Monday, August 02, 2010

Mrs. B. on The Company of Strangers

Last night at dinner, I undertook to try to outline for Mrs. Buce some of Paul Seabright's ideas on trust and reciprocity, as expressed in his admirable and highly readable book, The Company of Strangers--in particular, the remarkable fact that we repose such confidence in people we've  never met before sometimes from the other end of the planet.

Mrs. B wasn't impressed.  Or more precisely, he thoughts kept drifting away to the number of protections we have available to reduce our risks in the company of strangers and even more notably, the ways in which the hazards of trust have been reduced by (guess what) the internet.

Start with the appliance repairman.  Isn't it remarkable, I said (echoing Seabright) that we let the appliance man into our home, trusting that he is not an axe murderer, because he is wearing a uniform?  Yes well, said Mrs. Buce, but it wouldn't be easy for him to get the uniform.  Or the little panel truck with the appliance company logo, parked out in front of our house.  Or to know the time for which  I had scheduled the repair appoinment.

Well then, taxicabs.  Particularly taxicabs in distant cities   We put our fate in the hands of somebody we never saw before. Yes, said Mrs. Buce--well, no.   For starters. we don't get into just any old car.  It is (or used to be) that funny black box in London, that distinctive "Checker" in the United States.  Even today, there are patterns that we can recognize and rely on.  Inside, there's usually a picture of the driver, and some kind of license number (I thought as she spoke--last year, I got panicky that a driver was deviating from the expected route; with my phone camera, I snapped a picture of his license (including picture) and emailed it to a friend).

If we take a cab that looks like a car--a "livery cab"--it's only after we call first.  And it is unlikely that an axe murderer will be able to intercept that call, show up at the right place, greet us by name, and them sweep us off for his own unworthy purpose.  Indeed,  the information flow seems to go the other way (she said)--have you noticed that if you call the livery cab in Paris, they have your information based on what you provided to the livery cab in New York?

And speaking of Paris--or any strange city--when you get off the plane, you don't get into any old car.  You go to the taxi rank in front of the terminal. It's pretty clear from the layout that not just any old axe murderer can roll up and stuff you into his trunk.  There's  a taxi rank. There's a dispatcher.  And all the cabs look (pretty much) alike. 

Which made us think of retail in general. We both buy used books on Amazon--almost every time from a retailer we've never heard of before, but who can advertise that he has 100 or 300 or 1,000 five-star ratings from previous trnnsactions.

Why, just this afternoon (Mrs. B, again) I was renting us a vacation apartment for next summer.  But I've got a name and address of the apartment, and the lessor.  I've seen pictures of the inside of the apartment.  I've read reviews from previous customers.   More than that--by this point, I've had half a dozen email exchanges with the lessor in which we've become--oh, not friends exactly.  But we're far better acquainted in a way that probably makes me feel more assured that the lessor will do what she says she will do--and, come to think of it, probably assures her that we are not likely to trash the place.

None of this "discredits" Seabright, of course (and FWIW, I see there is a newer edition that I haven't read, so maybe he deals with some of this stuff there).  But it does suggest that the world does not hold still and these patterns of trust tend to reinvent themselves as they evolve--like, I suppose, everything else in human experience.


Holiday said...
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Laurent Franckx said...

I think this fits perfectly well within the argument provided by Seabright (and "information economics" in general): the taxi driver credibly sends "signals" that he is indeed a taxi driver and not an axe murderer, because an axe murderer would not go through all these pains while there are easier victims to find than people looking for a taxi. There is no inconsistency here, I think.