Friday, March 02, 2012

Trust and security

Liars and Outliers: The Big Idea:
My big idea is a big question. Every cooperative system contains parasites. How do we ensure that society's parasites don't destroy society's systems?

It's all about trust, really. Not the intimate trust we have in our close friends and relatives, but the more impersonal trust we have in the various people and systems we interact with in society. ... [But] systems contain parasites. Most people are naturally trustworthy, but some are not. ...

My central metaphor is the Prisoner's Dilemma, which nicely exposes the tension between group interest and self-interest. And the dilemma even gives us a terminology to use: cooperators act in the group interest, and defectors act in their own selfish interest, to the detriment of the group. Too many defectors, and everyone suffers -- often catastrophically. ...

Also -- and this is the final kicker -- not all defectors are bad. If you think about the notions of cooperating and defecting, they're defined in terms of the societal norm. Cooperators are people who follow the formal or informal rules of society. Defectors are people who, for whatever reason, break the rules. That definition says nothing about the absolute morality of the society or its rules. When society is in the wrong, it's defectors who are in the vanguard for change. So it was defectors who helped escaped slaves in the antebellum American South. It's defectors who are agitating to overthrow repressive regimes in the Middle East. And it's defectors who are fueling the Occupy Wall Street movement. Without defectors, society stagnates.

We simultaneously need more societal pressure to deal with the effects of technology, and less societal pressure to ensure an open, free, and evolving society. This is our big challenge for the coming decade.


  1. There is a third category after group interest and self-interest: the transnational, where issues like the effects of technology are increasingly being played out. Perhaps the transnational doesn't doesn't apply so much to America but EU technocrats are gradually assuming more and more control over the affairs of nations while the public is showing less and less interest.

    I'm not sure the prisoner's dilemma, metaphor or otherwise, can describe the transnational. The layers of self-interest and abstraction are too great.

  2. I Dunno, TO. The transnational is just a larger group.

    The Prisoner's Dilemma is more of a conceptual framework rather than an actual tool for analysis. I like it because it destroys the simplistic binary between individualism vs. "Kantian" altruism.


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