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Q&A with Bruce Schneier, author of Liars and Outliers

Q: In your book, Liars and Outliers, you write, “Trust and cooperation are the first problems we had to solve before we could become a social species—but in the 21st century, they have become the most important problems we need to solve again.” What do you mean by trust?

A: That is the right question to ask, since there are many different definitions of trust floating around. The trust I am writing about isn’t personal, it’s societal. By my definition, when we trust a person, an institution, or a system, we trust they will behave as we expect them to. It’s more consistency or predictability than intimacy.

And if you think about it, this is exactly the sort of trust our complex society runs on. I trust airline pilots, hotel clerks, ATMs, restaurant kitchens, and the company that built the computer I’m writing these answers on.

Q: What makes people trustworthy?

A: That’s the key question the book tackles. Most people are naturally trustworthy, but some are not. There are hotel clerks who will steal your credit card information. There are ATMs that have been hacked by criminals. Some restaurant kitchens serve tainted food. There was even an airline pilot who deliberately crashed his Boeing 767 into the Atlantic Ocean in 1999. Given that there are people who are naturally inclined to be untrustworthy, how does society keep their damage to a minimum? We use what I call societal pressures: morals and reputation are two, laws are another, and security systems are a fourth. Basically, it’s all coercion. We coerce people into behaving in a trustworthy manner because society will fall apart if they don’t.

Q: But even with all of that, not everyone is trustworthy.

A: Exactly. No society is 100% trustworthy. The trick is to ensure that the minority of people who cheat, steal, or otherwise break the rules don’t ruin everything for everyone. Take theft as an example. Our society requires that everyone respect the property rights of others. We need the rate of theft in society to be small enough so that we all basically trust each other. If the rate of theft gets too high, we might implement more societal pressures such as increased police protection and better locks on our doors. If the rate of theft gets very low, we might stop worrying about locking our doors. But no matter what we do, we’ll never get the rate of theft down to zero.

Q: So it’s a constant back and forth between the criminals and society.

A: Exactly. Criminals figure out new ways to steal things, and society has to respond with new ways of protecting property. This dynamic is especially important in periods of rapid technological change, like today. Technological advancements, particularly around the Internet, are changing the ways people can behave contrary to society’s rules. Society needs to be nimble in defense, otherwise the untrustworthy will do too much damage.

Q: What makes Liars and Outliers so relevant in today’s society?

A: As our systems—whether social systems like Facebook or political systems like Congress—get more complex, the destructive potential of defectors becomes greater. To use another term from the book, the scope of defection increases with more technology. This means that the societal pressures we traditionally put in place to limit defections no longer work, and we need to rethink security. It’s easy to see this in terms of terrorism: one of the reasons terrorists are so scary today is that they can do more damage to society than the terrorists of 20 years ago could—and future technological developments will make the terrorists of 20 years from now scarier still.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from reading Liars and Outliers?

A: I can do no better than quote from the first chapter: “This book represents my attempt to develop a full-fledged theory of coercion and how it enables compliance and trust within groups. My goal is to rephrase some of those questions and provide a new framework for analysis. I offer new perspectives, and a broader spectrum of what’s possible. Perspectives frame thinking, and sometimes asking new questions is the catalyst to greater understanding. It’s my hope that this book can give people an illuminating new framework with which to help understand the world.”

For more from Schneier, watch his video on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ugmheTmvx0

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