(Jetta Productions/Getty Images)
(Jetta Productions/Getty Images)

Trust is a social, economic and political binding agent. A vast research literature on trust and “social capital” documents the connections between trust and personal happiness, trust and other measures of well-being, trust and collective problem solving, trust and economic development and trust and social cohesion. Trust is the lifeblood of friendship and caregiving. When trust is absent, all kinds of societal woes unfold – including violence, social chaos and paralyzing risk-aversion.

We didn’t focus on how you could wreck this system intentionally [when designing the internet].Vinton Cerf

Trust has not been having a good run in recent years, and there is considerable concern that people’s uses of the internet are a major contributor to the problem. For starters, the internet was not designed with security protections or trust problems in mind. As Vinton Cerf, one of the creators of internet protocols, put it: “We didn’t focus on how you could wreck this system intentionally.” (Cerf is a respondent to the question addressed in this report; his worried quote is featured here.)

Moreover, the rise of the internet and social media has enabled entirely new kinds of relationships and communities in which trust must be negotiated with others whom users do not see, with faraway enterprises, under circumstances that are not wholly familiar, in a world exploding with information of uncertain provenance used by actors employing ever-proliferating strategies to capture users’ attention. In addition, the internet serves as a conduit for the public’s privacy to be compromised through surveillance and cyberattacks and additional techniques for them to fall victim to scams and bad actors.

If that were not challenging enough, the emergence of trust-jarring digital interactions has also coincided with a sharp decline in trust for major institutions, such as government (and Congress and the presidency), the news media, public schools, the church and banks.

The question arises, then: What will happen to online trust in the coming decade? In summer 2016, Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center conducted a large canvassing of technologists, scholars, practitioners, strategic thinkers and other leaders, asking them to react to this framing of the issue:

Billions of people use cellphones and the internet now and hundreds of millions more are expected to come online in the next decade. At the same time, more than half of those who use the internet and cellphones still do not use that connectivity for shopping, banking, other important transactions and key social interactions.  As more people move online globally, both opportunities and threats grow. Will people’s trust in their online interactions, their work, shopping, social connections, pursuit of knowledge and other activities be strengthened or diminished over the next 10 years?

Some 1,233 responded to this nonscientific canvassing: 48% chose the option that trust will be strengthened; 28% of these particular respondents believe that trust will stay the same; and 24% predicted that trust will be diminished. (See “About this canvassing of experts” for further details about the limits of this sample.)

Participants were asked to explain their answers and were offered the following prompt to consider: Which areas of life might experience the greatest impact? Economic activity? Health care? Education? Political and civic life? Cultural life? Will the impacts be mostly positive or negative? What role might the spread of blockchain systems play?

Many of these respondents made references to changes now being implemented or being considered to enhance the online trust environment. They mentioned the spread of encryption, better online identity-verification systems, tighter security standards in internet protocols, new laws and regulations, new techno-social systems like crowdsourcing and up-voting/down-voting or challenging online content.

One particular focus of participants’ answers involved blockchain technology, because our follow-up prompt specifically asked people to consider the role of blockchain in the future of trust on the internet. Blockchain is an encryption-protected digital ledger that is designed to facilitate transactions and interactions that are validated in a way that cannot be edited. Proponents have high hopes for the spread of blockchains. The Economist magazine has argued that blockchain “lets people who have no particular confidence in each other collaborate without having to go through a neutral central authority …. In essence it is a shared, trusted, public ledger that everyone can inspect, but which no one single user controls.” A more-complete outline of how blockchain operates and these survey respondents’ predictions about its future can be found in the discussion about Theme 4 later in this report.

The majority of participants in this canvassing wrote detailed elaborations explaining their positions. Some chose to have their names connected to their answers; others opted to respond anonymously. These findings do not represent all possible points of view, but they do reveal a wide range of striking observations. Respondents collectively articulated six major themes that are introduced and explained below and are expanded upon in sections that begin later in this report.

The following introductory section presents an overview of the themes found among the written responses, including a small selection of representative quotes supporting each point. Some comments are lightly edited for style or due to length.

