and repeated interactions to develop trust. Those interactions may be as simple as having tea or doing training exercises together, but they build up trust over time. This trust is a key ingredient for cooperation-based organizations. Remember the rationale for the 1,000 Ship Navy: We can't provide all those ships ourselves, we have to cooperate with others to build the big navy out of many smaller ones, and that cooperation-based organizations are a more efficient way of getting things done at a large scale.

The use of the word "surge" (instead of the more common "hurried", "rushed", etc.) stuck out when I heard it, given that it's a word with heavy political connotations today. Thinking about it a bit, I can see the concept used to support a wide range of different opinions about the war in Iraq but I won't follow that further. However, I think the use was a signal that this is something important to think about for our country and the world, and it may have life and death consequences. (Or maybe it's just a common military expression...)

This brings us to The Little Prince. Starting back in December 2000, when I discuss online community building I often make reference to Antoine de Saint Exupery's book, The Little Prince. In light of today's social software, even more so than the growing popularity of blogs in those days, it is worth reading all of chapter 21, the story of the Little Prince and the fox (it is so much better written than what I can paraphrase, and I want to respect the copyright -- I'm sitting next to my copy as I write this).

The Little Prince encounters a fox and asks the fox to play with him. The fox replies that he can't play with the Little Prince because he isn't tamed. He explains that "taming" means to "establish ties". If they establish those ties, then they will need each other. They will each be unique to the other. And, this great quote: "One only understands the things that one tames." Taming takes time. It takes repeated simple encounters. It takes simple "rites" that make certain times special. The Little Prince "tames" the fox by visiting each day, first sitting at a distance, and then moving closer. The closing thought: "You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."

This idea, that repeated simple encounters (in person or today electronically) help develop trust and friendships, is an important concept to grasp. The Navy gets it (they've been building cooperating teams for hundreds of years). The CNO emphasizes the importance of the growth in understanding of others that occurs. We should look to this idea, too, in our evaluation of social software. People may make fun of blog or Twitter posts about what someone had for breakfast or how they like a certain video game, but it is all part of how humans build a cooperating society that works. It can't be rushed, and it can be nurtured, even with simple text messages.

- Dan Bricklin, December 27, 2007

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