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Bruce Schneier on trust

March 16, 2012

Many years ago I read two books by Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert, and I remember hardly anything he said but somehow absorbed a worldview–those things happen when you’re thirteen. Since then I’ve been reading his monthly newsletter Crypto-Gram. This year he’s come out with a new book, Liars and Outliers. Based on this description of the book’s project, I definitely want to read it.

I’m particularly interested in what he has to say about the effect of technology. I’m never entirely happy with how people talk about technology; the people who love it seem to pay too little attention to its dangers as they advocate sweeping change, the people opposed seem to take its benefits for granted even as they advocate getting rid of it. I tend to trust Schneier on this issue, for reasons I can’t quite explain; probably because he focuses on the dangers technology poses, but also obviously has no interest in reversing history. In the teaser essay linked to above, he has this to say:

What’s really interesting to me is what this all means for the future. We’ve never been able to eliminate defections. No matter how much societal pressure we bring to bear, we can’t bring the murder rate in society to zero. We’ll never see the end of bad corporate behavior, or embezzlement, or rude people who make cell phone calls in movie theaters. That’s fine, but it starts getting interesting when technology makes each individual defection more dangerous. That is, fisherman will survive even if a few of them defect and overfish — until defectors can deploy driftnets and single-handedly collapse the fishing stock. The occasional terrorist with a machine gun isn’t a problem for society in the overall scheme of things; but a terrorist with a nuclear weapon could be.

His are the sort of books that are full of factual evidence and careful generalizations, often leading to conclusions one already suspected but now feel that one “knows.” Still, I don’t know if I want to call this sort of thing “science.” It’s like Steven Pinker’s book about declining violence (which Schneier recommends)–too much generalizing about human nature, thinking we can understand it; too much scientific secular humanism.

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