Theme 1: Trust will strengthen because systems will improve and people will adapt to them and more broadly embrace them

About half the respondents to this canvassing believe that trust online will be strengthened in the next decade. Their reasoning generally flows in two streams: 1) Some expect to see improved technology emerge that will allow people to have confidence in the organizations and individuals with whom they interact online. They argue that improvements in identifying and authenticating users will build trust. They also maintain that the corporations depending on online activity have all the incentive they need to solve problems tied to trust. 2) Some say trust will grow stronger as users employ online activities more fully into their lives. They think this will be led by younger users who are fully immersed in online life.

We experience many reasons to distrust our interactions. … And yet, on a personal basis, as time goes by, we are more and more trusting.Stephen Downes

Adrian Hope-Bailie, standards officer at Ripple, replied, “The technology advancements that are happening today are beginning to bring together disparate but related fields such as finance, identity, health care, education and politics. It’s only a matter of time before some standards emerge that bind the ideas of identity and personal information with these verticals such that it becomes possible to share and exchange key information, as required, and with consent to facilitate much stronger trusted relationships between users and their service providers.”

Stephen Downes, researcher at National Research Council Canada, wrote, “We experience many reasons to distrust our interactions. And traditional media are reporting numerous cases where they should be distrusted, so we think rising distrust is the norm. And yet, on a personal basis, as time goes by, we are more and more trusting. People who did not even know people in other countries, much less trust them, now travel halfway around the world to participate in conferences, rent and live in their homes, meet on a date, participate in events and more. Sure, things like catfishing are problems. But the exception is a problem only in the light of the trust that is the rule (Wittgenstein: A rule is shown by its exceptions). People who did not trust online retail a decade ago now purchase games, music and media on a regular basis (they’re still a bit wary of deliveries from China, but they’re coming around to it). People who did not trust online banking a decade ago now find it a much more convenient and inexpensive way to pay their bills. They also like the idea that their credit cards are now protected. People who were sceptical of online learning a decade ago now live in an era when, in some programs, some online learning is required, and where there is no real distinction (and no way to distinguish) between an online or offline degree (and meanwhile, millions of people flood in to take MOOCs). We can see where this trend is heading by looking at a few edge cases. For example: What would we say of a pilot who never trained in a simulator? What would we say of a lawyer who did not rely on data search, indexing and retrieval services? We trust them more in the future because they are taking advantage of advanced technology to support their work.”

David Karger, professor of computer science at MIT, urges a “healthy distrust” and encourages the public be more vigilant in working to understand the risks and limitations of emerging technologies. “We’ve seen tremendous growth in use of these online tools,” he wrote, “so it is natural to assume it will continue. Your specific question of trust is a complicated one. On the one hand, I believe we are just at the beginning of development of good online tools and I expect significant improvement – even over the next 10 years – that will draw more users to these better tools. On the flip side, I at least hope that people will become generally more educated about the risks and limitations of online interactions, which may lead to a certain healthy distrust even as usage becomes more widespread.”

Subtheme: Improved technology plus regulatory and industry changes will help increase trust

Many technologists and futures thinkers among the respondents said they expect that constantly evolving improvements in the network of networks will maintain or boost trust; some also added that security cannot be completely perfected and staying ahead of the “darker forces” will require vigilance. Some suggested regulation. An anonymous respondent said, “Trust will be increased if governments put in place policies for consumer protection, data protection, etc.”

We need to get serious about creating a truly secure internet if it is to realize the potential for empowering a big portion of the world.Richard Adler

Mike Roberts, Internet Hall of Fame member and first president and CEO of ICANN, wrote, “The designers, developers and users of computer-based systems are still in a primitive era. From an S curve perspective, we are hardly at the steep lower-left end. The rise of an entrepreneurial culture among developers has accelerated the diffusion of these systems but there is far to go. Because of the tangible benefits in convenience, quality, quantity, etc., of using such systems, humans will develop advanced techniques for protection from criminal behavior on the ‘net,’ but such activity will persist online as it does offline. You don’t stop going to the grocery store because there was a carjacking incident last week, etc.”

Richard Adler, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, observed, “Technologies such as biometrics, encryption, digital IDs, blockchain and smart contracts are emerging that can enhance security and build trust. But they are in a race with darker forces who continue to become more effective in breaching security measures. We need to get serious about creating a truly secure internet if it is to realize the potential for empowering a big portion of the world.”

