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In this revolutionary book, world-renowned trust expert Rachel Botsman reveals that we are at the tipping point of one of the biggest social transformations in human history — with fundamental consequences for everyone. A new world order is emerging: we might have lost faith in institutions and leaders, but millions of people rent their homes to total strangers, exchange digital currencies, or find themselves trusting a bot. This is the age of “distributed trust,” a paradigm shift driven by innovative technologies that are rewriting the rules of an all-too-human relationship.
If we are to benefit from this radical shift, we must understand the mechanics of how trust is built, managed, lost, and repaired in the digital age. In the first book to explain this new world, Botsman provides a detailed map of this uncharted landscape — and explores what’s next for humanity.
Who Can You Trust?
‘In this extremely thought-provoking new book, Rachel Botsman educates and entertains as she reveals with expertise how our lives are already changing more than we know. A must-read for anyone interested in how the world works–and will work in the future’ Will Dean, MBE, CEO, Tough Mudder
‘Not only is the thesis completely compelling. It demonstrates, through a sequence of real-world case studies of projects, businesses and platforms, that the distributed trust model offers enormous promise if used wisely–as well as enormous pitfalls if used unwisely. For good and sometimes ill, it has the potential to reshape everything we do, from our choice of babysitter to our choice of money. These are important messages from what is an important book’ Andy Haldane, Chief Economist, Bank of England
‘A fascinating and well-researched study. Every reader will gain new insights into one of the great issues of our time: the shifting tides of trust’ Geoff Mulgan, CBE, Chief Executive of the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (Nesta)
‘Profound insights about how the digital age changes trust, wrapped in a compelling narrative of captivating and revealing stories. A rare book that will cause you to think deeply about your business, your relationships and your life’ Don Tapscott, bestselling author of Wikinomics and Blockchain Revolution
‘This book perfectly walks the reader through the past, present and future of trust as we know it. Rachel’s expertise on this topic is unmatched. It’s an absolute must-read for business leaders and everyday consumers alike’ Nick Shapiro, Global Head of Trust and Risk Management, Airbnb
‘This is that admirable and all-too-rare book that gives you “an idea to think with” that helps to put new things in place. Who Can You Trust? is a primer for a new world that sets you up to be a better citizen, consumer and parent. I quickly learned so much about so many things I wanted to know’ Professor Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation and Alone Together
‘Abandon weapons first, then food. But never abandon trust. People cannot get on without trust. Trust is more important than life.’
Confucius to his disciple Tzu-Kung
I was getting married on the day the hammer fell on Wall Street. The date was 14 September 2008. I had been living in New York for almost a decade and had met my then fiancé, Chris, in a downtown dive bar called Eight Mile Creek. We were both ‘city people’ but we wanted to have our wedding in a rural, rustic setting. The place we finally chose was called Gedney Farm, nestled in the charming old Berkshire village of New Marlborough, Massachusetts.
‘So, you want to get married in a horse barn?’ my father said when I showed him the venue, a Normandy-style red barn surrounded by lush meadows and abundant orchards. Getting into the spirit of things after that, he decided we should arrive at the venue in an old-fashioned horse and carriage. I went along with his Cinderella fantasy and climbed into an open-topped white carriage, complete with a driver and a footman, drawn by an old grey mare. The horse, on its last legs, was slow. It rained. I was late.
Around eighty guests, our closest family and friends from all over the world, joined us for the occasion. Lit by candles and strings of Edison bulbs, the ceremony was traditional and very beautiful. The best man’s speech was funny and the food was delicious, despite my finding a grasshopper about the size of my little finger in the green salad.
