Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Book Review: Liars & Outliers

Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive

A favourite blog was noticeably subdued of late, while the inestimable Bruce Schneier put his finishing touches to his latest tome. No sooner was he done, however, than all of my favourite blogs burst out with news, reviews, and other expositions about it. Resolved to buy a copy, maybe on Kindle, I nevertheless put in a book request to my manager, and was in due course pleasantly surprised by the hardback landing on my desk.

Surprised? Well, I was unsure whether it would qualify for purchase. It's not a technical book, although it does cover many technical issues we have to deal with in daily business. It's not about programming, or not exclusively so. What it is, is a thorough investigation into the nature of trust within society. Or in other words, into the nature of of civilisation: how it works, and why it doesn't. How indispensable and deeply reaching is trust. How, why, when and where we depend upon it. How our essential systems can be designed to guarantee it. As ever, Bruce's approach to each little corner of the subject matter is almost rigorously scientific, being relatively free from hand waving and equivocation, and as evidence-based as he can diligently achieve.

After an overview, declaring the primary aims of the book, and containing an excellent diagram of the formal terms used (societal dilemma being a central one) and their relationships, the remainder of the book consists of four main sections.

Part I: The Science of Trust

This deals with the various research fields comprising the "background" sciences of the book: experimental and evolutionary psychology, biology, neuroscience, economics, the mathematics of game theory, computer security, and so on. Chapter three will be particularly familiar territory if you've ever studied evolutionary perspectives on behaviour, such as sociobiology. This is followed by a historical view of sociology and societal scaling, then by a return to game theory for an examination of societal dilemmas and the nature of conflict.

Part II: A Model of Trust

This is the most intensely argued and analytically comprehensive section of the book, and it might take more than one reading here and there to follow the workings of the "Model" presented. Clearly this is an exposition of the central concept that inspired the whole work. Various pressures are considered both in isolation and in concert: moral and institutional stresses, considerations of reputation, and the limits imposed by security systems. Schneier's goal is to get you to hold all of these simultaneously in your conception, tracing the interconnections and interplay between them.

In chapter 9, Institutional Pressures, Schneier examines the threats facing modern society. Acknowledging that one of the biggest perceived threats is terrorism, he astutely reminds us we can never ensure perfect security against this. Arguing that America's TSA budget should be measured in the millions, not billions of dollars, he observes that talk of terrorism as an "existential threat" to society is complete rubbish. While terrorism remains sufficiently rare, which it is; and while the vast majority of people survive, which they do; society itself will continue to survive. Yet while this observation remains unarguable, politically it is impossible for our leaders to speak it.

Part III: The Real World

In the second half of the book Schneier describes real world Organisations, Corporations and Institutions, illustrating how the competing interests of these bodies lead to evolution and resolution in certain real world situations. A recurring theme is fishing, which at all levels has rules and quotas adhered to by the majority, but offering considerable profits and a low risk of getting caught to the minority of cheats.

Part IV: Conclusions

To be frank, you could say that there are very few actual conclusions in the book itself. In the chapter on Technology, Schneier proposes a set of design principles for effective societal pressures, one of the key points of the book. But more often, he provides us rather with information, with the background to understand and make sense of that information, and with the grounding in a refreshing number of academic and scientific disciplines that we can exploit to build confidence in our own conclusions, which we are encouraged to reach independently.

In so doing, you're certain find the scope of input presented here quite breathtaking.

Bruce Schneier
Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive
John Wiley & Sons
17 Feb 2012
ISBN-10: 1118143302
ISBN-13: 978-1118143308

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