The Hippo


Mar 24, 2019








Who Can You Trust? by Rachel Botsman
(PublicAffairs, 256 pages)


 Rachel Botsman brands herself a “world-renowned expert on trust,” which seems a bit grandiose and unnecessary. The world needs people who can build bridges, write code and grow coffee beans; do we really need people who make a living talking about trust?

That’s still up for debate, but with Who Can You Trust? the Oxford-educated Botsman establishes that she’s fit for the job. The book, her second, is a thoughtful examination of the importance of trust between human beings, and the ways in which technology has upended this vital currency, in good and bad ways.
Sounds mind-numbingly wonky, but it’s not, especially if you ever use Lyft or Airbnb.
The earliest humans judged each other by direct experience and familial connection in their tight-knit communities; this was the first form of societal trust, Botsman says. Later, this was subsumed by faith in institutions such as government, banks and churches. But as institutional trust has eroded in recent years, a new kind of trust has arisen. Botsman called this distributed trust, trust that is broadly cast among individuals, and more specifically (and sometimes alarmingly), strangers.
We see distributed trust at work in ride-sharing platforms, Airbnb and other foundational businesses of the sharing economy, as well as in other forms of e-commerce, such as UrbanSitter, a business that matches parents and babysitters as quickly as you can summon Uber to your door.
A generation ago, the idea of getting into a car with a stranger was unthinkable to most people, the remnants of brave hitchhikers notwithstanding. We are taught from early childhood about stranger danger; yet now, we’re not only climbing into cars with strangers, but by scheduling a home pick-up we’re letting them know where we live. In the old way of thinking, swapping a house with a stranger, or renting a room through Airbnb, is even scarier since we’re paralyzed by sleep for at least part of the exchange.
Enabling this level of trust on a broad scale took a sweeping paradigm shift, one that Botsman admits is “messy, unpredictable and at times dangerous.” In Who Can You Trust?, she invites us to think about what has changed in our behavior and thinking, and the ways in which distributed trust improves our lives. But she also wants us to consider the ways in which this new form of trust can end badly.
Consider the murderous Uber driver in Michigan. Two years ago, a 45-year-old insurance worker,  a father of two who’d been married for 20 years, shot eight people within the course of five hours, all the while continuing to pick up fares. Unbelievably, even as news that an Uber driver was shooting people spread across Kalamazoo, people continued to get in his car. One passenger even asked, “You’re not that guy going around killing people, are you?” to which the killer, of course, replied, “No way.”
Why would people continue to use Uber even though they knew an Uber driver was killing people in their city in real time? It’s because they trusted the platform and trusted their previous experience with ride-sharing and that of others who used the service. Even now, as Uber has suffered other scandals, including charges of sexual harassment, millions of people use the app regularly, the author included. 
Botsman, whose previous book What’s Mine is Yours delved into the sharing economy, picks the brains of many of the creators of trust-altering businesses, including the founders of Airbnb, and examines the mind-boggling success of Alibaba, the Amazon of China. 
She also examines failures of distributed trust, most notably fake news shared through Facebook, as well as its success on the dark web, where criminals and ne’er-do-wells trade. Except for the occasional cases where a criminal website shuts down suddenly and vanishes forever with its users’ bitcoins, the dark net displays high levels of what Botsman says are the three components of trust: competence, reliability and honesty. 
Most terrifying of the cautionary tales is a social program under development in China. There, the government in 2014 unveiled a “Social Credit System” by which every citizen will be rated not just on their driving records or financial dealings but on virtually every marker of behavior, including what they buy, how they spend their time and who they call friends. The system is currently optional, but millions of Chinese are already participating, well in advance of 2020, when it becomes mandatory. The government has enticed people to opt in by promising perks to those with the highest scores, such as getting permission to travel abroad. 
A citizenry that takes no thought of constantly sharing the minutia of their lives online, or letting their banks and grocery stores track their every purchase, may pay no attention to the men behind this particular curtain. But, as Botsman notes, China’s “citizen score” enables high-scoring people to trust each other, but it also manipulates them in sinister ways. The system “not only investigates behavior — it shapes it,” she writes. “It ‘nudges’ each of those closely monitored citizens away from purchases and behaviors the government does not like.”
If you just read one chapter of Who Can You Trust?, read the one about China, titled “Rated: Would Your Life Get a Good Trust Score?” But the entire book will make you think. And shudder, at times. A 
— Jennifer Graham 

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