Aspen Ideas Festival: The value of trust in tech, finance and government

Summary:Is technology the next vertical where trust is going to plummet -- or is it already gone?


ASPEN, COLO. -- Can trust really be considered a new "currency" in today's global economy? Or is that just another catchy buzz topic?

In the wake of the revelations about data mining by the FBI and National Security Agency, the idea (and value) of "trust" has become hotly debated.

Based on comments during a panel about this topic at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival on Sunday afternoon, it would seem that data can both be used as evidence to justify trust in particular institutions while diminishing it as well.

"Trust has always arguably been out there in every business in every age," reflected Scott McCleskey, the panel's moderator and global head of regulatory intelligence at Thomson Reuters, adding that if you take a look at the last five to 10 years, it's become more of an issue with real concrete effects.

Gillian Tett, assistant editor and finance columnist at the Financial Times, followed up by citing some of the research she has been studying for her new book.

Pointing toward Edelman survey data since 2007, Tett outlined that there are two key themes that have emerged since at least 2007: a "rolling erosion of trust" in financial and government agencies as well as a switch from "vertical to horizontal" patterns of trust.

"Most people will cheat just a little. We just see those cheats more frequently now, which is a dilemma of the new technology," Orszag argued.

Tett explained that means people in higher offices (i.e. CEOs, politicians, etc.) aren't trusted for guidance as much as one's peers (even "Facebook friends") now.

"It's a big shift, and I don't think it's going to change anytime soon," Tett forecasted.

But Tett admitted what struck her was that technology companies -- at least until January, based on the data -- have maintained a higher level of trust than the aforementioned institutions.

The question now, Tett proposed, is whether or not that can actually be maintained -- or is technology the next market where trust is going to plummet?

Peter Orszag, chairman of the financial strategy and solutions unit at Citigroup, replied that he would "suspect technology firms are going to be subject to the same phenomenon."

"Most people will cheat just a little. We just see those cheats more frequently now, which is a dilemma of the new technology," Orszag argued. "It's hard to explain the erosion of trust in all institutions."

James Coulter, co-founder of private equity firm TPG Capital, said plainly that "you're always going to have crises of trust -- you just can't overreact to them."

Tett emphasized that the stronger establishment of trust -- both in technology as well as in one's peers -- can be demonstrated by something as simple as checking out hotel reviews online before making a booking.

Orszag concurred to some extent by acknowledging that these sources are "good at identifying problems," but he retorted that they skew toward negativity.

"We haven't adapted to this new world of universal input because we have been conditioned to take things we see or read on the screen as true," Orszag suggested.

Looking at the last six months in particular, Tett held steadfast in the shift away from trust in government, hinting that people have accepted that they've given up on trust in these institutions altogether and have moved on.

With the NSA and Prism project in mind , Tett suggested that we as consumers are essentially putting our faith in a group of "uber techno geeks" that have control of technology that nearly 99 percent of the population doesn't understand.

"We all trust that it's going to work. We all trust that the uber geeks in 2007 knew what they were doing," Tett said about the development of Apple's iPhone.

William Mayer, co-founder of Park Avenue Equity and chairman emeritus of the Aspen Institute, admitted that he just presumes someone is going to have access to his data.

"It's about response and segregating your data in different areas," Mayer remarked, describing that he is always "amazed" when he meets someone who thinks their data is completely private.

Orszag warned that with every single piece of one's digital life -- from transactions to email -- consumers should assume they have "zero privacy," predicting personal data especially will either be hacked or picked up on a corporate network.

Tett concluded, "Maybe the post-war era when everyone looked up to business and government, maybe that was just a phase in history that is now over."

James Coulter, co-founder of private equity firm TPG Capital, countered and said plainly that "you're always going to have crises of trust -- you just can't overreact to them."

Topics: Government, CXO, Government : US, Security


Rachel King is a staff writer for CBS Interactive based in San Francisco, covering business and enterprise technology for ZDNet, CNET and SmartPlanet. She has previously worked for The Business Insider,, CNN's San Francisco bureau and the U.S. Department of State. Rachel has also written for, Irish Americ... Full Bio

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