Rules For Flying Blind

You can’t see the important events in your future.  Period.  The nature of nature doesn’t allow it, trying to do so is a waste of time and effort.

Your future will be dominated by Black Swans of all sizes, from flat tires through mega-volcanoes.  This isn’t theory, there are many lines of supporting evidence.  For example, the analysis of the human genome shows 2 population bottle-necks, one due to a volcano, Mt. Toba. The new paleogenetic evidence shows that genetic lines have been eliminated often in human history, some very likely involving extinction of local populations.  Almost all species and almost all cultures are no longer with us.  For other examples, read Taleb’s Black Swan, which I can’t praise too highly in discussing the nature of risk and probability.

Generating combinations of natural phenomena whose combined effects are very much larger than the sums of their individual effects is easy: El Nino produces a lot of rainfall in western US.  McFee’s geology of California writings talk about the landslides and rivers of mud resulting in LA.  Add in an earthquake, many broken and covered roads, train tracks, canals, flooded central valley, add a flu epidemic in the aftermath.  St. Louis in a freezing spring flood, another New Madrid earthquake that drops bridges into the water.  Bridges, ice, broken levees.  Add a pandemic.  Why just one, is there something that would prevent more?  I believe deaths from other diseases were up during the black death pandemics. (Read that, the black death plague went on in Europe, Africa and Asia wave after wave from 1340 through 1850.)  Crop losses due to monoculture a couple of years in a row would cause some problems.  Bugs. Etc.

By far larger source of dangers to humans lie in our own actions.  Forget intentional harm, just consider unintentional consequences of our ‘successful’ first-world systems.  Forget those in headlines, assume they are ‘priced in’, that all such are foreseeable, and our governments have it covered, that they won’t start atomic wars or other threats to civilization.  The dangers that will do the damage are the unanticipated interactions and the cascades of unanticipated interactions.

Examples would be failing to deal with database security causing unreliable operation of systems such as electrical generation and distribution, the court system, the prison system, or over-reacting to data theft or other perceived national insult and the consequences of blockades, bombings and embargoes on trade, economies and politics.  Obviously, there are many opportunities for nature’s cascades to cross into those of human actions, and for human actions to prevent effective responses to problems nature’s cascades cause.

The probability of any particular combination is very low, in fact the multiple of their already-low individual probabilities.  Well, that is true in the definition of probabilities and operations on them.  In actual reality, it is a hypothesis.  What if sun spots are associated with both weather and earthquakes?  Taleb’s “Black Swan”  explains that statistically, as risk distributions having ‘thick tails’ rather than the ‘normal distribution’, at least partly because of differences in knowledge sets in human-run systems.  But it goes far beyond that, Black Swans include unknown unknowns of nature, which must include many hidden linkages.

So combinations of bad things can start a cascade.  Breaking transportation through West Coast ports would put a lot of strain on US manufacturing because of supply chain problems.  That plus losses by insurance companies would pressure the financial systems.  Goods don’t move if money doesn’t move, cascades in those systems, with most banks insolvent except for mark-to-fantasy accounting and many businesses dependent on credit and exchange rates for continued existence, could be a problem.

As our civilization increases complexity, the probability of Black Swans due to combinations cascading increases.

That is reality, we are flying blind into a future filled with Black Swans, and always have been.  Continuing civilization depends on avoiding civilization-killing consequences.  This is not a new realization, fear of unknown catastrophe is the fear of every individual, family, clan, tribe and nation. It is a fundamental fear, protecting against it a fundamental value.

How to do that?  What an excellent question, and I want to assure you that, had I any better answer than Taleb, I would have figured out how to invest on the insight a la Taleb, so wouldn’t be here writing this.  So go read his books.  Seriously, Nicolas Nassim Taleb is one of the important thinkers thinking this era.

General answers are easy and have been discussed for millennia, standard wisdom such as ‘focus on reality, think carefully, use your expertise to judge,  be cooperative, be questing, be humble, don’t make enemies, be kind, be generous, be frugal and prepare for hard times’.  All positive-sum advice for a social environment in a world where the past does not predict the future of interesting features, in my engineering-speak version.

That is also a prescription : ‘Positive-sum’ because that is the reliable strategy for fastest production of higher levels of civilization.  The highest-levels of civilization because the associated high level of knowledge and material wealth is needed to acquire the information needed to avoid catastrophe and option ways of managing problems Black Swans bring.  The more wealth, the more insurance we can have.

The key issue is that positive sum requires cooperation which requires trust.  Trust in individuals is the base problem limiting civilization and its rate of accumulating wealth. Lack of trust underlies security problems, growth of rules and laws, enforcement, the myriad of checking and look-over-your-shoulder organizations and people and processes, justice and punishment, much of the dreck produced by civilization attempting to deal with the consequences of not having trust.

Stephen Covey, in his book The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, thinks his version of wisdom is the answer :

“I suggest it will be wisdom. Unless you have have principles at the center of a person’s heart and soul and in the relationships and culture of an organization, you cannot build high trust. And without high trust you cannot have empowerment. When rules take the place of human judgment, you can’t nurture a climate of innovation and creativity; instead you will nurture a kiss-up culture. Without high trust and aligned structures and systems based on an abundance paradigm, you cannot get TQM or quality. Of necessity, the Age of Wisdom, in my opinion, will follow the Age of Information, where the essence of leadership will be to be a servant leader.”

The highest levels of civilization and wealth require the highest levels of trust in order to most efficiently generate wealth in positive-sum cooperation.

Western society is not composed of trustworthy people, honorable and virtuous people who always play positive sum games of community.  This society has progressively substituted rules and process for honor and virtue of individuals meshed in community.  That has not worked, and is the reason for our decline.

*Added later.  I possibly wasn’t skeptical enough about the population bottlenecks.  That is a solid paper, but also is based on models of mitochondrial genetic evolution that make many assumptions.  So ‘population bottleneck’ is not a fact, it is an inference from data + model of data.  Also, the nuclear genetic data isn’t showing the same story, and I haven’t sorted it out in my head yet, don’t think anyone else has either.

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