August 10, 2017

The Fate of Online Trust in the Next Decade

Theme 2: The nature of trust will become more fluid as technology embeds itself into human and organizational relationships

Many respondents pointed out that trust is a complicated and many-layered concept with numerous variables that can be in constant fluctuation. Some respondents described a trust timeline that will gradually evolve. One example came from Jannick B. Pedersen, a futurist and impact investor, who said, “I strongly believe that smart trust will steadily rise. We are in a continued race between good and negative applications of technology. In the past, periods of blind trust in the printed media or the banking system were replaced by increased personal vigilance and smart trust. The very same process will occur as the world moves online: New users will begin with high trust. After disappointments their trust will dramatically diminish and then grow again as the users develop smart trust – by becoming more shrewd in judging online interaction.”

Trust is a funny thing, more a function of psychology and perception than of technology.Anonymous user-experience designer

David Wuertele, a software engineer for a major company innovating autonomous vehicles, commented, “There are different kinds of trust. One kind is the trust you have that comes from knowing that a service is trustworthy, another kind is the trust you must have because there is no other choice. Although I believe most retailers are not capable of keeping my personal data secret, I still am forced to yield my personal data to them. I am forced to ‘trust’ them, even though I do not ‘trust’ them. The fallback is the legal system. If a party with whom I perform a transaction betrays my trust, I may be able to recover some damages by suing. It is not a guarantee and is mostly a huge waste of time, but it is a small consolation.”

An anonymous user-experience designer said, “Trust is a funny thing, more a function of psychology and perception than of technology. While the internet is getting incrementally more secure, I suspect most people believe it to be far more secure than it is. Their trust will be strengthened, but probably at a quicker pace than the technology warrants. As for the impact, there’s a certain equilibrium at which people are happy with just enough online commerce and no more. There will always be people who prefer stores and meat-space interactions.”

Subtheme: Trust will be dependent upon immediate context and applied differently in different circumstances

An anonymous respondent wrote, “Trust for online interactions such as shopping and banking where one’s financial information and identity are put at risk depends on the quality of security available. People’s trust may diminish if they hear about too many hacks in the news. Trust in social interactions depends on the degree of privacy available using a particular system. Whether or not people place trust into online systems is based on whether governments will choose to embrace encryption and respect the privacy of peoples’ online identities or not. If not, people will begin to trust less and the results will be negative particularly for political and cultural life.”

An anonymous technology analyst at Cisco observed, “We will have more anonymizing tools, so our activity will be less public than today. The greatest impact is that the fracturing of my identity for each participation in my life will have its own authority over related circumstances.”

Irina Shklovski, associate professor at the IT University of Copenhagen, commented, “Trust has little to do with the reasons why people do not use the internet for shopping, banking or socializing. Trust is not in ‘the internet’ anyway but in the entities with whom people interact on the internet (your bank, your book seller, etc.). As these entities create conditions that make online interactions the most effective way to achieve particular goals, more of such interactions will happen. I am curious as to why ‘key social interactions’ are part of this list (and what these key interactions are envisioned to be). Arguably, key social interactions happen online all the time but it is hard to identify what these are. How do you know that a conversation in a bar or over messenger is going to be key in advance? At the same time, people will continue to insist on meeting in person but this, once again, has nothing to do with trust in online interactions.”

Timothy C. Mack, managing principal at AAI Foresight, wrote, “The question is not so much [about] areas of life [and trust], but [how different] geographic areas [handle trust issues]. Africa and, in some lesser part, South America, will see a great deal of growth in the economic arena, especially where previous economic structures were rudimentary. We have already seen the growth of political and civic life (especially in South Korea) through smartphones, etc., and health care is now ramping up as well, especially in Africa. Cultural life, not so much. And of course the growth of language-training apps is just the first step to regional or even global digital-education systems. The trust issue will have to be resolved in the arena of ‘hard knocks’ and is likely to be quite brutal before viable solutions are established.”

Christopher Mondini, a leader with a major Internet  governance organization, wrote, “The development of the ‘offline’ ecosystem is what will drive greater trust and reliance in online transactions. In more-mature markets, trust in institutions and leaders is in general decline, while in newer internet frontiers, better financial, contractual and political structures are rising to meet the challenge of demand for more online social discourse and commercial exchange. Globally the net effect is neutral.”

An anonymous professor noted, “The boundary between online and offline activity is already pretty fuzzy. One effect of the widespread adoption of mobile phones and social media is that many people seem to maintain loose ties with friends and family members who they would have otherwise lost touch with. As this cohort ages, I expect that there will be surprising social effects to this relationship-maintenance.”

Ben Railton, a professor of English and American studies at Fitchburg State University, commented, “Our use and familiarity will grow, and with them a sense of trust or at least instinctive reliance. But threats will continue to grow, especially those related to cyberterrorism and hacking, and so it will be impossible not to fear such threats.”

Subtheme: Trust is not binary or evenly distributed; there are different levels of it

Some respondents propounded a related line of reasoning: that trust is not the same in all circumstances at all times or for all people.

