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The rise of distributed trust

Maxine-Laurie Marshall — October 2018
Trust is evolving in a potentially revolutionary way that could change the fabric of business and society, according to Rachel Botsman, business thinker and University of Oxford lecturer

• Fujitsu Forum Munich 2018 speaker •

The relationship between trust, technology, business and society is increasingly complex. Technology is altering human behaviours and instincts. As a result business is paradoxically attempting to keep up with changing customer expectations while simultaneously developing the technologies of the future.

These changes are indicative of a new phase in the evolution of trust. According to business thinker and Ted Talk speaker Rachel Botsman, trust has been through three significant chapters in human history. We’ve moved from local trust, where it was based on one-to-one interactions and personal reputation. Next came institutional trust: “When we went through mass urbanization and wanted to trade internationally, this local trust wasn’t scalable. We invented institutions and institutional mechanisms — from brands and the idea of middlemen to things like insurance and contracts — and they were all a very good thing.”

But Botsman observes that over the years the flow of trust between people has dwindled while institutions have become bureaucratic, centralized and opaque. Technology is now taking that institutional power and distributing it, bringing us in to the third phase she calls ‘distributed trust.’

As its name suggests, distributed trust takes the power away from a single source and shares that responsibility across a wide range of sources. “The easiest way to think of it is trust that flows through networks, marketplaces and platforms,” Botsman says. “And so it takes trust away from a top-down institution and decentralizes it using technology.”

Examples include the move away from traditional media publications such as newspapers where an editor would decide what stories the reader would see, to now having news consumed in a distributed way via social channels with algorithms deciding what story to surface next.

She says: “The idea is that trust, and alongside it power and value, can now flow directly between individuals without the need for traditional institutions.”

This sounds almost revolutionary and liberating, but distributing trust also means distributing accountability. There is no one place to attribute blame when something goes wrong. We’re seeing examples of this already from companies such as Uber and Facebook, which have created a peer-to-peer platform but don’t own the assets and therefore don’t want to assume responsibility for the wellbeing of the users on either side of that platform. This problem could be exacerbated when the platform is replaced by a distributed technology such as blockchain and is combined with an element of AI.

As she highlights in Who Can You Trust?, her bestseller: “Distributed trust is far from foolproof and the questions that really matter are ethical and moral, not technical. 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.”

Trust is far from simple and technology, as it continues its inexorable advance, will continue to impact the way we trust. If we’re aware of this shift we could reach an equilibrium and avoid one undermining the other. Botsman concludes: “We get lost in the excitement because we often can’t see the unintended consequences. And it’s the unintended consequences of these platforms that are starting to play out now. So this issue of ‘platform responsibility’, and the role technology plays in that, is one of the most critical issues of our times.”
First published
October 2018
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About: Rachel Botsman
Rachel Botsman writes, researches and speaks on how technology is transforming trust — and what this means for business and society. She is a lecturer at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, where she designed and teaches the world’s first MBA course on the ‘Collaborative Economy’ and a new course on ‘Trust in the Digital Age.’

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