Rachel Botsman: “We shouldn’t outsource trust to an algorithm”

18 Jul 2018 By Emma de Vita

The CIPD Annual Conference keynote speaker on encouraging a more productive relationship with technology

Rachel Botsman has evidently struck a chord with her work, given that each of her TED talks on sharing and collaboration has been viewed more than a million times. “I really believe that research should come to life,” says the London-born writer, speaker and expert on the shift in trust from institutions to peers. 

“It doesn’t matter what audience you are speaking to – you’ve got to be grounded in theory and know your stuff. But what’s important is: how do I bring this to life with a narrative that is meaningful?” 

Botsman is a visiting academic at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School and co-author of a prescient book, 2010’s What’s Mine is Yours. Written with entrepreneur Roo Rogers, it defines the theory of ‘collaborative consumption’. 

This concept explains how digital technologies enabled the rise of the sharing economy in a way that represents a new era of trust – a theme Botsman explored in her latest book, Who Can You Trust? While our trust in institutions may be low, she argues, our faith in sharing hasn’t disappeared. Instead, it has shifted to a distributed model: millions of people are prepared to rent their homes to strangers, use digital currencies or trust online bots.

Ahead of her appearance as keynote speaker at this November’s CIPD Annual Conference in Manchester, Work. magazine – the magazine for CIPD Fellows – caught up with Botsman to find out more.

Seven years on, are you surprised by what people took away from What’s Mine is Yours?

I wrote it in 2009 and at the time I thought it was too late. Ironically, I now think it was too early. It should have come out in 2012, when the sharing economy was really taking off. I think people’s initial reaction to the book was that it’s just a short-term trend – a reaction to the financial crisis. 

A lot of the theory was right but there is a lot that I would change. I didn’t mention the smartphone. That said, there’s something about seeing a change in its very raw state before it becomes sophisticated that enables you to see it for what it really is. 

What was a surprise was that the book became a movement. It was just insane. I was being contacted by entrepreneurs from around the world saying they had built a hub or a venture fund – not just for commercial reasons but as a social idea. It took on a life of its own. 

What’s the key thing you wanted readers to think about in your latest work?

There are two very different messages. The first is, I don’t think trust is disappearing from the world – it’s changing form. A lot of the pain, fear and fatigue we’re feeling is because trust is shifting, and with that shift comes responsibilities and liabilities. 

The second thing is that while technology is unbelievable in how it can enable different forms of trust, we’ve got to hang on to the fact that trust is a very human process and that we should not outsource this to bots and algorithms. We have to take personal responsibility for in whom and where we place our trust.

What are you currently working on?

I’m not done with trust. The area that is really on my mind right now is kids and artificial intelligence, and how this will change their capacity to trust, and their decision-making processes. Currently, we depend on technology to do something, whereas they will depend on it to decide for them. Understanding the implications of that is really fascinating, but I think it’s inevitable. 

Automation and efficiency are the enemies of trust. Many things can be addressed through design, however. It’s about designing moments of friction that make people stop and think: ‘I just gave that trust away to a bot’ or ‘I just gave that to someone but I don’t know if their photo is real.’ A big problem in the world today is not how do you build more trust, it’s are we putting trust in the wrong places and the wrong people?

Rachel Botsman will be a keynote speaker at the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition in Manchester on November 7-8. This article originally appeared in Work., the magazine for CIPD Fellows.

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