So there I was, at the heart of one ancient institution–marriage–built on trust and life-long commitment, while another–Wall Street–was imploding. Lost in the bubble of the celebrations, I didn’t realize the outside world was in meltdown until around 9.30 p.m., when I finally noticed that, around the room, the warm glow of the Edison bulbs was competing with the brash blue glare of iPhones and BlackBerries as guests stealthily consulted their hand-held harbingers of doom. Family and friends who worked in banking were trying to absorb the barrage of messages flooding in. Could the impossible have happened? Lehman Brothers had just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Bank of America and Barclays had pulled out of a deal that might have saved the 158-year-0ld firm. Merrill Lynch had agreed to be bought by Bank of America for roughly $50 billion* in an attempt to avert a financial crisis. Washington Mutual, Wachovia and HBOS in the United Kingdom were within a whisker of collapsing. The fate of another giant, American International Group (AIG), the vanguard of the credit default swap market, teetered in the balance.
A couple of friends who were senior executives at JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs apologized for having to leave, summonsed to ‘red alert’ emergency meetings. It would be a race against the clock to avoid the blind panic that would surely happen when the markets opened. Several other guests drank nervously and partied hard, not sure if they would be carrying their work belongings out in boxes the following day. We danced the Horah, a traditional Jewish wedding ritual, which ended with me being elevated on a chair and my husband being thrown precariously up in the air on a large white tablecloth. Another moment of trust. Guests whirled around us, clapped and made ‘Oy! Oy! Oy!’ noises. Meanwhile, outside the barn, the biggest global financial crisis in history was building up a head of steam.
It was, of course, the beginning of the nerve-shattering period when many businesses ‘fell off a cliff’ and the world’s financial system came closer to collapse than at any time since the Great Depression. As we now know, the economic repercussions of the meltdown would engulf the world for many years to come. But my wedding day, rich with tradition, also marked the downfall of something more profound: public trust in institutions.
Who was to blame for the crisis? What were the main causes? These questions were at the heart of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) created to investigate the banking collapse, and the answer was damning. ‘The crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire,’ the 525-page report found. ‘To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault lies not in the stars, but in us.’1 In other words, the meltdown was an ‘avoidable’ human disaster.
The federal inquiry hammered the embarrassing failures of regulators, whom the report described as ‘sentries not at their posts’. The finger was pointed squarely at the Federal Reserve for its failure to question widespread, egregious mortgage lending, overreliance on short-term debt and the excessive packaging and reselling of loans, along with many other red flags. According to the report, however, the main culprit was not the toxic financial instruments but the human failings that drove them: reckless risk-taking, greed, incompetence, stupidity and a systemic breakdown in accountability and ethics.
It wasn’t the first nail in the coffin of institutional trust and it probably won’t be the last, but the financial crisis struck deep.
A loss of trust amounts to a lack of faith and confidence in ‘the system’ itself. What should we believe in if the system has failed us? Who, or what, can be relied upon? We begin to fear what else can go wrong. What other shortcomings we don’t yet know about might lurk in the system? Fear, suspicion and disenchantment are deadly viruses that spread fast. The initial epicentre of the trust explosion was, understandably, with the banks. But it hasn’t stopped there. Since the crisis, other scandals, other revelations, have seen the ripples of distrust touch government, the media, charities, big business and even religious organizations.
Like the plot of some overblown soap opera or Jacobean tragedy, the episodes of unethical behaviour have come thick and fast, from the lurid, even criminal, to the just plain stupid and, sadly, routine. Each has chipped away at public confidence. The British MPs’ expenses scandal; the false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs); Tesco’s horsemeat outrage; price gouging by big pharma; the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill; the dishonours of FIFA’s bribery; Volkswagen’s ‘dieselgate’; major data breaches from companies such as Sony, Yahoo! and Target; the Panama Papers and widespread tax avoidance; the exchange-rate manipulation by the world’s largest banks; Brazil’s Petrobras oil scandal; the lack of an effective response to the refugee crises; and, last but not least, shocking revelations of widespread abuse by Catholic priests, other clergy and other ‘care’ institutions. No wonder a thousand headlines lament that nobody trusts authority any more. Corruption, elitism, economic disparity–and the feeble responses to all of the above–have pummelled traditional trust in the old institutions as fiercely as a brutal wind lashing ancient oaks.
