Trust as an algorithm

Dealing with risk and reputation in the sharing economy

Whether it’s encountering a new situation, meeting somebody for the first time, or greeting a family member our behaviour and body language is shaped by our level of trust.

Trust is analogous to the properties of water. Trust can evaporate quickly depending on the person, a particular action, or scenario. Yet for every platform we sign up to, like Uber, we are changing the way with which we trust others.

Trust is something we intrinsically do as human beings. As we increasingly mesh our lives across platforms and services, we outsource our capacity to trust and place it instead with a given platform’s blunt and narrow interpretation of trust. This might be in the form of giving a rating in airbnb, Yelp, or Uber or a review as in Trip Advisor.

Any substitution for trust is always going to be less than satisfactory.

“…trust is the grease that makes society function. Society can sometimes get by without trust — through resort to legal enforcement, say, of contracts — but it is a very second-best alternative.” — Joseph Stiglitz, Economist

Trust is dynamically fluid, it changes depending on actions, and who is doing the action. Trust is the unspoken and the unseen.

Unfortunately platforms impose a very binary interpretation of what trust is about another person. Think about the scenario of leaving a driver rating on Uber. Whether you leave a 4/5 or a 5/5 driver rating, the implications for the drivers livelihood are huge. If Uber deems the driver to drop below a certain threshold, they can suspend that driver.

Secondly by deferring to a platform’s ‘trust algorithm’, we reduce our exposure to not only risk but also to adventure and serendipity. Chance experiences that come from uncovering different people, cultures, or places are replaced by bland homogeneity.

Information always under represents reality

Today “trust algorithms” fall down when it comes to representing reality. Platforms and services in the sharing economy are purposefully designed to lock people in through their feedback loops so they can become better represented by algorithms. The trade off is to voluntarily give up an element of free-will.

What platforms in the sharing economy want, is to retain and expand their power base. Jaron Lanier describes these platforms as ‘levee’s of power’ in Who Owns The Future. In stark contrast to ideals of the internet, platforms such as Uber or airbnb are unwilling to be truly open because their power will be diluted as result.

Instead they seek to impose their interpretation of rules around trust, risk, and reputation by creating their own trust algorithm. As a result a user’s ‘trust algorithm’ remains trapped within the narrow confines of those platforms.

A Proposal: Trust Blockchain

What is required instead is the need to evoke the spirit of freedom and openness that were the hallmark of the early internet. That means platforms having to give up their rating and review systems and in it’s place having an independent ‘trust blockchain’ that platforms in sharing economy subscribe to.

Every transaction would be stored in a decentralised ‘trust blockchain’ that would validate each transaction. The benefit will be an authenticated, open, and more accurate measure of a person’s online trust.

Clearly the present system of managing trust in the post-digital age is ineffective. A ‘trust blockchain’ would offer a substantial improvement in how we manage our trust and reputation across the various digital touchpoints we participate in, contribute, and subscribe to.

The time is right for a radical rethink in how we trust in the post-digital age. A trust blockchain is not the perfect solution, but it does offers a more realistic model for interpreting trust.

Tom Eldridge is an independent Innovation Strategist whose clients have included LinkedIn, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and presently Vodafone.