It is widely held that the world is becoming increasingly digital. However, global issues and technological developments, coupled with geopolitical tensions and the advent of the artificial intelligence (AI) age, have contributed to a growing concern about the accelerated erosion of trust, which could potentially lead to a fundamental crisis for networked societies.
This treatment of the issue of trust only defines one side or face of this topic. In this definition, it is implied that individuals can choose to either engage in the digital world or not if they do not trust in it. However, it is not realistic to imply that individuals can simply stop using digital technologies. Today, most of the developed world is heavily dependent on digital technologies. Those outside of the online world are becoming increasingly excluded from mainstream economic life, healthcare, education, and information. Digital technology is also the key driver of the world economy and global communication. As of April 2023, there were 5.18 billion internet users worldwide, amounting to 64.6% of the global population. During the past 12 months alone, the number of internet users around the world grew by 105 million.
Further, many users have paradoxical relationships with technologies. They can become highly reliant on a tool, while also worrying about its risks to their mental health or wellbeing. For example, people take the constant connectivity of their mobile devices for granted, yet they increasingly want to turn off alerts and reminders because they find that persistent connectivity overwhelming. Users are uncomfortable with the amount of information that Big Tech has about them, but it does not stop them from using social media platforms and search engines. People need to live their lives and they will use the services they find necessary. As such, a person’s use of a technology does not necessarily equate to any level of trust in that technology, and a higher percentage of online participation certainly does not indicate a higher level of trust.
Thus, the other face of trust. The reality is, many individuals have come to accept that their day to day online activities and interactions present risks such as the misuse of personal data, hacking, and identity theft, or place them in the path of disinformation flows. The norms that govern social interactions do not always scale to the technologically mediated social networking we use today. One cannot, for instance, have the same faith in secrecy of digital correspondence, even in a trusted human partner, because many of us use technologies that necessitate a third party to have access to metadata and content to conduct a transaction.
The two-faced nature of trust and distrust is an embedded factor in the fabric of the Digital Age. One might wonder, will there be a day when all elements of digital technologies can truly be trusted? As there are actors bent on dishonesty, greed, and disruption the issue of trust will persist. However, there are present, and future solutions that mitigate some of the issues causing distrust. In fact, many of the remedies and solutions existed long before the Digital Age began. One example is bank fraud. In most cases, depending on the country, if an individual is caught defrauding a bank, an institution, or an individual, they will be brought to justice. If a media outlet purposely misleads its audience, it will be held accountable, such as in the recent case of Fox News vs Dominion Voting Systems wherein Fox agreed to pay Dominion $787.5 million.
We must keep in mind that the Digital Age is evolving at a pace unparalleled in industry history. What we see and experience today will most certainly continue to change rapidly. If we look at the evolution of the Digital Age, we see that the Internet was born only 40 years ago when ARPANET and the Defense Data Network officially changed to the TCP/IP standard on January 1, 1983. Fast forward 10 years – on April 30, 1993, CERN announced that the World Wide Web (WWW) would be free to everyone, with no fees while they released their code to the public domain. It was then when the use of digital technology began exploding and continues to expand every day, offering innumerable benefits in communications, healthcare, manufacturing agriculture and education. In recent years, the growing population of smartphone-equipped users in developing countries has provided novel benefits. In East Africa, for example, ICTs have brought economic justice to inland farmers simply by allowing them to find out how much their crops are being sold for in coastal cities. Online, the advent of social media platforms and disintermediation over information flows democratized access to information, emerging as powerful tools for activism and change.
The explosive growth of the Digital technology has been breathtaking, ushering in an entirely new language from the “computer mouse”, to social networking, to Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and NanoTechnology. As digital technology evolves, it continues to present new challenges, like the provision of adequate technical infrastructure to carry and secure the enormous demand for increasing data. Further, as the volume and sensitivity of data increases, concerns over security and privacy of personal information remain. Another ongoing issue is the growing gap between the scale, scope and speed of digital transformations and the capacity of the government to implement timely, effective policy changes and regulations to counter harms like misinformation, cybercrime, bullying and so forth.
Today, our challenge is to address each of the issues with innovative solutions, then wait for others to surely appear. We must keep in mind that the Digital Age is in its true infancy. No one knows when it will mature, or if it ever will. What we do know is that it will require careful guidance, attention, and care as it evolves. As technology continues to become more pervasive in our everyday lives, individuals can become increasingly de-sensitized to the harms and threats it presents – thus, heightening the importance of remaining vigilant and aware, and developing timely and appropriate solutions.
Unlike all industries and innovations before it, we are all responsible for the well-being of the Digital Age, which will require a major push and involvement from all involved parties.
The 2023 edition of the Network Readiness Index, dedicated to the theme of trust in technology and the network society, will launch on November 20th with a hybrid event at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Register and learn more using this link.
For more information about the Network Readiness Index, visit https://networkreadinessindex.org/
James Poisant is a Senior Advisor to Portulans Institute and former Secretary-General of the World Information Technology and Services Alliance (WITSA).