Sunday, 9 December 2012

Tim Tyler: Whitfield, People Will Talk (review)


Hi. I'm Tim Tyler, and this is a review of this book:

People Will Talk: The Surprising Science of Reputation by John Whitfield

This is a science book all about the topic of reputation. Reputations are an important reason why humans cooperate. They lubricate reciprocal interactions by allowing creatures to consider a long history of an actor's behaviour towards others before dealing with them. Reputations are largely a product of sophisticated communication mechanisms and so represent something which humans have that most other animals lack.

I've been interested in the science of reputations for a while. In 2009, I made a video titled "universal karma" - which proposed we make more use of reputation systems, to better keep organisations in check, and for many other purposes.

This book is a popular science book covering what scientists know about reputation. The book is brilliant. It's well written, about a very important topic, and covers a good balance of subject areas. The author is evidently very smart, which always helps. Most of the book is devoted to explaining the science, but there are occasional sections about how to use the discoveries to improve the world.

The main message of the sections about how to change the world is that anonymity results in bad behaviour, while traceable identities and surveillance tend to make people behave well.

The book met or exceeded my expectations in practically every area. However, there were a few things I would have like to seen included that were omitted. I was expecting coverage of religious folklore oriented towards reputations. For example, the Hindu concept of Karma, or the idea that as you reap so you will sow. I also would have liked to see a bit of a historical perspective, showing the rise of reputation systems over time. The book does have a chapter about the internet era, and it's a pretty good one. I still wanted more though. Technology improves memory storage and facilitates surveillance - it has a powerful effect on the effectiveness of reputation systems.

The part of the book I was most irritated by was the section at the very end about global warming. The author is trying to find ways to apply reputations to big global problems, but I rate global warming as an awful choice of problem - it is a bad cause which already attracts far too much attention - without people trying to add further weight to it. Fortunately this section was short.

Overall, this book is pretty sweet. There aren't many science books on reputations and this is an excellent one - I recommend reading it.


Interview with the author about the book here.

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