16 March 2011

Stork Delivers Babies / Black Swan Delivers Perpetual Apocalypse

This last year has given us some momentous news: eco-disaster with the Gulf Oil spill, devastating earthquakes in Haiti Chile, and Japan, threat of nuclear meltdown, riots in the Middle East, and sluggish recovery from a financial crisis.  Economic, ecological, urban, energy, and political systems have all been pushed beyond their presumed limits.

It might be that global news and the Internet have simply brought events that decades ago would have been marginalized in the back pages of our newspapers to the forefront of our attention, resulting in a sense of perpetual apocalypse. Or it could be that the modern world has been overshadowed by a flock of Black Swans.

Nassim Taleb's bestselling book, The Black Swan, tells the story of how experience only predicts the future as long as systems are stable. Of course, the defining events shift the system boundaries rather than stay within them. (Taleb tells the story of the turkey convinced that he's loved and cared for and that his owners want the best for him until the day before Thanksgiving when ALL of his experience is suddenly made meaningless and his world view is shattered. The events of 9-11 and the Great Recession, of course, are events that change what is predictable.)

Our modern world may just be so dependent on interdependent, ultimately fragile systems that a parade of news like we've seen in the past year is inevitable. Even if the probability of any one system collapsing or causing destruction is only .1%, we live in a world so populated by these systems that the probability of ONE system reaching a tipping must be close to 100%. Somewhere, a political system will have reached a tipping point and a people will be thrown into violent clashes and social turmoil. An energy system will either become expensive, unstable, or blow up. And the list goes on.

This is a time of perpetual apocalypse for a simple reason: we depend upon systems that we still understand only dimly and can predict and manage with even less confidence.

Isn't it time to invest massive amounts of research money into the development of better models for understanding and managing these systems? The world will not become less complex, but only more so. If we have to live with Black Swans, perhaps we can at least get them to fly in formation.

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