trust vs. accountability

The cover story of this month’s Wired, “Trust Us,” is about the so-called sharing economy — the proliferation of services like Airbnb, Lyft, and eBay that enable person-to-person, often intimate economic transactions. The argument is that these services are “rewiring the way we interact with each other” by making it possible for us to trust strangers with our homes, cars, and livelihoods. The article suggests that in a way, this kind of interaction harkens back to the neighborliness of pre-industrial society.
It’s clearly true that services like Airbnb are enabling new kinds of exchange — but that’s not because we trust each other. Instead, it’s because they provide ways to make us accountable for our behavior. This might seem like semantic hair-splitting, but it’s an important conceptual difference. The person-to-person transactions these technologies support are (as the article acknowledges) scaffolded by a dense web of accountability mechanisms — from ratings to guarantees, background checks to social media linkages, anti-fraud mechanisms to vetting interviews. These tools are designed to prevent misbehavior, to give people information about their transaction partners, and to provide a safety net when things go wrong. All this accountability isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not the same as trust. Accountability is a substitute for trust. Trust is what you depend on when you can’t directly observe what someone else is doing; technology makes this observation possible.