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Technology has set us on a path toward one of two dystopian scenarios–but it’s not too late to save democracy

January 17, 2023, 5:43 PM UTC
Even technologists are reckoning with the effects their innovations are having on our societies.
David Becker - Getty Images

We are in the throes of a global trust crisis. Only two in 10 Americans say they believe the government will do the right thing “just about always” or “most of the time.”

In fact, a majority of people across 28 countries say their default is to distrust until they see proof–and less than half of citizens in many democracies trust their institutions.

For some societies and marginalized populations, the trust crisis is nothing new–but its expansion represents a troubling trend, one stemming from rising societal divisions, unprecedented global challenges, and the rampant spread of misinformation.

While I’m an optimist who has long championed technology, it, too, has played a role in deepening distrust. However, technology can also help resolve the trust crisis.

Two pessimistic but plausible paths

Today, a confluence of forces is causing trust levels to decline across many countries. Rising inequality and impunity among elites have shaken faith in established systems. The “move fast and break things” mentality and the misuse of technology for profit (or repression) have deepened mistrust and even contributed to political violence. Misinformation has exploded, with more than three in four people in 28 countries reporting that they worry about the weaponization of fake news. Meanwhile, a plethora of global crises–the pandemic, war, inflation, climate change, cyberattacks, racism, and growing authoritarianism–have sown fear of the future.

If we can’t get a handle on the negative forces that technology has unleashed, trust will continue to deteriorate. In one scenario, traditional institutions keep declining as they fail to address the current crisis, and technology accelerates the demise of established systems. 

A second possibility is that institutions remain effective, but at a cost to personal freedom. Governments seize control of technology, which is dominated by large, centralized networks. Interactions are highly monitored and rights are repressed. Easy access to surveillance technology allows digital authoritarianism to spread.

Is there a better path? I think there is one, but it will require businesses to pay closer attention to societal trust.

Societal trust is critical to business prosperity  

Rachel Botsman defines trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown.”

In traditional societies, trust was based on personal relationships, starting with family and tribe. Beyond those limits, trust was low. Venezuela is one of many examples of a low-trust environment where the business climate has deteriorated due to corruption and institutional weakness. Today in Caracas, negotiating deals or completing transactions is slow, costly, and difficult.

A prosperous, modern society requires high levels of trust. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama noted that “spontaneous sociability”–the willingness to form new associations and cooperate–is key to economic success. In a high-trust society, you have faith that a cab driver will get you to your destination, or a seller will honor a property contract. These norms help society function efficiently, lower the cost of doing business, and, over time, make a significant contribution to business formation and growth.

A path to a better future

To change our current trajectory, we need to leverage both technology and smarter governance to rebuild trust. Relying on technology to fix itself or regulatory action alone won’t get us there. Neither will waiting for distributed networks of individuals to reclaim control of technology from top-down, centralized systems. Instead, we need a better balance of approaches, including cooperation between the public and private sectors.

For businesses, it remains important to focus on how we operationalize trust with customers and other stakeholders, but we also need to focus on societal trust. By understanding the deeper dynamics of our own efforts and paying attention to how trust is experienced outside our walls, businesses can make better decisions and contribute to repairing trust in the societies in which we operate.

Trust is built when people perceive that institutions not only do what they say they will–but also do the right thing.

And while it can be difficult to avoid the distractions of the latest controversy, we should focus on fixing institutions, not just issues. For inspiration, look at the initiatives emerging around digital democracy across the world. When people feel that the rules of the game are clear, fair, and enforced, they’re far more likely to trust the results.

In chaotic and dangerous times, we need technological innovation that’s grounded in trust as a shared value from the get-go.

Peter Schwartz is Salesforce’s Chief Futures Officer and SVP of strategic planning.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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