6 Dec 2017

Trust in the digital age

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:10 pm on 6 December 2017

We stay in the homes of complete strangers, get into cars driven by people we've never met, and date potential matches selected by an algorithm.

Who, what and how we trust has been profoundly changed by technology, but for our own good?

This new era of trust could mean a more inclusive and accountable society – if we get it right, says Rachel Botsman, author of Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart.

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Photo: supplied

Botsman defines trust as "a confident relationship with the unknown".

Between humans, it seems to be hardwired and essential.

“You couldn’t leave your cave – or couldn’t leave your house now – if you didn’t trust. It’s the basis of cooperation. When you look at the collapse of a civilisation, it’s often because trust collapsed.”

But trust the media, banks or politicians? That's a bridge too far for many now.

Botsman first became interested in the evolution of trust when the so-called 'sharing economy' emerged ten years ago.

“When things like Airbnb and Uber had just launched even dating strangers over the internet seemed really dangerous.”

All of these services rely heavily on trust to function.

“I wanted to understand how trust works to make these ideas – that once seemed impossible – become quite mainstream.”

Meanwhile, our trust in big institutions seems to be eroding, she says.

“If you look at the way institutional trust is designed it’s very opaque. It sits in the hands of the powerful few. We’ve often trusted people based on blind faith and that really doesn’t work in the digital age where we can find things out in seconds.”

Rather than disappearing, trust has shifted. Botsman likens it to the movement of energy.  

“There’s plenty of trust out there, it’s just flowing in different directions. And this is what energy does – it doesn’t get destroyed, it changes form.”

The trust which once flowed upwards to institutions now flows sideways to influencers, friends and neighbours.

Humans also have instincts when it comes to trust that automation may be damaging, she says.

“When you want to accelerate the [trust-building] process so much that you’re not even thinking about that date you just met online a minute ago and you’re meeting down the road in two minute’s time, you take out the human side of trust.”

The vast majority of us are trustworthy, but in the digital age, Botsman advises caution or a “trust pause”.

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