Who can we trust?

by Peter Redmayne, 25th February 2019

Who can you trust? In an era of fake news, out-of-touch political elites and even ‘deepfake’ videos, trust is under severe strain. It’s something many of us instinctively feel however, what we may not realise, is that we trust different groups of people in society differently. Though (remarkably) 70% of British people would say that most people in their neighbourhood can be trusted, only 35% have trust in national Government. Academic Rachel Botsman in her book Who Can You Trust? (2017), identifies three different types of trust. The first is ‘local trust’ – the type that humans enjoyed for thousands of years, where they could base their decisions on the views of their friends and family and others living near them. The second developed in the early modern era when banks, insurers and other middle-men became necessary to ensure trust over long distances between parties who didn’t know each other for commerce. This was ‘institutional trust’, which is now under threat as citizens trust bankers and politicians ever less. A new, third form of trust is now developing, Botsman claims, called ‘distributed trust’. This is the type of trust mediated by online apps such as Uber, which allows you to trust a stranger to give you a ride. This type of trust also enables you to glean information shared by others online, such as which restaurants to visit or not, which is the best holiday destination, which babysitters can I trust or not.

Botsman sees opportunities for greater trust to be facilitated by these networks and systems, especially in encouraging mutual accountability between service providers and users. She believes that if this is achieved, then our behavior can be ‘nudged’ to make us better citizens and consumers. She sees, however, a dark side too. Authoritarian governments can harness these technologies to gain ever more information on their citizens and use it to crush opposition. Witness, for example, China’s ‘social credit’ system, which sees ‘virtuous’ citizens who, for example, pay their credit card bills and mortgages, rewarded with points leading to discounts, lower interest rates and shorter airport queues. ‘Undesirables’ who post comments deemed critical of the government on social media or engage in other ‘anti-social’ behaviour can ultimately be banned from certain professions or overseas travel if their score drops too low. Though Botsman insists that trust is not ‘in crisis’, it is clear from the decline in trust in institutions, and the potential problems that distributed trust poses, that we need to do some hard thinking.

Paul’s second letter to Timothy in the New Testament is instructive for us in thinking about trust. The notion of personal trust and holding firm to the gospel taught to Timothy by Paul recurs throughout. 2 Timothy 1:13 says, ‘What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching’. Chapter 2, verse 2 says, ‘And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.’ Most clearly of all, Paul says in 3:14 (contrasting Timothy with the false teachers), ‘But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it’. The fact that Timothy has a deep personal relationship with Paul and can therefore trust him completely is what Paul appeals to in encouraging him to hold on to the gospel. It is that same trust that Timothy should expect in the people he himself disciples so that they can pass on the message faithfully to others. Trust flourishes when people know one another well. If we are to promote trust in society, we must protect personal relationships from disruption by technology, long working hours or geographical separation from friends and family. We must ensure that technology can facilitate personal relationships, not hinder them. Apps and systems can be beneficial if they help people to forge meaningful and sustained relationships with others. Finally, Christians must actively participate in the political process so that governments have these same priorities and do not develop authoritarian alternatives to trust.

Peter Redmayne is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. He graduated from the University of Durham with a BA in Modern Languages.

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February, 2019

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