Significantly, this crisis is taking place in a landscape of rapidly shifting and evolving technologies, from artificial intelligence (AI) to automation to the Internet of Things (IOT). We are already putting our faith in algorithms over humans in our daily lives, whether it’s trusting Amazon’s recommendations on what to read or Netflix’s suggestions on what to watch. But this is just the beginning. We will soon be riding around in self-driving cars, trusting our very lives to the unseen hands of technology.
At the same time, many people are feeling so overwhelmed by the pace of change and the sheer amount of knowledge now available at a swipe or keystroke that they are beating a retreat to media echo chambers that narrow down information and reinforce already held beliefs. It becomes easy to ignore or simply not see contrary views. Technology, for all its pluses, also means falsehoods and ‘fake news’ can quickly spread through networks unchecked and with an unstoppable momentum. In fact, online misinformation on a grand scale–and the potential for digital wildfires–was listed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2016 as one of the major risks to our society.2 The result of those echo chambers and that misinformation? Our fears are verified, often baselessly. Our anger is amplified. The cycle of distrust is magnified. All in all, our faith in many institutions has been dragged to a critical tipping point.
Indeed, recent gloomy poll numbers would have any politician or business leader in a sweat. For the past seventeen years, the global communications firm Edelman has been conducting an annual ‘Trust Barometer’, asking more than 30,000 people across twenty-eight countries about their level of trust in various institutions. The headline for the 2017 results was, tellingly, ‘Trust in Crisis’. Trust in all four major institutions–government, the media, business and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)–is at an all-time low.3 The media suffered the biggest blow, now distrusted in 82 per cent of all countries surveyed. In the UK, the number of people saying they trusted the media fell from 36 per cent in 2016 to 24 per cent in 2017. ‘People now view media as part of the elite,’ says Richard Edelman, President and CEO of PR firm Edelman. ‘The result is a proclivity for self-referential media and reliance on peers.’4 In other words, looking to reinforce what we already believe, often from people we know.
The Brexit vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump are the first wave of acute symptoms emerging from one of the biggest trust shifts in history: from the monolithic to the individualized. Trust and influence now lie more with ‘the people’–families, friends, classmates, colleagues, even strangers–than with top-down elites, experts and authorities. It’s an age where individuals matter more than institutions and where customers are social influencers that define brands.
By asking challenging questions about the flawed structure and size of institutional systems, and who runs them, we are coming to another confronting realization. Institutional trust, taken on faith, kept in the hands of a few and operating behind closed doors, wasn’t designed for the digital age.
It wasn’t designed for an age of radical transparency, of WikiLeaks and Cryptome, where politicians and CEOs must imagine they are operating behind clear glass. Trying to hide, well, anything really, is a high-stakes gamble. It doesn’t work in a world where PR puffery can no longer cover up dirty secrets or closed-door antics. Take a few recent examples of ‘private’ matters that have been spilled around the world: the sensitive user data of the extra-marital dating site Ashley Madison, Turing Pharmaceuticals’ internal emails on its predatory drug pricing, secret Scientology manuals, Hillary Clinton’s emails and even a private conversation that took place within a private palace garden between the Queen of England and the Metropolitan Police Commander about the rudeness of Chinese officials.5
It wasn’t designed for an age where people can transact directly on platforms such as Airbnb, Etsy and Alibaba. It wasn’t designed for an era where it is predicted half of the workforce will be ‘independent workers’–freelancers, contractors and temporary employees–within the next decade. It wasn’t designed for a time where we have become dependent on tech powerhouses such as Facebook and Google which represent new forms of ‘network monopolies’ and platform capitalism. It wasn’t designed for a culture where we want to control everything personally, from our bank accounts to our dates, with a swift click, tap or a swipe.
So should we be mourning the loss of trust? Yes, and no, because here’s the thing: whatever the headlines say, this isn’t the age of distrust–far from it. Trust, the glue that holds society together, hasn’t disappeared. It has shifted–and the implications, for everything from hiring a babysitter to running a business, are massive.
