It’s all about trust, really. I trust airline pilots, hotel clerks, ATMs, restaurant kitchens, and the company that built the computer I’m writing this short essay on. I trust that they have acted and will act in the ways I expect them to.
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.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is not only useful in describing the problem, but also serves as a way to organize solutions. We humans have developed four basic mechanisms for ways to limit defectors: what I call societal pressure. We use morals, reputation, laws, and security systems. It’s all coercion, really, although we don’t call it that. I’ll spare you the details; it would require a book to explain. And it did.
In the book, I wander through a dizzying array of academic disciplines: experimental psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociology, economics, behavioral economics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, game theory, systems dynamics, anthropology, archeology, history, political science, law, philosophy, theology, cognitive science, and computer security. It sometimes felt as if I were blundering through a university, kicking down doors and demanding answers. “You anthropologists: what can you tell me about early human transgressions and punishments?” “Okay neuroscientists, what’s the brain chemistry of cooperation? And you evolutionary psychologists, how can you explain that?” “Hey philosophers, what have you got?” I downloaded thousands -- literally -- of academic papers. In pre-Internet days I would have had to move into an academic library.
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.
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.
A free sample excerpt from this book is available for download on the product page now!
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