The Evolution of Trust – The New York Times

  • December 4, 2020

The Evolution of Trust – The New York Times 10/30/15, 1:00 AM Page 1 of 3
The Opinion Pages | OP-ED COLUMNIST
The Evolution of Trust
JUNE 30, 2014
David Brooks
I’m one of those people who thought Airbnb would never work. I thought people
would never rent out space in their homes to near strangers. But I was clearly
wrong. Eleven million travelers have stayed in Airbnb destinations, according to
data shared by the company. Roughly 550,000 homes are now being shared by
hosts. Airbnb is more popular in Europe than it is even in the United States. Paris
is the largest destination city.
And Airbnb is only a piece of the peer-to-peer economy. People are renting out
their cars to people they don’t know, dropping off their pets with people they don’t
know, renting power tools to people they don’t know.
In retrospect, I underestimated the power of a few trends that make the peerto-peer economy possible. First, I underestimated the effects of middle-class
stagnation. With wages flat and families squeezed, many people have to return to
the boardinghouse model of yesteryear. They have to rent out rooms to cover their
mortgage or rent.
Second, I underestimated the power that liberal arts majors would have on the
economy. Millions of people have finished college with a hunger for travel and local
contact, but without much money. They would rather stay in spare rooms in
residential neighborhoods than in homogenized hotels in commercial areas,
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especially if they get to have breakfast with the hosts in the morning.
And the big thing I underestimated was the transformation of social trust. In
primitive economies, people traded mostly with members of their village and
community. Trust was face to face. Then, in the mass economy we’ve been used to,
people bought from large and stable corporate brands, whose behavior was made
more reliable by government regulation.
But now there is a new trust calculus, powered by both social and economic
forces. Socially, we have large numbers of people living loose unstructured lives,
mostly in the 10 years after leaving college and in the 10 years after retirement.
These people often live alone or with short-time roommates, outside big
institutional structures, like universities, corporations or the settled living of family
life. They become very fast and fluid in how they make social connections. They
become accustomed to instant intimacy, or at least fast pseudo-intimacy. People
are both hungrier for human contact and more tolerant of easy-come-easy-go fluid
Economically, there are many more people working as freelancers. These
people are more individualistic in how they earn money. They often don’t go to an
office. They have traded dependence on big organizational systems for dependence
on people they can talk to and negotiate arrangements with directly. They become
accustomed to flexible ad-hoc arrangements.
The result is a personalistic culture in which people have actively lost trust in
big institutions. Strangers don’t seem especially risky by comparison. This is fertile
ground for peer-to-peer commerce.
Companies like Airbnb establish trust through ratings mechanisms. Their
clients are already adept at evaluating each other on the basis of each other’s
Facebook pages. People in the Airbnb economy don’t have the option of trusting
each other on the basis of institutional affiliations, so they do it on the basis of
online signaling and peer evaluations. Online ratings follow you everywhere, so
people have an incentive to act in ways that will buff their online reputation.
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As companies like Airbnb, Lyft and Sidecar get more mature, they also spend
more money policing their own marketplace. They hire teams to hunt out fraud.
They screen suppliers. They look for bad apples who might ruin the experience.
The one thing the peer-to-peer economy has not relied on much so far is
government regulation. The people who use these companies may be mostly
political progressives, but they are operating in a lightly regulated economic space.
They vote left, but click right.
As this sector matures, government is getting more involved. City officials have
clashed with Airbnb and Uber on a range of issues. But most city governments
don’t seem inclined to demand tight regulations and oversight. Centralized
agencies don’t know what to make of decentralized trust networks. Moreover, in
most cities people seem to understand this is a less formal economy and caveat
emptor rules to a greater degree.
Meanwhile, companies like Airbnb and even Uber seem inclined to
compromise and play nice with city governments. They’re trying to establish
reputations as good citizens, to play nice with bureaucrats and co-op boards; they
can’t do that with in-your-face, disruptive tactics.
We’re probably entering a world in which some sectors, like energy, retain topdown regulatory regimes. Other sectors, like bake sales, are unregulated. But more
sectors, like peer-to-peer, exist in a gray zone in between.
As mechanisms to establish private trust become more efficient, government
plays a smaller role.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 1, 2014, on page A21 of the New York edition with the
headline: The Evolution of Trust.
© 2015 The New York Times Company
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