For the past decade, I have been researching how technology is radically changing our attitudes towards trust. In 2008, I started writing my first book, What’s Mine is Yours, about the so-called ‘collaborative’ or ‘sharing economy’. I was fascinated by how technology could unlock the value of idle assets–cars, homes, power drills, skills, time–but it was the trust ingredient, how technology could make us engage in behaviours that might previously have been considered a little creepy or outright risky, that became my obsession.
Even then, the notion of building a marketplace based on letting strangers stay in other people’s houses seemed ludicrous. Today, Airbnb, the home-sharing marketplace, is valued at $31 billion, making it the second most valuable hospitality brand in the world.6 In 2008, it was hard to see how detailed online profiles would give people the confidence to get lifts with strangers operating as cab drivers and using their own cars. Today, Uber is valued at $68 billion, making it one of the biggest companies in the world, larger than FedEx, Deutsche Bank or Kraft Foods.7 And then there is the explosion of online dating apps such as Tinder, where the average number of daily swipes is more than 1.4 billion with 26 million matches made daily.8 These are just a handful of examples where online tools are enabling us to have face-to-face interactions and entrust strangers with our most valuable possessions, experiences, even our lives, in previously unimaginable ways.
Consider this: why do people say they don’t trust bankers or politicians yet trust strangers to share a ride with them?
One conventional explanation is that people don’t always tell the truth in surveys. That may be so, but there had to be more to this trust paradox. I had a hunch something deeper was happening. What if trust, like energy, cannot be destroyed and instead just changes form?
Who Can You Trust? charts a theory, a bold claim: we are at the start of the third, biggest trust revolution in the history of humankind. When we look at the past, we can see that trust falls into distinct chapters. The first was local, when we lived within the boundaries of small local communities where everyone knew everyone else. The second was institutional, a kind of intermediated trust that ran through a variety of contracts, courts and corporate brands, freeing commerce from local exchanges and creating the foundation necessary for an organized industrial society. And the third, still very much in its infancy, is distributed.
A trust shift need not mean the previous forms will be completely superseded; only that the new form will become more dominant. For example, a small farming community may continue to rely on centuries-old local trust in some matters, but turn more often to the new town court to handle others.
Trust that used to flow upwards to referees and regulators, to authorities and experts, to watchdogs and gatekeepers, is now flowing horizontally, in some instances to our fellow human beings and, in other cases, to programs and bots. Trust is being turned on its head. The old sources of power, expertise and authority no longer hold all the aces, or even the deck of cards. The consequences of that, good and bad, cannot be underestimated.
The explosive growth of the sharing economy is a textbook example of distributed trust at play. But the theory is also a way to understand the rapid evolution of platforms like the darknet, where consumers are happily scoring everything from marijuana to AK-47s from ‘untrustworthy’ dealers. The darknet and the new era of digitally enabled app intimacy may sound as if they have little in common, but they share the same underlying principle–people trusting other people through technology.
Distributed trust explains why we are now feverishly scoring and rating everything from restaurants to chatbots to Uber drivers (and why passengers are rated, too), helping to shape, almost instantly, the rise or fall of all sorts of businesses, while also creating reputation trails where one mistake or misdemeanour could follow us potentially for the rest of our lives.
Distributed trust helps us understand why digital cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ether could be the future of money, and how the blockchain (the underlying ledger technology that powers these cryptocurrencies) could be used for everything from tracking the source of foods or blood diamonds to selling our homes without the need for estate agents.
Distributed trust helps us grapple with why and how we’ll come to trust well-trained bots, whether they’re giving us relationship advice, resolving our parking tickets, ordering our sushi or telling us if we have cancer.
Indeed, I believe the real disruption happening is not technology itself, but the massive trust shift it creates.
Distributed trust is not simply a new, idealistic flavour of techno libertarianism. There are many stories in this book that show how it can have negative, dark or disastrous consequences–discrimination, theft and even death. Yes, technology can widen the circle of trust, unlocking the potential to collaborate and connect with unfamiliar strangers, but it can also erect and harden boundaries between us. Ratings and reviews may make us more accountable, even a little nicer, to our fellow human beings but our growing reliance on them also means some people will become forever tarnished, relegated to a kind of digital purgatory. And, in our rush to reject the old and embrace the new, we may end up placing too much trust, too easily, in the wrong places.
