Book Review: Who Can You Trust?

Two recent news stories perfectly illustrate economist Rachel Botsman’s argument in her new book, Who Can You Trust?: in late October, Amazon announced its “Amazon Key” service, which would see its drivers gain access to customers’ houses – in their absence – to drop off purchases. Barely a week later, Facebook suggested that, in order to prevent the spread of “revenge porn”, users should pre-emptively submit nude photos of themselves to the tech giant, the unique digital fingerprints of which would detect and prevent attempts by others to distribute them.  

Botsman guides the reader on an enjoyably accessible but cautiously skeptical tour through this hugely transformative but barely-recognized shift in our sometimes irrational approach to trust. Among other things, this shift has unleashed the sharing economy (e.g., Uber negating the need to own a car) and the increasing – and for some, unnerving – reliance on computers and robots to make decisions for us, (e.g., autonomous vehicles negating the need for human drivers altogether).  

An instructor at the University Oxford, Botsman is a widely-recognized expert on the economics of trust who previously explored some of these themes in popular TED talks (available on YouTube), and in the 2010 book What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption (co-authored with American entrepreneur Roo Rogers).  

She begins by distinguishing between trust (which she defines as a “confident relationship with the unknown”) and trustworthiness, and how our trust has often been abused or misplaced, most notoriously in the case of Bernie Madoff and investment banks prior to the 2008 financial meltdown. As a result, instead of depending upon traditional institutions such as governments, banks and newspapers, we are now using social media platforms to distribute trust to complete strangers.  

Botsman explains how we have, in the process, become products in a global economy of “likes” and starred ratings denoting our trustworthiness, be it as social agents whose personal preferences are sold to advertisers (Facebook), buyers and sellers (eBay), guests and hosts (Airbnb), or drivers and passengers (Uber). She points out that not only can these regimes be gamed, but our fear of being ranked poorly ourselves can curtail our honesty regarding others in the system. Worse, they risk creating a society of mutual surveillance, in which everyone is continually ranking each other to boost their own trustworthiness rankings.  

Botsman shows how this dystopian outcome is already unfolding in China, where the government is well on its way to a 2020 launch of its disturbingly Orwellian “Social Credit System,” a massive trust ranking scheme which will grade all its citizens according their credit history, behaviour and preferences and personal relationships, with the resulting “trust score” then becoming the basis of all privileges and opportunities, including one’s education and career. 

Not that there will be many career choices open to many of us: Botsman cites a 2013 report by two Oxford economists which estimates that, as early as 2030, 47 percent of American jobs could be lost to computerization and automation via artificial intelligence (AI) or actual robots, whom we are trusting with more and more decision-making tasks.   

The ultimate outsourcing of our trust appears to be emerging in the form of blockchains – tamper-proof, distributed (i.e., ownerless) digital ledgers that are capable of proving the provenance of everything from bitcoin transactions to baby formula production to diamonds. Once they gain mainstream acceptance, warns Botsman, they have the potential to make obsolete almost every current intermediating profession and institution including banks, lawyers, and real estate agents. 

With our local networks of interdependence long since gone, expertise forsaken for filtered social media bubbles built around our preconceptions, and traditional institutions exposed as corrupt or rendered obsolete, we may find ourselves instead trusting our daily lives, commerce, livelihoods and governance to algorithms, AI and the immutable perfection of the blockchain.  

Who Can You Trust is an excellent – and apparently trustworthy – primer to this fundamentally upturned society in which we may be spending the rest of our lives.

Who Can You Trust?: How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart. 
By Rachel Botsman 
PublicAffairs. $31.93, 336 pp.  
 

(Originally published in The Winnipeg Free Press January 27th 2018)..

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