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Bruce Schneier is a prominent security expert and cryptographer . He recently published a new book entitled Liars and Outliers. I grabbed a copy for my shiny new Kindle as I'm a fan of his monthly e-publication Crypto-gram which deals with various security related issues. I really enjoyed the book, so have a short look over the topics covered.
Liars and Outliers is a book about trust and cooperation in society. Every day we trust hundreds of people that we have never even met - we trust that the food we have purchased is not poisonous or that people driving won't run as down as we walk. Society has many mechanisms for ensuring conformity - Schneier seperates out these mechanisms from different sources: Moral Pressures, Reputational Pressures, Institutional Pressures and Security.
The main focus of the book is how different sources of pressures to ensure conformity are used and are differently effective in different circumstances. He claims that globalisation, improvements in technology and the growing size of our societies mean that traditionally functional methods of ensuring conformity that have worked in history are less functional today.
For instance, in a small village if Bob steals a bowl from Alice - the society is tied closely enough to realise that Bob recently obtained an identical bowl to the one that was stolen from Alice and quickly realise that it was Bob who stole the bowl. Additionally, reputational pressures are less effective when not everyone knows everyone - a thief in a small society would be shamed for it while a thief in a modern city is one of many and is not known by most people.
As well as cooperation with the group norm, the book also talks a lot about defection. To quote:
There is a balance to be found, as there is in all things. There are always parasites - increasing the cost of defecting (via implementing various pressures) will reduce the defection rate but may also be expensive. Additionally, a society with nooone who goes against the group norm will be an entirely stagnant one - as mentioned, thieves are defectors the same way someone who helps slaves escape.
The most interesting part, I believe, was related to the modern day. Schneier speaks about how different pressures or different implementation of pressures are required in the modern day. Certain types of pressures don't scale well - moral pressures and reputational pressures, specifically - which has led to the implementation of insitutional pressures (the police and other law enforcement, for instance.) Another interesting point is made about, say, credit rating systems - that is a reputational pressure, but one that has been made to scale with technology. You don't have to trust the person by prior knowledge because you can trust the credit rating systems to know whether someone is likely to pay back the loan. I believe our society is in a unique position in a lot of ways - our cities are massive, we have high-speed, cheap communications world-wide, the economy is becoming increasingly more information and service based...
All in all, I would recommend picking up a copy of Liars and Outliers - I found it incredibly interesting. It was Ł10 (~$15?) for me for Kindle, I believe - if anyone does go ahead and pick it up (or has read it previously), comment!
Genocide? Oh, what, you mean that thing Richard Dawkins fully supports, under clearly unreasonable circumstances no less? (he has an incurable...
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