Liars & Outliers: A Book Review

Anthropology was one of my college majors. I preferred physical to cultural anthropology. The history of primates, as told by fragments of bones or teeth, was more interesting to me than was the glue that held societies together. I preferred learning about Zinjanthropus boisei to reading about the customs of the Yanamami people of the Amazon rainforest or the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari Desert.

I was unenthusiastic about cultural anthropology until I read the monograph, Deciphering a Meal, by the anthropologist Mary Douglas. The article dissected meal rituals and their purposes. She looked at how being invited over for drinks meant something different than sharing leftovers at the kitchen table. There is a lengthy discussion about kosher rituals. The article had a profound effect on my thinking, particularly about human behavior.

Liars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive reminds me of Mary Douglas’s monograph because I think it will have a profound effect on my future thinking. Bruce Schneier, the author, is also a cryptographer and security technologist. He is the Chief Security Technology Officer of BT (AKA British Telecom). I follow his postings about security matters. I particularly enjoy his insights into what’s wrong with the TSA. I thought he was a smart guy but did not realize quite how smart he is until I read this book.

I believed the book would be about computer security. It is a much larger treatise. It is about how trust in society is established, why it works most of the time and how it fails. Schneier examines societal control systems, like morals, reputation, security systems or laws, and how individuals and groups respond to those controls. Although Liars & Outliers does not focus on security it does stress managing risk.

Schneier explores game theory research and how it can be used to understand societal control systems. He writes about how individuals and groups game these systems, whether they are criminals or “upstanding” people or organizations, with competing and often different goals than society. One example is how large corporations use jurisdictional arbitrage to minimize taxes. He writes about why the TSA behaves the way it does, even though it may not enhance travelers’ security with its actions.

He says that the risk of information theft is escalating as more and more information is moved to the Internet. Online storage makes it easier for defectors—criminals and large non-governmental organizations like Facebook—to purloin our information and identities, using our information for their benefit, sometimes harming us in the process. In this new world physical location is no longer a defense.

Frisch’s third law states: Technology changes always and the rate of change is ever increasing. Schneier believes this has profound implications for the future of mankind. It is easier for defectors to adapt to these rapid changes than for doves or conformists, who follow the rules. Defectors are more agile and quicker to adapt new technology than society in general. Hawks, whether they are Islamic terrorists or multi-national corporations seeking to maximize cash flow, only need to find a single point of entry in a defense. Defenders need to protect the entire perimeter, which is much harder.

Historical defectors may become heroes. Schneier uses civil rights protestors of the 1960s as examples. I would add, as additional examples, Martin Luther, in his defection from the corrupt Catholic Church, and John Brown, who led a terrorist raid in protest against a slave supporting country before the US Civil War.

The book’s early chapters are a bit of a slog as Schneier sets the foundation for his treatise. Once the foundation is set the edifice that rests thereon is well worth the reader’s effort. The last quarter of the book is amazing, like Mary Douglas’s monograph.

The imbalance in trust systems created by modern technology where defectors innovate faster than society can adapt is creating instability.

Some of the changes brought about by technology are beneficial in Schneier’s view. For example, non-capitalistic organizations, like Wikipedia and the Linux community, are ad hoc groups that compete effectively with traditional organizations whose primary purpose is profit.

In this brave new world governments are straining to keep up with change. Schneier says in the post-9/11 world the US Federal government’s response has been to dismantle many of the traditional checks and balances that existed beforehand. This adds to societal pressures to mistrust authority. It incents defections from many formerly stalwart doves.

Schneier compares the problems governments face when confronted with a news group like WikiLeaks compared to traditional news organization like the New York Times. The former has no reason to work with a government while the latter sometimes does.

Schneier believes humans have an innate need to cooperate and to trust. He believes these needs can provide the impetus to making things better. Society needs outliers to move it forward. Defection can lead to innovation. Too much defection leads to chaos.

Liars & Outliers is a thought provoking read, highly recommended.

Categories: Liars and Outliers, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.