‘We’re living in an extraordinary age: the age of trust’

Damian Bradfield (CCO WeTransfer), The Trust Manifesto (2019)

That was probably the single most eye-catching and counter-intuitive sentence that I read during lockdown.

At first sight it seems to go against the grain of everything we have seen in recent years including political polarisation, online echo chambers, fake news and disinformation, cyber-crime, data breaches and much more.

And yet, when we look back, we start to see what this is about. We have all digitally transformed almost every aspect of our lives over the last 25 years.

Like me you will have replaced an array of discrete products including diaries, address books, calendars, watches, alarm clocks, maps, newspapers, magazines, timetables, notebooks, CDs, DVDs, with a singular dependence on your smartphone/apps.

All of which requires a significant degree of trust in the efficacy and ethics of this new generation of digital service providers (and the infrastructure they depend on). The pandemic brutally exposed this dependence on a small group of global platforms, it should also have brought home the risks.

The question we have to ask today is whether that trust has been merited, repaid, rewarded or whether we have been taken for granted or for fools?

Tricks of the Trade

One of the tricks that the digital platforms and service providers have learnt over the years is the importance of leveraging formal terms, conditions and privacy notices – providing a veneer of consent sufficient to satisfy inadequate regulations.

These privacy notices are typically vastly complex, jargon filled and all but impenetrable to the typical user. By way of example a 2019 analysis in the New York Times, examining the privacy notices of 150 popular websites and apps concluded that:

“Only Immanuel Kant’s famously difficult Critique of Pure Reason registers a more difficult readability score than Facebook’s privacy policy”

Yet, rather than seeing that as a red flag, the response from the vast majority of users is to simply click through, paying zero attention to these crucial legal agreements. Of course the notification process itself is typically designed to elicit exactly this response – and the freedoms it permits.

Having irrevocably delivered our consent (to what?) we hand over our data in lieu of a transparent price for the service provided, in the hope that it might be used to improve our service experience through personalisation while expecting it to be used to enrich the service provider, advertisers and who knows who else!

Yet, even then, when we accept this Faustian pact, we are will still, all too often, to see our personal data exposed through a data breach!

So, is this really trust?

Taken at face value this is a truly remarkable phenomenon, certainly unprecedented in human history,and one with uncertain implications for our future. But surely what we’re talking about here isn’t trust in any meaningful sense?

As we have discussed previously qualitative consumer research all too often highlights feelings of resignation, helplessness, impotence and even nihilism in relation to digital permissions.

Therefore the challenge, increasingly embraced by politicians and regulators, is to deliver a digital reboot fit for a new era of consumer protection and social responsibility. We need to be very clear that this isn’t anti-tech, but it is pro-consumer and competition, pro-society and democracy, pro-human and freedom.

Alongside the momentum for greater regulation (in the USA, Europe and the UK at least), we also need to see a strong positive focus on a new generation of digital business models, propositions and platforms, perhaps tapping into renewed, pandemic accelerated, interest in the local, the personal, the communal and the environmental.

Digital connectivity and digital services have shown their real value in the pandemic. More people than ever before are doing more things than ever before online. Lets now rediscover our agency in the digital space, lets not default to the obvious platforms, lets explore and find the propositions that speak to our human needs, lets diversify the time and money we spend online in support of those organisations and businesses that speak to the future we want.

Why is this important?

Principally because the digital and physical worlds are so tightly interwoven (a hybrid reality) that what we accept in one has huge implications for the other.

We have already seen the evidence of the relationship between state security services and Big Tech. We have seen the evidence of social media platforms being used to support genocide, to disrupt democratic elections and to disrupt popular discourse. We have seen how our data is being used to inform algorithms and automate life changing decisions.

Our quiescence and passive resignation in the face of such depredations only smooths the path for the next generation of despots. Its stands in contrast with the turbulence seen in democratic politics in the last decade of economic stagnation. Yet, as we have fallen under the spell (aka deliberate strategy) of the digital giants, we have seen, across the same time period, a significant fall in support for democracy as the best (or least worst) form of government.

These are serious and dangerous trends, and now is not the time to be complacent or distracted. As the pandemic continues it seems certain we are at the beginning of a major global recession, always fertile ground for opportunists of all types. So lets take the time to think about the (digital) future we want – and place our real trust in the institutions, organisations, communities and businesses that might make that possible.

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