Book Review “Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive” by Bruce Schneier

Back on August 15, Bruce Schneier made an offer to sell his latest book (below cost) in exchange for a book review.  I took him up on that offer, so here is my review.

Honestly, I was a little disappointed.  I had built up a higher expectation for this book than it delivered for me.

I think there are two reasons for this.

  1. I’m kind of old, and have seen at least one really bad thing – which makes a person go through the thought processes of “WHY?”.  In exploring the violation of trust that occurred, I discovered many of the things described in this book.  I suppose an advantage of buying this book is that you get the knowledge and don’t have to get the pain of the school of hard knocks.
  2. The back cover of the book has a couple of quotes on it that oversold it for me.  The Daniel Solove quote and the Dorothy Denning quote both say this book will change the way you think.  Well, if I were young, that would be quite true.

There are ideas in this book, that if you had not been exposed to them, would provide provide a Sudden Clarity Clarence moment.  I remember reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when I was in my early twenties.  That book gave me a “Whoa” moment with regard to the concept of quality.  It did change the way I think.  So I was rather hoping this book would do the same for me with regard to trust and security.

But as I was reading the first five chapters, I was thinking to myself that the items he lists here all support the ideas; but I didn’t disbelieve the ideas in the first place.  I understand that he does need to lay the groundwork.  I did like the use of the term Defector as someone who chooses to not follow the group norm.  But except for an occasional quip, the groundwork was kind of boring for me.

In fact, I stopped reading the book at that point.

However, Bruce did send an email that said “You should have gotten your book by now – got that review up yet?” (or something to that effect).

And I did want to finish the book.  The organization I work in has a lot of dysfunction right now, and a lot of that is due to defection of one form or another.  My hope was that by the end of the book, I would know better how to change it.

Chapters six through nine were better.  Four types of pressure, and each gets a thorough analysis of how that pressure works, and at what scale it fits.  Chapters ten through fourteen were OK, looking at entities more than the pressure types.

My favorite chapter was Chapter 15: How Societal Pressures Fail.  On page 213, a sentence says “The goal here is just to give a feeling for how societal pressures can go wrong”.  Then Bruce lists eight mistakes that come from applying the wrong pressure, or applying pressure badly.  An example for the last one, regarding the transition from Roman religion to Christian religion was particularly interesting.

If any chapter did bring me enlightenment, it was Chapter 16.  I hadn’t really thought about how defectors have an advantage as technology increases.

Chapter 17 was the end of the narrative; which caught me by surprise.  Page 248.  But the book is 368 pages long….

There is a Notes section, another 37 pages long, where a lot of interesting material was pulled from the main narrative and put here.  As material, it was very interesting.  I liked it.  But I can see where an editor might have said “we need to keep the chapters on focus, and not wander so far into the weeds here”.

I have one last nit-pick that bothered me a lot with this book.  Often, there was a line in a chapter that said or “As we saw in Chapter 3” or “Looking back at Figure 8 in Chapter 6”.  Well, what if I want to go back and review?  I’m old, and it takes me more effort now to learn things.  Open up the book, and on the top left is the book name, and on the top right… the name of the chapter, without chapter number.  Where is Chapter 3 again?  Gotta look in the Table of Contents, and then get to the correct page numbers.

All in all, I think it was a good book.  I cannot say it fundamentally changed the way I think; but it did clarify a few aspects of trust and security.  I’m definitely better off that way, having read this book.  But if I were less experienced, I think this book would have had a far greater impact on me.

Categories: Book Reviews, Liars and Outliers, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.