Who Can You Trust?: A book review by Bob Morris

Who Can You Trust?: How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart
Rachel Botsman
PublicAffairs (November 2017)

How and why the real disruption in our VUCA world is not caused by technology; rather, by the massive trust shift it creates

I am among those who agree with these remarks by Confucius to his disciple, Tzu-Kung: “Abandon weapons first, then food. But never abandon trust. People cannot get on without trust. Trust is more important than life.”

Keep that thought in mind as you consider this broad claim by Rachel Botsman in the Introduction: “We are at the start of the third, biggest revolution in the history of humankind.” The first two – local and then institutional — are identified in context. Her focus is on the third: “still very much in its infancy, is distributed. A trust shift need not mean the previous forms will be completely superseded; onky that new form will become more dominant.”

Botsman wrote this book in order help her reader understand the implications of this new trust era: “who will benefit, who will lose, and what the fallout might be.”

The material in Chapter 4, “Where Does the Buck Stop?, is of special interest to me. Botsman locks in on Uber and Airbnb, two communities that seem to represent potential for both the best and worst of distributed trust and mistrust between and among everyone involved in each transaction. She addresses important issues that include reliability (fulfilling expectations), accountability (keeping promises and correcting screw ups), and protection (platforms to mitigate the risk of bad things happening). “When it comes to trust in distributed systems, we need to know who will tell the truth about a product, service, or piece of news, and who to blame if that trust is broken. Where does the buck stop? In this new era, people are still working that out.” This chapter all by itself is worth far more than the cost of the book.

Recall the remarks by Confucius to one of his disciples. Obviously Rachel Botsman agrees that, without an understanding of how trust is built, managed, lost, and repaired, “a society cannot survive, and it certainly cannot thrive. Trust is fundamental to almost every action, relationship and transaction.”

Moreover, “The emerging trust shift isn’t simply a story of dizzying upsurge in technology or the rise of new business models. It’s a social and cultural revolution. It’s about us. And it matters.”

Yes, what Marshall McLuhan once characterized as our “global village” has become more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that any of us can remember. Trust or mistrust now flows between and among individuals, enabled by increasingly more efficient and more effective technologies. For example, those involved with AI, IoT, and automation.

“Distributed trust needs us to allow space for a trust pause, an interval in which to stop and think before we automatically click, swipe, share, and accept.”

Who we can trust will largely depend on what we can trust. That is why understanding the system is so important. And that is why the information, insights, and counsel that this book provides are essential.

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