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Liars and Outliers

Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive by Bruce Schneier

I was lucky enough to get in on Bruce Schneier's Special Discount last August to pick up his newest book. I've been reading his blog for several years, and, while I have to admit Liars and Outliers was not my choice for the title, I was excited to read this new work.

As the subtitle implies, Liars and Outliers is about trust, but more specifically it examines social dilemas: choices individuals (or larger organizations) make that either conform to the social norm or defect to a competing norm. Bruce notes that the difference between common garden free will and social dilemas is that if enough people (or organizations) defect catastrophes can happen. A common example used throughout the book is the concept of over fishing. A group of fisherman who rely on a given fish population can choose to either restrict their fishing (and thus allowing the fish population to continue almost indefinitely) or over fish (increasing their personal profit, but endangering the fish population, and thus all the fishermen's livelihood). The trust aspect comes into the discussion because as we live within societies, we choose to trust those around us to follow the rules (norms) of society (Bruce's opening paragraphs are a very entertaining example of this, but I won't ruin it for you).

Cutting to the chase a bit, I very much enjoyed the early parts of the book where Bruce examines trust, how society grew around it, and the development of the social dilema framework. Similarly, when I reached the final few chapters which examine corporations, other large organizations, and eventually wraps up with three "summary" chapters, I found myself very much enjoying the high level discussion of the trust framework and the broad thought explorations it enables. Unfortunately I found the middle of the book somewhat dull, which contributes to this review being several months later than I intended... The middle chapters dig into each type of pressure society can exert to discourage defection (moral, reputational, institutional, and security), and, while informative, felt to me more like a reference manual for policy designers. I often draw an analogy to programming books: there's often the smaller "Learning Foo" book which is meant to teach a language, and then the gigantic "Programming Foo" reference manual that sits on the shelf to be pulled down when a particular detail needs to be verified. I think when I have need I will revisit particular chapters to remind myself of the details of the various societal pressures (and each is very well illustrated with examples and discussion of where it breaks down), but I wish I'd started skimming a bit earlier to get to the content I really enjoyed.

I think, barring the chapters that held me back, the book is extremely good and should be read by anyone with even a passing interest in group dynamics (and if you interact with society that should be you, which I guess means everyone!). I got a brief glimpse of the larger impact of the book reading this review from Professor Paul Ekblom, but even for those of us not on the cutting edge of criminal science, I think the book has great value. The framework of trust and norms that Bruce lays out makes understanding complex societal systems possible (though not necessarily simple), and understanding how we as individual actors live within that system feels very enlightening.

And now, based on the terms of the discount, I have to send him this review. That's a bit intimidating...


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August 2014

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