It’s already becoming clear that the turpitudes of institutions, real or fabricated, have left many people dangerously receptive to alternatives, and ready to place unquestioning faith in a new, and some would say highly dubious, breed of trust arbiter. Distributed trust is far from foolproof and the questions that really matter are ethical and moral, not technical.
The first two chapters of this book pose a simple question: how did we end up here? They unpack why trust matters so much. The next three chapters explore the trio of conditions that make distributed trust possible–trust in a new idea, trust in platforms and, finally, trust in other people or bots. This section explains how to adapt to building trust in this new era and what to do when it’s lost. Critically, it asks who takes responsibility when trust is no longer centralized but distributed.
Elsewhere, the book travels to the depths of the darknet to understand why reputation matters so much, even to cocaine dealers. It goes inside the Orwellian-like trust-scoring system that is emerging in China and could determine everything from a citizen’s job to whether they can get on a train or a plane.
The final chapters look to our digital future, particularly focusing on our rapidly evolving trust in artificial intelligence. If we make a habit of trusting intelligent machines, does it become harder to build trusting relationships with people? The glorified promises of the blockchain are explored. Will this digital ledger really become the ‘Internet of Value’, as many enthusiasts claim? Will the big banks end up ‘taking over’ this technology originally designed to cut out the middlemen?
Distributed trust, enabled by new technologies, is rewriting the rules of human relationships. It’s changing the way we view the world and each other, returning us to the old village model of trust in one sense, except that the community is global in scale and some of its invisible reins are being pulled by internet giants. Now more than ever it is critical to understand the implications of this new trust era: who will benefit, who will lose and what the fallout might be.
Why? Because without trust, and without an understanding of how it is built, managed, lost and repaired, a society cannot survive, and it certainly cannot thrive. Trust is fundamental to almost every action, relationship and transaction. The emerging trust shift isn’t simply the story of a dizzying upsurge in technology or the rise of new business models. It’s a social and cultural revolution. It’s about us. And it matters.
* ‘Dollars’ and the dollar symbol ($) refer to US dollars throughout.
Friday, 19 September 2014, was a historic day on Wall Street. From the moment the markets opened at 9.30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST), the ticker rocketed for one company in particular. It was called Alibaba. By the end of the day, the Chinese e-commerce giant had a staggering market capitalization of $231 billion.1 It was the largest global public flotation ever on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), dwarfing that behemoth known as Facebook and even Alibaba’s giant rival, Amazon. Overnight, fifty-year-old Chinese businessman Jack Ma, the company’s founder and current chairman, became a very, very wealthy man.
A massive crowd lined the streets and packed on to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange that day to get a glimpse of the legendary entrepreneur. He was greeted like a rock star. ‘What we raised today is not money, it’s the trust from the people,’ Ma told more than a thousand cheering admirers.2
It was not, however, the charismatic and dynamic founder who rang the famed opening bell at the Stock Exchange. Instead, Ma opted to have eight Alibaba customers, five of whom were women, to stand on the podium to start the day of trading. He wanted to show he was true to his mantra, ‘Customers first, employees second and shareholders third.’ One merchant–one of the millions of small businesses who trade on Alibaba’s sites–was Lao Lishi, a former Chinese Olympic diving gold medallist who sells wooden beaded bracelets. Another was Peter Verbrugge, an American farmer who currently holds the record for selling the greatest amount of cherries through Alibaba.3 The customers ringing the NYSE bell represented something very important to Ma–how Alibaba has transformed the way Chinese businesses of all shapes and sizes can buy and sell a bewildering variety of goods, from clothes and nappies to live pedigree dairy goats and frozen chicken feet, inflatable sex dolls and even ‘do-it-yourself abortion kits’ to people all over the world.
But Jack Ma’s story is not simply a fascinating rags-to-riches tale of entrepreneurial persistence. It also represents a remarkable feat in the delicate business of building trust.
