Alan's Reviews > Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive

Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier
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Dec 21, 12

Recommended to Alan by: Reputation; Roberta
Recommended for: Competing interests
Read in December, 2012, read count: 1

This may be one of the most important books you'll never read.

In Liars and Outliers, Bruce Schneier (known—and with good reason—to The Register as "The closest thing the security industry has to a rock star") has produced a remarkably clear-eyed and dispassionate assessment of one of the most critical issues facing the human species—the fact that the notions of trust and security that served us well enough when we were scattered tribes of hunters and farmers do not scale up to the numbers and kinds of organizations we have made for ourselves today, nor are they at all adequate for our future. It's all a matter of trust: how (and why) can you trust someone you've never met before and will probably never see again? How can a culture composed almost entirely of strangers to each other even function? Why isn't human society already nothing but a bloody war of all against all?

Schneier describes the manifold societal dilemmas facing us—for numerous different values of who "we" are. But that's not all he does. Pointing out problems is easy, and common, after all. Liars and Outliers is much more than that. Schneier also argues convincingly for the mechanisms by which we can trust each other, and outlines how we can make those mechanisms better. Not perfect—perfection is neither possible nor desirable, it turns out—but better.

And the answers aren't always to pass more laws, either, nor to incarcerate more people, nor to eliminate more and more freedoms until society is totally under control. Absolutist rhetoric is also easy and altogether too common—but it's also corrosive, because even the people spouting it don't really believe in it. Certainly not for themselves, anyway. They're preaching to the rubes. Which isn't a problem unless the rubes have no alternative but to listen. Schneier's book offers an alternative.

Liars and Outliers also brought to my mind an earlier, more limited and pessimistic, but much punchier work, Systemantics, by the (possibly pseudonymous) John Gall. Systemantics, which is subtitled The Underground Text of Systems Lore: How Systems Really Work and How They Fail, is another book not nearly as widely-read as it should have been. I suspect Schneier's read it, though. However, I wasn't able to verify that—Liars and Outliers has a list of bibliographic references at the end, which I did read through, but no alphabetized bibliography.

One of the examples Schneier mentions early in this book does also appear in Systemantics, though: the March of Dimes, originally an anti-polio organization, and its evolution as polio was eventually eliminated (or nearly so) by vaccination—rather than wither away, the March of Dimes simply broadened its focus to research against birth defects, a cause much less likely to encounter any such inconveniently complete solutions. Such system antics are closely tied to mechanisms of trust and security—when an organization behaves as if it were an individual, with its own sense of self-preservation, what can we mere humans do to counteract its reach? If we even should—birth defects are, after all, a harmful thing, and the existence of an organization dedicated to their reduction is therefore self-evidently a good thing. With other organizations, though, and other causes, the proper course is much less clear-cut.

Maybe the problem is that Schneier was too careful. Liars and Outliers is, despite its clever title, a surprisingly sober work, weighty and academic in both tone and presentation. The choice to move all of the Notes and bibliographic references to the end of the book, clearing them away from the flow of Schneier's arguments, was a good one... but it wasn't enough to make this work as lively as I really wanted it to be. I read it; I enjoyed it. But for me, Schneier was preaching to the choir—I was already predisposed to agree with him.

I'm just not so sure that the folks who need to pay attention to him will ever end up doing so...
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