Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart
By Rachel Botsman
Public Affairs, New York, 2017
Trust is like engine oil: when it’s present everything runs smoothly, but when it’s not they grind to a halt and quickly catch fire. Much of modern life would be impossible without trust. Without it you would never drive your car because you couldn’t be sure the other drivers would stay in their lanes. You’d never, ever get on a plane. You’d have to grow your own vegetables, otherwise how could you be sure they’re safe for you and your family to eat? And online shopping? Forget about it!
Consciously or not, we make decisions to trust people and machines and systems hundreds of times each day. But what exactly is trust? How do we make these trust decisions? And how is technology helping to enable new forms of trust?
Rachel Botsman explores these questions in her book, Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart. Botsman is a writer, researcher and lecturer at Oxford University’s Said School of Business.
The book is incredibly timely. These days it seems like more and more of the people and institutions we used to trust can’t be trusted anymore. Nobody ever trusted Wall Street much, but during the Great Recession, banks, mortgage lenders, credit rating agencies and government regulators all betrayed our trust. Politicians and journalists, priests and bishops, drug companies and oil companies have all joined the rogue’s gallery of the untrustworthy. Yet at the same time, it’s become normal to get into cars with strangers, invite strangers to sleep in your home, and hire strangers to babysit your kids. As Botsman says in her TED Talk, we’ve stopped trusting institutions and started trusting strangers. Why? And how?
What is trust?
Botsman defines trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown.” When we decide to trust something or someone, we’re making an assessment of how likely it is that some future outcome will be favorable to us.
“Trust enables us to feel confident enough to take risks and to open ourselves up to being vulnerable. It means we can commit to people before we know the precise outcome or how other people will behave.” [p. 16]
Trust operates at three levels: local, institutional and distributed.
- Local trust is the kind we’re most familiar with. It operates within small, local communities, among people we know.
- Institutional trust is trust that flows vertically through intermediaries such as governments, corporations, universities, courts and regulatory bodies. We tend to trust leaders, experts and brands (at least we used to) because of their position or association with these intermediaries.
- Distributed trust flows horizontally between individuals mediated through systems, platforms and networks. The entire sharing economy, from rides to rooms, is built on distributed trust.
In recent years we’ve seen a massive shift away from institutional trust towards distributed trust. Botsman suggests three reasons why institutions have lost our trust. The first cause, she says, is an asymmetry in accountability. During the Great Recession, thousands of people lost their homes, and millions saw their retirement savings decimated; but governments bailed out the big banks and not one of their executives went to jail. Second, organizational hierarchies have flattened, reducing the distance (although certainly not the wealth) between the elites and everyone else. Lastly our community has fragmented into homogeneous “echo chambers” that exclude people we don’t like or don’t agree with, regardless of whether they hold some position in an important institution.
But why have systems of distributed trust become so successful? To understand this part of the picture, we need to look at how people make “trust leaps.”
How do you decide to take a risk and try something new? The first time you typed your credit card number into a web page, you didn’t know how things would turn out. Your confidence might have been low. Maybe it was of a leap of faith, or rather a leap of trust.
So how do you decide when to make a trust leap? Botsman says we do this by climbing the “trust stack.” We first have to trust the idea, new though it may be. Then we have to trust the platform it’s built on. Lastly, we must trust the specific individual or organization we’re dealing with. Idea, platform, individual: that’s the trust stack. Botsman examines each layer in detail.
To trust a new idea, like getting into a car with a complete stranger, Botsman says it must be “strangely familiar.” (Or, to use another term I like, it must be an “adjacent possible.”) For example, ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft are really just like taxis but without their corporate shell. If the driver showed up on a horse, or on a drone, it would be a much more difficult leap. We need to see benefits such as cost savings or convenience. And we need some degree of certainty that we’ll actually receive those benefits. Are there guarantees, warranties, regulations or other mechanisms in place to reduce risk? Lastly, we often want to know who else might have made the trust leap. Are any of our friends using the new product or service? What about experts, celebrities or other influencers?
