Power shift and the paradox of trust #OrangeIstheNewBike

An annual report on the state of trust concluded we are experiencing a “trust crash” in 2018.

Our faith in traditionally powerful institutions — government, business, media — is perilously low.

Seen through the lens darkly, you could say this is a moment of anxiety. Our society is shattered by its fragmented interpretation of the facts.

Paradoxically, we seem to trust strangers more than ever as we join the growing number of users of distributed sharing systems such as Uber or AirBnb. We’re happy to rate our non-traditional service providers, even as they rate and review us.

Can you imagine if the front desk clerk of your hotel did the same thing as you checked in? Or the barista you just under-tipped? It’s possible that this would hold us all accountable by bolstering our trusted interactions. Or it might be the premise to a dystopian horror story (see Netflix’ Black Mirror now-legendary Nosedive episode).

It could also be the democratic world’s equivalent to China’s experimental “social credit” regime. The better you behave, the better access you get to services, healthcare, transportation, loans. But beware maligning the state and offending the gods of social engineering.

Such have been my overriding thoughts as I conclude a season of public appearances, salon conversations and graduation speeches.

It’s why I selected the just-published New Power: How Power Works in Our HyperConnected World — and How to Make It Work for You as required reading for the newest students in my graduate program. The authors observe that our fear of automation and inequality is feeding alienation and tribalization; they advocate that we openly create a social infrastructure that encourages “meaningful participation” and “meaningful ownership.”IMG_4941This also explains why I recently activated my status as a healthy, well-educated, professional man to acquire a relatively expensive, conspicuously orange folding bike. I decided to submit myself further to the kindness of strangers, well beyond Uber and AirBnB on a recent business trip to Los Angeles. I would gate-check my new conveyance in Seattle, and then ride it straight out of LAX, happily ignoring the people lined-up for cabs and car shares. I would also be more than a little nervous as an outlier diving into the herd of motorized vehicles that envelop the airport.

In my daily life, I’m respected for what I say and how I say it more than for any of my physical attributes. On my little bike, in a sea of strangers, my body is all I would have. Everything would be stripped away. So while I may have been privileged to choose this form of transport, once on two wheels, I would be largely powerless — and at best, self-powered.

In the weeks leading up to, and immediately following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I felt the menace. There were the offhand comments yelled at me from passing cars. One driver actually tried to push me off the road — though I couldn’t tell whether he didn’t like cyclists generally or whether it had to do with my darker complexion.

And yet, I continued to ride. Even more so now (hence my new Instagram profile). Perhaps it’s because I refuse to accept the direction in which we may be headed. It could also be my propensity as a former journalist (once drawn to discomfort zones around the world) to try and see things differently. As a conspicuous outsider driving through potentially hostile neighborhoods, I would lower my car window so that I was visible to the locals. I assumed that if I were perceived as having nothing to hide, we strangers might trust each other. (Didn’t the handshake theoretically originate as proof that neither side was carrying a weapon?)

Forty miles on two wheels through Los Angeles felt similar in a way. It may have a reputation as a hellish vehicle-scape, but I found most drivers were aware, respectful even. Locals sometimes waved at me as I pushed past my own self-consciousness as a brown, bearded interloper (zooming by multi-million dollar homes with precisely-manicured gardens) or as a bespectacled, oddly-adorned tourist (as I swept alongside well-worn buildings with security bars on their windows).

But I was not alone, as I occasionally rode beside other cyclists of all shapes, colors and accessorizings. I was also able to more fully appreciate a city I’ve been visiting for decades, observed until now largely from from the seat of a car.


Still, I must confess to traveling armed: with a U.S. passport card in my wallet and a GoPro mounted on my handlebars. As self-defense of course – there’s trust and then there’s blind faith! But as I dove into this megalopolis of cars and humans, I discovered that it took a little bit of both to truly enjoy the ride.

The camera would ultimately memorialize the miles traveled. The I.D. card would support me through security at both airports. While there, the TSA agents would be only too happy to help me force that strange orange steel contraption through the x-ray. And once on the other side, we would then talk about my bike.