Liars & Outliers—an Enjoyable & Thoughtful Read

In February of 2012 the venerable Bruce Schneier published yet another book, Liars & Outliers. It was a book that I really wanted to read, but at the time was lacking both funds and the time.

Some months later he posted an offer to his blog: buy the book cheap if you promise to post a review. Impulsively, I jumped on it. Save some money, get a great book, and it comes with a little pressure to read it quickly and get a review up; that sounded like just the deal I needed!

I’m embarrassed to say that was over two years ago. While I had started reading the book immediately, it was not until last month that I set a firm goal to read it and finally completed the book. I regret not having done that earlier because a) I owed it to the author, and b) it was an enjoyable and thoughtful read.

I’ve now got myself nearly 14 pages of handwritten notes taken while reading. Despite the author having shared the results of his “experiment in trust” nearly two years ago, I can now relate my thoughts about the book, changing myself from a liar who did not review to only an outlier who took over two years to do so.1

I am fascinated by society and how it functions (or doesn’t as is sometimes the case). I also think it useful to consider the size and role of government, police forces,2 and corporations. Impressively, Schneier was able to shed light on each of these topics—and many more—and to make connections between them in an extremely objective way. No matter which side of the fence you sit on regarding any of the issues he addresses, you have something to learn. With the exception of the premise of the book—that society requires trust and other supporting systems to function—he takes no sides.

The book starts by laying groundwork with some fascinating information about how evolution got our minds to work the way they do. In particular he demonstrates the timeframe of evolution in relation the the very recent appearance of writing, metallurgy, and agriculture. The blistering pace of cultural evolution compared with the glacial pace of biological evolution explains how our minds are not entirely prepared to live in this modern society.

So what is to be done? How can we make up for our instinctual and mental shortcomings? His answer is with appropriate pressures and organizations. Much of the rest of the book is spent deftly putting into words and examples the moral, social, and institutional pressures that we all experience in daily life. I found it fun to read partly because the author always answered the questions I had in my mind. On numerous occasions I would make a note like, “He seems to be saying X. That makes me wonder if there are solutions to that problem.” I would almost always find him offering ideas for solutions within a page or less. It’s a sign of good thinking and writing on his part.

I must point out, however, there were a couple of different points in the book where I started to get lost. One specific instance was in chapter 10, Security Systems. It felt like he was really splitting hairs about some concepts to try to make a point, and I was either too tired or ignorant to get it. He then actually spells out the point at the end of page 129, but that was after a lot of trudging.

While I enjoyed the whole book, it seemed to pick up steam at about chapter 12. All of the concepts introduced throughout the book start to really be tied together. In the final chapter he starts to offer his thoughts about how society can continue to progress and grow—which requires a related increase in security systems—and avoid becoming an overbearing, police-type state.

We need to have appropriate societal, reputational, and institutional pressures. Not all security can come from an institution (e.g., government/laws). We need to use security systems to scale moral and reputational pressures. People must realize that not all defection/risk can be eliminated and that “something must be done!” is not always a valid response. Laws that do exist or are newly created need to better crafted, such that the technology at hand is irrelevant, because technology moves faster than institutions do.

In the end, the book explains a lot of how society functions, but leaves one with a bit of gloom and doom feeling; that society will eventually spiral into an impossibly complex state of security not fit for humans. The author acknowledges that it may feel that way, but it need not. You can make the sad go away by just looking at it pragmatically, viewing security as an unending process that society must always work on. Bad defectors will always be around, and good ones will arise when needed.3

I recommend that you buy the book here right now. It’s well worth your time!

[1] The author may shudder at my misuse of the key words “liar” and “outlier” as it misrepresents their meaning in the book. Sorry, but I couldn’t pass up the tacky word play.

[2] I’ve had opportunity to experience both sides of many people’s arguments for and against the current state of law enforcement. Interestingly, the book did a lot to explain why law enforcement agencies act the way they do, and how their objectives can fall out of sync with the society that needs and (ostensibly) directs them, as well as how essential they are and appropriate their action often is.

[3] As he frequently noted in the book, “good“ and “bad“ are always relative to who you are and what groups of society you belong to.

Categories: Book Reviews, Liars and Outliers, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.