Trust Issues

Our belief in traditional institutions – banks, government, the church – is steadily eroding. Taking their place are companies such as Uber and Airbnb, which rely on users putting their faith in total strangers. Writer, academic and TED Talk veteran Rachel Botsman reveals how tech has changed the way we trust – and why that matters

Words: Kerry Potter

Trust Issues

“Technology is changing the way trust flows through society. It used to flow upwards to authorities, experts, regulators and CEOs, but it now flows sideways to peers, strangers, neighbours, colleagues and friends”

Rachel Botsman’s TED Talks on how technology has changed the way we trust make for surprisingly engaging viewing. The 39-year-old British author and academic has a knack for alchemising a complicated, potentially dry theory into something accessible, slick and entertaining (her anecdote about her trusted childhood nanny Doris turning out to be a bank robber is a doozy). Accordingly, a whopping 4m people have tuned in. People now recognise her in lifts, exclaiming “Hey, TED girl!”, while Monocle magazine named her one of the world’s top 20 conference speakers.

It turns out that the author of Who Can You Trust? learned from the very best. In 2005, she began a two-year stint as a director at The Clinton Foundation in New York, working for Bill. “I picked up a lot from watching him give so many speeches,” she says down the phone from her current hometown Sydney, perky and chatty despite the fact that it’s 6am over there. Her accent is a curious blend of English (she grew up in North London), American (she spent the early part of her career in New York) and sing-song Aussie inflections (she married an Australian barrister, Chris, and they raise their two young children Down Under).

“When you put Bill Clinton in a room, it lights up,” she continues. “I learned that the experience – that feeling you create in the room – is as important as content. The first two to three minutes you shouldn’t really say anything; you’re just forming a connection with the audience. And you have to know where you’re taking them emotionally, not just the points you want to hit.” Unsurprisingly, there’s no dossing around on Facebook when you’re working for the former leader of the Western world (staffers always referred to him as “Mr President,” she says). “When you’re with the Clintons, you’re very, very efficient because their day is so scheduled. The mountain of information they absorb is incredible. He’d read three or four books a week and only sleep four hours a night.”

But Rachel is clearly no slacker, either. After studying fine art at Oxford and completing a postgrad programme at Harvard, she carved out a career in management consultancy in New York, advising companies such as Google and Microsoft. After working for Clinton, she moved into writing, with her first book (co-authored by Roo Rogers), What’s Mine Is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption Is Changing The Way We Live, published in 2010. It predicted the rise of the sharing economy long before any of us had ever swiped right on Tinder or jumped in an Uber.

Today, she’s a visiting academic at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, teaching collaborative economics (“It’s quite a commute,” she deadpans), and a globally renowned expert on trust, a plaudit cemented by her new book. “I’m asking why people don’t trust traditional institutions – government, banks, the media, yet they’ll rent their house out to strangers on Airbnb, get in a car with a stranger on Uber, or exchange cryptocurrency,” she says. “Technology is changing the way that trust is flowing through society. It used to flow upwards to authorities, experts, regulators and CEOs but now flows sideways to peers, strangers, neighbours, colleagues and friends. And this changes how we make decisions and who we’re influenced by.”

The week we speak, the UK government and the opposition are mired in yet another scandal, this time involving allegations of sexual harassment at Westminster. What’s the endgame, I wonder? Will we end up having no faith whatsoever in authority, with society collapsing into anarchy? “I don’t think trust is in crisis,” says Rachel. “Like energy, it moves to different places. I’m not saying we don’t need institutions, but that they need to be designed for the digital age. The Bank of England, for example, used to make one public speech a year that they then published. Now they publish every single speech. Trust is playing by new rules, and if institutions adapt, they can still play a very important role in our lives.” And of course, those digital upstarts that spearheaded the new model of distributed trust have now become institutions themselves, with faith problems of their own to deal with: Facebook’s fake news issue and Uber’s licensing disaster in London, for instance.

Trust is relevant to small businesses too, says Rachel. “I first met the founders of Airbnb when they were just a team of five and they talked about trust for hours – they knew it was a currency that would create interaction. For new digital companies, it’s so easy to get lost in the design and the coding of the product and lose sight of the human factor you can build in. The companies that will win, whatever size they are, are the ones that feel most human. People need empathy and to feel they’re being heard.” She talks about the importance of building trust into your business from day one through “tiny signals”, citing online insurance firm Lemonade’s “transparency chronicles” blog, which charts the company’s progress: “It lets you in, it tells you their story.”

Her work brings Rachel into contact with many entrepreneurs. “The most successful ones,” she says, “have a mix of intense curiosity about the world and a deep understanding of why this is a problem they want to solve, a problem they want to understand better than anyone else in the world. And they’re resilient – you knock them down or things just don’t work, but they come back. They so believe in what they’re doing, they can find a way through.”

On a personal level, writing the book made Rachel more aware of how easily she gives away her trust online – and, hey, don’t we all? She met a woman who’d requested her personal data from Tinder. “It was 800 pages long! She thought they’d just have details on who she’d swiped right for. But they had all her geo-locations, all her Instagram photos, all her Facebook data. We don’t consider how integrated all these platforms are. It’s all shared.” She’s currently hiring a builder and subjecting candidates to a thorough interrogation. “I’ve got screwed in the past by lawyers and estate agents because I didn’t ask enough questions around their intentions. You have to ask questions to assess their integrity; things like, ‘Why do you want this job?’ It may be a bit uncomfortable, but it’s good for trust!” she laughs.

She’s currently in a car (“no, not an Uber, ha!”) en route to the airport, having spent the last two months criss-crossing the globe on her book tour. In quieter periods, she writes in a co-working space, alongside her PA and researcher, and various freelancers who assist with design, PR and finance. “I love it. You get the office culture of a big company without the politics,” she says. “And for me it’s an energy thing, Writing can be an isolating process. I feel like when I go into the space there’s a sense of connection. I love it when I see companies that start with two people, then they’re five, then they’re 20. You’re watching them grow, you feel their momentum and it impacts on you.” Next, she’s taking two months off to potter in her garden, ideally with a glass of wine in hand, while her three-year-old and six-year-old scamper merrily. Then she’ll get stuck into the next book, the idea for which she’s been percolating for a while and point-blank refuses to share with me. Honestly, there’s absolutely no trust these days...
Who Can You Trust? (Portfolio Penguin) is out now