Project Description

Who Can You Trust?

As a comparative political scientist and peacebuilder, I have to be interested in trust, and I have to be worried about the decline in what Rachel Botsman call institutional trust in countries around the world including the one I live in and the one(s) she lives in.

To my delight, Botsman unpacks what trust in general means more than most of my fellow political scientists in at least two ways. First, she talks about “trust stacks” in which we start by trusting an idea, then the platform it is built on, and finally in other people you might (or might not) trust. Second, she talks about “trust leaps” or the fact that trust almost always involves taking a metaphorical leap into the unknown which is one of the main reasons why Palestinians have a hard time trusting Israelis (and vice versa) or why President Reagan is famous for the line, “trust, but verify.”

In particular, she focuses on how we are losing trust in institutions because their leaders—otherwise known as elites—are not living up to their end of what I would call the trust bargain. As Reagan at least seemed to understand, trust is something one earns, and political elites have not been doing a very good job of living up to our trust.

Even more to my delight, Botsman talks about what she calls distributed trust which she thinks is the hallmark of the digital age. No longer do we have to worry only about the the institutional trust that is in decline around the world. Now, we are learning how to replace it with trust achieved a) through platforms that b) are not centrally controlled like those institutions, and c) have a lot of Regan’s verification built into them.

As she did in her previous book on the sharing economy, Botsman talks about new ways of verifying and earning trust on the platforms made possible by the digital revolution. Every day, we trust people we don’t know and never will know with lots of valuable information about ourselves, starting when we buy things on line and “trust” Amazon or any other business with our credit card information.

As she says, we have a lot to learn about these mechanisms, but they are well worth thinking about. We all know about abuses of what she calls distributed trust by the likes of Uber and others who have violated the trust norms of these networks.

More importantly, she lays out the logic of the blockchain that underlies Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies. Their real potential lies not so much in the way we can use them to avoid traditional monetary systems, but in the fact that their very operation in literally blocks and chains of actions can give us a way of building trusting relationships with people not because they are necessarily good people but because we can verify that they have kept their word.

Botsman lays a lot of this out in her TED talk, but the book as a whole is well worth reading, because the nuances of her argument and the brilliance of her story telling needs more than 18 minutes…..