John Scalzi's Big Idea introduces Bruce Schneier's excellent new book Liars and Outliers, and interviews Schneier on the work that went into it. I read an early draft of the book and supplied a quote: "Brilliantly dissects, classifies, and orders the social dimension of security-a spectacularly palatable tonic against today's incoherent and dangerous flailing in the face of threats from terrorism to financial fraud." Now that the book is out, I heartily recommend it to you.
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. 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. This type of trust is more a matter of consistency or predictability than of intimacy.
Of course, all of these systems contain parasites. 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.
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.