I don’t think anyone will become more trusting of online systems – they just will not be able to function well without them.
Robert Bell

Andrias Yose, a freelancer, wrote, “The areas of life experiencing the greatest impact in regard to trust will be communication, interaction, communal bonding. The impacts will not be mostly positive or negative. They will swing from positive to negative to positive continuously, or new/hybrid negatives/positives will surface that will be countered by the opposite. The spread of blockchain systems will increase the frequency of and create a significant time reduction for communication to reach a target or targets.”

Ian O’Byrne, co-founder of BadgeChain, replied, “Over the coming decade we will be forced to identify, on a granular basis, the role and function of aspects of trust. Trust is the grease that holds our society together. Trust is evidenced when we drive down the street and expect oncoming cars to stay in their lanes. Trust in digital spaces will increasingly have as much of an effect on our well-being as the analogy of the car driver, [though] it won’t seem as dire of a consequence for now. But, as we increasingly pour much of our identity in online spaces, and trust the businesses and governments that oversee these spaces, we’ll have questions about how specific that trust is. As breaches of this trust and the acts of whistleblowers opens our eyes to issues of trust, it is my hope that web-literate citizens speak up and determine their own determination of the value and currency of this trust.”

Robert Bell, co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, responded, “The word ‘trust’ is misused here. I don’t think anyone will become more trusting of online systems – they just will not be able to function well without them. One place where trust does function is in e-government. At the community level, governments have the chance to build more effective, trusted relationships with their constituents by offering transparent, easy-to-use services and access to useful information.”

Christine Maxwell, an entrepreneur and program manager of learning technologies at the University of Texas, Dallas, said, “Access to the internet is seen today as a ‘global right.’ [In 2026] people will be more connected and more reliant on the internet than ever. Areas of greatest impact will include e-health, where it will be positive in many respects but dangerous from a privacy point of view. Economic activity will continue to expand exponentially. Education will continue to grow exponentially at all levels. However, helping the public to be able to recognize ‘provenance’ and be aware of bias will be essential to making careful choices about what to access, etc.”

Bob Garfield, a journalist, said, “I’m confident that secure structures are on the horizon. The problem is that the status quo is so insecure, potentially catastrophically so.”

An anonymous professor of information and history at a state university said, “For commercial purposes, trust will increase simply because people become used to it. Some kinds of goods, especially clothing and food, will remain with retail stores, but many others will see online shopping become an ever-higher percentage of sales. Health care will be improved, and eventually (but not soon) will become cheaper as kinks in EPRs [electronic patient records] are ironed out. For some users, sophistication will increase, and for most users, access to higher-quality knowledge will improve their lives. Negative implications of this trust in online interaction are already apparent: increased belief in conspiracy theories, distrust in government (despite greater transparency), the ‘echo chamber’ effect in which climate change and vaccine denialists continue to circulate false facts. I don’t think blockchain systems or digital currencies will expand much further; for one thing, they are very costly in terms of energy use.”

Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, wrote, “Mobile devices offer greater access, enhance self-efficacy and agency, and they become personal extensions of individual identity and one’s social world. Providing peer-to-peer connectivity on a global scale reduces hierarchies and challenges existing social models. The impact will be felt across all sectors, as generations who grew up mobile move into positions of greater social and economic influence.”

An anonymous respondent said, “Transactions will be routinely performed online. At the end of the day, this is about trust in the company that one is dealing with and in their online presence, and less about online technology in the abstract – there will be shady players online, just as there are offline …. Social interactions will continue to be a mix – they will never move entirely online, but the role of online interactions and communities will continue to increase.”

An anonymous respondent noted, “No one ‘trusts’ these systems. No one with any sense, anyway. The question isn’t about ‘trust,’ but rather about recourse and accountability. I don’t care what happens with my credit card number, per se, because fraud-detection systems will catch errant activity and alert me. And their profit margins are sufficient that I am indemnified against unauthorized use. Moreover, not enough people have heard stories directly from people they know to be appropriately suspicious. The question you should ask is, who will bear the brunt of ‘breached’ systems? Will an algorithm error that gets my friend on a no-fly list be resolvable easily? Will an algorithm or breach that absconds with my friend’s life savings be remediable? How will we know what systems offer us recourse? It’s not a hard problem. FDIC insurance enabled banking expansion. No insurance, no expansion. It’s not a technical problem. It’s a social problem. Trust is the wrong question.”

Anonymous respondents also commented:

  • “Trust will continue to fluctuate, and many will simply accept the risks involved with online interactions as the cost of living in a more connected world.”
  • “Trust will be more volatile (already there is a trend in this direction). It will be easier to establish trust (through relationships) and to lose it. Reputation will still be important.”
  • “Specific items will be regarded as trustworthy.”
  • “The more being online is our natural habitat, the more the question becomes not ‘Do I trust online interactions as a class?’ but ‘Do I trust this particular interaction?’ ”