Bruce Schneier's dubious trust experiment

curtis's picture
CC image courtesy of zigwamp on flickr
CC image courtesy of zigwamp on flickr

Today, eminent security consultant and author Bruce Schneier wrote a blog post providing an update on his experimental "trust offer" for his latest book (published almost a year ago) Liars and Outliers. In the update, he notes that of the 800 books sold as part of the original offer – which let people buy the book at a deeply discounted price in exchange for a public review – Schenier estimates only 70 people (just under 9%) "fulfilled their end of the bargain."

He goes on to surmise the reasons for such little adherence:

Perhaps people have been busier than they expected -- and haven't gotten around to reading the book and writing a review yet. I know my reading is often delayed by more pressing priorities. And although I didn't put any deadline on when the review should be completed by, I received a surge of reviews around the end if the year -- probably because some people self-imposed a deadline.

If he had ended here, with perhaps a plea for those who haven't reviewed the book yet to do so, I think the post could've served it's purpose. A bunch of people who took advantage of the offer — myself included — probably would've felt guilty and perhaps moved Schneier's book to (or near) the top of their pile.

But it doesn't end there.

Schneier continues the paragraph above with an absurd statement:

What is certain is that a great majority of people decided not to uphold their end of the bargain.

How does he come to this conclusion? It appears Schneier thinks that because a person has not done something yet, he has decided never to do it at all any time in the future. That's a ridiculous proposition.

Schneier then attempts to to lay down some guilt:

The original offer was an exercise in trust. But to use the language of the book, the only thing inducing compliance was the morals of the reader. I suppose I could have collected everyone's names, checked off those who wrote reviews, and tried shaming the rest -- but that seems like a lot of work. Perhaps this public nudge will be enough to convince some more people to write reviews.

In other words, anyone who hasn't written a review yet is a lying liar. And, by the way, we should all be thankful Sir Bruce isn't more meticulous and less lazy.

What strikes me as especially disingenuous is Schneier's own acknowledgement, quoted above, that he "didn't put any deadline on when the review should be completed by." He questions the morality of the the reader by implying that those who have not yet complied with the requirements are immoral (or, at least, amoral) bastards. But how can morality play a role in failing to comply with something that was never stated?

It seems to me that Schneier's frustration here has to do with his own vague and unspecified expectations. In the original post, he clearly says that he is extending the offer to increase sales, even though the book had been selling well since its release in February 2012. I imagine he had some optimal timeframe during which this reading-and-reviewing activity would occur. Clearly, it's not in his or his publisher's best interest to have people review the book in five years if they're looking to increase sales now. This morning's post insinuating that those who haven't reviewed the book yet are unprincipled scoundrels seems to verify my conjecture.

However, any attempt to morally shame someone based on your own ill-defined assumptions will necessarily fall short. Oh, it will work on some people, and I have no doubt there will be a flurry of reviews within the next week or two. That said, I suspect shaming works just as well on those same people when you actually define your assumptions, in which case there's little advantage to obfuscating them. 

Where it doesn't work is on people like me, who — in a sense — have no shame. I took advantage of Schneier's original offer precisely because there was no deadline attached. I read 46 books last year, and only 5 of them were published in the last 12 months. (Three were quite short, and one was a critical edition of a text published almost 200 years ago.) If there had been a deadline attached to Schneier's offer, I almost certainly would've passed on the opportunity, knowing that I probably wouldn't have gotten to it right away. And had I failed to meet the fictional deadline, Schneier would've been perfectly right to shame me.

This isn't merely a contractual quibble: By not specifying a deadline, Schneier took away an opportunity for me to make the moral decision of whether to comply within a particular timeframe. By taking a further step to shame me, and everyone else who hasn't reviewed his book yet, based on an undesignated, completely arbitrary (and still unknown!) deadline Schneier oversteps any moral authority he might otherwise have had.

In addition to bumping sales, I'm guessing Schneier is interested in the social ramifications of his little experiment. As far as I'm concerned, his post has probably delayed my own reading and review a bit, because this whole thing has left a bad taste in my mouth. All things considered, when I do read and review the book, I don't want it to be tainted by the author's inane pontification. I will read and review it, but it will be some time before I do, so that some space can insulate my irritation from the book itself.

Which kind of sucks, because until today I was looking forward to reading it. Even if it was still a ways off.

Update: While I was drafting this response, Schneier has responded to some complaints in the comments to his post. In particular, he replies to the question of timing I raised in the first of my two comments:

I did not have [a timeframe], and I didn't specify any. Clearly I assumed that people would read the book faster than they are. Apologies for that.

But I think it goes beyond just an expectation about how fast people would read the book. In the post, Schneier clearly indicates that he thinks people should have read it by now — and reviewed it, thus fulfilling the obligations of the agreement.

Elsewhere in the comments, and in an update to the original post, Schneier says he didn't intend to shame people. I find it hard to read "a great majority of people decided not to uphold their end of the bargain" without seeing an attempt to shame. That said, I can't speak to his intention, and I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in that regard. I leave it to others to decide for themselves.

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