Book Review: Who Can You Trust? by Rachel Botsman

I was inspired to read this book by an interview with Botsman on a podcast I listen to. It’s based on a compelling overall narrative… how have we reached a point where no one trusts the President of the United States, but people agree to stay in spare rooms of complete strangers on AirBnB and will literally put their life in the hands of a self-driving car? Botsman came to fame writing about the sharing economy, so it makes sense to hear her perspective on the topic.

The book isn’t as bold as I would have liked in predicting the future. In books like these, I prefer to hear an experts opinion on what is likely to happen, whether it is good or not, and what that means we could/should be aware of. Botsman prefers to focus only on the third of these topics; the dangerous trends we are working towards. That said, she does offer a couple compelling cliffs that we appear to be confidently striding towards:

  1. Not Evaluating Bot’s Motives – Botsman weaves together stories of her daughter interacting with Alexa and scientific studies to show that as people become more comfortable with technology, we are too trustworthy of its “answers”. Her concern is that these bots that we “trust” are not there as a public service, but to influence us in to certain behaviors.
  2. Trusting Technology Before It’s Ready – Botsman also points out that there are a LOT of areas that artificial intelligence and algorithms have not figured out how to do well, but we seem to be willing to trust them without testing them. There are several good academic studies where this behavior is exhibited.
  3. Algorithmic Trust (Blockchain) Can Be Manipulated – Botsman covers the Ethereum DAO hack very well. If you don’t know much about Block Chain you’ll be able to follow it. She points out two concerns with the hack. First, that the hacker didn’t really “break” the system, just found a way to use it that was unintended… imagine if Ethereum had become an international currency before that happened. Second, that a relatively small group of people decided to effectively “undo” the change. In this case they were doing “good”, but it still served to demonstrate that Blockchains can be manipulated.
  4. Reputation Based Trust Getting Out of Hand – The topic of the Social Credit Score in China is covered in more detail than I’ve ever read before and it is terrifying! It’s essentially a credit score system that doesn’t just evaluate your wealth and default history, but you friends, your political leanings, the places you’ve gone, your grades in school, your hobbies, and more. Essentially this will give the government access to incentivize all manner of behavior. The consequences will be real too, “people with low ratings will have slower internet connectivity; restricted access to more desirable night clubs, restaurants, and golf courses. To quote a government document, “allow the trustworthy to roam every where under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.” While it is easy to say, that’s just China… we already evaluate people based on the number of followers they have, little blue check marks, star ratings on AirBnB or Uber, etc…

Overall, I recommend the book, but only if you are interested in these topics and would like a little hand book of the current state of them. I also don’t think this book will age well as these topics are evolving quickly. If you happen to come across this blog post after 2019… I doubt I’d still recommend it.