Liars and Outliers, and “they”

Mar 24, 2012

“Liars and Outliers” is a book by well-known security author Bruce Schneier. It talks about the role and mechanisms of trust in society, and how these have evolved over time as we have scaled our civilization. See the author’s own take on the big story.

It used to be easy. Humans lived in tribes and everyone knew everyone else. A combination of moral and reputational pressures was in action to keep people in check. In societies, there is often a conflict between personal and group interest, and these pressures make sure that most people act in group interest most of the time.

As civilization grew, we needed institutional pressure and security systems in addition to moral and reputational pressures. Schneier calls all of them together “societal pressures”, and discusses each one in great detail.

Security and trust are a great framework to analyze how societies work, and take a step back from current issues and politics. When you get bogged down in what’s around you too much, it is easy to assume that this is simply “how things always were, are, and will be”. Schneier shows that society and trust operate based on a complex set of knobs we can collectively tweak, and neither too little nor too much security and conformance are good. We don’t want to live in an anarchy or a police state, but somewhere in between.

As part of operating in a modern world, we need to trust hundreds of people and institutions every day, mostly without thinking about it. It’s interesting to watch the daily language where this is often lumped into “they”. “I was late to work because they were repairing the road and some lanes were closed.” “They should serve better food in the cafeteria.” “They’re starting to build some new houses down the street.”

It doesn’t exactly matter who exactly “they” is in each instance—is it some city or state body, or some private company; is it one individual or a big group. “They” is the system that’s running most of the world around us, and it mostly functions fine so we don’t need to be paralyzed with a million little explicit trust and security decisions with every step we make.