Life and work are all about “trust.”
Our lives are defined by who, what, when and how we trust.
But, what is “trust?”
We tend to think of “trust” and “trusting” as a feeling or emotion, but it may be better to think of trust as a particular type of decision.
We “trust” when we decide to take some kind of risk.
I “trust” the local supermarket to sell me safe food. I “trust” my doctor to provide effective medical treatment.
“Trusting” involves a decision to expose ourselves to a danger of some kind (unhealthy food, poor medical care, etc.). We “decide” to place our fate in another person or organization. As such, “trust” is the triumph of hope over fear. We overcome our natural aversion to risk in anticipation of a better future (a tasty meal, good health).
Every day, all of us make many different decisions to trust. Together, these choices define who we are and what matters to us.
But “who, what, when and how we trust” is changing.
Trust is becoming “digitized” and “automated.” We are much less trusting of organizations or procedures, but instead trust machines and algorithms. And this digitalization of trust is transforming how we live and work.
The digital transformation is really about a new experience of trust.
What I find surprising is that this “digitization of trust” doesn’t attract more attention. “Digital trust” is the future and the “unprepared” (people, organizations, and societies) will certainly lose out.
But, to better prepare ourselves, we must be much smarter. We need to find a way to “personalize” digital trust to ensure that the emerging decentralized world of platforms and peer-to-peer transactions can reach its full potential.
Let me explain.
Trust is first established within “closed” families and communities. I don’t say that these close relationships are always rosy. But, it is usually less risky to deal with people (or organizations) that you know directly and have dealt with before. Let’s call this “personal trust.”
Equally, it is clear that this type of personal trust doesn’t work in an industrialized or globalized world. In such a situation, trust is established by organizations (governments, businesses, schools, and other intermediaries) and procedures (rules, contracts, and hierarchies). Modern economy and society are built on the success of these more impersonal or “institutionalized” forms of trust.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Scandals, corruption, slow procedures, human error, inefficient legacy systems, etc. increasingly destroy trust in the organizations and procedures of the modern world.
We live in an age of diminishing trust in organizations and procedures. We are less and less willing to place our fate in the hands of incumbents and traditional ways of doing things.
To restore confidence in the “old world”, efforts have tended to focus on introducing and implementing more regulations, processes, and procedures.
But, if you follow what’s happening in the digital world, you immediately understand that these “old world” mechanisms have reached their limits. “Who” and “how” we trust has already changed. The world of organizations (corporations, government, etc.), and procedures is being replaced by new forms of trust.
“Shitty,” slow and expensive experiences have resulted in greater distrust in established institutions and their products and services. This has driven the emergence of new and disruptive business models.
When looking for a taxi on New Year’s Eve, many of us now opt for a ride-sharing service like Uber. Rather, than staying at an impersonal hotel, many of us prefer Airbnb. When music files aren’t easily available, a music sharing service offers a solution (Spotify). And, if trust in traditional financial institutions dips, a blockchain-based cryptocurrency (Bitcoin) may well be more attractive. The list goes on and on.
Generally, what these innovations all have in common is that they use the Internet and other digital technologies to offer “peer-to-peer” solutions, reducing the number of traditional “middlemen” and procedures. Moreover, the modern service provider offers a more individualized, custom-made service that — at best — delivers a more satisfying experience.
These “platform” services are often considered to be a huge success. Their peer-to-peer capabilities make them compelling, efficient, and attractive in a fast-changing world. That is why people are so willing to place their trust in new businesses and brands.
But before they were widely adopted, trust issues that obviously exist in a peer-to-peer environment (why would you trust somebody who you don’t know or is anonymous) had to be solved.
Search algorithms, data analytics, and consensus protocols have helped digitize trust by minimizing bad experiences, maximizing great experiences, and avoiding unwanted issues (such as the double spending of cryptocurrencies).
A new world of algorithms, code, and data-analytics is disrupting the world of organizations and procedures.
That’s not to say that we don’t struggle with trust issues with these platforms. Digital trust may sound more attractive than institutionalized trust, but it still has its shortcomings.
Recently, we hear more and more that people are starting to lose trust in platforms and networks (Facebook and Bitcoin), which are prone to multiple problems (e.g., fake accounts, Sybil attacks and 51% attacks).
I do! But we need to get much smarter about digital trust.
We must do something to ensure that this new environment of trust maximizes its potential. We hear more and more that we don’t trust old world organizations and procedures but we aren’t fully convinced about the “distributed” or “decentralized” networks either.
When I raise this issue, more rules and regulations are often suggested as the best solution. Yet, I am not particularly fond of regulatory initiatives that target either the “new” centralized (Facebook, Spotify, Amazon) or decentralized platforms (Bitcoin, Ethereum, Openbazaar).
Applying “old world” solutions (such as more rules and regulations) to “new world” issues is usually a mistake and leads to undesirable complexities and misunderstandings.
So, what is the answer?
We must “personalize” or “humanize” digital trust.
It may sound counter-intuitive but think about it. I see three ways that “peer-to-peer” platforms can “personalize” the trust that is necessary to make them work more effectively.
The underlying technology on which a platform runs must be secure, safe and reliable for all the platform’s users and participants.
But, more than that, it must be user-friendly and offer a continually updated and upgraded interface. The digital world is fast and the information is readily available. People don’t want to waste time and it shouldn’t be too cumbersome (with clicks, registrations, etc.) to use the platform and its services.
The technology must offer users and participants “connectivity,” “choice,” and “convenience.” But it should also enable monetization as well as analytical (including artificial intelligence), promotional (marketing), and creative activities.
The platform “culture” (or what Gary Vaynerchuk refers to as “context”) has to be “open” and “accessible.”
Open means that the platform and its participants have an understanding and are aware of what and who they are dealing with. For a decentralized platform, this means that its code and protocols must be “open source” so that weaknesses and shortcoming can be constantly tested and updated (if necessary). A centralized platform needs to be “open” about its processes and the inner-workings of its code and algorithms.
A platform must also offer an accessible and honest experience to participants. They must be able to verify the reputation of other participants.
Platforms must facilitate connections to a community of users that “matters” to them. They must “invite” user creativity and engagement (through social media, reviews, blogs, and perhaps loyalty coins), and offer a fantastic, flexible and often personalized experience in creating, curating and consuming content.
The content (including products, services, or other “creative” content) needs to be authentic. It must establish networks and connections which are crucial to the success of both the platform and its participants.
These connections are important because they provide the platform and its participants with “community” insights that can then have a positive impact on the future development of the platform, its participants, and their “content.”
A “give-before-you-get” principle prevails (as much as possible). And revenue models are often either “ad supported” or based on subscriptions that offer unlimited access and other perks.
The world is changing and will continue to change at a tremendous speed.
Every aspect of our lives (how we work, how we learn, how we play, how we will be entertained) will be impacted by new digital technologies (artificial intelligence, IoT, and distributed ledger technologies).
What has not changed (and will never change) is the centrality of trust. Trust will always define what matters to us and who we are.
Yet, we must understand that trust is being digitized. But, we must also understand that in a new world of platforms and “peer-to-peer” transactions, digital trust isn’t sufficient.
We must learn how to “personalize” digital trust.
This is the only way to gain and maintain the necessary understanding of who and what we are dealing with in a fast-changing world of digital opportunities.
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