Trust Is Dead. Long Live Trust.
“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the world’s most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening”.
We put more trust in algorithms than humans. Trust in the government, media, business and institutions is at an all-time low. We don’t trust bankers or politicians yet share taxi rides with strangers. How and why does this dichotomy exist? And where will it take us? Rachel Botsman’s wide-ranging primer on the intricate relationship between trust and tech is unputdownable. From Airbnb to Blockchain, our trust in traditional, centralized institutions has eroded and shifted to distributed, decentralised trust networks. We now trust our friend’s newsfeeds more than mainstream media. Our echo-chambers more than institutions. Favourable information over unbiased reporting.
Trust is a delicate, uniquely human emotion. It used to take us decades to build it, a few moments to break it and, in some cases, generations to heal. Technology has hastened this cycle manyfold. Botsman’s immaculately researched treatise is brimming with insight and is an essential guide to navigating today’s hyperconnected world. What follows are my three favourite stories from the book.
“The longest non-therapeutic experiment on human beings in medical history”. That’s how the heinous Tuskegee study uncovered by Jean Heller in 1972 was reported. Disadvantaged black farmers living in Tuskegee — which had the highest rate of syphilis in the USA — were used as guinea pigs in a four-decade-long study. The aim: to see if syphilis affected Blacks like it did Whites. Bear in mind, the cure — penicillin — was already known. But never administered to the syphilitic farmers, leading to hundreds of deaths. Autopsies were then carried out to gauge if syphilis indeed affected Blacks differently.
Subsequent research has shown that the decreased life expectancy in black males could be attributed to their trust deficit in the US medical system following Tuskegee.
A loss of trust, or trust-wound, takes generations to heal. Leaving lasting impacts, and in this case, hundreds of dead in its wake.
When rules are violated without consequence, they might as well not exist. This is trust erosion. System racism is one of several examples of trust erosion.
Jack of All Trades
As a pre-schooler, Jack Ma would ride his bike to the Hangzhou hotel at 5 AM every day to offer free city-tours to the travelling US politicians staying there. In return, he could hone his English-speaking skills. He did this for 9 years. As a teen, he was rejected by Harvard ten times in a row. When KFC opened in Hangzhou and was hiring, he was the only one of 24 applicants who was rejected. Throughout these dispiriting rejections, he trusted himself.
When Alibaba launched in China, less than 1% of the population had access to fast internet. Even fewer could trust an online shop when they couldn’t see, feel, or vouch for the products on sale. Even fewer were willing to pay. There was a massive trust gap that needed to be overcome. Jack Ma’s genius was to convince these nascent users to take a leap of faith: a trust leap. How? He came up with Alipay. Alipay was an intermediary. Prospective buyers would transfer funds to Alibaba via Alipay, who would keep them in escrow until the goods were received by the buyer. Upon inspection and satisfaction, the funds were released to the seller. Game-changer. People took the trust leap and now Alipay carries 70% of all online payments in China, including things like groceries, rent and energy bills.
When Alibaba went public in September 2014, Ma used the word “trust” eight times in his bell-ringing speech. Alibaba isn’t just an online shopping company. It is a trust company. AliPay heralded an era of taking trust-leaps. Alibaba commoditized trust.
Trustworthiness is a subjective quality. Not everyone who appears trustworthy should be trusted. It’s not only people who appear trustworthy that should be trusted. Botsman cites evidence in the book showing how drugs bought on the darknet are purer than those bought offline. Drug dealers aren’t quintessentially thought of as “trustworthy”. But business dealings on the darknet prove that they are. Because reputation, a close cousin of trust, is everything. Especially online. We pay a “trust premium” all the time. The last item I bought off Amazon, an iPhone adapter, was available for 20% less from another seller with a 3.6-star rating. I took the 20% hit and bought it from the 5-star seller instead. I paid the trust premium willingly.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the book — there’s so much more information in it to soak in. Like how blockchain is poised to revolutionise trust and become our generation’s de facto trust mechanism. Or, the Orwellian nature of the Chinese system of citizen scores. This is a riveting, informative book. Pick it up and devour it. You’ll un-learn and learn in equal amounts. Trust me.