The Commodification of Trust
Blockchain & Society Policy Research Lab Research Nodes 2021/1
Institute for Information Law Research Paper No. 2021-01
24 Pages Posted: 12 May 2021 Last revised: 24 Jun 2021
Date Written: May 11, 2021
Fundamental, wide-ranging, and highly consequential transformations take place in interpersonal, and systemic trust relations due to the rapid adoption of complex, planetary-scale digital technological innovations. Trust is remediated by planetary scale techno-social systems, which leads to the privatization of trust production in society, and the ultimate commodification of trust itself.
Modern societies rely on communal, public and private logics of trust production. Communal logics produce trust by the group for the group, and are based on familiar, ethnic, religious or tribal relations, professional associations epistemic or value communities, groups with shared location or shared past. Public trust logics developed in the context of the modern state, and produce trust as a free public service. Abstract, institutionalized frameworks, institutions, such as the press, or public education, science, various arms of the bureaucratic state create familiarity, control, and insurance in social, political, and economic relations. Finally, private trust producers sell confidence as a product: lawyers, accountants, credit rating agencies, insurers, but also commercial brands offer trust for a fee.
With the emergence of the internet and digitization, a new class of private trust producers emerged. Online reputation management services, distributed ledgers, and AI-based predictive systems are widely adopted technological infrastructures, which are designed to facilitate trust-necessitating social, economic interactions by controlling the past, the present and the future, respectively. These systems enjoy immense economic success, and they are adopted en masse by individuals and institutional actors alike.
The emergence of the private, technical means of trust production paves the way towards the widescale commodification of trust, where trust is produced as a commercial activity, conducted by private parties, for economic gain, often far removed from the loci where trust-necessitating social interactions take place. The remediation and consequent privatization and commodification of trust production has a number of potentially adverse social effects: it may decontextualize trust relationships; it removes trust from the local social, cultural relational contexts; it changes the calculus of interpersonal trust relations. Maybe more importantly as more and more social and economic relations are conditional upon having access to, and good standing in private trust infrastructures, commodification turns trust into the question of continuous labor, or devastating exclusion. By invoking Karl Polanyi’s work on fictious commodities, I argue that the privatization, and commodification of trust may have a catastrophic impact on the most fundamental layers of the social fabric.
Keywords: trust, commodification, trust production, AI, blockchains, reputation, Karl Polanyi
JEL Classification: B25, P16, B52, H41, O35, Z13
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation