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Real or virtual, trust is the bedrock of networks

By Alan Penn | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-06-25 10:01

Building a digital world of exchange, mutual learning and inclusiveness through mutual respect and reciprocity


Like all human inventions it seems that the digital revolution can be both a wonderful and liberating technology as well as a force for bad. The one thing we know is that once a technology has been released into the world there is no going back. We cannot "un-learn" or "un-see" what has been invented. We must instead learn to take advantage of the good and to manage the negative consequences in the hope that on balance we come out better off than we were. This is the nature of innovation and evolution.

History tells us that the more liberating a technology, the greater its potential negative consequences. Think for example of unlimited power from nuclear fusion and the risk if it gets into the wrong hands, or the personal freedom afforded by the motor car and the devastating environmental impact of the internal combustion engine. The digital is no exception. When the inventors of Facebook first developed their application, they aimed to make a digital version of the college yearbook – a way for school friends to remember their classmates and keep in touch. What could be more innocuous? And yet the results of social media networks and their algorithms in promoting polarization of views, identity politics, body dysmorphia, conspiracy theories, hate campaigns and countless other antisocial consequences are plain to see. And although they are plain to see they appear impervious to regulation because the network is global and lies beyond any single jurisdiction.

The digital revolution has already been transformational. In China alone the number of Taobao villages – in which the dominant form of the economy is e-commerce – has risen from zero in 2012 to over 7,780 in 2022, with each village housing several hundred firms. According to Qichacha, a data and analytics firm, there are currently 987,778 e-commerce firms in the country. The digital world of exchange allows a villager from an outlying area of China to procure goods from anywhere in the country and to trade in a global market. This is the power of the internet. It drastically reduces transaction costs at the same time as reducing the cost of entry to a global marketplace. And that marketplace is truly global.

How has this innovation happened? Well, it seems to have started as a grassroots movement but has since been adopted and supported through state planning. A central factor in its success comes from mutual learning. The social networks within Taobao villages include those between family members and close neighbors. These are learning networks that support innovation, and then when innovation is found to work well, they support its rapid dissemination. It is for this reason that the growth of Taobao villages across China seems to have been explosive. It has also been inclusive.

Although there are often well educated and experienced entrepreneurs involved in a Taobao village, these are generally in the minority. Far more firms start from more humble beginnings. A migrant worker returns to their village bringing an idea for a new venture. They set up a firm on the ground floor of their family house and rent a redundant agricultural building. Family and friends provide labor, and if they are fortunate and the idea was good, they prosper and grow. Neighbors see their success and copy it. Mutual learning starts in the real space of the village and amongst the real social networks of family, friends, and neighbors. It is this that makes the structure inclusive.

The risks associated with the digital come when the relationship to the physical world of the village and the real social networks of family and friends are lost. It is at this point that trust can break down, and when we lose trust, those social networks also collapse. Although there are those who believe that a technological "fix" in the form of distributed ledger technologies – the blockchain - will allow trusted networks to be built, even among the most untrustworthy communities, my personal view is that trust for the time being relies on face-to-face interaction and respect.

This is where the lessons of the ancients come into play in the internet age: "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself," remains as true of our interactions in everyday life as of those on the internet, and it would be sage advice to every internet campaigner engaged in a social media campaign, however good their intentions. Mutual respect and reciprocity provide a basis for building trust, and the only networks of real and lasting value are trusted networks, whether these are generated through kinship, face-to-face meetings in the village or the virtual and digital spaces of the meta-world.

Alan Penn, professor of Architectural and Urban Computing, the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London.

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