The Changing Nature of Trust

Book Review

Botsman, Rachel. Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2017.

A frequent speaker and writer on the changing nature of trust, Rachel Botsman’s new book features several provocative, new ideas on the nature of human trust.  Botsman 410rhrv1JxL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_defines trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown.”  Trust is the impetus to take a chance to bridge the gap between the known and unknown.  While this concept of trust is not new, she provides a concise, easy to comprehend synopsis of the role of  trust in our society today.

From a historical point of view, Botsman identifies three distinct chapters of trust relationships.  The first is local where everyone knew everyone and trust was required for group membership.  As population and economic growth increased, trust in intermediaries  evolved where large institutions garnered trust through tangible benefits such as contracts, brands and franchising.  In the last several years, we have entered the third chapter in which trust is distributed and we trust apps such as Yelp and OpenTable ratings rather than large, top-down institutions.

Botsman believes that technology enables the shift from hierarchical to distributed trust relationships. Creating a level playing field, social media provides bi-lateral transparency as both sides to transactions have the opportunity to rate year other.  For example, both the renter and the landlord, rate each other on Airbnb and  the driver and rider on Uber.  Trust is like energy, it does not dissipate but moves from one form to another and in this case from vertical to horizontal relationships.

More than a play on words, Botsman advices that we don’t to increase trust but we need more trustworthy people.  Her example is that a large number of people trusted Bernie Madoff, but what was really needed was a more trustworthy financial steward.  People who are trustworthy exhibit the traits of competence, reliability and honesty.  And trustworthiness is enhanced when both sides to a transaction have visibility and accountability.

In a novel way, people today are more willing to trust platforms and robots.  However, Botsman prognosticates that issues will emerge such as how will AI programmed robots make ethical decisions. Will programmers be held liable for bad decisions.  Her example of driverless cars is instructive as to how automation will select between hurting a passenger or a pedestrian.

In the last chapters, Botsman examines the potential of Bitcoin and Blockchain to further enhance trust.  Bitcoin is an example of distributed trust supporting a peer-to-peer relationship in the underlying blockchain technology.  She posits the question of whether people will place more trust in math with defines the Bitcoin/Blockchain decisions or in the people and banks that we do today.

In the end, Botsman concludes that trust does come down to human choice, but that technology can enhance the decision-making.  However, technology is not a panacea as there can be major pitfalls in over relying on technology to referee trust.  I recommend her book as a good description of the impact of new technology on trusting today’s connections and transactions.  In addition, Botman provides several novel concepts on how new technology can enhance our future relationships.

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