Rethinking trust – in humans

Trust is the essential currency in human interaction, it is the indispensable basis for the many unwritten contracts we enter every single day. Trust is the glue that keeps social groups together and the grease that lets these groups act, and interact, smoothly. Trust is so foundational to human society that we take it as just that: the eternal fundament of our culture. I’ll argue that digital technologies are gradually eroding that fundament, causing cracks in the foundation of our society.

Trust is the deeply human condition that helps us make decisions quickly in complex situations, mainly in inter-personal and social settings. Trust lets us navigate the road ahead when we cannot rationally think through all the ins and outs of the challenge we face. Trust is neither knowledge nor belief; it’s neither entirely rational nor fully irrational. Rather, under circumstances marked by complexity and speed, trust shapes our expectations based on past experiences, and these expectations crucially frame the plans we make and the decisions we take.

Are we aware?

We are usually very aware how much we rely on trust in our daily interactions in various social settings, in our families, at work, while shopping, in traffic – we trust that everybody we interact with will behave according to our expectations. That has become our second nature, and it’s supported by codes of conduct, customs, or traditions. But we are far less aware to what extent we trust technology – we push a button and the light goes on, the car starts, the app launches. What’s missing is something like a widely agreed code of conduct for technology. How should technology ‘behave‘, what is the minimum expectation technology should fulfil for us to trust it? That it will start on demand? That it will do what it did last time? That it will do what the user wants it to do?

With digital technologies, these questions are increasingly difficult to answer: How often do we curse the latest software update? Because its default settings once again override our personal  preferences? Because it ‘lost‘ that one feature we really liked? If it was a friend who displays such erratic behaviour, you’d tell him to go to hell. But with an app, you are far more likely to accept such ‘misdemeanour‘. Such challenges do not simply affect our interactions with technology. Through social media that are used more and more as an interface layer that moderates our social interactions, the questions about human trust in technology directly spills over into the human and social domain. Given those far-reaching implications of digital technologies, it’s high time to rethink trust in our social interactions and in our interactions with technology – how much do we trust each other, and how much do we trust technology?

How much do we trust each other?

The advent of social media combined with mobile internet applications has created a global class of hyper-connected individuals. Take for example the increase in Facebook’s daily active users to more than 1.3 billion people in June 2017, or more generally the number of social media users of 2.46 billion by end 2017 (projected to grow beyond 3 billion by 2021) . While these technologies are rightfully hailed for the unprecedented opportunities they offer to billions of people around the globe to connect with each other and to share ideas, their downsides get far less attention, despite their potentially detrimental effects on the very same social fabric that they are supposed to strengthen. Sounds paradoxical? Here’s the story.

For the individual user here and now, all this new technology presents an immediate gain, a real boon: the group of people you can connect to, ‘your’ group, becomes bigger, richer, more diverse. It also become a little less tangible, but that seems okay at first glance. More importantly, you run into resource constraint: the time you have to manage all your social interactions remained unchanged. And that creates, it imposes a choice about your personal social network: Do you favour quantity or would you prefer quality? Would you embrace the new hyper-connectivity to maximise number of people you interact with? Or would be rather stick to the traditional social contacts, with considerably fewer, but higher-quality relations? Whether we like it or not, many people went the quantity route already.

That has longer-term implications we can only see at a thorough second glance: the loss of interaction quality causes a decline of social skills. The clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle from MIT’s Media Lab has studied the impact of information technology on human interactions for decades, and her account is chilling (for a quick read, I’d recommend her article Flight from Conversation, but if you have the time, do read her book Alone Together). The young generation growing up with communication technology such as smart phones, instant messaging, and social media actually connect to their peers using technology as an interface layer that acts as a filter and barrier.

Rather than engaging in direct face-to-face conversation, they prefer an indirect mode: when they don’t have to react instantaneously, when they can take your time to respond, when they can weigh they words. That might just seem a little distant, dis-engaged, or dis-connected; but more importantly it misses the channel-richness of facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice, that conveys context and subtext when meeting people in a real life conversation. With technology as the intermediary for human interactions, most of the social subtleties are lost, because they cannot be transmitted through 140 characters or any number of emojies.

The frightening part of this development is: engaging in social interactions in all their facets is a learned skill, and we are raising young generations that do not acquire that skill any more. By avoiding situations of intense complex social interactions that require instantaneous reactions, the young generations escape exactly the circumstances where trust is most useful, and where the skill to develop trust is learned. The flight from conversation is actually the escape from trust. The results, I’m afraid, are impoverished interactions and gutted relations, reduced to the shallows that text messages can convey. The impact on our social fabric will be huge, as we trust each other less and less.

The cure to this challenge could be breathtakingly simple: let’s use technology selectively and make conscious choices. Let’s minimise typing and reading to circumstances where there’s no alternative, where technology enables communication and social interaction across distances in time and space. But whenever and wherever possible, let’s meet in real time and real space, let’s look each other in the eye, let’s talk to each other, let’s listen to each other, let’s engage with each other – directly. The choice is ours: with every single social contact we make.

Sherry Turkle left us an important hint in the subtitle of her book: “Why we expect more from technology and less from each other“. We do not only need to think about what we expect from each other, we must also consider –very carefully– what we expect from technology. That leads directly to the next question: How much do we trust technology?


This post is the second of a short series on how we might rethink society, or rather, rethink some of the core concepts our society is built upon. The previous post addressed ownership, the following posts will focus on trust in technology and on value. The need and opportunity for such a fundamental re-orientation arise from a cluster of disruptions emerging all around us: in politics, economics, Big Business, energy and production. These disruptions are themselves driven by mega trends like urbanization, globalization, digitization, and decentralization.

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