OK, you’ve accepted the idea of getting into a car with a complete stranger despite your parents’ dire warnings. Now what about the practicalities? How does it actually work? This is where we need to trust the platform, the systems that actually deliver the idea. We need to know who’s responsible when something goes wrong. Who do we complain to if our driver never shows up? What happens if there’s a crash while we’re in the car? Do the operators of the platform run their business ethically and transparently?
Finally, we need to trust the specific individual we’re dealing with, in this case the driver of the car that’s come to pick us up. What we’re looking for, Botsman says, is competence, reliability and honesty. When we meet someone in person for the first time, we try to assess these qualities, that is, we make trust judgements based on a variety of signals: their appearance, their clothing (uniform, lab coat, badges and insignia, etc.), who they’re associated with (affiliations, alma mater) and mutual acquaintances. There are online equivalents of these signals too, like ratings and reputation, and social graph proximity. In fact, that’s one of the main functions of the platform; to aggregate huge amounts of data to help us make these trust decisions. You could say that trust and reputation are emergent properties of this data.
The success of online platforms like Uber and Airbnb, and the reputation systems they’re built on, have enabled the shift to distributed trust.
In the last few chapters of the book Botsman looks at some of the trust issues around leading edge technologies like artificial intelligence, chatbots, and the blockchain. Take self-driving cars for example. As they get smarter and more capable, Botsman points out that they evolve from doing things for us to deciding things for us. Can we trust their decision-making? It’s one thing to trust the car when it picks one route over another to avoid traffic backups. It’s another thing entirely when the car decides to swerve into a ditch, possibly injuring you in the process, in order to avoid hitting a pedestrian who’s just run into the middle of the road.
How is the AI in the car making these ethical or moral choices? What values or biases are embedded in their algorithms and programming? And who were the people responsible for selecting those values or biases? What other information do we need to know about the algorithms, designers and programmers in order to make a trust leap? Oh, and one more tiny little thing: who’s liable if the car makes the wrong decision?
These questions are becoming increasingly urgent as AI technologies spread into more products and more areas of our lives. Kudos to Rachel Botsman for raising them in Who Can You Trust?
Who Can You Trust? is a timely book about a critically important topic. I’m probably not a typical reader because I work in the area of internet security and I’m quite familiar with many of the technologies and issues around online trust. Perhaps that’s why I found the book frustrating and disappointing.
Rachel Botsman handles most of her subject quite well. She does a great job describing how we make trust leaps by climbing the trust stack. And she traces the evolution of trust from local to institutional to distributed in clear language. Her description of the concepts and technology behind the blockchain were confusing, but I’ll overlook that because the blockchain is definitely not “strangely familiar” for most of us. The best and most important part of the book are the issues I’ve noted above that she raises in the final chapters.
Her definition of trust, “a confident relationship with the unknown”, sounds grand and all-encompassing. But I don’t think it’s very useful. Too vague. I prefer the definition from a book called The Thin Book of Trust, by Charles Feltman. He says trust is “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.” I think this does a better job capturing what’s at stake in a trust decision and the fact that trust decisions are highly contextual. Of course, this definition needs to be broadened to include the actions of machines, systems and platforms as well as people.
My main complaint about the book is that at just over 250 pages it’s about twice as long as it needs to be. Each idea in the book is illustrated with lengthy examples complete with largely irrelevant biographical details of the people involved. I didn’t need to read Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s life story in order to understand his overriding concern for the reputation of his brand, for example. And I couldn’t care less what kind of tea the author was served while interviewing this or that expert. It’s one thing to provide brief character sketches to bring dry technical details to life or to humanize complex stories. But there’s so much of this padding in Who Can You Trust? that I found myself becoming annoyed at the distractions impeding me from getting to the important ideas of the book.
I think you can learn most of what’s contained in the book by watching the two TED Talks listed below, and in much less time.
We’ve stopped trusting institutions and started trusting strangers, TED Talk by Rachel Botsman
How Airbnb designs for trust, TED Talk by Joe Gebbia, Airbnb co-founder