Despite a few encouraging bright spots, the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that trust in just about everything rides about as low as P.M. Dawn’s supposed per-gig asking price. As our CEO said, it’s “as if no one has the answers to the unpredictable and unimaginable events of 2014.”
From where I sit, the problem is this: In both good times and bad, we tend to put our trust in organizations or institutions of various sizes and types. Understandable, really. From primitive, hunter-gatherer parties to multi-billion-dollar global corporations and even entire governments, humans form organizations with the main intent of distributing responsibility and reducing overall individual risk. However, an over reliance on these organizations for protection, safety and stability quickly hurls us splatteringly against the old cliché of keeping all of one’s eggs in too few baskets. What to do?
Since 2012, the Trust Barometer has pointed to “A Person Like Yourself” as among the most trusted individuals. Now, perhaps a new line of inquiry could be exploring the degree to which one might trust “Vast Numbers of People You Don’t Even Know and Might Even Hate If You Actually Met, United by Peer-to-Peer Technology.”
(Okay. Bear with me. I’m still working on the name and the above seriously struggles for an acronym.)
Sound outlandish? Technology is making the latter increasingly more trustworthy. Take cryptocurrencies, for example. At first glance, there’s no real reason why they should work. After all, such an exchange of electronic funds takes place without an intermediary, unless of course you eventually want to convert your alt-currency holdings into a more traditional form.
But the fact is that they do work through public ledgers, like the so-called “blockchain” concept that many cryptocurrencies have adopted. A blockchain is a type of highly distributed transaction ledger that is (in the case of one such currency) maintained, verified and replicated through more than a thousand nodes across the global Internet as of this writing. Any one or several of those nodes might be under the control of someone who — due to their bad behavior or your own prejudices — might be someone you wouldn’t easily trust. In the case of cryptocurrencies, however, this matters little.
Chances are quite good that you don’t hold any cryptocurrencies and perhaps even maintain the popular assessment of such stores of value as merely the tool of online drug dealers. Fine, but imagine if your favorite social platforms borrowed from a blockchain-like mechanisms.
I follow open source software somewhat closely and the concept I’m most excited about these days is Twister, a project started by a grad student at PUC-Rio that mashes up the best of Twitter and cryptocurrencies. (Details in this whitepaper.) Imagine Twitter, but with no central body to subpoena, since identity information is encrypted, dispersed and replicated among a distributed framework of volunteering servers in a blockchain-like fashion. Sure, your favorite social network has all of your friends on it, plus an address, offices, supported advertisers, well-interviewed executives and so on, but which one would you trust more with your identity?
Ostensibly trustworthy institutions failed us miserably around 2008, to say nothing of the government regulators tasked with overseeing them. Chances are at least 50/50 that the company behind your favorite online service or destination on the Web has, at least once, given up user data in response to a government demand, perhaps with little regard as to how legitimate that demand actually was. As more people become sensitive to these issues, and get past the technical and cultural hurdles to adopting peer-to-peer services, we may find that the next most-trusted group is … VNoPYDEKaMEHIYAMUbP2PT.
Phil Gomes is a senior vice president in Edelman Chicago.
Image by Steve Jurvetson.