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August 27, 2009

Finished "The Age of the Unthinkable"

Finished reading "The Age of the Unthinkable", by Joshua Cooper Ramo.

This was an excellent book with implications in both international diplomacy and in preparing for a high-change future. Ramo's premise is that we've seen a lot of previously unthinkable things occur, that we're about to see a lot more, and that we should change our weltanschauung so that likely events become thinkable and we stop getting surprised.

Ramos offers Bak's Sandpile as a metaphor for world conditions - we're in a complex inter-dependent sandpile with obscure internal structures and sand grains keep falling at random. Bak's research indicates that beyond a certain point, stability is unknown and an avalanche can occur from any random grain of sand.

Ramos talks about how our models are usually based on one-on-one interactions of simply defined objects (the Arab world, the finance community) that resemble Newtonian clockwork physics, when in reality it's a many-on-many web of quantum mechanics in which the context (environment) is perhaps more significant than the primary object. He goes on to discuss Occidental and Oriental views on Objects vs. Context, or Foreground vs. Background, that results in Change Blindness (see NY Times article).

It seems like it could be a too-theoretical discussion, but there's a lot of interesting perspectives. He talks about the fall of Russia with Gorbachev, interviews the CTO of Hezbollah, talks with an Israeli spymaster, dwells at length on Chinese military theory, and draws examples from the recent financial debacle. It's very interesting.

He suggests, for instance, that nation-states and their militaries will be unable to deal with most future problems. He also professes that existing Western power stuctures are "change blind", unable to see change in even the short-term, and likely to be surprised.

He recommends using a holistic, context-sensitive long-term approach and personal empathy to build Relationships and Resilience, which he holds as the key to "Deep Security". He urges multiple indirect approaches rather than a direct, Newtonian approach to problem solving.

Part of his point about Resilience is to produce environments where many options are available, echoing the "opportunity diversity" I recently read about in "The Logic of Failure". In TLOF, Dietrich Dorner referred to the same pattern as "efficiency diversity".

He offers as an example Chinese war heroes who used their influence to modify situations and environments, making the desired outcome inevitable without ever resorting to force.

Finally, he suggests that the future is a race between bad innovation and good innovation, and says we're not doing enough to empower good innovation while paradoxically, we're training our opponents to evolve through experience while motivating their (bad) innovation. He suggests that's an unwise strategy.

This was an interesting, thought-provoking book (not a beach book). I recommend it.

This book left me interested in learning more about Bak's sandpile, and I wonder if there isn't some application to normal-distribution models driven through a quincunx. (online demo) It would be very interesting to see if high-volume normal distributions begin to behave like Bak's sandpile, producing avalanches at unexpected times.


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