Lessons from the Network Readiness Index: Trust and Digital Skilling in Brazil

November 29, 2023

The recently released 2023 Network Readiness Index (NRI) discusses a crucial aspect of the digital age: public trust in technologies. As indicated in the report, trust in technologies is shaped by personal experiences and influenced by a multitude of factors – ranging from the micro level (a person’s age, socioeconomic background, access to technologies) to macro (a country’s culture, historical background, institutional framework, and level of network readiness). By regionalizing findings on this critical issue, this article will briefly discuss trust in technologies among Brazil’s population, bringing further reflections in light of the 2023 NRI results.

In a recent interview with Portulans Institute, Ricardo Alban, President of the Brazilian National Confederation of Industry (CNI), highlighted that trust in technology is not considered a key issue in Brazil, stating that “Brazilian society is known for its openness when adhering to new technologies.” Indeed, research has pointed out that the level of trust in technologies in Brazil is relatively high. Edelman, for instance, concluded in its latest Trust Barometer report that 86% of Brazilians trust the tech sector. Similarly, KPMG’s global study on trust in Artificial Intelligence (AI) found that Brazil has one of the highest levels of trust in AI, with more than half of the sampled population trusting AI systems. 

This scenario raises some questions that should be carefully considered: why does Brazil exhibit such a high level of trust in technologies? Are these results an indication of deficiencies in the network readiness of the country? Should we look at these indicators with enthusiasm or concern?

To analyze such questions, it is essential, first, to understand that the way a population interacts with technology depends heavily on a cultural background and social context. Gillian Tett, Provost of Cambridge’s King’s College, shared some insights in her book “AnthroVision: How anthropology can explain business and life,” that provides a new lens into the issue of trust in emerging technologies.

When analyzing the level of trust in the human-machine interaction, Tett argues for the importance of understanding local cultures and realities to better comprehend the “webs of meaning” around AI (and other technologies). The importance of a “worm’s-eye” approach (instead of the “bird’s-eye” approach of big data, for instance) can be highlighted by some differences between the American and Chinese cultures that impacted how each society deals with technology:

“There was […] a subtle, but important, difference in how Chinese and Americans viewed the merits of machines relative to humans. Americans were scared of the idea of machines making decisions, partly because of the impact on popular culture of movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey […]. But in China, there was so little trust in human bureaucrats, because of events such as the Cultural Revolution, that dealing with computers instead of people sometimes felt like an improvement. Robots were likely to be less capricious and cruel, and an AI-enabled facial recognition platform did not demand bribes” (p. 48).

Considering that cultural backgrounds and local context are intrinsically related to how each society interacts with technology, it is crucial to investigate the Brazilian specificities to understand better what lies behind its high trust in technologies. Although it is not feasible, in this short article, to delve deeper into Brazilian culture, it is possible to formulate at least one hypothesis on this subject, which will be detailed below.

As discussed during the global launch event of the 2023 NRI, trust is the glue for our interconnected world, and access, exposure and skills development are crucial to building trust. For example, studies have indicated that people trust AI systems more when they feel they understand AI and are skilled in using such technologies; younger generations and the university-educated are more likely to believe AI will create jobs, even though it can replace aspects of their work. 

In Brazil, however, the high level of trust does not seem to derive from the population’s understanding of new technologies. After all, the 2023 NRI highlights that ICT skills in the education system are one of Brazil’s weakest indicators (the country is ranked 95th globally). Similarly, research conducted by Nic.br in 2023 indicated gaps and challenges in using ICT in the Brazilian educational system, such as the fact that only 58% of schools in Brazil have computers (notebook, desktop, tablet) available for students’ use. This critical issue is deeply related to another deficiency indicated in the NRI: Brazil is ranked 110th in the world for income inequality, which affects the way people access technology across the country’s states and regions. In this context, it is reasonable to hypothesize that citizens are led to a level of “blind trust” when they do not know how technology works, how it affects their lives and well-being, which data is being collected or used, and who is behind the development or promotion of a given tool.

It seems, therefore, that the relationship between trust in new technologies and digital skill level is not a linear progression, but rather closer to an inverse bell curve. In other words, Brazil’s experience shows that trust is highest on either end of the spectrum: those with little skills have a “blind trust,” while those with more skills benefit from a “learned level of trust.” 

To conclude this short reflection, we understand that trust in new technologies is a complex phenomenon that is influenced by a multitude of factors. High levels of trust in new technologies, when analyzed alone and without contextualization on the reasons for such trust, should not be seen with enthusiasm since it might indicate deficiencies in the education and social inequalities indexes. 

Moreover, even though trust does not depend simply on technology literacy, education should play a key role in informing people of potential risks and benefits, as well as methods for safe and responsible use, in order to, over time, help to achieve a balance that enables trusted adoption of technologies. A country’s readiness to interact with and trust new technologies depends on fostering an inclusive education – and critically thinking and interacting with new technologies (instead of a “blind trust”) might be relevant to prepare Brazilian society for the upcoming digital era. Taken together, these findings suggest close collaboration is required between government, universities, and businesses to uplift public and consumer literacy and understanding of data and technology.

To download the 2023 edition of the Network Readiness Index, visit https://networkreadinessindex.org/

Matheus de Souza Depieri is a Brazilian researcher and lawyer, currently pursuing an LL.M. (Master of Law) at the University of Cambridge – King’s College. During his Fellowship at the Portulans Institute, his research focuses primarily on the impacts of the usage of Artificial Intelligence in the Judiciary and the future of technology in the legal field.

Sylvie Antal is a Policy Research and Communications Associate at Portulans Institute. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Information Science from the University of Michigan’s School of Information, and a masters degree in Human-Computer Interaction.