Book Review: Liars and Outliers

“Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive,” Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier’s latest book, “Liars and Outliers,” isn’t about technology. Schneier, best known as a security and privacy guru, tackles a far larger issue than the World Wide Web: the webs of trust, relationships, reputation and security that have provided the framework for human society since our ancestors began living in groups. Trust may be a sobering topic, but Schneier doesn’t make the material heavy or dense; rather, it’s a genuinely fun and diverting read.

Drawing from diverse fields that include game theory, evolution, social psychology, and mathematics, Schneier fills the pages of “Liars and Outliers” with easily understandable graphs, diagrams, and case studies that span millennia, cultures, and even species. His premise is that the constant struggle between society’s “cooperators” (the majority) and “defectors” (the “liars and outliers” of the book’s title) is held in check by the concentric circles of societal pressures created by different groups to which an individual belongs – from the “moral pressure” of one’s own clan to to the “institutional pressure” of modern industrialized nations. And where societal pressure to cooperate can’t succeed, there’s security.

Schneier is quick to point out that systems of trust and morality are not, and never have been, absolute; cooperation in one society can be interpreted as defection in another, and vice versa. While too much defection can cause a society to collapse, Schneier maintains that too much cooperation is stultifying and damages individual contribution and creativity. Schneier constantly encourages his readers to look beyond the blinders of their own perspectives, cultural and otherwise: “[A]sking new questions is the catalyst to greater understanding,” he says. “It’s my hope that this book can give people an illuminating new framework with which to help understand how the world works.”

Modern technology doesn’t even merit its own chapter until the second half of the book. That’s because Schneier, unlike many technology visionaries, sees even the highest-tech software and gadgets as merely the latest iterations in the ongoing process of societal evolution. With all of human history – indeed, with the entire history of life on Earth – to back him up, Schneier views the present-day dilemmas of surveillance vs. crime and accountability vs. self-determination – and even what to do about WikiLeaks – to be, if not solvable, perhaps transcendable.

“Liars and Outliers” ultimately reminds readers that while we can’t, and shouldn’t, stop being human, we can certainly harness our human and technological potential to break free of the “Red Queen Effect” – always running faster just to stay in the same place. Schneier’s even hand, light touch, and boundless intellectual energy make it easy to believe that our eternally hopeful and trusting human psyches are on the verge of solving all the societal dilemmas he so cleverly and thoroughly examines.

Categories: Book Reviews, Liars and Outliers, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.