Liars and Outliers
I swear I didn’t read sidebernie‘s latest before I decided to post this…. Actually what happened was I got a deeply discounted and autographed book some time ago on the condition that I post a review about it somewhere. And it’s been nagging at me (partly due to the fact that I left the book out on my desk to remind me and I keep knocking it off—oops, sorry) and I finally got some time, so here goes. Hope there’s more than two of us here, or it won’t be very much publicity for the author! Anyway….
I first discovered Bruce Schneier when I got interested in mathematical cryptography, with his book “Applied Cryptography”. When that book came out and for many years afterwards, it was *the* book to read if you wanted to know how cryptography works. Although Schneier is still considered an expert on the technical side of cryptography and is still designing ciphers, he has gradually broadened his attention over the years, first into computer security as a whole, then into security against terrorism, and most recently into security in general. His most recent book, Liars and Outliers, is an attempt to outline a general theory which applies any time a group has one set of interests and an individual or subgroup within it has a possibly competing set of interests. Schneier investigates the possible strategies that the group can use to encourage conformance with the group interests and their consequences. Naturally, he also discusses how technology affects these strategies, and he introduces many helpful examples to illustrate his point. In addition, he draws from a wide spectrum of psychological, sociological, and anthropological research in order to both inform and illustrate his conclusions — and he does an excellent job of making this material accessible to the lay reader. On the whole, however, Schneier tries to keep his framework as abstract as possible. This is both the strength and the weakness of this book — it’s a strength because it is applicable to an extraordinarily broad range of circumstances and because I think it will provide a starting point for many more investigations by Schneier and/or other researchers. It’s also a weakness, because without a focus on concrete situations there are no concrete solutions. Perhaps the field simply isn’t ready to discuss the solutions without out more analysis of the problems. However, as a reader I sometimes felt like the book was filled with descriptions of things that can go wrong in society and no ways to stop them. Nevertheless, I think this book was both important and interesting and I encourage anyone to read it if you are interested in the problem of how societies interact with their components—just don’t expect any easy answers!