Is technology causing a trust deficit?

There are many aspects of modern life that feel fragile, but perhaps the thing that’s most fragile today is trust. Earlier this week the Pew Research Center published survey findings that suggests trust is at an all time low in American society. The government, the media, and even other people were deemed to be untrustworthy by respondents.

Although, in an age of populism and fake news, it seems obvious that there should be a trust deficit, I think it’s wrong to see the problem as caused by a few bad apples and declining institutions.

Politicians have always lied and the media has always spun stories. The thing that’s really damaging trust is technology.

I mean this at a quite fundamental level. Yes, to a certain extent consumer technology can atomize and isolate us, but that’s only a small part of the picture. Really, to think about the relationship between trust and technology we need to look carefully at how technology changes social relations.

Trust and the industrial revolution

Take a look back a few hundred years to the advent of the industrial revolution. Technology transformed society so dramatically that an entirely new social structure or system of class emerged. This was economic, but note the importance of trust in this revolution: when we talk about the differing economic interests of the working and middle classes - between employees and employers - we’re really talking about trust the ability for different groups to trust each other.

Think of it this way: one of the catalysts behind the explosion of the labour movement in the latter part of the nineteenth century was the fact that the paternalism of the factory owning classes came to be shown to be a hollow gesture that maintained their power rather than actually improved the lot of working people.

Indeed, the comparison doesn’t work in the same way today - but it does demonstrate how technological evolution can impact trust within society.

Trust and technology today

Today, technology damages trust in lots of different ways and in different domains. Recalling the piece I shared yesterday by Cory Doctorow - what are ad blockers but a technological expression of distrust?

Where does the root of this distrust come from? The answer seems simple - algorithms. They know something about us, but we don’t know what they know.

But I think blaming algorithms for our current trust deficit is a little wrong headed. It’s not algorithms themselves that are to blame, but rather the fact that they exploit and do something to you without you realising. Their mystery is powerful.

This, I think, is at the root of the relationship between trust and technology. Technology - software especially - can feel ethereal and changeable. Indeed, it is - even the software infrastructure that forms the most mundane applications is constantly evolving as engineers seek to improve performance, security or cost efficiency. Similarly, with serverless becoming a trend in the engineering industry, the ether itself dissipates into code - no longer are applications and services hosted somewhere, but instead just chunks of code that run when required.

Another way to think about the relationship between technology and trust is to look closely at how technology is shaping organizations from an internal perspective. For most businesses, technology poses lots of questions about how things should be done and who should be making decisions. Who’s the expert? Who’s priorities matter? This is something I’m going to explore in more detail another time, but again the point that’s crucial is that the rapid pace of change in the technology field can cause a bit of a trust deficit.

From a business perspective that can be dangerous, but I do wonder if this is part of the reason we’re seeing more politicisation within the engineering class in Silicon Valley.

Maybe this trust deficit could be exactly what this world needs for things to change.