No Longer a Liar (Or an Outlier)
I criticized Bruce Schneier for the poor handling of his “trust experiment” with regard to his latest book, Liars & Outliers. I have now read it, thus perhaps putting me back into his good graces.
I’m a fan of Bruce Schneier. I’ve followed his blog for years, and I enjoy his moderate and practical approach to various security issues. So when he offered signed copies of his latest book at a discounted price in exchange for a review, I jumped at the opportunity.
Overall, I quite enjoyed this book. Perhaps because I’m already familiar, and agree, with many of his ideas, I didn’t find too many surprising ideas here. Nonetheless, Schneier does a great job of laying out a broad, fairly consistent framework for looking at how people cooperate and, if the title is meant to indicate a theme, “defect” from various forms of pressure meant to induce that cooperation.
From a wide-angle view, the only book-wide criticism I have is with terminology. For example, Schneier uses the word “defect” (and its variants) to indicate someone who goes against a particular type of pressure meant to induce cooperation. In this taxonomy, both airplane hijackers and people who hid their Jewish neighbors from Nazi soldiers are considered “defectors.” I don’t think it’s a major detraction from the ideas he presents, but in a few cases it requires a moment to suss out how the actor is defecting. Schneier even makes a few comments about the oddity of the terminology, such as in Chapter 14 where he writes, “The police…implement societal pressures against a broad array of competing norms. (Okay, I admit it. That’s an odd way to describe arresting people who commit crimes against people and property.)” That said, Schneier is certainly no James Carse, whose propensity to redefine terms is distracting at best.
Actually, not to contradict the paragraph above, where I think Schneier excels is in his ability to simplify concepts and demonstrate their applicability without stripping away too much of their complexity. He shows common links across a broad range of topics—from interpersonal interactions to business transactions to governmental regulation to the spread of religious ideas. He examines each of these by look at each idea from a host of angles, relying on everything from the evolution, psychology, economics, game theory and, of course, his own background as a security expert.
It’s relatively quick read (I read it in three sittings), and certainly worth taking the time for anyone who spends any time thinking critically about how and why people choose whether to cooperate.