We keep hearing that there’s a ‘crisis of trust’. It’s partly true – credible research companies such as Pew and Ipsos say that trust in institutions such as banks, governments, charities and the media, has hit an all-time low. Scandals and corruption haven’t helped, but something else is at work. Institutional trust, taken on faith, kept in the hands of a privileged minority and operating behind closed doors, simply wasn’t designed for the digital age.

That doesn’t mean this is the age of distrust. There’s plenty of trust out there. It just isn’t where it used to be. Trust, the glue that holds society together, has shifted from institutional trust to a new form of distributed trust. Instead of flowing upwards to institutions, experts, authorities and regulators, it now flows horizontally to peers, friends, colleagues and fellow users.

The signs of distributed trust are everywhere: from the rise of tech platforms such as Airbnb, Tinder and Uber that depend on strangers trusting one another; to the emergence of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum that bypass traditional banks; to rating and review systems on Amazon and Tripadvisor; to the feverish consumption of news on Facebook and other social media platforms.

From institutions to individuals

We have entered an age where individuals can have more sway than traditional institutions, and customers are not just meek consumers but social influencers who define brands. And because trust is moving into the hands of the many, there will be more of it around.

That’s a good thing, but it brings with it the risk of trusting the wrong people or things; and new ethical challenges around letting algorithms become the arbiters of truth. The trust shift will have massive consequences for the way we live, work, bank and consume.

Evolution of Trust
Image: Rachel Botsman

What's your 'life score'?

By 2030, we’ll see, for example, credit scoring expanding into ‘life scoring’. Identity and reputation will be digitised and analysed in minute detail, shaping a future where a personal ‘trust score’ will be the norm, with all the benefits and drawbacks that might bring.

It’s already underway in China, where, in a pilot scheme, citizens are being given a Social Citizen Score based on individual actions. Their simple everyday choices – from their shopping selections or patterns of bill payment to their choice of friend – all go towards influencing that score, whether the person is aware of it or not. Fair or unfair, the results will be on permanent record. It’s easy to imagine a similar system becoming universal.

Frighteningly Orwellian? Yes, but there are some positive aspects. Companies such as the small loan provider Tala, the fifth most downloaded app in Kenya, are looking at how data in a person’s network can prove they are trustworthy when they have no credit history to call upon.

Traity, a Spanish insurance start-up, is taking a similar approach to build new ways to assess risk and enable people to use their online reputations to get a better deal. For instance, if someone is applying for home insurance and they have stellar Airbnb reviews, this is useful data to assess how likely they are to look after assets in their own home.

Distributed trust is particularly valuable for the billions of people left out or penalised by traditional institutional gold standards of trust, such as credit scores and background checks.

Facebook and Uber the new institutions

Within the next decade we will see other changes. Tech behemoths including Facebook, Airbnb and Uber will no longer be able to claim they are mere facilitators, or a ‘neutral pathway’, in bringing people, information and resources together.

These and other innovative platforms will be considered the new institutions, with our distributed trust in their hands. No longer the new disruptive kids on the block, they’ll be held to new levels of accountability when something bad happens via the platform, whether that’s an Uber driver attacking a passenger, or a social media company failing to immediately remove illegal content or ‘fake news’.

Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ether (or whatever comes next) will be mainstream forms of money, and the blockchain – a ledger technology based on distributed trust – will be used for everything from tracking the source of foods or blood diamonds, to bypassing real estate agents.

Many of the ideas around the blockchain are being over-hyped and over-funded, but some are plausible. As the cost of trust plummets because of new technology, the third parties now paid to facilitate our trust – be they agents, referees, bankers, lawyers, watchdogs or custodians – will increasingly have to prove their value if they don’t want to be supplanted by an immutable ledger.

Distributed trust, combined with technology, also means that within the next decade, we’ll be comfortable trusting well-trained bots, whether they’re driving us around, giving us financial advice, or telling us if we have cancer.

It will even influence how we parent. By 2030, AI devices – the cute, personified speaking bots like Amazon’s Alexa – will have become as common as TVs. The big question we should be asking now is, how do we ensure the upcoming generation won’t outsource their trust or decision-making too easily to an algorithm? How can we give them the skills to analyse whether that helpful bot has its own agenda, such as boosting its maker’s online shopping profits by coaxing the child to order things? I’d suggest we need a ‘trust pause’ device for younger users of AI – something that says, hey, take a moment to make your own decision.

Decision-making and trust are vital parts of what it is to be human. By 2030, however, they’ll both be wearing a whole new face.