Oscar Gandy, emeritus professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, commented, “Of course, as a privacy and surveillance scholar, my answer is more hopeful than analytical. I am hopeful that the public will become much more aware, and less ‘resigned’ to the fact that their transaction-generated information (TGI) is routinely used to shape their experience within economic, social and political markets/environments. These areas of impact are tightly interconnected, although some analytical assessments can determine differential influences for different population segments. I am most concerned about the nature and extent of surveillance and the strategic use of TGI in the public sphere, or in ‘political and civic life.’ Hopefully, the public will come to understand the myriad ways through which their TGI is used to shape the information environment in which they make important choices, including those we would identify as being political. What I have seen of late leads me to see the balance between benefits and harms in the political area to be largely negative, and worsening.”

Hume Winzar, associate professor in business at Macquarie University in Australia, wrote, “Governments and financial companies want their systems secure and transparent, so they will work hard to make them so. This will relieve people’s concerns. Also, many services will be simply unavailable except online, so people will have to trust them whether they’re skeptical or not.”

Subtheme: The younger generation and people whose lives rely on technology the most are the vanguard of those who most actively use it, and these groups will grow larger

Some respondents observed that familiarity breeds acceptance, thus those who are younger and have spent most of their lifetimes immersed in implementing online are those least likely to see trust issues as a reason to deny themselves the affordances of online life. One noted it will be “like the air we breathe.”

The internet will be so ubiquitous that it will be like the air we breathe: Bad some days, good others, but not something we consciously interrogate anymore.Sam Anderson

Glenn Ricart, Internet Hall of Fame member and founder and chief technology officer of U.S. Ignite, said, “Trust will be strengthened over the next decade because there is a strong generational shift to interacting online. The expectation of Millennials and others is that they can and should be able to trust online transactions. That expectation will provide fuel to efforts improving trust.”

David Durant, a business analyst for the UK Government Digital Service, wrote, “People who have grown up using mobile technology for social media, interaction with businesses and increasingly as a way to interact with government will see doing so as entirely normal and consider it the natural channel for a very significant proportion of all their life’s interactions.”

Sam Anderson, coordinator of instructional design at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote, “The internet will be so ubiquitous that it will be like the air we breathe: Bad some days, good others, but not something we consciously interrogate anymore.”

Theme 2: The nature of trust will be more fluid as technology embeds itself into human and organizational relationships

One striking line of argument, particularly among some of the most prominent analysts responding to this canvassing, is that trust will become a more conditional and contextual attribute of users’ online behavior. They argue that trust is becoming “transactional” – an idea distinct from the notion that trust is a kind of property tied to an individual, group or organization. A number of respondents added that throughout human history the highest levels of trust are often found within personal networks, rather than via organizational actors.

Actually, trust will be both strengthened and diminished [in the coming decade], depending on context.danah boyd

Dan McGarry, media director at the Vanuatu Daily Post, wrote, “Trust will change in its nature. It will no longer be invested so much in systems and institutions as in individuals. Relationships will matter. On the negative side, much behaviour will be defined by allegiance, which will allow some actors to motivate significant numbers to act against their own interests at times. The human capacity to invest trust in others won’t change unless we undergo significant evolutionary change.”

Cory Doctorow, writer, computer science activist-in-residence at MIT Media Lab and co-owner of Boing Boing, responded, “The increased impoverishment/immiseration of larger and larger segments of society thanks to mounting wealth inequality will drive more reliance on informal networks, barter, sharing, etc., that will be enabled through online activity.”

Subtheme: Trust will be dependent upon immediate context and applied differently in different circumstances

While many institutions have gained the public’s trust over time, many are now being questioned. Some respondents say that individuals’ influence has gained more importance in this atmosphere, and trust is – now and in the coming decade – more likely to be applied differently to different circumstances. An anonymous respondent replied, “The change will be in the dynamism of trust, not the valence. We will place small amounts of trust in people and organizations and exit or voice more quickly when we sense it has been violated.”

danah boyd, founder of Data & Society, commented, “Actually, trust will be both strengthened and diminished [in the coming decade], depending on context. People will stop seeing it as ‘the internet’ and focus more on particular relationships. Increasingly, large swaths of the population in environments where tech is pervasive have no other model.”

Aaron Chia Yuan Hung, assistant professor at Adelphi University, replied, “People will change what they trust. Just as people used to prefer an oral agreement over a signature in the past, people grow to accept what they can or are willing to trust. People are also likely to believe what they want to believe because confirmation bias is inherently human nature. Farhad Manjoo’s