It’s a challenge to build any successful online marketplace where two sides need to trust one another, but what makes Ma’s story extraordinary is that he achieved this in China. Traditionally, China is a society based on the concept of guanxi, loosely translated as ‘relationships’. Trust, in business as well as private life, exists between people in the same guanxi: family, friends and people in the same village. People they know well over time, in other words, not strangers on a far-flung planet called the internet. In fact, it is common to distrust people outside your own personal network. This can create a cultural impediment and business obstacle as people are more prone to avoid building new relationships where there is no close connection.
I first went to Shanghai on business when I was twenty-five. I was part of a consulting project for a well-known brand looking to expand into Asia. Over the course of the first week, we shared an array of meals with our Chinese business clients. Lazy Susans spun, we ate delicious food at lunch and dinner, and we clinked beer glasses in toast after toast. The gatherings were warm and enjoyable but by day three I was wondering when we would get to the ‘real’ work. Rather insensitively, I didn’t realize how important it was for Chinese businesspeople to spend a considerable amount of time socializing and getting to know you at the start of a relationship. ‘In the West, we tend to reserve trust from the heart (affect-based trust) for family and friends and trust from the head (cognition-based trust) for business partners,’ explains Professor Paul Ingram of Columbia Business School, who studies social networks. ‘But in China, affect- and cognition-based trust are highly entwined even in business.’4 It’s especially true in China that people only trust you after you have invested a lot of time upfront in proving yourself to be trustworthy.
That was what Jack Ma was up against. It was one of the rock-hard conventions of trust he would set about shattering.
Ma Yun, as he was originally named, was raised in Hangzhou, about a hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The middle child of three, his parents were traditional musical theatre performers. Ma inherited their love of showmanship. He would later get a reputation for dressing up in elaborate wigs and leather gear, and belting out theme songs from the Lion King at company events.
- In a time when people are doubting experts, suspicious of the media, and losing faith in government and business, Rachel Botsman is here with a lucid analysis of what it takes to build and rebuild trust. Trust me: this is a book you need to read.—AdamGrant, New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take, Originals, andOption B with Sheryl Sandberg
- "Who Can You Trust is beautifully written primer for a new world that sets you up to be a better citizen, consumer, and parent. I quickly learnt so much about so many things I wanted to know."—Sherry Turkle, Professor, MIT; author of Reclaiming Conversation and Alone Together
- "Rachel Botsman's eye-opening, timely book delves into the unfolding crisis of trust spreading throughout the world. She brilliantly describes how the established trust framework is undergoing a radical transformation as digital technologies take root in every facet of our lives. Read this book and you'll be ready for a revolution in trust that rewrites the rules of human interaction."—Marc Benioff, Chairman & CEO, Salesforce
- "A timely and accessible framework for understanding what trust is, how it works, why it matters and how it is evolving. It is an important primer to the obstacles and opportunities we face as a society if we are to repair and redefine trust across socioeconomic, political and cultural divides."— Rebecca MacKinnon, Washington Post
- "Ms. Botsman has found a rich theme here and a fascinating way of interpreting technological change."— Philip Delves Broughton, Wall Street Journal
- "Witty... reveals some deep truths."—The American Spectator
- "Beautifully-written... the thesis is completely compelling. This is an important book."—Andy Haldane, Chief Economist, Bank of England
- "Profound...will cause you to think deeply about your business, your relationships and your life."—Don Tapscott, bestselling author of 16 books, most recently The Blockchain Revolution
- "This book perfectly walks the reader through the past, present, and future of trust as we know it. Rachel's expertise on this topic is unmatched. It's an absolute must-read for business leaders and everyday consumers alike."—Nick Shapiro, Global Head of Trust & Risk Management, Airbnb
- "In this extremely thought-provoking new book, Rachel Botsman educates and entertains as she reveals with expertise how our lives are already changing more than we know. A must-read for anyone interested in how the world works - and will work in the future."
—Will Dean, MBE, CEO Tough Mudder
- On Sale
- Nov 14, 2017
- Page Count
- 336 pages