Bruce Schneier has recently published a new book, Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive (Wiley 2012). Bruce is a renowned security expert, having written several great and influential books including Secrets and Lies and Beyond Fear.
Liars and Outliers is a fantastic book, and a very ambitious one — an attempt to conceptualize trust and security. The book is filled with great insights, and is a true achievement. And it’s a fun read too. I recently conducted a brief interview with Bruce about the book:
Q (Solove): What is the key idea of your book?
A (Schneier): Liars and Outliers is about trust in society, and how we induce it. Society requires trust to function; without it, society collapses. In order for people to have that trust, other people must be trustworthy. Basically, they have to conform to the social norms; they have to cooperate. However, within any cooperative system there is an alternative defection strategy, called defection: to be a parasite and take advantage of others’ cooperation.
Too many parasites can kill the cooperative system, so it is vital for society to keep defectors down to a minimum. Society has a variety of mechanisms to do this. It all sounds theoretical, but this model applies to terrorism, the financial crisis of 2008, Internet crime, the Mafia code of silence, market regulation…everything involving people, really.
Understanding the processes by which society induces trust, and how those processes fail, is essential to solving the major social and political problems of today. And that’s what the book is about. If I could tie policymakers to a chair and make them read my book, I would.
Okay, maybe I wouldn’t.
Q: What are a few of the conclusions from Liars and Outliers that you believe are the most important and/or provocative?
A: That 100% cooperation in society is impossible; there will always be defectors. Moreover, that more security isn’t always worth it. There are diminishing returns — spending twice as much on security doesn’t halve the risk — and the more security you have, the more innocents it accidentally ensnares. Also, society needs to trust those we entrust with enforcing trust; and the more power they have, the more easily they can abuse it. No one wants to live in a totalitarian society, even if it means there is no street crime.
More importantly, defectors — those who break social norms — are not always in the wrong. Sometimes they’re morally right, only it takes a generation before people realize it. Defectors are the vanguards of social change, and a society with too much security and too much cooperation is a stagnant one.